When dinner was late, he threw her against the wall. Looking at her scared children, she vowed that this time she would leave. She didn’t want him in jail, but she wasn’t safe at home with him. At the same time, she wasn’t sure she could leave – she had nowhere else to go and no resources to get a place of her own.
This is one survivor’s true story, but it is tragically common. The countless stories emerging from the #metoo movement continue to remind us that relationships can be disturbing and abusive, but also that help exists.
Since the beginning of 2019, Response, a local nonprofit working to prevent abuse and help survivors of domestic and sexual abuse, has already assisted 70 survivors in the Roaring Fork Valley.
“Survivors do not come from any one demographic, but from every slice of our society,” says Shannon Meyer, Executive Director of Response. In 2018, Response assisted 140 survivors and responded to 272 crisis calls, and they estimate that only 30 percent of sexual assault incidents are reported. The numbers are indeed surprising for a population of 25,000 in their service area, which encompasses Pitkin and western Eagle counties.
Response provides a range of free and confidential services, including bilingual emergency response, legal, medical, peer counseling and shelter. Since January, Response has added a safe transitional and long-term housing assistance program for survivors to connect them to resources they can provide to survivors.
“Domestic violence is one of the leading causes of homelessness, and the fear of homelessness is a significant reason victims don’t leave their abuser,” says Meyer.
The new Housing for Survivors program helps victims restart their lives and get on the path to self-sufficiency by ensuring they have a safe place to go for more than a few nights at the toughest, most stressful time – the moment a victim decides to leave or seek help.
The program is crucial in its flexibility to deliver vital assistance tailored for a survivor’s specific circumstances and needs. Through this program, Response can offer rental assistance, short-term shelter and help with moving expenses and utility bills, mortgage or a down payment for a new home.
Since launching in January 2019, the program has already provided 14 shelter nights to four survivors and assisted four survivors with finding and affording housing. Their goal is to serve at least 40 survivors over the next two years.
According to Meyer, the top two reasons that survivors do not leave their abusers are housing and economic insecurity. Poor credit and ruined rental histories; lack of steady employment because of violence and stalking; housing discrimination because of law enforcement calls; and the loss of subsidized housing because of violations by the abuser, create significant barriers to a survivor’s ability to access safe and affordable housing.
All this in addition to the immediate fear of being killed or losing your kids.
“No one should have to choose between a safe home and no home at all,” says Meyer.
One survivor mentioned that her abuser had locked her out of their house barefoot and naked in the middle of winter. When she broke the lock to get back into the house, her abuser punched her to the ground. She called 911, and although her abuser finally admitted to the assault, she was initially arrested for breaking the door. However, this erroneous arrest has the potential to forever tarnish her record and impact her life.
“If I knew what I know now, I would have pressed charges for assault, and pointed out that locking me out was the inciting incident. I didn’t press charges because he had just gotten his commercial flight license. A DV charge would have ended his career,” she says.
According to Meyer, good coordination with law enforcement is essential. “The law enforcement agencies in our area are really supportive. We have an agreement whereby they will call us when they respond to an incident and provide us with the victim’s contact information so that we can reach out and offer assistance.”
Blaming the victims
People must stop dismissing elements of domestic violence as normal relationship issues just because you don’t see a black eye. Domestic abuse can be physical, sexual, emotional, economic and psychological. Society must also cease blaming and judging victims for “staying” and instead recognize the complexity and manipulation involved, experts say.
Response is working with middle and high schools from Basalt to Aspen with prevention education programs that promote healthy relationships.
According to national statistics, one in 10 high school students has experienced some form of dating violence — physical, emotional or sexual. The prevention program helps kids recognize the signs of abusive relationships, which can include: checking a partner’s cellphone, email or social networks without permission; extreme jealousy or insecurity; constant put-downs; explosive temper; dramatic mood swings and pressuring them to have sex.
The program addresses issues of healthy relationships at the sixth grade level, while at the high school level the discussion focuses on the difference between flirting and harassment as well as sexual consent. Pop culture examples that trivialize abuse and harassment are discussed during school sessions to encourage youth to respond if they see inappropriate behavior among their peers.
At a time when sexism, misogyny and outright are abuse and harassment appear to be condoned, [think White House Staff Sec. Rob Porter as one high-profile example], ensuring that people, especially young men and women, are educated, aware and empowered is critically important.