Harbor of Hamblen

Harbor of Hamblen new advocates for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, has opened its doors, taking over the now defunct CEASE. From left to right, Nancy Seal, court advocate, Barbara Horton, executive director and LA Orio, chairman of the board of directors for the Harbor.

Harbor of Hamblen, a newly chartered nonprofit agency, is seeking community support to fill the void and help provide temporary housing, along with courtroom advocacy, for victims of domestic violence, according to Barbara Horton, Harbor executive director.

CEASE Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, the former domestic-violence agency and shelter, no longer exists. Horton says the former Cease executive staff members are gone, its board has been dissolved and Harbor has no access to the defunct agency’s financial records.

“None of the old players are on the new team, with the exception of Nancy Seal,” said Horton, who added Seal has helped domestic-violence victims navigate the legal system for 26 years. “Our short-term goal is to have the shelter open as soon as possible and provide a safe space where people are protected.

“For anyone that’s involved as a victim in domestic-violence situation, we want to be their harbor in the storm,” she added. “Our long-term goal is to establish faith and trust in the community and with the residents of Hamblen County. We want to plug the existing gaps in the continuum of services and to help break the cycle of domestic violence.”

Seal began accompanying victims to court, and advising them how to obtain protective orders on Aug. 3, the same day Horton started work at Harbor of Hamblen.

Horton, who was the director of Hamblen County Recovery Court for 10 years, and before that was the executive director of New Hope Recovery Center, says providing living space for victims displaced by domestic violence won’t be nearly that easy.

The large, two-story house was left uninhabitable by its predecessor. All 10 rooms, including five bedrooms and two bathrooms, require renovations. When the former shelter workers left – with the exception of an old dishwasher that was screwed into the cabinets – so too did the kitchen appliances, according to Horton.

Harbor’s idea is for a business, civic organization or church to adopt and pay for renovations – in part or fully – for each of the 10 rooms. One of the bedrooms is on the ground floor and will be handicapped-accessible.

Horton says she’s anxious to open the shelter as soon as possible – ideally in November – but she says she can’t put adults and children into a house with no furniture that is in desperate need of repair work.

Those interested in sponsoring a room, in part or in full, are encouraged to contact Horton at 423-748-7103 or call the Harbor office at 423-353-4766.

Hamblen County government obtained domestic violence-related state and federal grants to pay Horton and Seal’s salaries and benefits through June 2021.

Harbor paid approximately $4,000 as part of the match. In-kind rental payments provided to house domestic-violence victims and utilities will be the remainder of Harbor’s 20% matches for the grants, according to Anne Bryant-Hurst, Hamblen County finance director who is administering the grants.

Horton says Harbor currently has no funding for programming, including food for victims and all other day-to-day expenses. The agency director says she hopes to access state and federal grants that fund domestic-violent shelters, but at this point – less than one month into her new job – Horton says she doesn’t have a handle on how much money she will need.

“It’s like we’re a baby learning to walk,” said Harbor board member Ethel Rhodes. “Cease was a nonprofit agency that has been dissolved and terminated through the Tennessee secretary of state’s office. Harbor of Hamblen is a newly incorporated nonprofit, domestic-violence program.”

Three funding sources on which the former shelter relied are not currently available. The $16,000 annual allocation from Morristown municipal government and the $8,000 from Hamblen County government have been zeroed out of their budgets.

More importantly, the former agency received about $58,000 a year from the United Way of Hamblen County, according to Gary Matthews, United Way executive director. Matthews says newly chartered nonprofits can apply for United Way funds after two years in existence, but Harbor won’t be receiving United Way money before that.

The initial plan, Rhodes says, was to radically reform and reorganize the former agency to maintain the streams of domestic-violence funds, but that turned out not to be a workable solution. Rhodes says the board learned from grant sources that accounting shortcomings were so profound that the former organization would never get another dime of grant money.

The problems started when the state came to audit CEASE last summer. During that audit, state officials found several accounting irregularities and stopped more than $1 million in federal funding. That led to CEASE laying off workers and shutting its doors. Since then, SAFESPACE, a Sevier County domestic assault agency, has been offering assistance in Hamblen County.

District Attorney General Dan Armstrong confirmed that the state comptroller’s office is currently conducting an investigation of CEASE’s finances. The computers were scrubbed clean of vital financial information, according to Rhodes, who is also an attorney.

State audits of this nature are frequently conducted with the cooperation of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. The results from comptroller’s office investigative audits are frequently presented to grand juries.

The former shelter closed in January after the board learned of the financial irregularities.

Until the Harbor of Hamblen shelter opens, the plight of domestic-violence victims will remain at a low point, due in large part to coronavirus-related isolation and unemployment, according to Horton.

“The problem is for victims who live with the perpetrator,” she said. “Their usual reprieve is when the perpetrator went to work. Instead, they’re living with the perpetrator 24-7. It’s the opposite of being safe at home. Victims of domestic violence are not safe at home and neither are their children.”

Horton says Hamblen County victims who require immediate separation from domestic-violence situations are being housed in shelters outside the county.