- Photo by Lissa Gotwals
- There's trouble behind the stately facade of the Durham Crisis Response Center on North Dillard Street.
A woman's boyfriend hits her when he drinks. He hits her if he does not like what she's cooked for dinner, or how she left his PlayStation on the floor, or how she looked at him just now when he leaned back in his chair. Sometimes he doesn't even have a reason. But he says he loves her. And he brings home a paycheck. And those two kids staring with their saucer eyes, they need a father around.
These things the woman tries hard to believe. But lately, after finding a support group for women like her, she is finding the words ring hollow. She looks around the room at these women, each of whom deserves better than what she's getting, and she feels less alone.
She is beginning to get angry. She is beginning to see a clearer path for herself and a safer future for her children.
For years, the Durham Crisis Response Center has been quietly lighting the way for women in similar situations. From a rambling house in the center of downtown Durham at 206 N. Dillard St., the center offers not just core services like a 24-hour crisis line, response to hospital emergency calls and emergency shelter for victims, but also support groups, community education, legal advocacy, individual counseling and case management resources. Supported by funding from grants, fellowships, fund-raisers and community donors, the response center acts as the sole provider of shelter and support services in the Durham area, serving over 170 women and children at the center's shelter and answering more than 1,200 calls to its crisis line in the last year alone.
But the abrupt dismissal of the organization's co-executive directors in January sparked a crisis within the center itself, resulting in the resignation of key staff members and the curtailment of center services such as support groups and community training. For several weeks this past spring, the center scrambled to cover crisis line shifts and was forced to contract with the Orange County Rape Crisis Center to provide hospital response services in Durham. And in the face of the national media attention focused on Durham in the wake of rape allegations at a Duke lacrosse party in March, the agency, which should have been at the forefront of the community response, remained conspicuously silent.
Joy Cunningham and Ada Gregory started as co-executive directors in 2001 when Rape Crisis of Durham (which Cunningham worked for) and Orange-Durham Coalition for Battered Women (which Gregory directed) merged to form the Durham Crisis Response Center. Rather than jockey for position as the single executive director of the newly created agency, Cunningham and Gregory opted for a shared directorship. After four years of running the agency with minimal involvement from the volunteer board, they were fired on Jan. 31 by board Chair Amy Brannock during a meeting at her home.
In the weeks following the terminations, the board offered almost no explanation for the decision and the stunned staff struggled to provide crisis services despite the lack of a clear transition plan. Credit cards used at the shelter to provide for emergency supplies were canceled. When the director of shelter services tried to buy groceries at a local supermarket for shelter residents, the card was declined. One victim at the shelter, unable to access her necessary medication, had to be hospitalized. Several grant deadlines were missed, resulting in the loss of funding for a transitional housing project the center had planned to initiate this year. And when allegations of sexual assault during a Duke lacrosse party thrust Durham into the national spotlight in March, the center provided no notable response. With Cunningham and Gregory gone, it wasn't clear to remaining staff who should step into the gap.
"It would have been a great time to educate the community, but because there was no leadership, nothing was said. We were struggling to financially stay afloat and handle the crisis line," explains Dina Helderman, former director of community outreach.
Soon after the firings, the center's staff delivered a letter to the board declaring a vote of no confidence in the board's members and demanding their resignations. The board declined to resign. In a subsequent March 3 letter, the staff detailed their own intentions to leave the agency.
"As staff we have been very clear from the start with the Board in communicating our professional concerns about the Board's actions," the letter stated. "Within 5 business days of the Board's dismissal of the Co-EDs, the entire staff provided the information to the Board, in writing, that staff would actively seek other employment due to the actions of the Board, actions which staff unanimously assessed as uniformed at best and unethical at worst."
In the fallout around the firings, lawyers were brought in on both sides, and the resulting resolution, the details of which have not been disclosed, prevents either side from publicly discussing the termination.
"The thing that is important about the Durham Crisis Response Center is the mission and that mission has not changed," Brannock says. "That mission is not dependent on any individual or individuals."
Dealing with people in crisis on a daily basis takes its toll, and centers like Durham's see a fair amount of staff turnover, even under normal circumstances. But since March, the center has lost most of its experienced staff, including the crisis line coordinator, the sexual assault survivor services coordinator, the shelter director and the director of community outreach. The board, which only recently named a new executive director, has had to fill a number of open positions in a short period of time. Amy Cleckler, former crisis line coordinator, resigned her position in mid-March, but was struck by the delay in filling her position.
"The shelter and crisis line are front-line services," Cleckler says. "I turned in my resignation after weeks of telling them my plan to find another job, and I gave three weeks' notice, and still there was a gap," she says. Some positions, like the recently vacated director of community outreach job, may not be filled at all because of funding shortfalls for the coming year.
While board members acknowledged that the center is in transition, they stress that core services have not been interrupted.
"The place is functioning. The place is doing its job," says board member George Kolasa. When asked to explain the board's decision to remove the co-executive directors, Kolasa only says: "The board establishes goals and objectives and decides whether the people who are running things are able to meet those goals and objectives. That has to be the case in any organization."
While acknowledging that the board may not have handled the terminations in the best way, Kolasa says it acted in the best interest of the organization.
Even the most vocal of critics acknowledge the board was well within its rights in removing the co-executive directors, even if the reasons for doing so remain unclear. Dr. Ann Brown, a former board member, goes further, noting that the board had, in fact, the legal obligation to remove the co-executive directors if there were concerns about the management of the organization. But, Brown says, "there had been no intention of letting them go. It was a precipitous decision based on an annual review and [the co-executive directors] writing back and asking for clarification on the annual review. This led to an ultimatum. It was very sudden and not planned."
And the impact, for the agency and for the community, is still being felt six months later. For Terri Allred, former director of Rape Crisis of Durham, watching the agency struggle following the terminations was especially painful given the hard-won stability the center had achieved. When she took the helm of Rape Crisis of Durham in 1997, the entity was bankrupt.
"I had to go to my first board meeting and tell them they had no money in their account," Allred recalls. The agency moved from struggling to make ends meet to reliably providing key emergency services to offering counseling, legal assistance, support groups, youth prevention workshops and training classes for emergency personnel.
"A crisis center grows up in crisis because of limited resources, staff and too many people to help," Allred says. "And this organization had grown out of that into a thriving organization."
Jeanne Allen, who served as interim executive director from mid-February until her resignation in late June, insists that the situation is not as dire as critics and former staff members report.
"We've answered all hospital calls, manned the crisis line and provided 24-hour emergency housing," she notes. Officer Chad Blanchette of the Durham Police Department confirmed in an e-mail that, from the perspective of his department, needs are being met. "I personally have not noticed a change in service so far. Just like any organization that goes through major staffing changes, there are bound to be some hiccups along the way. Considering the current staffing at DCRC, I think they should be commended on holding this program together," he wrote.
A nonprofit organization, with its board, executive director and staff, is structured to provide checks and balances, Allen says. But this, according to Amy Wilkinson, the former sexual assault services coordinator, is where the system has broken down for the Durham center.
"I received many calls from other workers in other nonprofits following the board's action," Wilkinson wrote in an e-mail. "Everyone expressed shock and disbelief. ... Especially considering the unanimous objection put forth in writing by the staff and the organized resistance to the board's actions that occurred in the community, how was this possible?"
Most people interviewed for this story, former staff and board members alike, looked to the then-unnamed new executive director to re-anchor the center. In the last week of June, the board named Aurelia Sands Belle to the post. Belle, who started work last week, will face an array of challenges, not the least of which will be restoring stability to the Durham Crisis Response Center and ensuring that new staff members have the training and the support to meet the challenges of their positions.
Belle says she's ready.
"I want to continue to provide quality services for the victims who come into our agency at the most vulnerable time in their life," says Belle, who was the founding director of Atlanta's Victim Witness Assistance Program, later worked at the rape crisis center in Fayetteville, and moved to Durham from Washington, D.C., where she had a consulting business.
She says after working with nonprofits for most of her 25-year career, she's not worried about potential problems with the board.
"I kind of have an understanding of how boards operate, and I understand that I'm answerable to a board of directors, so I will work toward addressing the mission of the agency with the approval of the board."
Brannock, the board chair, sees it as an opportunity for a fresh start.
"We have a lot of folks on board right now with no history with the agency," she says. "They are bright and fresh and able to do a good job."
But former staff members see the change as a giant step backward over ground that will take years to regain.
"As optimistic as Amy Brannock is, she's not there," Helderman says. "The quality of services will take years to build again. A lot of victims in that time will not be getting what they need."
If you or someone you know needs the services of the Durham Crisis Response Center, call 403-6562 anytime, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
In Wake County, contact Interact of Wake County at 828-3005 in cases of sexual assault and 828-7740 for cases of domestic violence.
In Orange County, call Orange County Rape Crisis at 1-866-935-4783 (1-866-WE-LISTEN).