Two separate actions taken last week by the County of Barron, and Washburn County Law Enforcement, have resulted in decisions regarding the non-profit organization Embrace.

The first action was taken on Wednesday when the Barron County Executive Committee reached a decision that the County will discontinue its funding to Embrace in 2021.

The second action occurred on Thursday in which all Law Enforcement in Washburn County announced they have discontinued their partnership with Embrace effective immediately.

BARRON COUNTY

At a Barron County Executive Committee meeting on October 7, 2020, the Committee addressed an agenda item for review of Barron County’s contract with Embrace, to determine whether the contract should be continued, terminated, or modified.

The Executive Committee meeting minutes show that members entered into a closed session (pursuant to Section 19.85(1)(e) for the purpose of deliberating or negotiating purchase of public properties, investing public funds, or other specific business, or whenever competitive or bargaining reasons require a closed session). The committee emerged from the closed session and announced that Barron County would discontinue its funding of $25,000 to Embrace in 2021 and that the Barron County Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Director will resign from the Embrace Board of Directors.

DrydenWire.com reached out to the Executive Director of Embrace, Katie Bement, for comment on the Executive Committee’s decision and was provided with the following statement:

“Embrace received no notice or explanation from the Barron County Executive Committee on their decision. No opportunity to consult with us was provided, and no reasons for this decision were included in the minutes. The secrecy of their closed session is concerning, and we will be requesting the Executive Committee communicate with us and afford us due process to better understand what their issues are. Embrace has a standing record of offering survivors of domestic and sexual violence the highest quality advocacy and prevention services which is recognized and affirmed by our other funding sources. We are an innovative and recognized leader in the anti-violence movement in Wisconsin."

DrydenWire.com contacted the Barron County DHHS Director - who was present for the Committee meeting - for an explanation regarding this decision. Director Frolik responded with the following statement:

“Embrace has demonstrated their lack of support shown to local law enforcement and our concern with how that may impact their work with survivors of abuse. A public statement was released by the Embrace Executive Director and Board of Directors, condemning the work of law enforcement which contained information that has not been proven to be factual related to police brutality cases. Some of the board members raised concern about the language in the release and suggested the statement not even be released. There have been multiple communications between myself, and the Barron County Sheriff, Chris Fitzgerald with the Executive Director and other Board of Directors acknowledging issues of oppression and other social justice issues are important to our community. We want Embrace to support all victims and are concerned that the actions by the Executive Director could be seen as creating an environment that does not welcome everyone. Barron County entered into a working relationship with Embrace because of the good work they demonstrated supporting Survivors of Domestic and Sexual violence. We want to be confident  survivors of violence who reside in Barron County receive the best comprehensive services possible and that can not be done by excluding a very important partner in that response.” 

The public statement to which the Director refers can be read below:

The minutes for the Executive Committee meeting also stated that a decision was made to have the Barron County DHHS Director resign from the Embrace Board of Directors. Director Frolik provided the following response when we asked for the reason why:

“The reason for this resignation goes hand in hand with the rationale for no longer providing funding to Embrace. Barron County wants to ensure all survivors of violence to have access to support and advocacy services which does not seem to align with the values of Embrace at this time. We believe the best way to accomplish this and improve our systems is by working together to address the safety of all of our community members. We do not see value in alienating a very important partnership with law enforcement as a means to address oppression and other social justice issues.  We must all work together to ensure equity and safety.” 

Regarding the plans for the funds previously allocated for Embrace, Director Frolik said that the $25,000 was included in the 2021 DHHS budget “for Domestic Violence Victim Advocacy Services” and that this allocation will remain in the 2021 budget. “However, it will not be utilized to pay Embrace,” Frolik said. Adding, “No specific alternative plan has been created for the budgeted money at this time.”

As far as the Barron County Sheriff’s Department is concerned, Sheriff Fitzgerald stated to DrydenWire.com that they will no longer partner with Embrace on any project moving forward “due to their lack of support for law enforcement and due to the environment that they have created that may not be welcoming to all victims.” Sheriff Fitzgerald did confirm that they will continue to refer victims to Embrace “until an alternative program can be located to serve any and all victims in Barron County.”

WASHBURN COUNTY

In an email sent to Embrace and others on Thursday, October 8, 2020, with the subject line: “Notice of disassociation with the Embrace organization,” Washburn County Chief Deputy Nick Helstern - on behalf of the Sheriff’s Office and the four municipal Chiefs of Police in Washburn County - stated that all law enforcement agencies in Washburn County had withdrawn their partnership from Embrace.

Notice of disassociation with the Embrace organization

The purpose of this correspondence is to make it known that all law enforcement agencies in Washburn County have withdrawn their partnership from the Embrace organization. The law enforcement agencies include the Washburn County Sheriff’s Office, Shell Lake Police Department, Spooner Police Department, Minong Police Department, and the Birchwood Police Department. Any MOU’s [memorandum of understanding] previous that may have been agreed upon with Embrace by any of these mentioned law enforcement agencies are to be considered void. All law enforcement agencies of Washburn County have no ongoing affiliation with the Embrace organization.

In speaking only for the Washburn County Sheriff’s Office, Chief Deputy Helstern elaborated to DrydenWire.com that Sheriff’s Office felt that Embrace had “lost focus of the original mission of serving our domestic and sexual assault victims in Washburn County.”

Embrace’s Executive Director Katie Bement shared her concerns about Washburn County Law Enforcement's decision in a final statement:

“Washburn County law enforcement's decision to deny victims information to access Embrace's local services and resources may cause violations of victim rights laws in Wisconsin including the new Marsy's Law. These are constitutional rights victims have. The real concern here is how Barron County and law enforcement's decisions will impact domestic and sexual violence victims. These decisions reduce victims' immediate safety options after an incident which places victims' lives in jeopardy and increases the risk of domestic violence homicide in our communities. Their decisions create additional barriers in our communities that will cause victims to not know help and safety exists. These concerns ought to be the concerns of our community too. We are proud to collaborate with our law enforcement partners and our joint safety services are extremely effective for survivors. We hope partners will come to the table with us, commit to staying focused on the common ground we have and prioritize survivors--do what is best for them."

Washburn County Chief Deputy Nick Helstern pushed back on this and also provided a final statement:

"The accusations by the executive director of Embrace alleging that our refusal to associate with an inferior organization “may cause violations” of the constitution or Marsy’s Law is ridiculous! She knows that as well, and that is why the word “may” needed to be used. Our Sheriff’s Office has high expectations of anyone having access to a victim of crime. Embrace was unable or simply unwilling to meet those expectations. Embrace has proven that the agenda is no longer about victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Perhaps that is why so many are distancing themselves from the organization. The Sheriff’s Office is required to refer victims of domestic and sexual assault to advocacy, and victim services, and we transport victims as needed. Victims are advised of all their rights, and the services available to them. This has never changed! Embrace wants you to believe otherwise."

Embrace also provides its services for Rusk and Price counties. DrydenWire.com has not heard from either of those counties regarding if they have made any current changes or are planning on any future changes vis-a-vis their partnership with Embrace.

DrydenWire.com will continue to follow this story and post future updates if there are more developments.


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