“I was in kind of a shock. It was really ridiculous,” said Margie Ferguson, a founding member of the women’s shelter dating back to 1980.
So much so that Ferguson has joined several other staff members who, in recent months, have resigned. Seasoned victim’s advocate professionals serving the communities of Ouray, Ridgway, Montrose, Telluride, and the West End have decried the move as ill-advised, counterproductive and fraught with mixed messages. Critics charge that cost-cutting measures by Hilltop have upset the previously healthy financial state of the shelter, which was self-sustaining up until the merger. Others are saying the move is destroying what took 26 years to build and nurture, raising doubt about whether a community-based safe harbor program that once thrived in Montrose until recently will even survive.
Hilltop, a multi-million dollar corporation, is in the business of providing health services and assisted living facilities, as well as not-for profit rehabilitation for serious head injuries, and counseling alternatives to the corrections system for wayward juveniles. It also owns a battered women’s shelter in Grand Junction, and acquired TCRC in 2005, in a move that was hoped would provide additional financial strength to the TCRC shelters in Delta and Montrose.
For decades, victims have been referred to the little-known safe house in Montrose from as far away as Telluride and the West End. TCRC has existed for all these years by accepting private funds, acquiring grants and conducting fundraising events, including the recent Chicks With Picks event in Ouray, to complement the needed operating revenue.
TCRC began small, led by a group of dedicated women bent on providing a service to the community and providing education, support and advocacy to anyone in need. The residence has been a model of self-containment, having served both as an office – with the usual accoutrement of desks, phones and filing cabinets – and as a home, with a kitchen stocked with provisions, and three rooms with bunk-beds upstairs capable of accommodating up to 12 individuals, all heavily secured with a steel storm front door, surveillance equipment and a place for the kids to romp in the backyard. It was an atmosphere designed to enable victims to open up and talk about their problems, receive advice on how to obtain a protective order, file for a divorce, rebuild their lives, and deal with the complications of a broken home, all in the least inhibiting fashion.
The problems began, so some say, when the Hilltop acquired the Adams Stationery building in Montrose following the merger, an expensive move that involved converting the empty building to office cubicles and creating a large front counter to greet clients.
At a Jan. 31 meeting, staff was informed that the Montrose Shelter will move to that building, referred to as the “regional office,” and that the Montrose women’s shelter will be used only when the Delta shelter is at capacity, according to Kay Hotsenpiller, director for Hilltop programs in Montrose. She stated that the change was made to increase security for the staff and to reduce expenses.
Hilltop CEO Sally Schaefer told The Watch last week that there “really was no demand” for the bed space at the Montrose facility. “What our experience has been since we became involved with both the Montrose and Delta shelters, was the Montrose shelter was under repair. And then when we opened it back up, there really was no demand, we averaged one gal a month in that facility,” Schaefer said. “We just can’t afford to keep a house open indefinitely when there’s nothing there. We’re trying to sort it out.”
Schaefer continued: “You know, we run the domestic violence safe houses from Grand Junction. We run the safe house in Delta. We haven’t put anyone else in the house in Montrose. So if the Delta house was full, we’d reopen in a heartbeat, in the middle of the night, if we had to use the house in Montrose, or put somebody in a hotel. We’re not going to deny anyone a bed.”
Schaefer explained that the relocation of the staff to the former office supply building is to “gauge demand. So all we’re doing is evaluating. No decision has been made.”
Low numbers are driving the decision, according to Schaefer.
“Our initial plan is that if we’ve got eight beds in Delta and six of them are regularly full, and we have only one bed full in the Montrose office, my simple math would tell me that the Delta house is probably enough. But we don’t know that for sure yet.”
But are the numbers lower? According to Chantelle Bainbridge, Montrose Police Department Victims Advocate for the 7th judicial District, there were 71 cases of domestic violence in 2005, including 42 sexual assault victims (13 adult and 29 child cases). The numbers went up last year to 105 victims of domestic violence, excluding children, and 12 adult sexual assaults referred to TCRC (and 16 child sexual abuse cases).
“To date, I think I might have had two to five victims I was called out for this year,” Bainbridge said.
Could the rise in the use of protective orders be providing sufficient protection to alleviate the need for the shelter for many? Bainbridge thinks this is a factor to consider. “If an offender is caught that night, they are protected by the order,” she said. “We are seeing that being used more and more, and with protective order upgrades available.” The choice then, to stay home with the locks changed promptly, is possibly reducing the need for the shelter, Bainbridge guesses.
But if costs are an issue, Helen Bock, Montrose County Victim’s Assistant Coordinator, suggests that the Hilltop strategy will increase costs. “It will be less cost effective to transport them to Delta. I wonder if they’ll be willing to go that far,” she said.
A letter was sent to law enforcement agencies in mid-February instructing personnel to transport victims, and their children, to Delta.
“That will raise issues of safety and liability, and additional expense on those agencies,” said Catherin McElman, former Director and Advocate of TCRC. “The victim’s opportunity to attend court, request protection and speak to the judge will be entwined with transportation issues to and from the Delta shelter to the Montrose courthouse.”
McElman has taken the position that the Montrose shelter permitted local victims to retain the support of friends, family, children’s schools, churches, family doctors, lawyers and employers in their community, which will be more difficult by a commute from Delta. As she explains: “Once the shelter closes, a victim in the area will have to first seek help at the sterile office environment at the regional office, instead of the warm and private environment of the shelter, which could also accommodate children.”
Safety and security have been touted as a substantial reason for the closure, but the evidence is conflicting, according to those who have worked at the shelter. For instance, the Delta shelter is a single-story building, while the Montrose unit is two stories, with the upper floor acting as a buffer from a potential stalker or happenings outside.
According to Ferguson, the safety issue is a smokescreen.
“There never was a safety issue,” she said. “I have been alone in that building. And have never been at risk. At Delta, all kids are on the ground floor. Sounds, like if someone’s outside, can easily spook people in their rooms. And the regional office wouldn’t be any safer.”
McElman mentioned that current director Becky Ela removed the storm door, which had a heavy duty lock on it, for aesthetic reasons, “so that the newly painted red door could be seen,” said McElman. She questions the reasoning of that move, while the doors at the regional office do not have that level of security.
McElman maintains that the management of the shelter do not understand the “dynamics” of being a domestic violence professional. Counselors, as opposed to advocates in lifestyle related coaching, are in conflict as to their roles.
“Decisions based on how to recoup administrative expenses is not the heart and soul of a domestic violence program,” McElman said.