An Unwanted Proposal

Loralee ’s (not her real name) two small children were screaming outside the locked door in their rented home in West Valley City. Her husband put a movie on his iPhone and slid it under the door to distract them before returning to sexually assault his 31-year-old pregnant wife. “I felt like he just unzipped his person suit,” she says. “He was a full-on monster.”

Loralee currently lives in a domestic violence shelter in Salt Lake City, with her three children, even as her in-name-only husband pursues her through family court for custody of their kids. She survived years of being physically and psychologically attacked, while also being raped repeatedly. In late spring 2016, he was charged with assault and domestic violence and was sentenced to 36 months probation in a plea deal.

Loralee is far from alone. One in 10 Utah adults reported some form of sexual assault in 2016, according to the Utah Department of Health. One in three Utah women will be subjected to intimate partner violence in their lifetimes.

Unfortunately, domestic violence and sexual assault nonprofits are also notorious for infighting. There’s lots to argue about: there’s never enough money, passionate staffers burn out and leave and agencies fight for the same small pool of state-administered federal funds. There’s been little love lost in recent years between the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition (UDVC) and the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault (UCASA.) Many fear that the needs of domestic violence victims are being sidelined by bureaucratic bickering.

Despite both agencies being called coalitions, only one—UDVC—actually represents a coalition, namely Utah’s 16 DV shelters. UDVC began life as a state-sponsored council, until it spun off in 1994 to apply for federal grants. While UDVC’s shelter members provide help and support for domestic violence survivors, the twenty-two year old, federally-funded UCASA focuses on training advocates, rural outreach and prevention programs.

UDVC and UCASA used to work closely together. But then the agency’s founding executive director Judy Kasten-Bell left, to be replaced by Jennifer Oxborrow.

UCASA was run by Alana Kindness until late 2016, when Turner Bitton, not quite 26, stepped into her shoes.

The state adored Bitton. He was dynamic, “a breath of fresh air, active and progressive in the things he did,” says Ned Searle, director of the state Office on Violence Against Women. Quick with a media quote and adept at social media, Bitton had shepherded the five-person nonprofit into the 21st century with a snazzy website that proclaimed UCASA’s commitment to advancing “a society in which sexual violence is not tolerated.”

Fast-forward to April 2018 and Bitton, along with an employee who had filed a complaint alleging an unsafe working environment, were put on paid administrative leave by the board. 

In the gossip-ridden world of advocating for sexual violence and domestic violence victims, the word was that the complaint about Bitton included allegations that were sexual in nature.

UCASA board secretary and Davis County Attorney juvenile prosecutor Kathi Sjoberg asked a colleague at Davis County, veteran investigator Craig Webb, to look at the complaint. As Webb interviewed staff, Bitton and a second employee abruptly resigned. Bitton won’t comment, except to say that “an internal conflict” arose at UCASA, “and given the nature of the work we do, I felt it best to move on.”

Former UCASA director Alana Kindness dismisses criticism that Bitton’s departure damaged UCASA. “The only damage it has done is the amount of time people outside of the agency have spent speculating on personnel issues within the agency,” she says.

As far as UCASA’s board was concerned, the two resignations resolved the matter. Davis County District Attorney Troy Rawlings did ask the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s office to screen the case for charges. But Sjoberg says it’s simply Rawlings being cautious.

The squabbling didn’t end there. Several weeks after Bitton’s departure, Oxborrow emailed UCASA’s board to discuss merging. There are 23 dual DV/sexual assault coalitions in the U.S. and Oxborrow has long argued that both nonprofits—and Utah DV survivors—would benefit from the two agencies joining forces. In the email, she highlighted the savings in terms of duplicated costs such as agency rent and salaries, and the benefits of the two agencies applying together for federal grants.

Sjoberg fired back an email threatening to sue. Any further attempts to contact board members “will be considered harassment and subject to legal action,” she emailed. This was not the first time UDVC officials had tried to talk mergers, Sjoberg says. “Our focus is to get a new executive director.”

Tensions between UCASA and UDVC mostly have to do with how money is distributed between the nonprofits, says Justin Boardman, an ex-sex crimes detective and former UCASA board member. The nonprofits compete for federal dollars in order to stay afloat. It’s a head-scratcher, he says, “Why the government can’t, or doesn’t, provide these services but instead funds these outside agencies to do it? Nobody is winning and that’s what’s frustrating.”

Some fear victims’ voices are all but lost in the endless squabbling, among them survivor Loralee. “I feel like the agencies are too busy getting into weird pissing matches and being politically-correct to do anything for people who really need their help,” she says.

A Six Year Argument

Would a merger of agencies help or hurt the cause of domestic violence victims?

Merger-supporters argue it opens the door to a consolidated political voice, applying for more grants and cost-savings.

“Combining our resources, or at least coordinating our use of these limited resources, is essential if we are going to prevent and address sexual and domestic violence in Utah,” UDVC’s Oxborrow wrote in her email to the UCASA board.

Rape Recovery Center’s executive director Mara Haight argues for a single agency focused on sexual violence, at a time of “increased survivor reporting and skyrocketing demands for healing services.”

UCASA’s former chief Kindness is adamant that separate coalitions are best. “Regardless of whether I think UDVC is reaching all DV survivors in Utah, I know they are not reaching all sexual assault survivors, which is why sexual assault needs devoted specific resources.” Former UCASA board member Justin Boardman favors bringing the two agencies together, if only for a trial period. “I think that having a united front is something to at least try for a while, so that we can work together for the money that’s out there.”


Stephen Dark
Stephen Dark
Stephen Dark is a freelance journalist who's worked in London, Buenos Aires and now Salt Lake City.

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