Mara H. Gottfried, with contributions by Dan Bauman
Saint Paul Pioneer Press
An 18-year-old looking to earn extra money for college responded to a job advertising “dancers needed.”
She didn’t know it was to work as a stripper.
“Stripping is a form of prostitution,” Vednita Carter learned. “It’s a stepping stone into that life.”
Carter said she got out after about a year, but other women she knew weren’t so lucky. She started Breaking Free, a nonprofit in St. Paul, nearly 20 years ago, vowing to help women and girls free themselves from prostitution.
It began on a shoestring budget, at a time when law enforcement and most people in society regarded prostitutes as criminals. Breaking Free worked to show they were victims of abuse and sexual exploitation. In recent years, politicians and civic leaders have rallied around the issue, and Breaking Free won more funding and expanded its mission.
And Carter’s star rose: Last year, she was named a CNN News Hero and the Bush Foundation gave Breaking Free an award.
In a life marked by extreme highs and lows, Carter, 61, and her life’s work now face new struggles. A group of former associates is questioning how Breaking Free uses public funding and how it works with victims. At least two donors have stepped away and St. Paul police started referring victims to other organizations.
Carter said this past week that Breaking Free has taken the allegations seriously and hired a consultant to investigate. Her organization has always spent its money as it was supposed to, and audits show that, she added. The group’s revenue more than quadrupled between fiscal years 2000 and 2013 — from about $450,000 to nearly $2 million, tax documents show.
From Carter’s standpoint, the growth is a result of women coming to them because they know Breaking Free can help. The organization says it works with at least 500 women a year.
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said he has no inside knowledge about Breaking Free but has perspective on the big picture. He remembers when the organization didn’t have much funding, yet it had staffers on the streets to help women. As the issue of sex-trafficking got more attention, Breaking Free’s profile grew.
“As a result of that growth, I think there were organizational management issues at Breaking Free that are now coming into play here,” Choi said.
A group of former employees set off the current scrutiny.
They wrote a letter in April to government agencies that have funded or worked with Breaking Free, detailing concerns about how victims were being treated and served, its adherence to laws and regulations, alleged “misuse of funds, property, and services and employment of family members,” and “staff misconduct and lack of training.” The letter also alleges that family members of Carter’s had lived or are living in Breaking Free housing. Carter said that is not the case.
Many of the 10 former employees, volunteers and a board member said they were concerned about speaking publicly because they didn’t want to harm the work that’s been done to help trafficking victims around the state, and because “Breaking Free has demonstrated a pattern of retaliation towards those who leave, speak out against, or are otherwise deemed to be ‘disloyal’ towards the organization,” they wrote, citing nine examples. Carter said such a claim was untrue.
Carter questioned how long the letter writers had worked at Breaking Free and whether any had direct knowledge about its finances. She said Breaking Free hasn’t seen a full copy of the allegations to properly respond and asked why the people behind the letter hadn’t sent it directly to the board.
She added that Breaking Free staff members receive regular training and most of the women they have worked with have been happy with them.
Carter responded to the allegations in a June letter to the Minnesota Department of Health and the state Office of Justice Programs, which have provided grants to Breaking Free.
“Breaking Free’s financial health is not at issue,” she wrote. “Thus it appears the stated concerns are more related to organizational and/or programmatic activity, policies and practices.”
The letter has made the rounds to other agencies as well.
At the St. Paul Police Department, where leaders had their own worries about Breaking Free, an assistant police chief forwarded the letter to the Minnesota attorney general’s office in June. The manager of the attorney general’s charities division then wrote to a dozen federal, state, city and county agencies, saying he was referring the information “for any review and action you deem appropriate.”
Some agencies, including the legislative auditor’s office, said they’re deciding their next steps. The complaint letter has also been forwarded to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which provides grants for Breaking Free housing. Agency representatives say they can’t confirm or deny whether they’re investigating.
Some donors have been re-evaluating their relationship with Breaking Free.
The Women’s Foundation and the Bush Foundation, which have both given money to Breaking Free in the past, decided to hold off until more is determined about the allegations. The Women’s Foundation had approved $25,000 in April to support Breaking Free’s housing but decided not to award the grant after seeing the complaint letter, said foundation President and CEO Lee Roper-Batker.
If Breaking Free wants to be considered for future funding, the Women’s Foundation has asked that, among other things, it expand how many people serve on the board and ensure they have training to improve management, Roper-Batker said. Breaking Free has responded that it’s working on those things.
Late last year, the Bush Foundation said it had selected Breaking Free as one of 10 winners of the Bush Prize for Community Innovation and awarded it $385,000.
When the Bush Foundation heard about the letter, Community Network Vice President Duchesne Drew and a staffer met with Carter and others from Breaking Free to tell them they were concerned, Drew said. “They said there was nothing to it, disgruntled employees,” he said.
The allegations led the Bush Foundation to examine the way it selects prize winners, Drew said, and they concluded they had properly vetted Breaking Free.
“They were doing tremendous work … and made a big contribution to the community over many years,” Drew said. “That being said, the allegations are still so troubling, we felt we needed to take a pause and see how everything settles out.”
At the Minnesota Department of Health, Breaking Free has been one of eight organizations with a grant to help sexually exploited youth find services. The department recently extended all, except Breaking Free’s, for two years.
The Health Department had conducted a Breaking Free site visit in June and was “satisfied with how they have used grant finances” and “found no evidence of financial irregularity or impropriety,” Mark Kinde, injury and violence prevention program director, and Lauren Ryan, who heads the Health Department program that helps sexually trafficked youths, wrote in June. But they said they were concerned that St. Paul police had stopped referring victims to Breaking Free.
“It is not fair, nor is it right, for us to potentially miss serving a number of children and youth,” Kinde and Ryan wrote.
Breaking Free received about $82,000 under the grant between April 2014 and June 2015. The Health Department extended Breaking Free’s contract through September, with a $21,000 grant, and put out a call for agencies that may be interested in applying for the next east metro grant, which starts in October.
Breaking Free won’t be applying because it has decided to focus on working with women, and not girls younger than 18, Carter said last week. Girls have made up less than 10 percent of its clients in the past five years, according to Breaking Free.
As Breaking Free has restructured, it laid off two staffers in June, Carter said. Neither had worked directly with victims, she said. Breaking Free had 22 employees in fiscal 2013 fiscal, according to a tax document filed annually.
In May, Carter told the Breaking Free board of directors that “layoffs and changes are necessary for several reasons, including the freezing of funds as a result of the letter,” according to meeting minutes.
RIFT WITH POLICE
When Breaking Free opened a shelter in St. Paul in October for teens who’d been sexually trafficked, St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith and County Attorney Choi were by Carter’s side. Both have prioritized investigating and prosecuting sex-trafficking and helping victims.
Then in February, Carter announced on Breaking Free’s public email distribution list that it would be closing Jerry’s Place in March. Within the police department and county attorney’s office, they were surprised about the lack of warning.
St. Paul police Cmdr. Robert Thomasser, who heads the police human-trafficking unit, discussed the announcement with Erica Schumacher, Choi’s director of strategic initiatives and community relations. Thomasser and Carter had been at a gathering of national anti-trafficking leaders the day before the email announcement, and “she didn’t say a word about it,” Thomasser wrote in an email.
“The irony is VC playing up our partnership and saying how much she values it and then sending something out in a general email like that,” Schumacher responded. “If we were true partners, she would have called both of our bosses out of respect.”
Carter said Thursday that she’s sorry if people regarded the announcement in that way. “That wasn’t it at all,” she said. “We’ve always respected their partnership.”
Police said a slew of events led to their relationship with Breaking Free deteriorating, but Carter said she thinks they stem from misunderstandings and she hopes it can be rebuilt.
From Thomasser’s standpoint, a contributing factor “might be the significant turnover of their internal staff,” he wrote in January to Assistant Chief Martinez, adding they’d heard “whistle blower type allegations about internal operations.”
When police find women engaging in prostitution, in many cases they don’t arrest them but refer them to get help with chemical dependency, housing and mental health, Thomasser wrote. One place had been Breaking Free, but police say they now refer them elsewhere.
Martinez summarized other concerns of Thomasser’s in a March email to Chief Smith.
— “Breaking Free expanded services without adequate funding or operational capacity, and may not have appropriately allocated resources,” pointing to Jerry’s Place, Martinez wrote.
Breaking Free has said it closed Jerry’s Place because it received less than half of its original funding request from the state to run the shelter, though a state agency has said that Breaking Free knew the amount of funding a year before Jerry’s Place opened. Carter also said Breaking Free had hoped to raise more money privately, but it was difficult because big donors wanted to see their money helping more than four people at a time, which is what the shelter was allowed to house.
— Martinez also wrote that “Breaking Free has been uncooperative with department investigations.” The organization wouldn’t provide locations of victims with whom police were trying to conduct follow-up interviews, he said.
Carter wrote in a letter to Smith and Choi, after they met in April about law enforcement concerns, that they’d been unaware law enforcement was having difficulty contacting women they’d referred to Breaking Free.
“It was also a bit confusing for us to hear that, due to this concern, officers were no longer making referrals to us, as when we returned to our offices after that meeting, a local law enforcement officer had just brought us two more women,” Carter wrote. “We want to continue to build bridges, not barriers, between Breaking Free and your agencies.”
— Another police concern: a belief that Breaking Free “does not provide structured services and programming with demonstrable goals or milestones” and “has been unable to provide adequate services related to financial skills, chemical dependency, mental health, housing, and criminal justice,” Martinez wrote.
Carter says there is high demand for Breaking Free’s services because of its work: as of June, it housed 60 women and children, hosted weekly support groups of more than 150 women and provided general services to more than 500 women and girls. She wrote to Smith and Choi in April that Breaking Free had been working with the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management to strengthen operations.
— Martinez also wrote that police were concerned that Breaking Free “has allowed program participants to continue to engage in illegal conduct,” saying some continued to post online ads for sexual services.
Carter responded last week: “We do discourage women, strongly, ‘Do not do that, this is what can happen.’ But if they do it, we shouldn’t be held accountable for their behaviors when they’re not with us.”
Breaking Free is not closing, Carter stressed in a public announcement last week.
Carter was promoted from executive director to founder/president and will be the face of the organization, Breaking Free also announced last week. Another staffer is serving as interim executive director, handling day-to-day operations.
Carter said her new position isn’t connected to the complaint letter. The board of directors had been discussing the change since at least 2013, meeting minutes show. The Women’s Foundation’s Roper-Batker said she’d previously suggested Carter make such a move “because of her great expertise and credibility in this field” and because of increased national demand for Carter’s time.
The need to help prostituted women isn’t going away, but neither are the allegations against Breaking Free, said County Attorney Choi.
“It sounds like Breaking Free is streamlining and Vednita taking a different role, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that these issues … go away for them,” he said. “I think that’s important for them to understand, but I think it could be a positive step for the organization and also for the progress that’s been made.”
Dan Bauman contributed to this report. Mara H. Gottfried can be reached at 651-228-5262. Follow her at twitter.com/MaraGottfried.