By: Rick Marschall
John Gleason’s “Vital Records For Victims” Initiative
Rescuing Victims Of Abuse From Being Victimized A Second Time
Every story in the news has a “back story,” or a sub-text. Sometimes these escape our notice. Sometimes they are more convenient, more comfortable, for us to ignore. But that does not make them go away.
An inconvenient and awful fact is that many of society’s “forgotten” people—the under-served, the poor, the abused— suffer multiple and needless privations. In the cases of abused women, for instance, beyond the crimes and injuries they endure, life seems stacked against them in additional ways.
More than the obvious horrors of physical injuries and emotional scars, many of these women don’t know where to turn when they need somewhere to turn. Many of them need to find help when they cannot find help. Many of them hear that services possibly are available to them… but they face a system that requires papers, information and documentation that they simply cannot provide…or, worse yet, paperwork they cannot manage to track down, or afford to process.
In literature, this nightmare scenario was addressed by novelist Franz Kafka. The modern age’s Bureaucratic State, where the System designed to help people has grown so complicated and soulless that it is either numb, or cruelly indifferent, to the people it was designed to serve.
This problem is virtually predictable in Big Government, and falls particularly hardest on the poor, the clueless, the abused citizens of society’s underbelly. It is everywhere in America, no less than elsewhere in the world. In advanced states like Michigan? In cities like Flint, where the city’s challenges are many, but where agencies work hard to address them? Yes, of course. But where the Water Crisis attracts the world’s attention, and urban renewal advances through public and private partnerships…there still are the many “back stories” and sub-texts of a population facing urgent challenges. Behind unemployment and poverty and health crises, there is the plight of the abused.
Enter John Gleason, the Genesee County Clerk / Register of Deeds. A former Michigan State Representative and State Senator, Gleason, from his office in the County Courthouse on Saginaw Street in Flint, became aware that many abused women in distress had no paperwork with which to apply for assistance. Or they left documentation behind when they escaped threatening situations. Or they could not manage the transportation nor afford the costs of establishing new lives through applications and assistance. Piles of paperwork.
Gleason was moved by the gap between government aid and the ability, or inability, of many victims of abuse to gain access. “Victims of abuse should not also be victims of government inaction!” Gleason said.
He realized that documentation, as simple as IDs, are more than plastic cards for the wallet. “People need IDs to enroll at shelters and apply for many programs,” he said. “You need identification to get a driver’s license, or the standard state ID card.”
IDs to obtain IDs? That is the system, and when we realize this fact, the challenges become clearer. “Think of it—food stamps, bus passes…” Gleason lists all the necessities of life, and the necessities of documentation, compounded when women don’t know where to turn, or are intimidated to enter the imposing Courthouse building or cannot afford to file the applications. In addition to the everyday requirements of IDs, many abused people seek Personal Protection Orders (PPO)…or have to begin the paperwork necessary to enroll in the city’s YWCA shelter and programs.
“The County Board of Commissioners set fees of $25 a document, when the actual processing cost is maybe $10,” Gleason explained. “When you live in poverty and worry about your next meal, $25, maybe a few times over, can be a lot of money.” His office is where citizens go for birth certificates, marriage and other records. Sensitive to what he regards as onerous burdens on the poor, Gleason has a sign in his office stating “The Board of Commissioners Sets the Fees.”
At the time when Gleason became aware of the plight of the under-served in these challenges, and while he was helping teach a Marketing class at Mott Community College, he met Heidi McAra, CEO of the Flint YWCA, who had established a shelter for abused and vulnerable women. They became natural allies, seeking a solution to this problem
Enter another player—Gleason’s talented and resourceful assistant, Leslie Raleigh, Genesee County Chief Deputy Clerk.
Accessing a new federal program, a grant of $12,500 through the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA), enabled the County to cover the cost of documents for the victims. Further, other forms of support, including referrals to other resources, are now provided.
The County Clerk’s office now tracks all data essential to the provision of benefits
and continuation of its Vital Records for Victims program. Much of the actual paperwork is done at the YWCA—freeing women from having to report to the stone monolith on Saginaw Street.
The Victims of Crime Act grant comes from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, whose current Secretary is Alex Azar. Gleason estimates that more than two-thirds of Flint residents who find shelter at the YWCA lack basic documentation like birth certificates and marriage licenses. That is why his office and the YWCA, plus the Genesee County NOW and the Genesee County Human Trafficking Task Force, worked on the grant
and administer the assistance. The grant is enough to pay for 500 documents.
Gleason’s concerns, and the sense of compassion and urgency he displays, are better understood when one realizes the enormity of this particular crisis. This “back story” is explained by numbers… surprising numbers.
In the most recent reporting period, the Genesee County Clerk’s Office recorded 1,712 cases of abuse and sexual assault; 1,274 women and 438 men. That is one county, one year, one variety of crime.
Even more surprising is that Genesee County is the only county in the state that has arranged this common sense, and relatively simple, program to assist the abused and vulnerable. “My greatest hope is that all 83 counties in Michigan will learn from what we are doing to help victims of these crimes,” Gleason said Yet still more surprising—and a tribute to the foresight of the County Clerk’s Office and the collaboration of the YWCA—is that “we were the only county in the whole country doing this. At a bare minimum, this model of collaboration should be implemented in every major city in the nation.”
Another facilitator, a literal go-between who assists victims in both the County Clerk’s office and the YWCA, is the Y’s Victim Advocate. She can be found most times at the PPO Desk in Gleason’s office, answering questions and helping with paperwork. Her on-site, face-to-face counsel is invaluable, said Gleason. “Kathy points people to what they need, where they should go, what they have to do.” She writes for those who feel challenged by forms, assigns translators for those who have problems with English, and she finds facilitators for the hearing-impaired. And she often represents people and cases
before the appropriate courts.
To make this all work, including the necessary interfacing with courts and law enforcement, has been the work of John Gleason and the County Clerk’s office. “I have been in government service for 25 years,” he said, “in various offices”.
He is modest, but humbly proud— grateful to be in a position to help so many people with so many needs, and able to creatively pull so many resources, people and programs together.
What is next along this path? Gleason hopes to grow the program; he speaks to his counterparts across the state and nationally; he oversees the annual validation and renewals. “I want to publicize how this works for Genesee County,” he said. “I want this initiative to be a template for national action.” And Gleason’s work will be a major story, not a “back story”…the major text, so to speak, and not a sub-text, of reforms in the vital
areas of abuse and neglect in our midst.
John J. Gleason
Genesee County Clerk / Register of Deeds
900 S. Saginaw St., Flint, MI 48502
YWCA of Greater Flint’s Domestic Violence
& Sexual Assault Services
801 S. Saginaw St., Flint, MI 48501
24-HOUR CRISIS LINE: 810.238.7233