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What happened to the only shelter for women fleeing domestic abuse in Prince George's County?

WUSA-TV Washington, D.C. logo WUSA-TV Washington, D.C. 3/15/2019 Stephanie Ramirez
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In 2017, a group of women feeling domestic violence found themselves in another horrible situation. They found the conditions inside the only shelter they could turn to in Prince George’s County …unbearable.

What ever happened to the residents and this shelter? One former resident says, not enough.  

“In front of my children, I have been choked,” said a woman we are identifying as “Jay.” The mother of two asked us to do so out of concern for her safety.

" I remember to this day, the very last day I was choked. I thought that day, it was it for me," she continued, describing the moment she says she decided to take her children and leave her alleged abuser. Jay fled to the Prince George’s County’s only women’s domestic violence shelter in the fall of 2017.

“I expected heat. I expected my children to be warm. You know, just basic things you would expect to walk into in a shelter," Jay said. "Just basic help with clothing, help with counseling, help with food, help with cleanliness. Things like that, that’s what I expected."

But the mother of two said that is not what she found. Jay and some of the women at the shelter reached out to WUSA9 in December 2017, telling us they couldn’t get help. They sent in photos that showed mold in the bathrooms. The women claimed there was no heat in the winter. At the time, WUSA9 had reported more than 40 women were living in these conditions.

"I noticed mice down there when we and my children were sleeping. I heard [makes claw scratching sound]," Jay said. "The first time I went to the bathroom it was disgusting. My first thought was, is this serious right now?"

The Family Crisis Center is a 501 c-3, that the county says was established in 1981 to provide emergency shelter to families fleeing domestic abuse. The FCC also runs other programs – all funded by grant money. The funds to operate the shelter came from the Prince George’s County Domestic Violence Fund – collected through taxpayer marriage license fees.

From fiscal year 2014-2018, the FCC received $2.3 million dollars from Prince George’s County. Despite records of consistent funding during that period, inside the shelter, the women fleeing abusive situations were desperate.

“We don’t have nowhere to go,” a shelter resident cried in an interview done back in 2017, about three months after Jay arrived with her children.

“If you was to walk in that shelter and saw the things that I saw, you would want to go back to your abuser instead of staying at this shelter. That’s how bad it is – I’m sorry that’s how bad it was,” said Jay.

The FCC’s Executive Director at the time, Sophie Ford, lambasted these women on Facebook. She questioned whether the photos came from inside the shelter.

Our report forced the county to investigate. The State’s Attorney’s Office also paid to temporarily house the women in hotels.

“They moved us out …  after two weeks of cleaning I guess or whatever they did to the shelter, they wanted us to go back," Jay said. "We refused because me personally, I didn’t believe that everything that was wrong with the shelter – in two weeks you guys fixed everything that was wrong with the shelter."

Jay didn’t return but the shelter is actually still open today.

The county allowed another non-profit to take over: Community Crisis Services Incorporated, or CCSI. Their Executive Director backs up the women’s claims.

“Absolutely. The facility was not being maintained the way it needed to be,” Jansen said in an on-camera interview. CCSI’s Executive Director also took us inside the shelter. On the tour, he showed us their secure entrances, explained how they repaired the heating system and showed bathrooms in much better condition.

“The natural upkeep on any facility is on the agency that’s holding it. And so we brought the shelter up to code through work with the county Department of Inspections,” said Jansen.

“My commitment is that you’re going to be in a safe, friendly environment where you get the services that you need,” the CCSI Executive Director added.

Both Jansen and the Prince George’s County Department of Family Services say it was the responsibility of the FCC to address problems within the shelter. That’s a frustrating answer for Jay, who still believes no one was held accountable.

"I feel like jail time for somebody needs to happen… Children suffered through this. Children were sick. The whole time I was there my children was sick," Jay said. "And I just thought it was getting cold outside and the weather was changing."

The county did investigate the Family Crisis Center from 2015 – 2018. An audit completed last year found all kinds of issues with how the FCC and the shelter were being run. The investigation found the Board of Directors to be inactive and not fully aware of it’s responsibilities. It found there was no clear direction on how the shelter should be maintained or how the residents should file complaints.

When investigators checked their books, they uncovered undocumented salary raises and other money unaccounted for. The audit also singled-out the Executive Director for signing checks that should have been signed by a board member. This included nine of her own checks, totaling $24,967 from July 2017 to December 2017.

That same December, Sophie Ford abruptly resigned. She has not responded to any of our phone calls or email requests for comment since her resignation.

We asked county leaders if anyone else was held responsible for the poor conditions inside the shelter and got no official response. When we asked CCSI Executive Director Tim Jansen, he pointed to Ford’s resignation.

For Jay, that is just not enough.

She’s now on a mission to make sure that won’t happen again.

“I know that it may not seem like that big of a deal,” Jay said. “But I really want people to understand that when you anticipate on going somewhere to save yourself and to save your children and your child, whoever you’re with, and to save yourself. You should still expect to live like a human being."

Jay also said she and other women didn’t get the counseling they needed.

Angela Alsobrooks was the state’s attorney at the time. We asked her spokesperson whether any charges were after filed after the audit.

That spokesperson told WUSA9 they were never presented with anything to file charges on.

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