Washtenaw county's domestic violence shelter rocked by allegations of victimizing and traumatizing survivors seeking help

Oct 13, 2021 at 1:00 am
click to enlarge Three survivors (from left: Aaliyah Morrison, Niambe Ewing, and Ravone Fields) came forward to allege unsafe conditions at Ann Arbor’s SafeHouse Center. - P.D. Lesko
P.D. Lesko
Three survivors (from left: Aaliyah Morrison, Niambe Ewing, and Ravone Fields) came forward to allege unsafe conditions at Ann Arbor’s SafeHouse Center.

Nicole Beverly is a survivor of domestic violence. In 2012, Beverly's former partner threatened to murder her and their two children over a child support dispute and the fact that Beverly had filed a police report about his physical abuse. Beverly's abuser reportedly called his ex-wife between 30 and 100 times a day and sent her multiple text messages. He went to prison. She and her children survived; she wrote a book and founded the Enough Initiative, a small non-profit that seeks to educate the general public about domestic violence and to empower survivors. On the Enough Initiative website, there are clips of Beverly's interviews on NPR, Channel 7 News, and Fox News.

Niambe Ewing has had a different outcome. When her partner threatened to kill her, Niambe sought shelter at Ann Arbor's SafeHouse Center and stayed one week. She left, because of what she said were serious issues related to the safety, health, and welfare of shelter residents, as well as the allegedly racist behavior of the shelter's predominantly white management staff. Niambe was not permitted to speak to SafeHouse Center Executive Director Barbara Niess-May, so she sent Niess-May an email outlining her concerns. Niess-May's response was "arrogant and condescending," Niambe said in an Aug. 25 interview. She added, "Let's call this kind of behavior by Barbara what it is: racism."

Niambe went back to the apartment she shares with her assailant. In the same interview, Ewing said she sleeps (when she sleeps) with a knife under her pillow and mace at the ready.

In February, a dozen SafeHouse Center residents, staff, and interns, present and past, came forward to allege that under Niess-May, who has been at the helm since 2002, a "toxic, racial divide" exists between management, low-paid staff, and survivors who are, according to Niess-May, primarily people "who have run out of resources" and who are "very low-income." The shelter, say the staff and clients, is filthy and security is lax. In August, eight survivors of domestic and sexual abuse housed at SafeHouse Center went public to allege that SafeHouse Center is a "dangerous dump." The survivors, risking their safety, used their real names, photos, and submitted to audiotaped interviews in order to "keep other women and their children from being victimized by SafeHouse like we've been victimized."

The survivors and SafeHouse Center staff members provided Metro Times with dozens of photos, videos, and audio recordings between February and September 2021 to corroborate their allegations.

'Is SafeHouse clean?'

In 2020, SafeHouse Center received 97 percent of its $3.1 million in operating funds from public donations solicited to provide shelter and services to survivors of domestic and sexual abuse, and their children. According to its most recent audit statement, in 2020 SafeHouse Center received $1.61 million in government grants, up from $1.3 million in 2019. Over the same period, total payroll at SafeHouse Center jumped 20 percent, from $1.95 million to $2.28 million. Income tax returns show that the non-profit added two additional employees between 2019 and 2020, and lost 75 of its 200 volunteers.

Even as elected officials and private donors pump millions into SafeHouse Center through grants and donations, the survivors described a shelter where they don't feel safe due to lax security — a shelter where battered women and children never receive medical examinations by a physician, and instead are told to leave the shelter to seek any medical care they deem necessary, including care for injuries sustained during rapes and physical attacks.

Julie Goble is a 50-year-old mother of two and a victim of sexual assault. She was "exited" by SafeHouse officials on Sept. 11. Goble had completed her 35 days, but was nonetheless made homeless by her eviction. Goble, face and arms bruised from a recent attack by relatives of her assailant, described still being in shock over her assault.

"I'm numb, you know what I mean?" Goble says in a Sept.15 interview. "I still don't remember what happened."

“One week there was no food,” says Goble, who is now homeless, penniless, and unemployed. “Other times, staff would put out moldy, rotten, out-of-date stuff for us to eat.”

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Goble says that while at SafeHouse she received no medical care or examination by a physician, no psychological counseling, no help finding employment, and when she was evicted, no help finding safe housing. She says she showed her injuries to her advocate (Kaylin Viazanko Malinowski) who suggested Goble go to the hospital if she felt the need to do so.

"One week there was no food," says Goble, who is now homeless, penniless, and unemployed. "Other times, staff would put out moldy, rotten, out-of-date stuff for us to eat."

Survivors shared photos of bathroom floors and showers covered in mold and mildew, as well as stories of "useless" shelter advocates who do little more than deny requests and enforce punitive policies, including whether the women do their assigned "chores."

From the food poisoning of a resident and her child through the consumption of out-of-date food provided by SafeHouse Center to its residents, to fist and knife fights, and the alleged kidnapping of a survivor's 2-year-old child by a drug-addicted fellow resident, the survivors who spoke out all described SafeHouse Center as a "jail," and a "detention center." What the women perhaps don't know is that those housed in the Washtenaw County jail, unlike SafeHouse Center, are provided cooked meals three times daily, are provided medical care, addiction treatment, and those inmates requiring psychotropic medications are overseen by a psychiatrist. There is no mental health treatment available by a licensed social worker, psychotherapist, or psychiatrist at SafeHouse. No cooked meals are provided to the traumatized women and children, and no licensed physician ever examines the survivors, or provides them any care.

The women who survived SafeHouse describe an unsanitary facility poorly run, and overseen by predominantly white management staff who, says one survivor who was given one day to leave the facility before her maximum 35 days of residence had expired, "just don't care." That woman, Carnique Dye, was made homeless by her August 2021 SafeHouse eviction.

"I live in my truck and when I can I stay with friends," says Dye. Her alternative would be to return with her two children to the residence she shared with her assailant.

Deliberately placing victims in harm's way

On Aug. 31, one day after a trio of survivors was interviewed for this story, the white Executive Director of SafeHouse retaliated against the Black domestic and sexual abuse survivors who spoke out by forcing them out of the shelter — referred to as "exiting." Ravone Fields is a 27-year-old college student and survivor of sexual assault and domestic violence. She says she was given 20 minutes to pack and leave SafeHouse Center, according to an audio recording of the woman's "exiting" which she provided. In the recording of her "exiting," Fields is calm and soft-spoken. SafeHouse Center's facility director Kim Montgomery and Shelter & Helpline Program Coordinator Meggan Casper can be heard in the recording repeatedly confirming that survivors did have permission from a SafeHouse staff member to have a courtyard fire in a soup can. The survivors burned slips of paper on which they'd written about the things their assailants had done to them.

Nonetheless, Fields was thrown out of the shelter, with the "dangerous fire" used as the reason. Casper and Montgomery tell Fields, "You might do it again."

In the recording, Casper claims she and Montgomery "have a video" of the Fields and the fire. According to Niess-May, "for reasons of privacy," SafeHouse Center has no video cameras inside the shelter or overlooking the courtyard. It's unclear, then, how Casper and Montgomery obtained a video and, if they did, how the video did not constitute an invasion of the privacy of Fields and the other women allegedly recorded without their knowledge or consent.

On the day Ravone Fields was "exited," according to public records, the SafeHouse Executive Director alleged to the Pittsfield Township Police that Fields (as well as the other survivors who agreed to be interviewed) had been threatening and/or violent. As Fields packed, Niess-May called and asked the Pittsfield Township Police to issue a trespass warning. Matthew Harshberger, the Pittsfield Township Head of Public Safety, claimed in an email that the trespassing complaints against the SafeHouse survivors were handled "appropriately" by his officers. In a video of the officers' interaction with Fields and a licensed social worker (a former SafeHouse intern who had come to pick up Fields), the Pittsfield police officers do not question Niess-May's allegations, or ask the social worker to comment or explain.

Unless Pittsfield Township attorney Andrew Fink or Washtenaw County Prosecutor Eli Savit voids the complaints, the women whom Niess-May "trespassed" can never return to SafeHouse under any circumstances.

Aimee Nimeh, LMSW, joined HAVEN women's shelter in Pontiac as its new president and CEO in October 2018. To put into perspective SafeHouse Center's forced evictions of multiple women within a three-week period, beginning on August 30, The Ann Arbor Independent consulted Aimee Nimeh. "In order to exit a survivor from the shelter, she has to be a direct threat to other residents," Nimeh told the paper.

When asked how many survivors her shelter exits in a year, Nimeh said one or two. When asked if it would be out of the ordinary for a domestic violence shelter to exit four survivors in a week, Nimeh confirmed that it would indeed be highly unusual.

While she was housed at the shelter, Field's alleged assailant sent her threatening text messages and, according to information provided by investigators, texted that he intended to show up at SafeHouse Center with an AK-47 and murder everyone in the building. Fields's assailant allegedly stalked his victim via spyware installed on her smartphone, as well as obtaining information from her wireless phone provider, according to comments made by Judge Fink and Assistant Washtenaw County Prosecutor Londy at the assailant's arraignment.

Fields's SafeHouse file shows that SafeHouse Center officials were aware of the lethality of her situation. Yet, on Aug. 31, Fields was forced to leave, in essence, making her homeless and with no safe shelter from her alleged assailant.

Experiencing suicidal ideation, around 11 p.m. on Aug. 31, Fields called the only suicide prevention helpline in Washtenaw County: SafeHouse Center. Meggan Casper answered. In an audio recording of the conversion, Fields can be heard telling Casper that her expulsion from SafeHouse, as well as having the Pittsfield Police called on her, has "triggered" her and that she is having "suicidal thoughts." In the recording, Fields repeatedly says she is feeling suicidal, and Casper can be heard clearly telling Fields that she should seek help elsewhere. When Fields points out there is no other suicide prevention hotline in the County, Casper tells Fields to go to the University of Michigan's Psych ER, and not to call SafeHouse Center's suicide prevention hotline again. Casper then hangs up. When Fields called back, Casper hung up on her a second time.

Fields’s SafeHouse file shows that SafeHouse Center officials were aware of the lethality of her situation. Yet, on Aug. 31, Fields was forced to leave, in essence, making her homeless and with no safe shelter from her alleged assailant.

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Niess-May, SafeHouse Board President Tara Mahoney, and Casper refused to answer questions emailed to them about the helpline conversation. They refused to provide any information about Casper's education and qualifications related to her work providing mental health services. Casper also ignored multiple phone messages seeking a comment. Casper, 37 (according to public records, also known as Meggan M Briggs, Meggan Bracher, Meggan A. Casper), has over the past decade lived at 13 addresses in Ann Arbor, Brighton, Whitmore Lake, Howell, and Pinckney.

In her Sept. 22 public statement, Niess-May said that survivors seek and "receive high quality services through our [SafeHouse Center] helpline," adding, "I am confident any investigator will find that our organization operates at the highest standards and with great integrity." Niess-May repeatedly refused to answer questions about Casper's conduct.

Three weeks after Fields was made homeless by SafeHouse officials, her alleged assailant, Jeffrey Dwayne Smith, a 47-year-old father of three, was arrested by Federal Marshals, and on Sept. 19, was arraigned in Washtenaw County District Court 14A-1 before Magistrate Elisha A. Fink. Judge Fink, in setting a $3 million dollar cash surety bond for Smith, made a stark statement about Washtenaw County Prosecutor Savit's unpopular (among domestic violence advocates) and controversial policy that requires those arrested and charged with domestic violence crimes to be released from custody without posting any bond.

During Smith's arraignment on one count of sexual assault and two counts of domestic violence (11 more charges were subsequently filed against Smith by the County Prosecutor's office), Judge Fink pointed out that the evidence of threatening text messages received by the victim had been handed over to the judge by the investigating detective, not the victim. Fink also said that when the detective had read to her over the phone Smith's alleged text messages sent to the victim, the judge had found the texts so disturbing that she'd asked the detective to stop.

After agreeing to be interviewed for this article, "exited" survivor Teaha Leath-Jackson, pregnant, was forced to leave SafeHouse without her child car seats and other belongings. Thanks to Niess-May's trespass complaint, the mother of eight could not return to the shelter to demand the return of her belongings. The Enough Initiative's Nicole Beverly went to the shelter to get Leath-Jackson's car seats, television, and other items.

"Initially, I was told they could not give the seats to me," says Beverly. "[SafeHouse staff] said Teaha had to come and get them." She adds, "They said, 'No, [Leath-Jackson] had to get them herself.' I said, 'She'll get trespassed if she does, and that's not happening. I'll just call the [County] Commissioners.' Then, they called Teaha for her permission to release the car seats to me."

Among the items SafeHouse staffers packed up and gave to Beverly for Leath-Jackson was a box of spoiled food. Leath-Jackson had purchased the food for herself and her children, then stored the items in a refrigerator that staff had neglected to alert residents was not working.

One concern that arose frequently when speaking to former long-term SafeHouse staff had to do with minimally-trained client-side staff, many of whom are new graduates without licensure and with little experience. According to Niess-May, none of the client advocates employed at SafeHouse has Michigan licensure (i.e. licensure as a social worker). Niess-May, who is white, claimed that requiring licensure or an advanced degree "could potentially limit our diversity and our ability to hire." Niess-May is not a social worker licensed by the State of Michigan, according to public records.

The assumption that non-whites do not have or could not obtain the appropriate licensure is not supported by licensure data kept by the National Association of Social Workers in Michigan. In our state, approximately 40 percent of licensed mental health professionals are minorities.

'Independent' investigation hits a political pothole

In response to a Facebook post by U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D) concerning the allegations, public outcry about the allegations on social media listservs, as well a large, local Facebook politics group (Ann Arbor Politics), the SafeHouse Board of Directors issued a public statement on Sept. 22. That statement began defiantly: "We have full confidence in the organization's executive director Barbara Niess-May." The statement went on to say, "We have decided to retain an attorney to conduct an independent review into these allegations."

The attorney whom the Board chose is Michelle P. Crockett of Miller Canfield. Miller Canfield's attorneys specialize in defending businesses accused of wrongdoing related to employment and labor complaints. In 2020, Michelle P. Crockett was hired to teach as an adjunct (temporary) faculty member in the U-M Law School. The SafeHouse Board includes former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District Barbara McQuade, who is a faculty member at the U-M Law School. Neither McQuade nor Crockett answered questions about whether McQuade had recruited Crockett to conduct the investigation, and whether the women had any personal or professional relationship.

Other SafeHouse Board members include Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton; University of Michigan's Head of Public Safety, Eddie Washington, Jr.; and the Washtenaw County Administrator, Gregory Dill.

The same day the SafeHouse Board issued its statement, Niess-May sent out her own public defense. Her statement began, "As the Executive Director, I condemn the recent false and misleading information being circulated in our community." In her statement, issued 36 hours after Magistrate Elisha A. Fink ordered Ravone Field's alleged assailant Jeffrey Dwayne Smith held on $3 million cash bond, Niess-May wrote, "Survivors have sought and received high quality services through our helpline [and] shelter. We are a trustworthy service partner...." Niess-May went on to say, "[O]ur organization operates at the highest standards and with great integrity."

Both the SafeHouse Board's and Niess-May's statements were met with incredulity, mockery, and derision on social media. On the Ann Arbor Politics Facebook group, Svetlana Toder posted a photo of a moldy, crumbling SafeHouse resident shower and wrote, "'The condition of our building is held to a high standard.' Seriously?" Toder is the President of the Child Welfare Student Association at the University of Michigan and is a Volunteer Social Worker in Support Group Facilitation at Ele's Place in Ann Arbor.

Efforts by the Executive Director and Board members of SafeHouse Center to hire a Miller Canfield lawyer and conduct a quiet investigation hit a snag on Sept. 24. A dozen women officeholders in Washtenaw County issued a highly-critical public statement titled the "Washtenaw Elected Women's Statement on SafeHouse." It was signed by four County Commissioners, including the Chair of the Board of Commissioners, Sue Shink, five women Ann Arbor City Council members, the Mayor and Mayor Pro Tempore of Ypsilanti, and an Ypsilanti City Council member. The Statement says the elected officials "are disappointed and shocked because it appears the Board of Directors at SafeHouse does not seem to be taking the accounts of these women seriously."

The elected officials went on to point out that, "In order for a truly independent investigation to take place, the director of SafeHouse should be placed on administrative leave. Moreover, any discussion of confidence in the Executive Director should be left out of a press release until the investigation is concluded."

Among the elected officials who signed the statement were two Ann Arbor City Council members who have been victims of domestic violence .

Since as recently as Sept. 23, SafeHouse Center has been turning away victims of domestic and sexual violence with the bogus claim that the facility is "full." An elected official who toured the facility confirmed the 20-room facility has only three residents with a few children.

Washtenaw County domestic violence advocates are incensed that victims are being turned away. One advocate said, "What's going to happen to those women? Are they going back to their assailants?"

SafeHouse Board member and Washtenaw County Administrator Greg Dill issued five, one-week motel vouchers for some of the women evicted by Niess-May. Dill did not provide the women security, food, transportation for their children to get to school, nor psychological or medical treatment. The Enough Initiative has stepped in to help the women victimized and traumatized by SafeHouse staff with housing, security, and other services.

"The Safehouse has been handling victims of physical, mental, emotional, psychological abuse, and even TORTURE (in many cases) without concern or just no dedication what so ever," former SafeHouse resident Julie Gobel posted this to the public Ann Arbor Politics Facebook page on Sept. 24 "Their tactics are all examples of extreme neglect to their residents, being very unprofessional, no plan in case of crisis, and simply just plain confusion going on within their walls. Their responses to these matters are childish, immature and SHOULD be embarrassing to Washtenaw County legislative officials. The women who are victims (NOT BY CHOICE!) have no one or nowhere to turn in there time of need."

She added, "How could any sane human being not help a woman who has been violated and most likely sustained some type of injury. How could anyone who believes there is a GOD...not respond? If the safe house isn't safe... then where is?"

A version of this story was originally published by The Ann Arbor Independent. It is republished here with permission.

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