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Only half of federal DV grant makes it to shelters

WINDOW ROCK

On top of the fact that the seven domestic violence shelters that serve the Navajo Nation have been waiting eight months for the tribe to grant them contracts and release their federal pass-through funding, had their contracts revised three times and endured three changes of leadership at the tribal department that oversees them, the executive directors recently did some math and discovered that just over half the tribe’s Family Violence Prevention Act funding is coming to them.

The Navajo Nation gets a little more than $1.8 million annually from the feds to fund DV services on the Navajo Nation, about nine percent of the total for all the nation’s tribes. But after adding up their individual grants, Emily Ellison, executive director of Battered Family Services in Gallup, discovered only $960,000 of that is actually going to the shelters.

The Nation takes 30 percent of the grant for administrative services (by contrast, states are allowed to take five percent) — about $540,000. But that still adds up to $1.5 million. Where is the other $300,000? According to Brenda Tsosie, principal accountant for the Navajo Nation Division of Social Services, some of the federal grant money is going to fund the two domestic violence shelters run by the tribe, Gentle Ironhawk in Blanding, Utah, and the Northern T.R.E.E. house in Shiprock. Those two shelters have already received their allocations of the federal funds, which arrived on the Nation on Feb. 28.

Some of the other shelter directors question whether this is a legitimate use of Family Violence Prevention and Services Improvement Act funding. For starters, the Gentle Ironhawk shelter, purchased by the tribe in 2018 during the Russell Begaye administration, is not even open. Or rather, said Cindi Atene, the shelter’s principal witness victim advocate, “we’re semi-open.”

While the 30-bed shelter is still in the process of preparing to open its doors, she is answering an average of two calls a day — and referring the DV victims to other shelters, including the nonprofit Tohdenasshai Shelter Home in Kayenta and Amá dóó Alchiní Bighan in Chinle, both of which are still waiting for their funding.

Trudy Tsosie at Northern T.R.E.E. house, which was started by the tribe in 2017 after the non-profit Shiprock Home for Women and Children went under, said she had been told not to answer questions from the press and referred this reporter to her supervisor, Department of Family Services Director Regina Yazzie. There was no answer on Yazzie’s office line and no voicemail.

The shelter directors say that if the tribally run shelters are going to compete with them for federal funds, they should have to fill out an application just like the nonprofits do, and the language in the act seems to bear that out. “Indian tribes have the option to authorize a tribal organization or a nonprofit private organization to submit an application to administer FVPSA funds,” reads a summary of the act by Congressional Research Services.

“I haven’t seen any data from either Gentle Ironhawk or the T.R.E.E.house,” said Ellison.

Carmelia Blackwater of Tohdenasshai added that the federal grants are not supposed to be used to supplant tribal funds, which seems to be what’s going on with the tribal shelters and some of the administrative costs.

“That money should be going directly to the nonprofits,” she said, adding, “Who is the watchdog over these tribal departments?”

The grant to tribes specifies that at least 70 percent of the funding has to go to direct services such as food and shelter, but up to an additional 25 percent must be used for indirect services such as legal advocacy — which is something the shelters do informally, accompanying their clients to court dates.

“In the Navajo Nation criminal justice system, they don’t have victim advocates,” explained Blackwater. “We as non-profits fill that role.”

So the nonprofits could legitimately be getting up to 95 percent of the grant money, while they’re actually getting about 53 percent. But the fact is, the shelter directors agreed, they’d be happy with the 53 percent if they could just get it on time or even a few months late, like usual. As it is they’ve had no money from the tribe since last fiscal year. Their staffs have been volunteering, and their contracts with the tribe, which were supposed to start on Nov. 1 and were later revised to June 1, still haven’t shown up as the shelters struggle to adapt to newly mandated changes in their insurance coverage.

At Monday’s meeting of the Council’s Health, Education and Human Services Committee, the Navajo Nation controller, Risk Management and DSS all said they couldn’t waive the contract requirements, and the shelters had been allowed to slide on insufficient contracts for too long. Ellison said the requirements should have been addressed by the request for proposals back in August — but that was two Family Services directors ago. “I’ve lost faith in government,” declared Ellison, a former candidate for Navajo Nation president.

“I agree … the whole process is a little bit skewed,” offered Shawnevan Dale of Risk Management. Regina Yazzie, the current director of Family Services, said the shelters do deserve to be reimbursed for the expenses they’ve incurred since last November, but the contracts can’t be made retroactive and DSS doesn’t have the funds for that.

She suggested the Council appropriate $577,755 — the cost of the reimbursement for all the shelters — from the Undesignated, Unreserved Fund. While this would temporarily solve their problem, the shelter directors say all they want is the pass-through funding they have coming, and they resent having to be a burden on the tribe through no fault of their own. “I think it’s an attempt to change the narrative,” opined Ellison after the meeting. “DSS needs to fix their system instead of coming in like a savior using money that’s not specifically allocated for us.”

Opal Cole, director of the Family Crisis Center in Farmington, said she’s afraid that with all the emphasis on money and legal technicalities, the plight of domestic violence survivors is being lost. “We’re going to keep our doors open, whether we have money or not, whether our clients have COVID or not,” she stated. “What they seem to be missing is this is not about us and our salaries. People’s lives are hanging in the balance. If I shut my doors, somebody may die.”



About The Author

Cindy Yurth

Cindy Yurth is the Tséyi' Bureau reporter, covering the Central Agency of the Navajo Nation. Her other beats include agriculture and Arizona state politics. She holds a bachelor’s degree in technical journalism from Colorado State University with a cognate in geology. She has been in the news business since 1980 and with the Navajo Times since 2005, and is the author of “Exploring the Navajo Nation Chapter by Chapter.” She can be reached at cyurth@navajotimes.com.

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