Dear Mrs. Bush,
When I was six years old, I hid behind a couch with my ears covered by my tiny hands. I sang “Somewhere over the Rainbow” to drown out the sound of my mother screaming as my stepfather beat her. Black eyes, a busted lip–all were common to see on my mother’s face. Another night, I awoke realizing I needed to use the restroom. I was so scared to run into my stepfather in the hallway that I chose to urinate in the bed. I slept in it all night. The predominant feeling throughout my childhood was fear. Fear that my mother would die, fear that I would die… just fear.
We survived. I received counseling. The scars from my youth never faded.
This is why I chose to get involved in the Domestic Violence movement. I did not find a job on Career Builder; I sought out a shelter for this work. When I began my work at the shelter, it was due to a genuine care for victims and their experiences.
I left the field five years later. I left because I realized the domestic violence movement had been hijacked by the very organization I imagined was its greatest ally: the Florida Coalition against Domestic Violence (FCADV).
You, Mrs. Bush, have partnered with FCADV since the early 2000s. According to their last 990 filing, you sit on the Board of their Foundation. In 2003, your husband, then Governor, Jeb Bush signed House Bill 1099. This bill allowed the FCADV to attain control over all funding for the 42 certified Domestic Violence centers in Florida. Over the past two weeks, your husband has publicly referenced his and your work on domestic violence as he makes his bid for Presidency.
For this reason, I can no longer be silent.
Immediately after your husband signed House Bill 1099, a multitude of things began to change at our shelter and others. In 2005, our Children’s Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) left and was never replaced. Our shelter seemed to have decided the service was no longer necessary. In 2010, our Adult Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) was laid off and never replaced. Also in 2010, two members of our Board of Directors raised concerns about various issues, including the possible misappropriation of funds, blatant mistruths on the shelter’s 990s, and the fact that the Executive Director was rarely on-site. Since the shelter’s oversight was and still is the FCADV, those affected reached out to them, calling and expressing concerns.
The result? They were dismissed from the Board.
Our longstanding Board of Directors included fourteen members; today it has six. In 2010, a strategic planner came in to help the shelter create a more concrete and effective plan to meet shelter objectives. However, it seems he was dismissed when the Executive Director was unhappy or, rather, “unsatisfied” with his findings.
Among the findings? The lack of full time presence of the CEO (Executive Director).
In 2012, the three top administrators at the shelter received two raises in two months. With those raises, nearly 40% of the entire funds of the shelter paid (and still pays) the three top administrators, one of which is the Executive Director who is almost never on-site. No action has been taken regarding any of these facts because, as previously mentioned, their only oversight is the FCADV and they do not appear to be concerned, based upon their lack of response to clearly expressed, valid concerns.
Certified Florida domestic violence shelters are required to report their counseling hours to FCADV monthly and FCADV compiles the numbers. The FCADV boasts that its centers provided approximately 455,000 hours of counseling to victims of domestic violence in 2014.
I called every one of Florida’s 42 certified centers and all but three confirmed that they have no LMHC counselor on staff. Most of them clarified that while they did not have licensed counselors, they follow a “peer counseling” model, which allows for a much looser conception of what counts as counseling. At the shelter where I worked, each and every moment a staff member spoke to a victim counted toward counseling hours.
Internal memos signed by our director encouraged advocates to “get counseling hours up.” One specific memo (which I have in my possession) reads: “Do their nails, hair, gather them for a movie” … just get the hours up. I find it troubling that they consider this counseling. Had that been the counseling service I received as a child, or my mother received as an adult, I fear what would have become of us.
In 2009, the Department of Justice released their national fatality review on domestic violence victims. Among their findings were the following:
Up to 88% of battered women in shelters suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
The Mexico fatality review study documented that a third of the female victims had alcohol in their system at the time of autopsy, with a blood alcohol content of twice the legal limit.
Other studies have found that as many as 72% of abuse victims experience depression.
Among women treated in emergency rooms for injuries caused by their abusers, those who suffered from substance abuse had increased risk of violence from partners.
75% (of battered women in shelters) experience severe anxiety.
Another hospital study found that victims injured by partners were more likely than other injured women in an emergency room to test positive for substance abuse.
This is not about blaming victims; it is about establishing which services victims truly need. How did it come to be that FCADV would ignore the desperate need for mental health counseling and substance abuse help in your shelters and centers? How did it come to be that FCADV stopped providing those services? The official word from FCADV is that, “It’s not one of our core services” and/or “We can’t assume that every victim needs those services.” If credible data demonstrates that 80% of women in shelters have PTSD, shame on FCADV for not helping them. This is especially true when Executive Directors continue to receive raises while those in need struggle for resources. The FCADV claims they “refer out” for mental health services. But to what resources? Mental health and substance abuse are incredibly underfunded while the FCADV is not. When I worked at the shelter as an advocate, most referrals I was required to recommend involved month-long waiting lists.
The Empowerment Model looks good on paper but one cannot empower an individual to do “what’s best for herself or her children” when the individual needs sobriety, substance abuse counseling, or mental health care. Blatantly ignoring what statistics make clear is irresponsible, unethical, and, at best, ineffective.
I worked with at least 600 women in our shelter. How many had what the average person or shelter employee would consider a “happy ending” or beneficial outcome? I would wager that fifty is a more than generous guess. In my opinion, approximately fifty of 600 women left our shelter better off than when they arrived. The vast majority left almost no better from their time in our center. The reason is that, of the 600 women I worked with, roughly fifty dealt solely with domestic violence. The other 550 dealt with (and are likely still dealing with)co-traumas of substance abuse and/or mental health.
Our shelter sent them back out into the world with none of what they needed to stay safe. Where did they go? Sometimes we dropped them off behind a Publix to walk into the woods, sometimes at homeless shelters, sometimes back to their abusers, sometimes to different shelters. Not one of the highest paid administrators who take home nearly 40% of the shelter’s funding demonstrated concern about the outcome of these survivors—or in this case, victims. I blame the FCADV.
I applaud the efforts of FCADV to raise awareness. I applaud their efforts to change the conversation and place the blame on abusers. I do NOT applaud their efforts to save lives because they are failing. And as long as they continue doing what they are doing—putting salaries above services and greed above goodwill—they will keep failing. Hiding behind the Empowerment Based Model does a disservice to victims, and that is not okay.
To empower women and victims, you must start by having honest conversations about the co-traumas that shelter workers see. The FCADV spends a great deal of money on lobbyists, to maintain their status quo. Domestic violence victims and survivors are not interested in the politics that have allowed this to spiral out of control, but it is certainly political in nature.
The FCADV has dwindled away needed services, such as mental health care, at its 42 centers, all while top executives and administrators continue to receive unjustified and unnecessary raises. It is unconscionable that the Executive Director of the FCADV makes nearly half a million dollars a year while victims go without essential services. Florida does not even come close to comparing to other Executive Director salaries.
I took the time to look at the 990’s for all State Coalition Executive Directors… here is how Florida’s Director compares:
Florida is often cited as leading the nation in domestic violence initiatives. I am terrified that other states would model themselves after ours. I cringe to think about what will become of the victims as executives’ pockets get bigger. I believe the FCADV began with good intentions. However, as often happens, when left unchecked, greed found its footing.
Please stop listening to the highest paid executives and go back to the basics. Speak openly with advocates, case managers, and all those who provide direct service. Ask what they see, what services and resources they need to protect women, and to provide comfort and safety through their transition. You will find that the FCADV has gotten in the way of saving lives.
For too long, I stayed quiet. For too long, I tried to justify what I knew was wrong. For too long, I covered my ears like I did when I was a child hiding from the abuse in my own home. Now I will speak out. I will speak to State Representatives and individuals in Congress. I will reach out to others to join the fight. I will reach out with documentation of everything I have collected through my extensive research. I will never again let Mr. Jeb Bush go on TV and claim he has made positive changes to Florida’s domestic violence system. Perhaps you have both raised some important initiatives, but you have also helped the rich to get richer by ignoring the needs of victims.
Enough is enough.
Domestic violence survivors and victims in Florida deserve better. Every victim deserves better. It is time to take back the movement whose vast potential for change has been stolen by the FCADV. I sincerely hope you will consider my plea and use your position of power to benefit those in need rather than contributing to their further victimization.
Feel free to repost this blog, link to it, and/or share. If sharing on Twitter, use #FloridaDVReform. You may also tweet it to Columba Bush and Jeb Bush.