THE FOREMOST domestic violence agency in South King County is falling apart, and no one in charge is doing anything to save it.

Domestic Assault Women's Network runs a confidential shelter and provides legal and emotional support to victims of abuse. The 20-year-old nonprofit agency is funded in part by grants totaling more than $1 million from cities south of Seattle, including Renton, Kent, SeaTac, and several others, all of which rely on its services.

Since November, however, the board heading up DAWN has been flooded with letters from angry employees. Former staffers complain that the new head of the agency, Ina Percival, has abandoned the agency's social service philosophy for an "efficient" corporate approach. They say things like stretching funding and centralizing services have hurt DAWN. Percival, for example, decided to have administrative personnel -- who usually don't work with victims of abuse -- take over direct services, former employees say. Since October, at least 11 people have written letters blasting DAWN's executive director.

The seven-member board has the power to change things at DAWN, but instead they've voted to ignore the letters. One board member has resigned over the board's inaction. Meanwhile, cities that fund the agency are threatening to drop out and the employee turnover rate has climbed to nearly 100 percent.

"I am writing this letter because I am committed to DAWN and the women we serve," wrote Jennifer Hagander-Luanava, an employee who had resigned a month earlier. "I recently made the extremely difficult decision to leave my position at DAWN.... My decision to leave was the result of watching an agency I care about beginning to crumble."

DAWN's turnover rate has been high for more than a year. Staff members started to resign from the shelter and Community Advocacy Program last fall, a few months after the board hired Percival as its executive director. When Percival fired the five community advocates two weeks ago, she left only one to do the job of seven. The remaining advocate, who hadn't written to the board, quit last week.

The first warning sign that things weren't right was a letter the board received in November -- which wasn't from an employee at all, but from Karen Wood, who works for the city of SeaTac. Wood helps the city dole out funds to non-profits. She wrote the letter because she was concerned about the rash of resignations. She wondered how DAWN could help victims of domestic abuse without staff. "I think it's just a crying shame that they were fired.... I'm just outraged." Wood adds that SeaTac, which currently contracts with DAWN, is now considering funding a different agency.

Percival insists that the changes she's made are part of an intentional transition from a small, grassroots group to a large, efficient organization. She boasts that the annual budget has grown from $1.2 million to $1.8 million under her direction. Despite the drastic decrease in staff, she says DAWN is better able to serve clients now, and charges that the employees who left simply couldn't handle change. "We're in really great shape," Percival says. She denies responsibility for driving out her entire community advocacy staff.

The board stands behind Percival, and voted not to investigate employees' complaints. Board President Barbara Balla says, "We looked at the letters, as a board, and really there was no factual evidence that would point to the executive director [for the turnover]." The board is moving on. Balla told Lora Canary, the board member who resigned, not to talk to employees or do any further investigation of complaints.

While the board is moving on, former employees are fuming. Complaints fall into two general categories: First they accuse Percival of being a terrible manager; more importantly, they say her corporate mindset has muddled DAWN's mission.

The slew of letters offers up a consistent indictment of DAWN. They're mostly from frustrated advocates who've spent up to eight years building relationships with clients, as well as other professionals in the legal and social services system. DAWN's former advocates are versed in helping victims of abuse negotiate what is often an intimidating and complex bureaucracy, so they can safely escape their abusers. These experienced service providers complain that they weren't given raises in over a year, despite excellent job evaluations; they were denied vital training which was offered in the past; and their input was shut out. The biggest complaint the angry employees have is that Percival changed DAWN's services without talking to either the people who provide them or receive them.

One former employee, who asked not to be identified because of Percival's threats to sue, sent a letter to Board Member Dawn DiAgostino in November. "Ina makes it clear in word and in deed that she is the ultimate authority and has the power to fire you if you disagree with her," the former community advocate wrote. "Most of the staff members that I have spoken with are, at least, intimidated by Ina and, at most, fearful of her. In all staff meetings, Ina takes control of every discussion until she is the only one talking, leaving staff feeling like there was no reason to be in the room."

But these complaints fell on deaf ears. In fact, Percival fired five employees who spoke up. Percival wouldn't comment on the letters or on personnel matters.

Kathy Jeffrey is one of the former DAWN community advocates who was fired on December 2. She worked there for eight years, and had recently decided to quit because she felt her work as an advocate -- connecting battered women and children with attorneys, social workers, police, doctors, and other resources -- was no longer appreciated by her boss. But Percival didn't give her a chance to quit. She fired Jeffrey and four others, and had the human resources director walk them out of the building.

With the board unwilling to step in, Percival can continue to run DAWN unfettered by employee participation.

"I have a lot of concerns about services being lost if there physically are not enough people to do the work," says Sara Slater, the former program director, who resigned in September.

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