Are Shelters Protecting Abused Women or Harboring Abusers?

“No smoke without fire” can be a good principle for examining the stories of self-professed muckraking journalists with a penchant for unverified speculation. And it is in that spirit that I will call attention to Behind the Gate, an assessment of a shelter for abused women—Spring Hill, Florida's Dawn Center—by former Real News Real Fast reporter Tom Lemons.1

Lemons levels three charges: 1) The center is mired in financial, legal and political corruption; 2) Many center residents are not victims but drug addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes and women who are themselves abusers; 3) While professing to aid victims of domestic violence, the center is used as a vehicle for promoting an ideologically radical agenda.

Allegation #1 builds upon a solidly documented pattern of conflict of interest. Hernando County Judge Kurt Hitzemann, Florida Circuit Judge Don Barbee (based in the Hernando County Courthouse) and Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis have all been members of the Dawn Center’s Board of Directors. George Angeliadis, who once worked for the center in a legal capacity, also served as a Circuit Court judge in Hernando County from 2018 until 2021. Hernando County Clerk of Court Doug Chorvat has deputized Dawn Center employees, who then aid residents in filing petitions for domestic violence injunctions. Such deviations from normal standards of impartiality are not found in other Florida counties.

The facts amassed demonstrate the need for investigation and reform, despite being both linked to unsubstantiated allegations and insufficient to prove Lemons’s claims that the Dawn Center and members of the Hernando County legal system collaborate to place and keep judges on the bench in return for those judges keeping domestic violence statistics high (as a means of obtaining state and federal funding for the center).

Allegations of lower level corruption (i.e. employees stealing donations) are made by several witnesses interviewed in Behind the Gate.

Testiomy from former Dawn Center employees (Kimberly Polk, Javohn Brown, Christina Gimlin and Sandra Bolczak), former clients (Ashley Weider and Heidi Lutz) and local residents provides the basis for Allegation #2. Polk and Brown both estimate that only about 10% of clients were true abuse victims, Polk adding that women being investigated by Florida's Department of Children and Families would flee to the center (residents effectively having legal immunity). Bolczak claims that employees were instructed to tolerate drunkenness, Polk the use of illegal drugs. Many of the witnesses attest that both practices were common. Polk claims that employees were instructed not to involve “outsiders,” including the police. Both Brown and Gimlin alleged dangerous behavior by clients. According to Gimlin this included deliberate violence and even sexual assault. Lutz told the story of a client who kicked and beat her three year old child. Other witnesses claim clients would leave children alone at the center so they could go out drinking. Local residents tell stories of finding drug paraphernalia on their property and of Dawn Center clients performing sexual acts in more or less public view.

Tolerance of such behaviors is often defended on the grounds that they are consequent upon having been violated, that an "understanding" approach which "builds self-esteem" is needed to overcome them. In Life at the Bottom: The World View that Makes the Underclass, prison psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple shows that the opposite is largely the case. Alcoholism, drug use, violent dispositions and promiscuous sexuality tend to be the cause of abusive relationships, not the result. Holding people accountable—not making them feel good—is needed to overcome them. Those who indulge in them often embrace the view that they cannot help themselves, that they are not responsible for their actions until a mental health expert unilaterally "fixes" them.

Lemons breezes through his final allegation, content to present brief footage of the originator of women's shelters (Erin Pizzey) affirming that many turned from providing aid to ideological propaganda. This ignores substantial evidence on the Dawn Center's own website, including a video entitled "Gender Rolls"2 that caricatures masculine and feminine qualities though a parody of food commercials. While common sense might tell us it is good for men to value supporting their families, the center insists that valuing male "breadwinning" contributes to violence—ultimately taking its lead from deological preconceptions (and circular logic) claiming violence results from "structural injustices" (i.e normal family life) inimical to "liberation" (aka irresponsibly doing whatever you feel like). Mental health experts and women3 who have taken part in programs run by similar shelters also point to ideological prejudice that attacks family life4 and erroneously insists that men tend to be abusers and women victims.5 Other evidence could probably have been obtained from the Dawn Center's training sessions. In other words such shelters use tax dollars to promote an agenda that serves the partisan electoral purposes of the political party that lavishes money on them.

A serious investigation and a thorough reform is needed to eliminate conflicts of interest, to assure that a home for abused women is not being used as one for abusers, and to correct a serious lack of transparency—even if it should be discovered that Lemons’s most serious charges are incorrect.

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