A domestic abuse and sexual assault support organization is receiving backlash funding cuts from local governments and law enforcement over a statement it made condemning violence and racism.
After closed session at the conclusion of the Oct. 7 Barron County Executive Committee meeting, members voted to stop its $25,000 funding to Embrace and for HHS director Stacey Frolik to resign from the Embrace board and not to adjust the 2021 HHS budget.
Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald said, “No victim services have been interrupted by the changes. We have just withdrawn our support, as well as law enforcement in all four counties they serve, over social issues they are taking up that are very anti-law enforcement. I believe that the environment they are creating may not be welcoming to all victims.”
In an email to The Chronotype, Embrace executive director Katie Bement said, “Saying racism exists in our communities and police violence is wrong are not attacks against our local law enforcement departments; we are not criticizing them nor are we anti-law enforcement. Embrace does not support or advocate violence against anyone. We are only making efforts to ensure our services are safe and accessible for all, including the disproportionate number of Black and Indigenous People of Color we serve.”
Embrace’s statement, posted on its website, mentions police or law enforcement twice. Those sentences are as follows:
“Racism, police violence, sexual violence, and domestic violence all have the same root causes, and they interact and compound on each other both in society and within the survivors we serve.”
“We urge more community members, colleagues, and agency partners who work in all systems – judicial, law enforcement, education, health care, housing, social services – throughout our community to acknowledge the recurrent problem of racial biases, reimagine their roles, explore community-led solutions, and commit to being anti-racist through their actions and words.”
The statement was issued after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery as well as the shooting of Jacob Blake. The statement condemns violence and white supremacy and supports the Black Lives and Indigenous Lives movements. Embrace also states that Communities of Color have disproportionately higher incidences of violence in part because of a history of racism in society.
Bement said, “Embrace’s mission has always been focused on ending all forms of violence and oppression in our communities. Law enforcement and Embrace should be able to disagree without dismantling and defunding joint services survivors depend on.”
She said Embrace received no notice or explanation from Barron County on its decision to cut funding.
Bement said, “The decisions of some of our law enforcement partners to not refer and withhold information from victims will create extra barriers for victims trying to access local safety services and advocacy support. Law enforcement is effectively setting themselves up to create violations of Wisconsin Statute Chapter 950, the Victim Rights Bill, and the new Marsy’s Law.”
She also said, “No opportunity to consult with us was provided, and no reasons for this decision were included in the minutes. The secrecy of their closed session is concerning, and we will be requesting the Executive Committee communicate with us and afford us due process to better understand what their issues are.”
Before voting to cut funding, the committee went into closed session on “Embrace Contract Review – Continuation, Termination or Modification” pursuant to Section 19.85(1)(e) “for the purpose of deliberating or negotiating purchase of public properties, investing public funds, or other specific business, whenever competitive or bargaining reasons require a closed session.”
All committee members voted by roll call to end funding. They include: “Louie Okey, Karolyn Bartlett, Dale Heinecke, Jerry McRoberts, Russell Rindsig, Burnell Hanson, Marv Thompson and Gary Nelson.
The executive committee’s motion was made by Supervisor Dale Heinecke and seconded by Supervisor Karolyn Bartlett. The Executive Board’s decision could be taken up by the full County Board at an upcoming meeting.
Fitzgerald said survivors of domestic and sexual violence will continue to be referred to Embrace for the time being.
Frolik, Fitzgerald and Barron County’s third representative, Karla Potts-Schufelt, have all left the Embrace board.
Since 1980, Embrace, formerly the TimeOut Shelter, has been providing safe shelter and services to survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault in the four county service area of Rusk, Washburn, Barron, and Price counties.
Bement concluded her email, “Embrace welcomes and respects all people regardless of race, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Our mission, vision, and services have not changed. If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic or sexual violence, you are not alone! You can contact Embrace 24/7 for free, confidential support at 1-800-924-0556 or text 715-532-6976.”