Opens Arms forced to cut child prosecution team - WALB.com, Albany News, Weather, Sports

Opens Arms forced to cut child prosecution team

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February 20, 2006

Albany - The Dougherty District Attorney is scrambling for money to pay his assistants now that he's being cut off by Open Arms Incorporated. Opens Arms, which runs a child abuse shelter, pays the salaries of three D.A. employees who prosecute accused child abusers.

But the D.A.'s office and Open Arms have had a running feud. Now, Open Arms says it can no longer to afford to give the D.A. money for the salaries.

In August, Open Arms was taken off the list of approved providers for abused children because the agency was under investigation. That means they aren't getting state money and that could cost them more than one and a half million dollars over four years.

"It's just one of those unfortunate situations where a non-profit is faced right now with a budgetary crunch," said Open Arms Attorney W. T. Gamble, III. "And they're forced to make some decisions."

Attorney W. T. Gamble says that decision was cut the salaries of three D. A. staffers who prosecute child abuse cases.

"The unit has been tremendously successful," said District Attorney Ken Hodges. "It has not lost a single felony case."

That's why Hodges was shocked to get a letter Thursday afternoon from Opens Arms saying it  "...can no longer financially support the unit."

Opens Arms immediately dropped its three year contract with Dougherty County to pay for the salaries of prosecutor Christopher Cohilas, investigator Greg Blackmon and secretary Erika Antonia.

Hodges said, "It's a clear breach of contract."

Hodges says Opens Arms Executive Director Beth McKenzie should have told him the agency was in financial trouble months ago, so he could have found another way to pay the prosecution team.

"You can't just turn their jobs on and off like a faucet," said Hodges. "You have to give them notice, and you have to be professional."

Gamble says they thought the investigation would end quickly, the state money would be restored, and Open Arms could continue paying the prosecution team.

"Now we're realizing this is going to take a lot longer than we thought," said Gamble. "We're taking the best step we can, at the moment, to try keep Open Arms a viable, healthy organization."

Hodges is now asking county commissioners to pay for the team until at least December or in 30 days, the three will lose their job.

"I told them they should start looking for a job in order to cover themselves," said Hodges.

The County is demanding the financial records from Open Arms to prove the agency really can't afford to fulfill their contract. Commissioners say they will try to keep the Child Felony Prosecution Team intact because without them, children would suffer the most.

If the county has to come up with the money for these salaries, it would likely have to come from reserves.

For now, the agency is still sheltering abused children but it cannot perform some other services.

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