COLUMBIA — A Columbia group that is raising money it says will help abused women and their children is coming under fire from advocates who question its methods and marketing.
Criticism of the Battered Mothers Resource Fund has increased in recent weeks as it began a fundraising campaign for a safe house for abused women and their children. The group also promotes a summer camp for inner-city children. However, neither program is operating, and the group owns no land for a ranch.
A fundraising flier faxed last week to Columbia businesses includes pictures of children on horseback and playing in a lake, along with pictures of a log-cabin ranch. Prospective donors are told: "The Freedom Ranch is owned and operated by Battered Mothers Resource Fund."
The Columbia Tribune reports that the fliers ask prospective donors to visit the group's Web site, which includes the statement: "Freedom Ranch of Missouri is a fully operational, working ranch, owned and operated by Battered Mothers Resource Fund, Inc. (BMRF) entirely for the betterment of battered mothers and their children."
Phillip Baney of Fulton, CEO of the resource fund, acknowledged that the group should have made it clearer that the ranch is only in the planning phase. He said statements suggesting otherwise were grammatical mistakes.
But he noted that the main page of the Web site prominently says, "Help Us Build the Freedom Ranch" and uses the future tense in discussing the project.
"We're not hiding the fact that it's not up and running yet," he said. "Not by any stretch of the imagination."
Directors of the Voluntary Action Center in Columbia and the Columbia Office of Community Services said they have heard complaints from prospective donors about the group.
Since its founding in 2004, the group has operated a 24-hour "crisis hot line" to refer battered women to shelters. Baney said the hot line refers women only to shelters that accept children.
The group recorded $10,873 in income in 2008 and $8,267 the year before. For 2005 and 2006, BMRF projected revenue of more than $25,000 each year, according to available federal filings.
Kelley Lucero, outreach coordinator for The Shelter for victims of domestic and sexual violence in Columbia, said she has never received a referral from the hot line.
"I think the whole thing is bogus," Lucero said. "I don't know for sure, but it doesn't feel right to me."
Lucero said she has reported the group to the Missouri attorney general's office, which confirmed that one complaint had been received.
Women's protection advocates also claim that BMRF scares women by telling them most shelters will separate them from their children. Baney insists that is accurate, claiming that thousands of women and children are turned away from shelters each year because few shelters accept children.
Lucero said no domestic violence shelters in Missouri separate mothers from children.
"If somebody saw that and that prevented them from seeking help at a shelter, that misinformation could kill somebody," she said.