Nonprofit blasts judicial district for "disrespect and institutional oppression"

Dispute over grant fund for victim assistance

ADAMS COUNTY, Colo. -- Victims of domestic violence and sexual assault are caught in the middle in a war of words between a nonprofit and the 17th Judicial District’s Victim Assistance and Law Enforcement grant program.

Servicios de la Raza sent a scathing letter August 11 to the 17th Judicial District’s Victim Assistance and Law Enforcement (VALE) board declaring it would no longer seek grant funding to provide services for Spanish-speaking victims of sexual assault and domestic violence because of the district’s “callous, aloof attitude and behavior.”

“While Servicios de La Raza’s direct service staff work their hearts out to ensure the safety and justice of our clients, and our Business Office Director diligently works to appropriately steward the funds from the 17th JD, we have not found a supportive partner," Servicios de la Raza’s executive director, Rudy Gonzales, wrote in the letter. "Instead, we have found an impermeable wall of onerous questions and time-consuming processes.”

Servicios de la Raza has a rich legacy of advocacy throughout the Denver metro community. Its executive director Gonzales shared his letter outlining his organization’s struggles with VALE’s “minutiae and trivial obstacles” with a group of community leaders.

The VALE board’s chair, Gerald Smith, fired back days later with a fiery response of his own, reading in part: “It is truly disappointing that you find it necessary to broadcast your hostility to a wide audience of elected officials and leaders within our community … Servicios de la Raza appears to demand reimbursement without acknowledgement of the financial requirements made part of the contractual agreements with the 17th JD VALE board.”

Gonzales then provided a response to the response, writing in part: “We are saddened that your only take away is one of us being hostile. Hostility was not intended, instead it is well-documented frustration and self-advocacy of our agency that we believe important enough to ensure public record and notice thereof.”

Denver7 Investigates reviewed records and spoke with leaders from both organizations trying to unravel how more than a year’s worth of disputes over documentation of the use of public money boiled over into a very public break-up that could ultimately leave victims with fewer resources for assistance.

Servicios de la Raza has a 40-year legacy of community advocacy

Servicios de la Raza provides a variety of services to low-income people, primarily Latino, across the Denver metro area, with programs ranging from job placement assistance to HIV/AIDS counseling to victim advocacy.

Among those people is Kenya Isais-Pando – a 20-year-old college student who said Servicios was instrumental in facilitating her education.

“A lot of opportunity, a lot of possibilities in my future that I can see, thanks to Servicios de la Raza,” she said.

Isais-Pando said they helped her secure textbooks and found her a job with Mile High Youth Corps.

“I'm telling you, Servicios has helped me in big ways -- major ways,” she said.  “It's made the world smaller.”

Servicios de la Raza estimates that it provides service to more than 200 domestic assault and sexual assault victims per year in the 17th Judicial District, which serves Adams and Broomfield Counties, aided by grant funding from the VALE program.

“That includes safety planning, case management, legal representation, translation, court escorts,” Gonzales told Denver7 Investigates. “To get them stable, to get them safe -- safe, stable and thriving.”

But Servicios’s relationship with the VALE program appears to be over because of a dispute over paperwork.

Documents obtained by Denver7 Investigates show in 2015, the 17th JD VALE program awarded Servicios an $11,582 grant to provide services for Spanish-speaking victims by paying a portion of the salaries of two staff victim advocates.

But ultimately Servicios received less than $4,200 of that grant award after the board determined Servicios did not properly document its use of the funding – at times providing timesheets with zero hours, or providing timesheets showing different hours for the same period of time without explanation.

Emails obtained by Denver7 Investigates show Servicios officials asked for help with completing the documentation requirements repeatedly, sometimes without response, and even asked to set up a meeting to discuss what they may have been doing wrong before the board terminated 2015 grant funding to the organization.

Servicios then received more than $13,000 in the 2016 grant program but says it has yet to receive any payments -- an issue Smith attributed in his letter to a “shortage of staff dedicated to assist” with reviewing the financial documentation submitted by all grantees.

So when the deadline came to apply for 2017 grant funds, Gonzales said he decided enough is enough – his organization would not apply for the assistance, and he wanted it publicly known why.

“We won't be able to serve the clients who come to us who have been sexually assaulted, who have been thrown out of their homes or beaten,” he said. “For me, it's about systemic change.”

VALE provides public money to assist crime victims

The 17th Judicial District’s Victim & Witness Assistance and Law Enforcement Board allocated nearly $1.4 million in grant funds to 32 different agencies including Servicios de la Raza in 2016.

The funds come from surcharges on criminal and traffic offenses, and every judicial district in Colorado administers its own grant program.

Kate Horn-Murphy, administrator of the 17th JD Vale program, said the program is required by state statute to require specific documentation to track how grant dollars are spent.

“There are reasons for the administrative procedures... one of which is to create an equitable and fair funding grant evaluation process for any and all agencies that apply,” she said. “Documentation requested of La Raza has been requested of all other agencies in 2016.”

Every organization granted VALE funds agrees by contract to provide certain specific documentation of its use of the funds every quarter. The contract makes it clear that noncompliance with those requirements could result in funds being terminated.

“As an advocate, I know it’s very important that my agency be compliant with whatever requirements there are for budgeting and accounting, because that compliance allows me as an advocate to do my job,” Horn-Murphy said. “That means the services get to go on.”

Horn-Murphy said all of the organizations that received grant funding were given technical assistance and detailed reporting guidelines. Horn-Murphy admits a part-time grant administrator left the district and the lengthy process of finding a replacement made it more difficult to provide one-on-one help for organizations like Servicios, and in hindsight she believes communication could have been better.

“I can honestly say that I made a good faith effort to answer all their requests in the best way possible,” Horn-Murphy said. “But administratively, it sounds like it would’ve been more beneficial to perhaps have been more available or accessible on that side in some capacity. Whether it be in-person or by telephone.”

Horn-Murphy said nearly every organization reapplied for 2017 grant funds with the exception of Servicios de la Raza and two other agencies.

What does this dispute mean for victims?

The 17th Judicial District VALE continues to provide grant funding to numerous agencies that offer services for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Any grant funding that may have been allocated to Servicios de la Raza will now be allocated to those other agencies.

Gonzales says Servicios has funding from numerous grants aside from the 17th JD VALE and provides services for up to 1,000 victims of domestic and sexual violence per year across the Denver metro area. He said that work will carry on without the VALE funding, although his advocates likely will have fewer resources to help victims in the 17th Judicial District, which has a sizeable Hispanic population.

"We are very adept at doing more with less,” Gonzales tells Denver7. “I like to say we're tempered in poverty because we grew up doing more with less, but that doesn't make it right." 

Horn-Murphy said the public nature of the dispute is discouraging.

“That’s a lot of energy that I think and believe that both La Raza and myself would like to be spending serving victims. So how we can move forward from here and effect a more positive and different outcome? I think it’s communication. That’s not always shooting out a letter, it’s maybe having a conversation, a focused conversation, about the issues,” Horn-Murphy told Denver7 Investigates.

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