The Need for OVERSIGHT: Domestic Violence Shelter Executives Cashing Out

Maria DiBari

“The bonus paid to Ariel Zwang was contingent on her satisfactory achievement of personal performance goals, including budget management, that were mutually established with the executive committee of the Board.”

Ms. Zwang’s “bonus” was $50,000 on top of her $247,023 for 2009. The individual mentioned here works for a domestic violence shelter in NYC, Safe Horizon. Safe Horizon operates on nearly 42 million dollars of tax-payer money. It is unsettling to see “bonus and incentive compensation” for top directors at a shelter.

Reading through Safe Horizon’s tax return for 2009 brought back memories of Project Lily. Illianexy Morales was a survivor of a brutal stabbing in NYC that had reached out to Safe Horizon and the NCADV in 2009. She was unable to get the shelter staff or the Coalition members to properly address her needs. Survivors in Action Alexis Moore and I, both volunteers, stepped in and properly advocated for this survivor and Ms. Morales was given free surgery to remove her scars courtesy of Discovery Health. This was a victory, and also a good example of how many victims fall through the cracks of our support system and don’t obtain assistance, even from the richest of agencies.

In 2011, Tri-County Crisis Center, Inc. was desperately trying to find shelter for a NYC victim and her child being stalked and in fear. This woman worked and was paid a small salary, nearly poverty level, and Safe Horizon would only house her if she paid a fee for her limited time stay. I proceeded to try and find this woman shelter from NYC to Ulster County NY, and she was denied at every shelter. She gave up.

Safe Horizon’s mission is to provide support, prevent violence and to promote justice for victims. However, what about direct victim services and direct assistance? The majority of the government grants dished out to this shelter goes into the pockets of the workers. Less than 1 million dollars is allocated toward “client assistance”; more money is spent on foundation grant writing. Also, more than 1 million dollars is spent paying the top 5 people in the company, and that is more than direct “client assistance” too. That is a lot of money for working 35 hours per week.

Safe Horizon is not the only shelter where we see this imbalance. Many shelters and agencies spend more on their salaries than they do on victims in need of services. The most common “need” a victim or survivor of violence has is the need of free legal services and emergency funds. These needs are still nearly impossible to address for NYS and the rest of the country. Often, many victims are overly referred by the agencies, fall through the gaps of the system or spend years trying to beg for services. This is unacceptable.

Shelters and domestic violence agencies, like any business, need oversight. It is nearly impossible to find statistics on those denied services and shelter, and very easy to find statistics on “women sheltered” or how many hotline calls were answered. This needs to shift and all information needs to be readily available to the public, as we are the ones paying for the services and salaries.

While shelters do provide shelter and services to some victims, there are many victims that go without and are unable to get the proper guidance and assistance from these agencies. A possible solution may be to spend less on conferences, meetings, luncheons and top executives salaries and more on victim assistance. Another solution may be working a 40 hour or more work week like the rest of the population, getting paid slightly less, not getting bonuses for doing a good job at a non-profit organization, and downsizing and restructuring staff.