Debra Faircloth

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The Shelter Model for Family Violence Victims and How it Works

by Debra Faircloth

Brief motel stays or family visits are the state's suggested cost-effective replacements for refuge in traditional domestic violence shelters.  These 'inexpensive' alternatives to costly shelter visits are the justification for cutting family violence funds by $998,000.

There are some problems with these proposed alternatives.  For one thing, you can pretty much forget about domestic violence victims staying with friends and families as a viable option.  One of the classic tactics in every abuser's playbook is to isolate his victim from friends and family early in the abusive relationship.  Abusers cut off their victims from rational, loving voices, from those voices that care enough to say, "I'm concerned for your safety.  I'm afraid for your life.  You don't deserve to be treated this way!"  In my 12-plus years of working in this field, I've run across many women who were not only cut off from friends and family; they were also prohibited from going to school or to work.  The goal is to make sure the victim has no access to any person who would affirm that victim's personhood and encourage her to free herself.  The core motive of family violence is never love; it's power and control.  When verbal abuse and emotional manipulation weaken, the abusers brings out the heavy artillery:  "I'll kill anyone who helps you."  So, to protect those she loves, the battered woman will not seek refuge in the homes of those close to her.  She'll sacrifice herself to save them.  She believes her perpetrator's threats.  After all, his battery of her has convinced her that he's capable of making good on them.

A few years ago in Monroe, a woman and her children chose to go to a family home rather than a family violence shelter.  Her abuser's father drove him to their address armed with a small arsenal.  Grandpa knew what would happen, but he facilitated the crime anyway.  The result:  this abuser shot and killed his wife, his mother-in-law, grievously wounded his father-in-law.  A courageous neighbor hurried the kids to safety or daddy would have killed them, too.  While a SWAT team gathered outside, the perpetrator shot himself.  This is not the plot of a made-for-TV movie; it happened in gory reality to a North Louisiana family.

Now, as for those cost-effective motel stays, there are a number of problems.  Motel staff are not trained in the dynamics of domestic violence.  In putting family violence victims in motels, the only virtue is that  they are--at least momentarily--out of the violent environment.  Everyone who works in a family violence shelter has 30 to 40 hours of specialized training each year so that they are kept abreast of cutting-edge thinking in the field.  More important, shelter employees willingly accept the potential risk.  In our state--a state always in the top 5 most lethal states for women--that's no small consideration.  Can the same be said of motel staff at even the best venues?  Staff aside, what about the safety of the other guests?  Neighbors in a shelter are coached on the value of confidentiality.  Will the couple in the next suite at a hotel have the same obligation to safety?

The word 'shelter' has a negative connotation.  The stereotypes surrounding 'shelter' often keep people away, but virtually every person who's left DART's shelter says, "I wish I'd not waited so long."  There are many fine family violence shelters in this state.  We all follow the same Quality Assurance Standards, but DART is the one I know best.  DART's shelter is more like a bed and breakfast than the stereotype of a shelter.  Each of the rooms is as pleasant as any solidly middle class home in Grant Parish.  Those rooms were painted and furnished by committed individuals and organizations.  For example, a women's church group painted one suite.  A grieving grandmother whose 3-year-old granddaughter was shot to death by the baby's daddy used her artistic talents to stencil and paint the decorations in common rooms and hallways.  She also donated a collection of vintage blue and white plates to dress up the dining room.

As I mentioned earlier, those of us who work in family violence don't just make up the rules as we go along.  We follow a document called Quality Assurance Standards, a document which has evolved over the years in meetings with seasoned frontline family violence workers.  A family is only eligible for a stay in a family violence shelter if they are afraid of someone they love.  No one comes to us because they want to; they only come because they need to.  Although our shelter looks like a pleasant middle class home in a pleasant middle class neighborhood, we have 24/7 staff and security systems to help us keep our families safe.  We are sensitive to their individual and cultural needs, and we offer unlimited work at no charge.  We know that finances often keep families from leaving abusive relationships.  We even the playing field by providing shelter services at no charge.  Women are guaranteed a minimum of six weeks.  Some leave sooner, but if the woman is working and saving money for her new apartment, then she can stay.  We give week by week extensions until the woman's goals are met or until it's safe enough to leave.

During a shelter stay, DART staff work with kids two hours a day.  Kids can learn to feel like kids again and moms can have two hours to think, plan, fill out job applications, or whatever they need to do.  They can also have an hour's counseling or participate in groups.  While in the battering relationship, the focus is on day-to-day survival.  Shelter gives a safe time-out. Women learn by living in the shelter with other victims that they are not alone, a feeling all too common to victims of family violence, and they begin to make the transition from victim to survivor.

That's what you get in a shelter--safety, security, counseling for yourself and your kids, assistance in meeting goals, learning job skills--all in a supportive environment.  What do you get in a motel stay?  Cable TV?

For help in Grant Parish, call 899-5296.