SPRING HILL – For parents, there are few words to describe the love we have for our children or how far we'll go to protect them from harm's way. Even in the worst of times, we try to do our best to shield them from trauma and evils of the world. For families seeking refuge from abusive relationships, a government funded shelter is often the only place they can turn to, but in Spring Hill, Florida, women say the local safe haven is a fraud and often more dangerous than their abusers.
Richeena Marty contacted R News before Christmas and complained about the same disturbing conditions that dozens of women have previously reported while living at Dawn Center, a taxpayer funded domestic violence shelter. Marty and her four children moved into Dawn Center in the fall of 2020 and lived there for over a year before being approved for a housing program that is supposed to pay for rent and utilities in their own home. In January 2022, Marty moved into her new home and began building a new, safer, life for her children. Marty says things were going great until just before Christmas. That's when Dawn Center supervisor Barbara Witherspoon-Venditto notified her that she was being kicked out of the program and would need to find a new place to live. Marty, who has children ranging from ages 4 to 15, was devastated by the news and did not know what she was going to do, just days before Christmas. The program is supposed to last between 18-24 months, according to Marty.
Marty tells R News that she was just getting her life back on track. She had started her own notary business and was trying to find full time employment that would accommodate her children's schedules. Marty says her ex pays child support when he can, but that it's inconsistent and not dependable.
When Marty asked for an explanation as to why she had been removed, Dawn Center officials claimed she had been a nuisance to the neighbors and had caused extensive damage to the home. Shocked by the allegations, and now suspicious of Dawn Center's motives, Marty asked her neighbor, her landlord, and even her former case worker with Healthy Families to provide a statement.
Marty's neighbor, Linda DeBusk writes, "I have never had an issue with her or her children. No late-night parties or annoying behavior. They have been excellent neighbors." Her landlord was also baffled by Dawn Center's accusations and said, "I never said anything about damage. Sounds like they are using us as an excuse." Kelly Wilson, a former Family Services Coordinator for Healthy Families wrote a scathing letter to Dawn Center that reads in part, "...Her home was always well-kept. At no point did I ever see damage to the home, overgrown grass, garbage, or anything that could potentially be a hazard." Wilson goes on to say, "When I heard of the allegations brought against her and the fact that she may have to find alternative housing during what Citrus County is experiencing as a housing "crisis," I was appalled." Wilson continues, "It seems there are ulterior motives from the outside looking in." And that's precisely what Marty was thinking - that Dawn Center may be committing some kind of federal fraud, involving transitional housing funds.
After receiving the troubling news, Marty began reflecting on things that she saw while living at the shelter. Marty, like the dozens of women and former employees who contacted R News after leaving Dawn Center, says the facility is "disgusting, unsanitary, dangerous, and not safe for children." Marty recalls finding roaches in the food, filthy bathrooms, and drug paraphernalia in the living quarters. One time, Marty says she found a bag of methamphetamine lying on the floor, but when she turned it over to shelter administrators, she was told not to say anything about it. Marty says they never report finding dangerous drugs in the facility to the Sheriff's Office. One of the most disturbing things she witnessed while at the facility was a 16-year-old boy masturbating in the living room in front of several young children. "Nothing was done about that either," says Marty.
I asked Marty why she never reported any of this to the authorities, and she said, "Because they threatened us and said that if we called the Sheriff's Office we would be kicked out of the shelter and put back on the street, where my ex could try to kill me again."
Marty says she reached out to R News after watching my [Tom Lemons] documentary BEHIND THE GATE. Marty says, "Everything you reported in that documentary is 100% true." Marty recalls an incident in October of 2021, when R News was reporting from a private property near Dawn Center and inadvertently captured Marty's vehicle as she drove by. Witherspoon-Venditto called 911 and reported that [I] was in the area and that I was a danger to the occupants. Deputies immediately responded to the facility and began investigating my presence. After clarifying that I was on private property and had permission to be there, the deputies left the area.
Marty says Witherspoon-Venditto demanded that she write a statement, claiming that she was in fear of my presence and that she didn't like that I took video of her car. Marty says Witherspoon-Venditto told her, "If you don't write this statement, you will not be accepted in the housing program." Again, in fear of not having a place for her children to live, Marty reluctantly provided the false statement. Marty hopes there is a record of that statement somewhere in her file.
It should be noted that Dawn Center filed a lawsuit against the former Real News Real Fast (RNRF), due to the release of Behind the Gate. They claim false statements were made by RNRF, but all the testimony provided in the film came from that of employees and former clients. Everything else presented in the film was researched and well-documented. The lawsuit has seen no activity since 2020 and will most likely be dismissed. In addition to the lawsuit, then-State Representative Blaise Ingoglia, who also served as a board member for Dawn Center, used his power to pass legislation, preventing R News from ever reporting on corruption or fraud involving domestic violence shelters.
It should also be noted that the ideology and legal standards used by Dawn Center and other certified DV shelters is based on then-Senator Joe Biden's Violence Against Women's Act (VAWA), which has a long history of gender-politics, discrimination, fraud, and a fast track to citizenship for undocumented immigrant women. I asked Ingoglia if he would investigate the numerous criminal allegations, but instead, he offered to give me $250,000 to stop reporting on Dawn Center. The bribe was declined.
Marty isn't the only woman to suspect fraudulent activity with Dawn Center. A friend of Marty's, who we'll refer to as "Diane," moved into the facility in August of 2020 and remained there for over 495 days. Diane says she was accepted into the program and moved into her home in November of 2021. Everything was fine until the 7th month and that's when her landlord stopped receiving the rent. Diane had just given birth when she moved into the home and was on maternity leave for several months. Because she was not working, Diane was unable to save money to pay rent that was suddenly due. Diane says when she asked why she was cut from the program, they told her they just ran out of money.
Diane echoed much of what Marty said about the issues with the shelter but also says women are routinely "shipped" to other shelters after their time runs out. R News discovered that Dawn Center is part of a national network of federally funded shelters that traffics women and children from shelter to shelter around the country. This practice helps keep beds filled, which is how each facility qualifies for millions in annual funding. Some say what Dawn Center is engaged in is nothing short of a state-sponsored human trafficking ring.
Another victim, Ashley Kennedy, also came forward to discuss her experience with Dawn Center and how they threw her out of the program just as she was ready to sign a lease. Kennedy says after Dawn Center received the funding for her home, they suddenly accused her of sexual harassment and told her to leave the facility within 72-hours. Dawn Center told her that because she asked another woman to "please wear a bra around my five-year-old son" that her statement constituted sexual harassment. "I believe there is an embezzlement scheme between Jennifer, Lana, Barbara (Three top administrators at Dawn Center), and the Director Shannon Sokolowski," says Kennedy. Marty, who sat in on the interview with Kennedy, interrupted and explained how she believes Dawn Center is "stealing" money. Marty explains, "I believe they're accepting us as victims and then once they receive the grant money, they make up false allegations to get rid of us."
Just last month, R News PUBLISHED A REPORT on a former Dawn Center employee who admitted that she and a co-worker forged hundreds of victim's signatures, so that Dawn Center would receive funding for transitional housing grants. Lisa Deitsch says she and co-worker Joe Burgos forged the documents at the direction of their supervisor, Barbara Witherspoon-Venditto. Coincidentally, Deitsch and Burgos worked at Dawn Center at the time that the three victims in this article were participants at Dawn Center. At the time of my interview with Deitsch, she was preparing to contact the FBI to "blow the whistle." It is unknown if the FBI is conducting an investigation into the allegations.
Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis and his top brass have ignored all complaints by former clients and employees, since my investigation began back in 2015. Nienhuis was President of Dawn Center's Board of Directors until the release of Behind the Gate, when he suddenly resigned.
Unfortunately, Marty and her four children will still have to vacate their home by the beginning of January. Marty says because of the short notice, she has no money saved to move into a new home right away. Marty asked R News to provide a link to a Gofundme that was established to help raise enough money for the deposits on a new home.
Adding insult to injury, Marty says Dawn Center promised to give her children presents for Christmas, but despite thousands of gifts stockpiled in a storage shed and a recent contribution by Walmart, Dawn Center only provided each one of her children with one small gift. It's unknown what happens to the massive donations that Dawn Center receives, but most women say the items remain locked away and are never handed out to families.
Thanks to our wonderful sponsors, R News was able to present the Marty family with $350 in gift cards to help make their Christmas a little brighter.
We want to give a special thanks to Fund & Grow (Spring Hill), Savages Bar & Grill (Brooksville), Dura Guard Paver Sealing (Spring Hill), Affordable Buildings (Brooksville), Rufus Roof & Home (Brooksville), and D & D Auto and More (Hudson).