End of an era
Domestic abuse shelter organization cuts its co-founder loose
Chatter from a hundred tables rose in the banquet room. It was the annual awards breakfast of the Committee to Aid Abused Women on April 28.
Many glances were thrown at a table in the back. There, Joni Kaiser sat with some friends as a steady stream of other acquaintances came by to talk to her. During previous years at this event, Kaiser had always been charging about the room making sure everything was happening right and on schedule. This time, though, she sat at a table and watched the event like the other attendees.
It was at this year’s breakfast that many of those in attendance learned the shocking news that the organization had kept quiet since February: Kaiser, the co-founder of CAAW, had been forced out as executive director by the board of directors after running the organization during its entire 34-year history.
“She is so classy to show up today,” said one attendee. “I wouldn’t have. I couldn’t have.”
Some traditional donors to CAAW’s finances were angry. “I just know they kept it quiet so that those of us who have been involved with CAAW for a long time would not be able to make our feelings known,” one said.
“I don’t know what to say,” said another. “CAAW and Joni are—when I think of one, I think of the other. I’ve never known it without her.”
That’s because it has never been without her. CAAW began in November 1977, its offices in the Sparks United Methodist Church and the state’s first abuse shelter a one-bedroom apartment. Kaiser was the executive director. From the distance of three decades, it’s difficult to describe how the culture has changed, but there were those who did not believe CAAW would succeed.
Initially, Kaiser tapped her contacts in what has been called the local Good Old Girls Network for financial backing to start the organization. Soon the organization was out of the church and had moved a few blocks north to office space on the second floor of the building that houses the Greenbrae Bowl. Over time, CAAW widened its fundraising reach, including into the Good Old Boys Network.
From there, CAAW moved to a residential building in downtown Sparks on 14th Street, a tree-lined site that was more welcoming to visitors. It was there for many years, during which some major domestic violence cases—such as the O.J. Simpson case—unfolded and helped increase both awareness and support. The apartment shelter gave way to a house, then two more houses, all used as shelters. Over the years, clients who were aided by CAAW kept in touch with Kaiser.
CAAW served both women and men, though most of its clients were women. Over the years, many abuse survivors worked for the group, and Kaiser assembled a number of staffs whose members’ skills took them on to other organizations.
Kaiser and her staff became involved in public policy, often advising state legislators on measures dealing with the subject of abuse and providing testimony at public hearings. In 1981, with assistance from CAAW, Washoe County Sen. Sue Wagner and lobbyist Jan Evans won enactment of a bill providing a portion of marriage license fees in the state to fund abuse programs. That didn’t relieve CAAW and other groups of the necessity of raising money, but it gave them a financial floor. The fundraising apparatus CAAW built over the years helped the organization move from 14th Street in Sparks to larger quarters in Reno and pay the mortgage off fairly rapidly.
CAAW began operating an office to aid applicants for temporary restraining orders and began operating out of Child Protective Services. Along with shelter housing, it started transitional housing.
Somewhere amid all of this, Kaiser found time to serve as a Sparks city councilmember, one of the few non-CAAW related things she let divert her attention. (Only after her firing did she begin sorting out the personal things that had belonged to her mother, local women’s leader Phyllis Kaiser, who died three years ago.)
Along the way, a men’s rights movement developed that criticized shelter programs and groups like CAAW. The movement quickly gave up that name and put women out front as spokespeople, but men’s rights remains what it is about. CAAW had to get better at telling its story, and did. CAAW participated in public education campaigns created by domestic abuse groups across the state and hired a public information person.
With its growing caseload, strong community base and fundraising skills, CAAW became something of a standard against which community groups were measured. In 2006, a group of women planning a new organization told a Reno Gazette-Journal reporter, “It will be something like CAAW or the Children’s Cabinet.”
The CAAW board of directors locked Kaiser out of the building without warning on Feb. 15 and put her on unpaid leave. Longtime CAAW employee Trish Evans was named to take Kaiser’s place, at least temporarily. Staff members were told not to talk with anyone about the matter. Kaiser was willing to talk about her work at CAAW but not her firing or the events leading up to it.
Subsequently, a session was scheduled to negotiate whatever the differences were between Kaiser and the board but failed to come off as the board moved ahead with its effort to get rid of her.
A severance resolution has apparently been reached, with Kaiser’s resignation part of the deal. “The board wanted a resignation,” said one person who knows some details of the case. “They did not want to take the heat for a firing. That’s what it is, though—a firing.”
The dispute between the board of directors and Kaiser was reportedly over a letter of complaint against Kaiser by two former employees, mother and daughter. The names of the former employees were not disclosed but are known by some staffers. “I may be wrong, but I don’t think Joni was ever permitted to read the letter,” said one person familiar with the case. One Kaiser associate points out that, over the years, some employees at CAAW have left for other jobs but eventually returned to CAAW to work for Kaiser again. That does not, she said, suggest that Kaiser is difficult to work for, whatever is in the letter.
Some sources say they have reason to believe that Kaiser’s fate was decided by the board without her being confronted with the charges against her. Only after that decision was made by the board, they say, was Kaiser given information on what caused it. The board was not unanimous on the decision. Other sources say a dispute between a member of the board with a real estate background and Kaiser over whether to keep or sell a shelter site may have fueled the board’s action. Kaiser declined to deny or confirm any of this, if she knows. CAAW board of directors chair Sharon Gibbons declined comment and responded to several questions with the same sentence: “Joni resigned on April 15 to pursue other interests, and that’s all I can tell you.” She asked to make a general comment: “I think very highly of Joni Kaiser, as does the rest of the board.”
Kaiser has no plans for what to do next with her life. Her friends say she regrets the directors were not more aboveboard about the matter, so there could have been a smoother transition. They say if the board had come to her to talk about her leaving, she could have made plans to brief and train the people who were to take over, making sure they knew everything they needed to know.
The CAAW website reads, “Additionally, CAAW has been guided since its inception by executive director Joni Kaiser. Joni’s vision and foresight have garnered her many awards as well.” Kaiser is in the Nevada Women’s Hall of Fame and was named woman of the year by Business and Professional Women.
At the CAAW award breakfast last month, some contributors who were hearing the news for the first time found the breakfast difficult to digest. One source of regular and large contributions to CAAW said, “My support for domestic abuse programs has nothing to do with the people who run the agency. I’ll continue to give. But at the same time, CAAW is not the only game in town anymore, and unless I become satisfied in my own mind about how Joni’s case was handled, I may switch my donations to Safe Embrace.” Safe Embrace is a local anti-abuse organization with a more religious orientation.
One Clark County state legislator who heard about the news on the afternoon of the breakfast said, “How is that possible?”
There were brief moments at Kaiser’s table during the awards breakfast when her eyes glistened, but mostly she kept her composure and laughed and joked with the people who kept coming by to hug her.
Though not willing to comment on her firing, Kaiser did talk about starting CAAW. “I think that we certainly showed that women could do something as a private non-profit. People were very skeptical about whether or not that was going to happen. And so I think we could show that women could be leaders and could make a difference in the community.”