New executive director highlights changes at Domestic Violence Center

In some cases, change is good. But the Domestic Violence Center of Howard County is hoping its change in executive directors is the last one it will have for a while.

Jennifer Pollitt Hill, a 39-year-old Odenton resident, will take over as the DVC's new executive director on Feb. 21. The DVC Board of Directors hired Pollitt Hill to replace Annie Burton-Byrd, whose contract was terminated last year after allegations surfaced that she misused AmeriCorps volunteers in a previous position.

Burton-Byrd was one of three executive directors the DVC went through between 2010 and early 2011.

After the allegations about Burton-Byrd became known, some of the DVC's board members resigned. Six remained on the board long enough to appoint 11 new members before also resigning. The new board members were suggested by officials from the DVC's three major financial supporters — Howard County government, the Horizon Foundation and the Columbia Foundation.

The new board entered into a contract with Maryland Nonprofits, an association that provides resources and education for nonprofits, to help turn the DVC around. Under the contract, Maryland Nonprofits provided the center with Inga James as interim executive director.

"Over the last year in working with Maryland Nonprofits and Dr. James … we restored leadership stability and we took our time doing it," DVC board director Lara Weathersbee said in an interview this week. "And we made sure there was excellence in the services the Domestic Violence Center provides, keeping our clients in mind foremost before we turned our attention to hiring a new executive director."

The Domestic Violence Center, located in Columbia, was founded as a nonprofit in 1978 to provide services to Howard County residents impacted by intimate partner violence and sexual assault. Its services include 24-hour help lines, residential assistance, counseling, legal assistance, prevention education and awareness and an abuser intervention program.

In looking for an executive director, the board's six-member transition team worked with a search firm that Weathersbee said "focuses only on the hiring of executives and executive staffs for nonprofits." She said more than 70 people applied for the position, but the board only interviewed top candidates, which were selected by the search firm with the board's assistance.

"We feel confident that we've hired a great person in Jen," Weathersbee said. "We liked everything from her hands-on hospital victim service experience to the fact that she was the ED (executive director) for MCASA (Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault) … all of her work history in sexual assault services and domestic violence services."

Weathersbee said the board "conducted a full background investigation" on Pollitt Hill before hiring her. Pollitt Hill will be making slightly more than $90,000 a year and will oversee the center's more than 30 full-time and part-time employees.

"Some (employees) have come back who quit because of the leadership changes," Weathersbee noted.

'Work I'm very committed to'

After earning her master's degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania, Pollitt Hill went to work as a counselor at a rape crisis center. Ever since then, her career has been focused on helping women who have been victims of violence or sexual assault.

Pollitt Hill has spent the past three years working as a grants management specialist with the District of Columbia Office of Victim Services. Before that, she served as executive director at MCASA.

The executive director position at the DVC was a draw to Pollitt Hill because she saw it as a new way to combine her skills, having worked in leadership roles and at service centers, but not in a leadership role at a service center.

"It's work I'm very committed to, and I think Howard County is such a progressive county," she said. "There are so many community resources."

Pollitt Hill said she is familiar with the struggles the DVC went through in the past and is looking forward to moving the DVC forward.

"I hope to really build back the reputation of the center," she said. "I'm a very consistent and straight forward person. I think transparency and accountability are very important."

Asked if she has any ideas she wants to bring to DVC, Pollitt Hill said: "I'd love to see us do a little more work around community involvement in addressing anti-violence of women, including the role of men and boys."

She also said she wants to ensure the services the DVC is providing are available to everyone in Howard County.

"We'll certainly be looking to community partners to help inform us about what directions we should be going in," Pollitt Hill said.

The DVC is expected to make a number of other changes this year, Weathersbee said. The nonprofit will open a new safe house to replace its old, outdated one; on June 2, the DVC will hold its first Hope Gala in three years (the gala is a major fundraiser the nonprofit used to hold annually); and "sometime in the near future" the DVC will get a new name to reflect that the center not only provides domestic violence services but also sexual assault services.

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