The Oklahoma nonprofit that trains advocates who care for victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, lobbies for legislation to protect them and garners millions in federal funds to support them will cease operations next month. 

The Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault’s grant funds were frozen this month by federal auditors who uncovered misspending by the nonprofit’s former director Candida Manion, leaving the nonprofit with $125,000 — enough to make it through August. 

Board members who were brought in to work with auditors to fix the 40-year-old coalition voted unanimously to dissolve it at a special meeting Wednesday.  

The coalition certifies advocates who help victims escape their abusers, find housing, apply for jobs, file protective orders and report to police. It employs a lobbyist who assists in writing laws to protect victims and warns legislators if a bill could be harmful to victims. It helps rural shelters find the nearest available bed when their facility is full and provides technical support to crisis centers whose budgets don’t afford it. 

Without a coalition, Oklahoma will miss out on federal money that supports victim services through grants designed specifically for state coalitions. 

Nearly 25,000 incidents of domestic abuse were reported to Oklahoma law enforcement in 2021, the State Bureau of Investigation’s most recent crime report shows. Oklahoma has the nation’s second-highest rate of women murdered by men, which is twice the national average, according to the Violence Policy Center. A state fatality review board found that 118 Oklahomans were killed in domestic violence incidents in 2021, the same year Manion was fired for misspending the coalition’s money.

When the Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault closes its doors, Oklahoma will become the only state without a coalition to support its shelters, crisis centers and victim service programs.

More than 50 programs across the state pay an annual fee of $1,000 for the coalition’s support. Program directors said rural centers with small budgets will be most affected when the coalition shutters.

Coalition staff sent invoices to its members last week seeking annual dues. On Tuesday, program directors learned of the coalition’s demise in an email notifying them of the meeting. The next day, the votes were cast. Three program directors sit on the coalition’s board. Two of them were not present for the vote. 

Jeri Holmes, an attorney who was hired to restructure the coalition and ensure compliance throughout the audit, said programs were intentionally left out of the loop to diminish liability and deter auditors from trying to recover some of the misspent funds from the victim service providers that the coalition supports. And it wouldn’t be the first time that happened. 

The coalition misspent $30,000 from grants awarded in 2009 under the watch of director Marcia Smith. Six years later, the coalition settled its debt by splitting the repayment evenly among 30 member programs, according to a letter from the coalition that accompanied the check provided to federal agents. 

“The funds came from donations, which are used to benefit victims of domestic violence and sexual assault,” the letter states. “Adding interest to the debt will create additional burden to all our programs and their victim services.” 

The letter is signed by Manion, who was hired to replace Smith and fired in 2021 after federal auditors found more than $900,000 improper and irresponsible spending including staff and board member vacations, an Oklahoma Watch investigation revealed. Receipts, invoices, employee reports and other documents discovered in the disorganized paperwork Manion left behind reduced the unallowed costs to $585,000. This time, the price of reconciliation is too high, Holmes said. 

Neither Smith nor Manion nor any of the former board members responsible for their oversight were prosecuted as a result of the misspending. 

Since June of 2021, new staff and board members have been working toward a solution with auditors and the federal Office on Violence Against Women, which awarded the misspent grants. Since then, federal agencies have awarded the coalition more than $2 million. Coalition staff and board members learned Monday that money was frozen by the Office of the Inspector General, which is conducting the audit, draining the coalition’s coffers. 

No one on Monday’s call knew when the money would be released or when the audit would be finalized, Holmes said. 

“You’ve got to have money to continue and we don’t,” Holmes said. “So by silence, they kind of starved us.” 

Holmes said she did not know where the dissolution leaves the audit and many questions linger about how the coalition’s closure will affect victim services.

Rural program directors said they are frustrated about the secretive and quick decision to dissolve the coalition without their input. 

Ninety miles southeast of Oklahoma City, the Family Crisis Center in Ada answered nearly 700 crisis calls last year and housed 167 victims in its shelter, Director Shelley Battles-Reichle said. She said she was blindsided when she learned that the coalition was dissolving. 

The implications plagued Tara Tyler Thursday at the Survivor Resource Network in Ponca City, which served 600 victims and housed 70 women and children in its shelter last year. Tyler is the director and said it will likely be six months before programs like hers feel the effects, but they are coming. 

State program directors meet monthly and the topic is already decided for their Aug. 9 meeting. Finding new hosts and funding for advocate training and the lobbyist are priorities. 

Directors are preparing for cuts to their state funding this year too, adding to the strain on rural programs. But directors said as long as they can keep their doors open, they’ll continue to support victims in their communities. 

“We have a few months to figure some things out before this really starts to impact our work on the ground,” Tyler said. “But we’re going to keep serving clients here and I know the other programs will too no matter what happens.”

Whitney Bryen is an investigative reporter at Oklahoma Watch covering vulnerable populations. Her recent investigations focus on mental health and substance abuse, criminal justice, domestic violence and nursing homes. Contact her at (405) 201-6057 or Follow her on Twitter @SoonerReporter.

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