Three months after a September 2020 decision by the Barron County Board to cut $25,000 in funding for Embrace, which serves domestic abuse victims in four area counties, the concerns of both sides appear to remain unresolved as a new year begins.
Moreover, there doesn’t seem to be many signals that the two sides will communicate soon. In addition, some alternative revenue streams appear to have opened for Embrace, which may or may not influence how or when the parties might resolve their disagreement.
In October 2020, the county cut an estimated $25,000 from its 2021 budget, which would have been used to pay for professional domestic abuse services provided by Embrace in Barron County.
The decision came after a September 2020 decision by the Embrace board of directors to issue a position paper (posted online) criticizing violence in all its forms, including the use of the term “police violence.” The statement also endorsed the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the May 2020 death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis.
After the position paper appeared, three Barron County representatives resigned their seats on the Embrace board of directors, including Stacey Frolik, director of the county Department of Health and Human Services director, and Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald.
Both officials later issued statements critical of the Embrace position paper.
Dave Willingham, president of the Embrace board of directors, said Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, that his organization has reached out to the county but has not had a response.
He said contact was made with “the county board chair and the Executive Committee. (Since) they are the ones that made the decision to withdraw the funding, we felt they’d be the most appropriate ones to talk to,” he added.
“We’ve made three overtures, at least, and have had no positive response,” Willingham said.
The loss of funding in the current budget isn’t the only financial concern for Embrace, Willingham added.
“This is also about an assumption that the money won’t be available in future years,” he said. “Our funding sources, state and federal, always want to see the public and local governments participating in the funding (received from state and federal levels). So, it hurts us as we see the local government” withdrawing its funds.
Willingham said the position paper was issued out of concern that “people of color are significantly less likely to seek help for domestic and/or sexual violence issues.”
He said the group seeks “to emphasize that we’re reaching out to communities of color, and (to) let them know Embrace is a safe place to seek help regardless of gender status, sexual orientation and minority status. You can’t just put a sign out that says everyone is welcome.”
The position paper seeks to emphasize that “there is a connection between all kinds of violence,” Willingham said.
Asked whether there were examples of police violence in the four counties served by Embrace, Willingham said, “it was not our purpose to suggest there were known incidents of police violence in any of our communities.
“If there were, we’d address it in other ways besides our position paper,” he added.
On Monday, Jan. 18, County Board Chair Louie Okey responded to a request for comment about why the Executive Committee hadn’t answered Embrace’s overtures.
“I had directed our Health and Human Services Department to contact Embrace and set up a meeting with (them) and our Sheriff’s Department,” Okey said in an email.
“Embrace has not been willing to meet with those two departments,” he added. “I feel this is an operational matter and not one that the executive committee needs to be involved in at this point in time.”
As for future funding, Embrace started a crowdfunding campaign last fall, soon after the County Board’s decision to cut its support. Willingham said the organization created a GoFundMe page to seek private donations.
According to a GoFundMe announcement by Embrace Executive Director Katie Bement, the organization had raised $101,376 toward a $112,500 goal in its GoFundMe drive as of the first week of January.
In addition, County Administrator Jeff French said Monday that he had advised Embrace to seek additional funding from Mayo Clinic Health System-Northland. On Jan. 11, Mayo Clinic Health System announced it had donated $4,000 to Embrace to assist with diversity-related training programs.
In the meantime, Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald has already met once with a 14-member “Citizen Advisory and Action Team” created in the aftermath of the disagreement with Embrace.
Announced in mid-December, the group includes the following members: Chris Allen, Thomas Bearheart, Anna DeMers, Colleen Erb, Dan Erickson, Heaven Hightower, Mary Hoeft, Clare Janty, ShariAnn Katterhagen, Sheena Mann, Peter Muschinske, Otieno Oduor, Nikki Thompson and Sue Zahrbock
On Monday, Jan. 18, Fitzgerald said the team is scheduled to meet with him next week.