By Tracy Seipel
As they gather Friday for the 19th annual Santa Clara County Domestic Violence Council Conference, hundreds of participants — from domestic violence shelters to law enforcement agencies, from judges to doctors — might be surprised to learn that their well-meaning efforts over the years were critically hampered by a lack of coordination and accountability from some of the very county officials who support their efforts.
A recent state audit revealed that $715,000 in state-mandated funds collected by the county since 1995 and meant to be distributed to local domestic violence shelters sat in an account virtually forgotten by officials until the oversight was accidentally discovered in 2010. It wasn’t until earlier this year that the money was ultimately distributed to shelters.
“I’m still inflamed — I’m still so angry not knowing this money was sitting there,” said Kathleen Krenek, executive director of Next Door Solutions to Domestic Violence, the county’s largest shelter for battered victims. She said that money could have been spent to prevent layoffs, to pay for rent or supplies — even toilet paper — to help keep the program going.
“The lesson here is: Don’t trust things on the surface,” Krenek said. “And let’s make sure to put in safety mechanisms to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
But according to the state audit — which reviewed 135 domestic violence cases in Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego and Santa Clara counties — these kinds of oversight problems are happening throughout California and without further clarification by the state Legislature, counties and courts may continue to misdirect domestic violence funds.
“More than anything, the audit speaks to the need to clarify with counties what the statute actually says, and the need to create a way to document whether or not courts are actually collecting the fees and if they are not, why not,” said Camille Hayes, a spokeswoman for the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that works with almost 100 service providers around the state to prevent domestic violence.
County Executive Jeff Smith said the county has since moved the monitoring and oversight of the fund to the Office of Women’s Policy, which is regularly in touch with domestic violence shelters, to ensure “this will never happen again.”
“It’s not uncommon that when you have funds that are paid by programs that cross departments that there’s confusion about how they should be spent,” said Smith, adding that no money was “diverted inappropriately.”
Still, he acknowledged, “we don’t like the fact that this happened, and we are unhappy with the delay.” He emphasized the money has been distributed to the shelters to provide important services.
The state audit focused on a November 1994 state law called the Domestic Violence Probation Fee, which requires anyone convicted of domestic violence crimes and sentenced to probation make a minimum payment of $400 as one of many terms and conditions of their probation. (The amount was just increased to $500 by Gov. Jerry Brown.)
When the law took effect in 1995, Santa Clara County officials said those fines were being collected and some were being distributed by the county’s Social Services Department.
By 2004-05, according to the audit, the county’s Probation Department became aware of the money, and sought authority over the funds. It asked the county counsel’s office if the money could be used to pay for a domestic violence advocate, which was allowed that year, as well as from 2007-11, for a total cost of $209,000 over five years.
But the audit said the funds were not supposed to be used for that purpose, which was meant solely for local shelters who could use the money for anything they wished.
Krenek said the county’s four domestic violence shelters believed they were receiving the “probationer fees” all along — about $200,000 annually — but then noticed a drastic drop to about $50,000 annually in recent years. She said they were told the number of domestic violence cases had fallen and that many probationers, because of the economy, could not afford to pay their fines.
Coincidentally, Supervisor George Shirakawa Jr. had requested an audit of all county special funds in 2010, and when the list revealed the $715,000 that had been held in a special fund for domestic violence shelters, Krenek and others were alerted and asked the county for an explanation.
Now that the mistake has been addressed by the county, the shelter leaders say they’ve heard from others around the state facing similar problems.
“What happened was an injustice,” said Cynthia Hunter, director of the Domestic Violence Advocacy Consortium of Santa Clara County. “It may not be a lot of money to the county, but it certainly was to us.”
The audit can be read at www.auditor.ca.gov/pdfs/reports/2011-121.pdf.