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Unsafe at Home: Shelters first step on path away from abuse

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

When JoAnne Patterson first laid eyes on Holly, the young woman was literally black and blue all over.

“I couldn’t even tell her ethnicity, because the bruising was so bad,” recalled Patterson, director of Citizens Against Spouse Abuse.

Holly had just been discharged from the hospital after being repeatedly and viciously stomped on by her boyfriend.

She is one of the thousands of victims of domestic violence who have sought shelter at one of the two safe houses CASA runs.

The group contacted Holly’s mother, who flew in from out of state to retrieve her daughter. Patterson remembers trying to prepare the woman about the condition of her child, but it’s almost impossible, she said.

Despite the horror of what happened to Holly, as domestic violence victims go, she may have been one of the lucky ones.

“Her mom scooped her up and took her home to make sure she got counseling,” Patterson said.

Others don’t have anyone to turn to except agencies such as CASA. Their abusers have forced them to cut ties with family and friends.

Not all of CASA’s clients stay in a safe house. Some only get counseling or other services from the agency. But Patterson estimates about 400 people a year seek refuge at CASA’s safe house in Horry County. A smaller one in Georgetown County shelters around 250 people annually. Roughly 75 percent are young children and teens who accompany abused mothers.

“We don’t house men,” Patterson said, though men are victims of domestic violence more often than most people would expect. (Related story, Page 6.) “If we have a man who needs a safe place to stay, we’ll make other arrangements.”

But most of the men CASA works with don’t need that kind of help.

Some women who seek shelter at the safe houses are there for only a few hours. They wait until an court order of protection comes through and they feel safe going back to their own homes.

The average stay is two weeks to a month, but some are in residence much longer.

“People come in and stay until they get what they need,” Patterson said.

The safe house in Horry County was quiet on a recent Friday morning with all the residents out for the day, but it’s usually full of activity. It can accommodate up to 23 people, but “we don’t like to have more than 16 or 17,” Patterson said. “It gets too stressful for everybody.”

The house looks like an average home from the outside. Inside it’s a bit cluttered, with offices and living space sharing the bottom floor. Yet it feels welcoming with food cooking in the kitchen and staff members, all decked in purple, the color designated for domestic violence awareness, sharing coffee around the table.

There’s a playroom downstairs filled with toys and a common room with a TV and bookcases. Walls painted in a sunny yellow and accented with cheerful artwork are intended to lift the spirits of people who have left their homes and all that is familiar.

But for all the staff does to make the house comfortable, “it’s not easy living here and we always make sure people know that,” Patterson said.

While residents are allowed to come and go, shelters have “safe hours” and everyone is expected to be back inside at a designated time.

“If somebody is coming to the safe house, the criteria is real or perceived danger. We have to ensure their safety while they’re here, so they can go wherever they want, but we need to know where they’re going and what they’re wearing,” Patterson said.

“It’s difficult for grown women when all of a sudden they feel like they’ve got mama saying ‘Where are you going? Who’s going to be there? You’ve got to clean the toilet before you go.’ If I had a nickel for every time someone told me I was as controlling as their abuser, I’d be a rich woman.”

Those living at the safe house are assigned chores they have to complete and if they have children, they have to monitor them and keep them under control, and without spanking or any kind of physical punishment. Parents and children also have to be on the same floor at all times.

“It can be really stressful,” Patterson said. “Within about a month, people generally become really frustrated with this living arrangement. We try to get everybody placed.”

But inevitably, some victims go back to their abusers before that can happen.

“Meaningful life changes don’t happen in a month,” Patterson said.

The women who stay in CASA safe houses don’t have many resources. Often they haven’t worked and don’t have a car.

Abusers frequently keep their victims from working or going to school in an effort to keep them dependent. While programs are in place to help, including transitional housing, it’s a long and difficult road from there to a place where the victim is able to support themselves.

“The hardest part is getting well,” Patterson said. “There’s this process they’ve gone through, a continual destroying of self-esteem, and to not go back, it takes a huge amount of strength.”

People often can’t imagine why a woman would go back to someone who abuses her, but there are many things to be taken into consideration, said Debra Rodgers, a counselor with CASA. It’s not just her abuser she has left behind.

“You’ve lived in a house you’ve made your home — a place where you’re comfortable and your kids are comfortable,” Rodgers said. “Your family says just pack up your stuff and leave, but a lot of women say, ‘why do I need to give up my home for him. He’s the one who should be leaving,’ but state law is not designed that way. If she stays, she may get beat up every day, but she thinks, ‘at least my kids are at home, near their family and with their own beds and toys.’ ”

Beyond that, many victims still love their abusers. They try to become what their abuser wants them to be, hoping that will bring back the person they fell in love with, that the abuse will stop.

“She thinks ‘maybe he won’t be mad at me if the whole house is clean and dinner’s on the table,’ ” Rodgers said. “But it doesn’t work that way. With a man who beats you, you can have all that stuff done and he will find a reason to beat you. These women lose themselves in all of this. They make all these changes and sacrifices, and it doesn’t change who he is.”

On average, domestic violence victims leave their abuser seven to 11 times before “it sticks” or they are murdered by their abuser, Patterson said.

“There are times when early intervention can keep families from disintegrating, but you don’t see it very often. Personally, I’ve yet to see it.”

The staff at CASA is resigned to the fact that some victims will go back to their abuser.

While it’s not the outcome they hope for, they’re understanding of the reasons and try to get those victims to be honest with them about their plans.

“We see a lot who suddenly say they’re going to stay with their sister or something,” Patterson said. “Well, if they had a sister they could have gone and stayed with, they probably would have done that before. They think we’re going to be mad with them for going back. That’s why a lot of them won’t call us back. They feel like they’ve been dishonest with us.”

Even if victims choose to go back to their abuser, CASA is willing to keep working with them and encourages them to keep coming to counseling.

The location of the safe houses is kept secret. New residents usually arrive with a police escort to make sure they aren’t followed.

And of course, there’s a security system in place and cameras positioned to spot anyone who might be lurking outside because the safe houses aren’t impossible to find. Patterson recalled one woman whose husband put a tracking device on the woman’s car.

“I’ve been scared staying here a couple of times,” Patterson said. “We’ve had abusers come bang on the door wanting their wives and kids. It is real scary.”

In cases where it appears victims may not be able to be protected while they’re still in the area, CASA uses partnerships with other victims groups to find shelter some place else, often in another state.

Patterson said she realizes the difficulty of what CASA and similar agencies encourage victims to do.

“We reach out and ask them to become homeless, then expect them to get well,” she said.

There’s no question it’s asking a lot. But for those women who find the courage, she wants them to know there is help and they don’t have to do it alone.

To read previous stories in the series, click here.

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