Woman criticizes VOICe service
Client, director talk about crime victim agency
December 26, 2012
After becoming a victim of domestic abuse, Deanna Mellish wanted to overcome that hellish situation.
She turned to a Butler County nonprofit agency when its workers showed up at the emergency room after a March incident. However, Mellish said the Victim Outreach Intervention Center didn't do enough to help her. “I became a survivor on my own,” she said. Robert Marchese, executive director of VOICe, said he couldn't comment on any specific case, but could speak in general terms of providing service. He said VOICe helps every person who turns to the agency. “We never avoid a phone call,” Marchese said. But according to Mellish, VOICe hasn't returned four messages, including two to Marchese, she left regarding problems with the agency's service. Marchese said he's returned every message left for him, but there has been someone trying to reach him who doesn't leave a name and number. Mellish was part of a contingent of abuse victims and former VOICe employees who attended the county commissioners Nov. 28 meeting to express concerns about the agency. Earlier this year, she refused VOICe's offer to be housed in its shelter so she could maintain her independence. Although VOICe rents 27 apartments for abuse victims, Mellish said she was only offered an apartment in the same municipality where her abuser lived. Marchese pointed out all the apartments are in a limited geographic area, so the only option for housing in another part of the county is the shelter. VOICe gives assistance to abuse victims for the first month's rent or a security deposit. Down payments and mortgage payments on mobile homes and other permanent housing are ineligible. Mellish said VOICe did not tell her that her mobile home was not eligible for the program until after she had started to move in. She said VOICe staff previously told her there would be no problem. By the time Mellish was told the opposite was true, she had enrolled her daughter in a new school. Marchese said this is the first time he's heard about someone wanting assistance for a mobile home. “It's never come up,” he said. Mellish said she didn't receive any help for such necessities as electrical and furnace repairs to the home. “I practically begged and was told no,” she said. Her furnace wasn't turned on until mid-September. Marchese said VOICe provides financial aid for people relocating under allowable expenses, such as moving expenses and utility hookups. Mellish said VOICe's group therapy sessions, which cover addictions, also need improved because victims need to hear from others who have been in similar situations. “They ought to be well-rounded,” she said. “All of it can be tied together. You need answers.” Mellish pointed out everyone has been in different circumstances, whether it's emotional, psychological, substance or other type of abuse. She said victims sometimes need to be told they can't go back to their abusers. “I needed to hear from other people that he won't change,” Mellish said. “I know he was bad for me. He never cared how much he was hurting me in any way. But I needed support — someone to define things to me because I was still in love with him.” Marchese said VOICe's daily group sessions with counselors include abuse victims hearing from those who have been in their shoes. However, Mellish claims her counseling consisted of “and how does that make you feel.” She said that's not counseling. “It kills you inside when you still love the person, but they are like Jekyll and Hyde,” Mellish said. She criticized VOICe for not providing financial assistance for victims' divorces. Mellish used up all her money between housing and legal expenses. “I lost my retirement,” she said. “I'm broke.” Without financial assistance, Mellish said she is paying out of her own pocket for costs associated with escaping the abuse. “Where is the justice in that?” she asked. Marchese said VOICe has two attorneys and one paralegal, all of whom are tied up handling numerous protection from abuse requests. He said there isn't sufficient legal staff to handle prolonged divorce cases. However, the agency does provide legal advice to victims. Mellish said the one VOICe counselor who did help her is no longer employed there. “There's nobody there I would call,” she said about seeking anything other than legal advice. “She was the only one who did help me. She treated me like a person.” Marchese said VOICe won't turn away any victim who may return seeking help after refusing it earlier. Mellish stressed she only refused to stay in the shelter or one of the subsidized apartments. By enduring her ordeal, she hopes to be an example to her daughter and many other women. “I am a survivor,” Mellish said. Aleisha Hough of Butler, VOICe's former director of shelter services, spoke on behalf of the group at the Nov. 28 commissioners' meeting. Hough alleged some VOICe staff discriminates against clients and co-workers. Marchese said the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape monitor VOICe. The domestic violence group last visited VOICe a year ago, and the coalition against rape visited in 2010. “Both organizations have found the program in compliance with monitoring standards,” Marchese said. After Hough and others complained to the VOICe board of directors, Marchese's predecessor retired in September 2011. The VOICe board wasn't alone in hearing the allegations. “PCADV (domestic violence) has received and investigated the same complaints, which were not specific, and found no wrongdoing,” Marchese said. He stressed VOICe values inclusiveness and rejects any type of oppression. Hough said she wasn't surprised about the PCADV's findings. “That's the way bureaucracy works,” she said. “What is written on paper does not necessarily reflect how the information is gathered or the integrity of what is reported.” Hough said some VOICe employees do what is necessary to keep their jobs. “Perhaps one day, others will have the necessity and/or courage to speak their truth. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, 'An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.'” VOICe's critics maintain more changes should be made, including the removal of some remaining management staff. Marchese said since his tenure began this year, there has been oversight on all employees. “They're not sitting in offices,” he said. “They're all working managers.”