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Anti-abuse charity ‘desperate’ to go back on charities register

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The former Centre Against Abuse shelter in St George’s, which was purpose-built with a $2 million donation but closed after less than three years. It was sold for $1 million and is now a nursing home (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

A director of a struggling organisation for domestic abuse victims reportedly told a civil servant there would be a “front page” news story if it didn’t get its charitable status back.

Damon Wade, co-chair of the Centre Against Abuse, wrote in an e-mail to the Registry General last June [2021] that the organisation was “desperate to return to the charities register” after being removed at the end of 2018 for failing to file audited financial statements.

A week later, after the department’s compliance officer told him that CAA had submitted financials for the wrong year, he reportedly said the delay in reinstating the organisation to the register would “be on the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper”.

The conversation was detailed in an e-mail from the compliance officer to Registrar General Aubrey Pennyman and obtained by The Royal Gazette under a public access to information request.

CAA – which says its services are more vital than ever, due to a jump in domestic violence cases in the last four or five years – has yet to regain its charitable status.

But, according to its most recent financials, it received almost $270,000 in corporate donations and more than $32,000 in individual donations between April 2020 and March 2021. It had a temporary fundraising licence for just three of those 12 months.

CAA was required under the Charities Act to submit audited financials to the Charity Commissioners for the fiscal year 2016-17 because of the amount of its assets.

It failed to and so was removed from the charities register.

It then misunderstood the Registry General’s request for the statements and eventually filed them for 2017-18 instead, the year it sold its shelter for women and children.

What happened to the shelter?

The Centre Against Abuse’s purpose-built shelter for women and children on Slippery Hill, St George’s, opened in October 2011, thanks to a $2 million donation from the Campbell Charitable Trust.

It was described at the time by Laurie Shiell Smith – who earns $110,000 a year as CAA’s executive director – as “so vital to the community”.

The facility replaced a previous safe house and was double the size but it closed less than three years later, when CAA co-chair Lorna Dixon-Marable described the then-charity as being in a “critical economic mess”.

CAA told the Registry General in January 2017 it needed to sell the safe house to “allow us to pay off all our outstanding debts as well as have a cushion for future use”.

It said there was a “lack of demand for our safe house services”.

The property was sold for $1 million in July 2017 and is now a seniors’ nursing home.

CAA’s financial statements for 2017-18 appear to show that selling the house enabled it to pay off almost $650,000 in debt, leaving it with cashflow of more than $140,000.

But by the end of March 2021, its cashflow was just $14,363.

The compliance officer told Mr Pennyman that she explained the situation to Mr Wade, a former Progressive Labour Party chairman, during a telephone conversation on June 24 last year.

“I took some time to explain the thresholds that trigger audited financial statements,” she wrote.

“[Mr Wade] was understandably frustrated as he explained that it took them about a year to get the audited financials and they told the auditors that they will be paid once they are reinstated as a registered charity.

Damon Wade (Photograph by Anthony E. Wade/PinkSand Entertainment)

“He said that the charity might as well shut down because they cannot afford to have audited financials prepared again.”

The officer said she told him charities were expected to know what the Charities Act 2014 required of them, adding: “Again, he was understandably frustrated but then suggested that this would be on the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper and mentioned that they are the only charity who helps people dealing with domestic abuse and essentially suggested that the charity is being held up because of our requirements.”

CAA’s removal from the list of registered charities was not widely known or reported on until last month, when The Royal Gazetterevealed it received a $150,000 taxpayer-funded grant more than a year after being taken off the list because of a need for its “critical” services during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Government has pledged to provide it with another grant from the public purse, but will only pay out the funds once it regains its charitable status.

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Social Development and Seniors was unable to provide details of the grant.

The Charity Commissioners are still considering CAA’s application to be reinstated and the matter remained “under review” as of April 28.

An awareness panel, organised by Tinée Furbert, the Minister of Social Development, heard in February that the island had a high number of domestic violence incidents, accounting for about a third of the cases dealt with by the Department of Prosecutions.

CAA told the Gazettelast month it was the “only organisation in Bermuda that offers 24/7 assistance for victims of domestic abuse”.

The newspaper shared CAA’s latest financials, which warn of “significant doubt … over [its] ability to continue as a going concern”, with Ms Furbert.

We asked the minister if the Government had a contingency plan for domestic abuse victims if the organisation could not continue. There was no response by press time.

Charity campaigner Sheelagh Cooper said last night: “It is a terrible tragedy that an organisation that once served a critical need in our community has run into such serious difficulties.

“The result of that loss means that there is no longer a safe and secure haven for women escaping domestic violence; indeed there hasn’t been one for some considerable time. And especially when we have seen a marked increase in violence against women.

“This is entirely unacceptable and a very sad testament to the value we place on women’s lives.”

Sheelagh Cooper, chairwoman of Habitat for Humanity of Bermuda (File photograph)

Ms Cooper, the chairwoman of Habitat for Humanity, added: “If there is anyone out there that can offer a home rent-free that perhaps needs renovations, I’m sure we would be open to transforming it to fill this critical need.”

The Gazette has made repeated requests to CAA’s board to answer questions or be interviewed but co-chair and director Lorna Dixon-Marable said on Saturday: “Please be advised we are currently engaged in discussions with the relevant authorities. Any other public discourse on the matter is deemed inappropriate and unwise as it may negatively impact or undermine the process.”

A statement the board posted on Facebook on April 28 said: “ … CAA have been sound financial stewards of all donations by adhering to our internal policies and procedures, along with the requests of donors.”

Centre Against Abuse: financial snapshot

The latest financial statements filed by the Centre Against Abuse, shared by the Charity Commissioners under Pati, show it is mired in debt – despite selling its purpose-built safe house for women and children for $1 million in 2017 to raise funds.

The Centre owed $174,000 in pension payments to Argus, $80,797 in payroll tax and social insurance to the Government, and $31,883 in salaries, as of March 31, 2021.

Its liabilities totalled $313,951 but it had assets of only $66,113 – so a deficit of almost quarter of a million dollars.

Its expenses were $402,214 – with $163,138 of that on payroll and $175,388 on programme expenses. The organisation has one full-time and two part-time employees, as well as on-call counsellors.

The financial statements described the Centre as recording a “$60,340 net profit” for the 2020-21 fiscal year but stated: “The Centre does not have sufficient assets to meet its current obligations.

“Accordingly, significant doubt exists over the Centre’s ability to continue as a going concern. The Centre’s ability to continue as a going concern is dependent upon financial support from donors, the Government of Bermuda, and the community.”

The Gazette understands the debt to Argus has impacted two retired employees who were unable to access their pensions.

Peter Lozier, CEO for Argus Americas, said: “It is a company policy not to discuss the specifics of our clients.”

Peter Sousa, CEO of the Pension Commission, said it did not appear to have a pension plan registered in the name of the Centre Against Abuse and that CAA had "not been identified on its current delinquent employer list“.