MACHIAS — After months of controversy surrounding Washington County’s primary program for victims of domestic violence, the 20-year-old agency has lost its contract with the Maine Department of Human Services.
DHS provides $225,608 or 80 percent of WomanKind Inc.’s funding, according to Jeanette C. Talbot, DHS federal grants program manager. In a Dec. 29 certified letter to the agency’s board of directors, Talbot notified WomanKind that DHS was terminating the agency’s contract. The letter cites WomanKind’s “continuing organizational/procedural problems,” and states the contract will end Feb. 28.
WomanKind operates a 12-bed emergency shelter for battered women and their children that served 20 women and 21 children between Jan. 1 and Nov. 30, 1997. Talbot said in her letter DHS will be issuing a request for proposals for family violence services in Washington County within the next few weeks. Until that time, DHS will work with WomanKind “to ensure continuity of service to battered women and their children,” she wrote.
Talbot’s letter came after her agency’s review of a six-month operating plan that DHS asked WomanKind to submit after a series of board and staff resignations that began with the resignation of the entire board of directors in June.
WomanKind submitted the plan on Dec. 1. Talbot’s letter described the submission as “not acceptable to the Department as a viable corrective action plan.” She said it did not propose concrete solutions to the agency’s organizational and procedural problems.
WomanKind staff and board members expressed shock at the decision.
“This is the first thing we’ve received in writing from DHS and it does not refer to the services we offer,” said WomanKind financial coordinator Cathy Cook. “No one has ever said we didn’t provide services. Our organizational-procedural issues are our business, not theirs.”
Cook and Betty Reynolds, secretary-treasurer of the WomanKind board, said the agency will fight the decision. Their first step will be to request a meeting with DHS Commissioner Kevin Concannon, Reynolds said.
“He’s on vacation until January 6,” Reynolds said. “They hit people with this and everyone’s on vacation”.
Talbot said in an interview before the decision was rendered that Concannon received several letters after the staff and board turnover that began in June when WomanKind’s entire board of directors resigned. DHS is concerned about the level of services for battered women in Washington County and doesn’t believe those services can be delivered with so many vacant staff positions and such a small pool of volunteers, she said.
WomanKind has 7 1/2 staff positions and just 4 1/2 of those positions are curently filled, she said.
Most of the state’s domestic violence programs operate with 15 to 20 volunteers so people aren’t working on the 24-hour crisis hot lines more than once or twice a month. WomanKind had only four volunteers when DHS visited the agency in November, Talbot said.
Interviews with former board members and staff before the decision painted a picture of an agency burdened by a consensus style of management as well as conflicts among staff and between staff and board members. WomanKind is a collective and all members — staff, board and volunteers — must come to unanimous agreement on all decisions. There is no director and no one has the power to outvote anyone else.
Gini King of Jonesport served on the board for a year and a half before she resigned in June. Although everyone on the board resigned at once, they did so individually and no one told anyone else before they did so, King said.
King said the agency has operated on a consensus model for five years and it has become unclear who was responsible for what. The consensus model was cumbersome and tiresome, she said. Members of the collective spent as much time deciding whether to order T-shirts for the walkathon as they did on major issues.
King said everyone agreed the consensus model must be modified, but the agency never got to the task. Despite her frustration, King described WomanKind as “a very good organization.”
Barbara Coffey of Lubec trained as a volunteer and then took a full-time staff position in August. She resigned in September and is one of the people who expressed concerns about the agency to DHS.
Coffey said the consensus model created a power vacuum and some people were skilled at gathering up that power and consolidating it for themselves. Coffey said some staff members coerced and intimidated other staff, and she left because she saw herself falling into the same mentality that marks victims of domestic abuse.
Deborah Chadwick of Calais was acting president of the board when she resigned in June. Chadwick worked with the staff as a direct service volunteer before her time on the board and now volunteers on the crisis line. Chadwick said she worries that the bad publicity is scaring women who desperately need services.
Although the consensus model is difficult, Chadwick said she believes the board worked hard at it because it meant so much to the staff. Chadwick acknowledged that some staff members can be intimidating, but said she handled the situation by confronting that behavior.
“These are very strong women who really believe in what they are doing and sometimes that can be difficult for people,” Chadwick said.