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Originally published February 8, 2011 at 7:38 PM | Page modified February 9, 2011 at 12:22 PM

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City Council challenges change in domestic-violence program

The City Council wants to know why Seattle's Human Services director wants to eliminate the head of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Prevention and reassign the program.

Seattle Times staff reporter

When Dannette Smith was hired in June as the new director of Seattle's Human Services Department, she introduced herself as a change agent who could realize Mayor Mike McGinn's goal of streamlining government to make tax dollars go further.

But a reorganization Smith announced in January that eliminates the director of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Prevention, and places the program within a division dealing with a variety of social services, has touched off protests among longtime advocates for women and their supporters on the City Council.

"Domestic violence has been one of the council's priorities for years. We're not about to see it dismantled," said Councilmember Nick Licata, who chairs the council's human-services committee.

Licata has asked Smith to appear before his committee at 2 p.m. Wednesday to explain how the shake-up will improve services. Licata also questions whether Smith can restructure divisions within human services without council approval because the divisions are written into city code.

Smith, who previously ran county human services in the Atlanta area, said she found the Seattle Human Services Department divided into "silos" with directors who didn't collaborate or coordinate their work. She said the reorganization will provide more integrated services and better use data to determine if city-funded programs are changing lives.

She emphasized that no domestic-violence programs will be cut and the division's 2011 budget of $4.6 million won't change.

"This is about how a city, given an economic downturn and less money, provides more resources and spreads those resources deeper into the community," Smith said.

Debating "status quo"

McGinn supports Smith's reorganization. He said he's asked all of his directors to look for efficiencies and to select the best management team.

"When someone comes in and looks for ways to change things, there's bound to be people who complain. We can't be driven by defenders of the status quo," McGinn said.

In the case of domestic-violence programs, though, Seattle's "status quo" is among the best in the nation, say social-service advocates. They say the office has provided important leadership in developing programs and working with the police and courts to protect victims and prosecute batterers. Supporters also point to the $4.3 million in federal grants the office has won since 2006.

"Seattle-King County is known nationally for the innovation of our work and the quality of our services," said Lois Loontjens, executive director of New Beginnings, an agency that provides shelter, advocacy and support to domestic-violence victims and children. The agency will receive $564,000 this year in city funding, about 22 percent of its budget.

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"The goal of trying to eliminate silos is a good one, but it's not clear how this reorganization achieves that," Loontjens said.

The city's domestic-violence division doesn't provide direct services; rather, it contracts with nonprofit and social-service agencies. Over the past few years, the division has paid for prevention programs for teens; more services for women who don't speak English; emergency and transitional housing; and a new residential treatment program for sexually exploited youth.

Seattle police statistics show domestic-violence crimes have remained relatively constant over the past few years. Such crimes dropped 2 percent in 2010 over the previous year, to 2,740 cases, but those that were violent felony assaults rose 9 percent.

In King County Superior Court, where victims file legal papers to prevent harassment or unwanted contact, advocates last year helped almost 6,000 people obtain protection orders.

And advocates say the reported cases may represent a fraction of the problem. Last year, 32,069 calls relating to domestic violence came in to King County-area crisis lines.

Former Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr said the domestic-violence division provides crucial support to law enforcement and the courts.

"This is the one crime we deal with [in Seattle Municipal Court] that could become murder. It's such a pervasive and serious problem that having a division that just dealt with the one issue was really important," Carr said.

"Holistic approach"

Officials at United Way of King County say that although the results of the human-services reorganization won't be known for a while, it makes sense for the city to examine how it spends its social-service dollars.

"We have to take a more holistic approach as purse strings tighten," said Derek Wentorf, impact manager for United Way of King County, which partners with the city to fund many programs.

City Council President Richard Conlin noted that McGinn's proposed 2011 budget cut two of seven victim advocates in the Seattle Police Department, positions the council restored. Now the mayor's human-services director is cutting the domestic-violence director.

"If domestic violence is really a priority, why is it a continuing target?" he asked.

McGinn said he's looking for better ways to manage and organize all the work of the Human Services Department. "We are unwavering in our commitment to human services but also in our commitment to find the most efficient way to deliver those services."

Smith, who ran a domestic-violence shelter early in her 20-plus-year social-services career, said the issue will remain important in the reorganized department.

"I am as passionate about these services as the people who are angry at me," she said.

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com

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