City Hall

Council Grills Human Services Director Over Decision to Cut Domestic Violence Division

By Erica C. Barnett February 9, 2011

Just got back from city hall, where city council members interrogated Human Services Department director Dannette Smith (appointed by Mayor Mike McGinn last June) over her plans to reorganize HSD, eliminating the division director who oversaw the city's domestic violence and sexual assault prevention programs (a story PubliCola broke in January).

At times, it would have been hard for an outsider dropping in on the meeting to divine that Smith was talking about actual victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. The people involved got lost in a thicket of jargon: "Integrative approach," "silos," "data integrity," "cross-pollination," and "product delivery" were just a few of the bureaucratic terms Smith came back to repeatedly to describe the reorganization. Domestic violence and sexual assault prevention would, as Smith put it this afternoon, be "weave[d] and integrate[d]" into all aspects of the two new divisions, including family support centers, immigrant and refugee services, school-based programs, and early childhood programs.

But, basically, the change boils down to a new organizational chart that eliminates three divisions (Youth Development & Achievement, Early Learning & Family Support, and Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault Prevention) and replaces them with two (Youth and Family Empowerment and Community Support and Self-Sufficiency) while consolidating a lot of bureaucratic work and data management under HSD's deputy director.

Domestic violence prevention is now relegated to a subsection of HSD's organizational structure, under Community Support and Self-Sufficiency.

"This [old] organizational chart has not allowed me as the director to be able to do policy work and strategic planning and strategic thinking, so part of what I've done is flip-flop the organization [to give] the deputy director ... responsibility for the day-to-day operations," Smith said.

The council aimed some unusually pointed questions at Smith, most asking whether it was possible---with domestic violence and sexual assault prevention formally "bur[ied] in layers of bureaucracy and layers of management in between," as Jean Godden put it---to keep those programs front and center at HSD.

"In the past, we have had a domestic violence director who reports directly to department director," Richard Conlin said, wielding his own version of the org chart making it clear that DV is now at the bottom of the department's structure (see below). "Now there is no director, there's no manager and the staff is reporting to a division director who's reporting to the deputy director. ...I'm concerned about the fact that we have lost that ability [to integrate domestic violence services with other HSD divisions] now, because that management's gone. How are we going to get that back?"

Jean Godden piled on: "As budget chair, I definitely appreciate your efforts to streamline the department. ... But then I put on my woman's advocacy hat, and I do definitely have some grave concerns about the deemphasis" on domestic violence.

Smith said the changes actually give HSD more flexibility to work DV services into other areas of the department, such as immigrant outreach, on-site community service centers, and communities of color. "We've been very stagnant. We have not been as fluid as we need to be. ... Many communities have informal networks that we could use as a way to strengthenĀ  families and how they operate [and be] accessible and responsive to cultural, racial, and ethnic differences." Smith said her reorganization would allow more flexible contracts with private human service providers, allowing a child welfare organization, for example, to intervene when a mother is being abused.

It's worth noting, however, that the city only provides about 20 percent of the funding to the groups Smith is talking about, making it difficult for a city department to determine their direction and programs.

Council members confronted Smith with tough questions about her initial, somewhat careless remarks about cutting the domestic violence division. "We have had such a good domestic violence program that's been recognized across the country," Godden said. "Is there a way that we can communicate to the community ... that we do still care desperately about this? If it doesn't look like you have a decent program, than you really don't have a decent program."

Tim Burgess, a panelist at a recent HSD domestic violence division-sponsored forum on prostituted and exploited children, noted that serious domestic violence crimes like felony assaults increased nine percent in Seattle in 2010, adding: "As you know, these are primarily women who are victims of domestic violence, and if we are not standing with them they're even at greater risk. We don't want any signal that goes out that we're not paying attention as much as we have in the past."

Smith acknowledged that she had "had some learning and some 'aha' moments" while explaining the changes to community members and the press. "If my communication in any way suggested that I'm not listening or paying attention to the conversations that are being had with me by either council members or the community, that's not true. I continue to be an avid listener," Smith said. "I'm learning about Seattle and I'm learning about the community and how that communication could be done in a different way." Smith came to Seattle earlier this year from Fairburn, Georgia.

The immigrant and refugee community was out in force in favor of the reorganization at this afternoon's meeting, while advocates for abused and assaulted women were notably absent.

King County Coalition on Domestic Violence director Merril Cousin said her group made a conscious decision not to testify. "We didn't testify because we understood this to be an informational briefing," not a public hearing, Cousin said. "I think there is still concern about the fact that it's not clear where the commitment to domestic violence and sexual assault is institutionalized" in the restructured department.

As for the big turnout among the immigrant and refugee community, there was some speculation about the politics behind it, which effectively pitted immigrant and refugee organizations against (largely white-run) traditional women's domestic violence advocacy groups. Alluding to the apparently organized barrage of testimony from immigrant and refugee advocacy groups, council member Nick Licata quipped after the hearing: "I'm sure they all just happened to be downtown this afternoon!"ā€”alluding to speculation that Smith had asked the groups to turn out and testify.

Maria Batayola, program chair for the Filipino Community of Seattle who turned out to support the reorg, told me after the meeting that "It wouldn't surprise me if [Smith] told people this was up at the council" and asked them to turn out in support.
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