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Underfunded. Understaffed. Overlooked.
Local organizations working to help victims of domestic violence face a constant struggle
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Everyday at the Center for Nonviolence, John Beams runs up against evidence of why our society has its priorities all messed up. The case in point: our leaders have spent 200 billion dollars removing the leader of one country as part of a war on terrorism, when the prevention and treatment of domestic violence in America goes woefully under-funded and even ignored by most politicians. “It’s hard to live with these kind of priorities,” Beams says when I ask about the hardest part of the work at the Center for Nonviolence. “It’s hard to live in a world where rhetoric can redirect resources. You can pump up the fear of people so that they’ll pour billions of dollars into something where you don’t even have to do an outcome study to see if it’s effective. If the Center for Nonviolence gets $20,000 from a funder, we have to keep copious records on whether we’re helping people with that money. If not, we don’t get it.”
The Center for Nonviolence is one of several organizations in Fort Wayne working to increase awareness and help victims of domestic violence and abuse. They struggle against a seemingly chronic shortage of funds, public misunderstanding of the nature of domestic violence, and indifference from government officials.
Terri Noone, the director of the YWCA’s Women’s Shelter and Outreach program, says that Fort Wayne ranks “about average” in terms of national statistics on domestic violence. But it’s a shock to look at some of the numbers and realize that they constitute an average. In 2003, the YWCA’s domestic violence crisis line responded to 3,551 calls. In 2002, the Fort Wayne police department recorded more than 12,180 cases of domestic violence. These numbers, of course, reflect only the cases that were reported or recognized as domestic violence. “In Fort Wayne, I think we’re getting better at reporting it,” says Noone. “We’ve gotten better at recognizing that, say, an incident may technically have been a break-in, but that was because a batterer was stalking a victim, and so it’s reported as domestic violence.”
Three programs make up the YWCA’s domestic violence services — the Women’s Shelter, Outreach, and a self-sufficiency program. Terri Noone, who has been with the YWCA for 12 years, says the YWCA is there to provide options and support without judgment. “It’s safety first. We are not here to tell them what to do, we’re here to help them.”
The Women’s Shelter is an emergency, crisis intervention facility for victims of domestic violence. Victims are allowed to stay for 30 days. The address of the shelter is unpublished; people seeking shelter find contact information via the phone book, doctor’s offices, yellow safety cards passed out by police officers responding to domestic violence cases, and other outlets. “We have roughly over 20 clients at the shelter at any given time,” says Noone. “We’ve has as many as 50, and as few as eight. We’ve never turned away anybody. We’ve had, at times, people sleeping on couches. How many it holds, we’ve never truly reached our maximum. Some bring children.”
While there, they attend support groups for others staying in the shelter, and meet individually with one the shelter’s six client advocates The advocates help them set goals and find ways to remove whatever barriers exist that are preventing them from leaving an abusive relationship. This can include helping a victim re-establish contact with family or friends, accompanying the victim to a court date, childcare issues, or serving as a facilitator with local charity organizations. “Even if you’re employed full time, it can be expensive to literally rebuild your life in 30 days, and come up with deposits for the rent and utilities,” Noone says. “We are their support system while they’re staying in the shelter and we help them build a support system when they leave.”
Financial barriers, though huge, are only part of the problem. One of the main issues that advocates deal with is safety, which is why helping victims build a support system after they leave is essential. Noone says that violence can actually escalate once the victim breaks away from the relationship. “Even when somebody gets a protective order, that’s no guarantee. The most dangerous time in a victim’s life is after they leave a relationship. The abuse escalates, because the abuser feels they’ve lost control, and there’s still the fear of stalking.”
John and Beth Beams founded the Center for Nonviolence (which frequently works with the YWCA) to address the “other side” of the domestic violence issue, trying to change the behavior of men and women who are both victims of violence and perpetrators of violence. “We really describe what we do as education and support,” says Beth Beams. “We’re teaching people about victimization and oppression, and when you do that, you give them skills of critical thinking. When people can think critically, they can solve a lot of their own problems, much like the ‘teach a person to fish…’ story. Teach them to think, and you’d be amazed at what human beings can do, when someone helps them look at the bigger picture of culture and the system and oppression and how it works.”
The guiding principle across the curriculum of the Center for Nonviolence is that violence and abuse are learned behaviors, taught by a society that places too much emphasis on domination and power. “If you ask a group of kids, where did you learn this, they say TV, music, movies… and they know it, and to them it’s okay, that’s a good place to learn stuff,” John Beams says. “So the kind of knowledge men have about truth, about power-sharing, about equality, about non-violence, about compassion is constantly being impaired by this onslaught of mis-education.”
Most of the issues the Center for Nonviolence works with involve spousal or partner abuse. The programs are 29 weeks long, and the majority of the participants in the programs have been court-mandated to be there. Currently, there are about 200 men in the in-house program, and 60 women. The Center for Nonviolence also runs groups in other shelters and organizations in the area. “We really focus on family violence,” says John Beams in regard to the men who enter the program. “It’s not a generic anger control program, so we’re talking about relationships to our partners and our children.”
Many of the women who enter the program are there for the same reason — they’ve been arrested for some form of domestic abuse, usually fighting with their partner or their partner’s partner, though Beth Beams says that with the women the situation is usually a little more complicated. “What we find is that the crossover between victim and abuser is a fine line sometimes, and we see women who are predominantly victims, whose use of violence has been in self-defense, or in defense of kids, or out of desperation,” she explains. “We see a smaller percentage of women who have adapted violence as a way of defining themselves as having power.”
In fact, Beth says that the overwhelming majority of the women they work with have been victims of some form of violence or abuse, whether it’s psychological, emotional, physical, or all of the above. “We see everything from women who will tell you a story where you have trouble breathing after hearing it, to women who say ‘in my household, my dad was absent and my mother has a series of men, so there was never anyone that I could trust’,” she says. “So even though they’re all court-mandated to be here, there are different things that they need, and it’s one of the things we continue to work on trying to define: how do we address the needs of women, especially in the younger population, who have adopted much more of an attitude of ‘violence is one of the tools I have to use,’ as opposed to the women who say ‘violence is something I want to avoid and that I don’t use, unless I’m backed into a corner’?”
The Center for Nonviolence is a bi-lingual agency, and Beth Beams explains that all the issues that go along with being a victim of domestic violence are exacerbated for a non-English speaker unfamiliar with the culture and often without any family or support. “She can’t speak the language, she can’t drive a car, she can’t go to her child’s school and talk about why her child is having problems,” Beth says. “The whole range of obstacles that come with huge changes in your life and to the lives of your family are amplified.”
These organizations are kept afloat by donations, grants, fundraisers, and other assistance, but money is always a frustrating issue. As John Beams puts it, the nation can afford to write an unplanned check for billions; with a fraction of that money, these organizations could increase the kind of work they do exponentially.
“It doesn’t seem like this is a priority,” Terri Noone says. “The priority seems to be spending in other areas, yet this is something that effects one in five households. How can you not put money into that? I don’t begin to understand it. It may not be a pretty cause to give money to, but it’s a legal problem. It effects who is being incarcerated. Our tax dollars end up going to pay for people in prison for domestic violence. It effects so many things, yet so little attention is being placed on what a huge problem it is.”
Besides little resources, Terri Noone goes on to say that one of the toughest things she has to deal with is public perception of victims of domestic violence. Some people seem to resist understanding the obstacles that victims of domestic violence face in trying to rebuild their lives. Noone explains that none of it is clear-cut; that in addition to the financial and day-to-day problems that stop someone from leaving an abusive relationship, there are also the confused emotional feelings a victim might have about an abuser. They may have spent years with this person, they may have had children with this person, and they may even have had good times in between abusive episodes. The point is, there are dozens of feelings and issues that a person trying to leave an abusive relationship has to deal with, and some people just don’t want to hear it. “People want to blame the victim: ‘why didn’t they just leave?’” Noone says. “I don’t know if you can understand unless you’ve walked a mile in their shoes, or sat down and really spoke with victims. There’s a part of them that can love the abuser, but there’s a number of obstacles and the overwhelming fear that they can have in leaving. It’s just not that easy. I can understand if people don’t understand it, but the people that won’t even try to be empathetic can be really frustrating.”
For more information on the YWCA’s Domestic Violence Services call (260) 447-7233 or 1(800) 441-4073.
For more information on the Center for Nonviolence, call (260) 456-4112.