Area abuse shelters seeing more clients“I know I was supposed to watch TV when they fight,” said the 4-year-old. “But I couldn’t help myself. I had to look.”
By: Ross Dolan, The Daily Republic
The tiny 4-year-old crawled up on Wendy Figland’s lap, and the girl was contrite as she spoke. “I know I was supposed to watch TV when they fight,” she said, beginning her apology. “But I couldn’t help myself. I had to look.”
What the child saw was her father cutting her mother’s throat. The year-old story — an example of extreme domestic violence — still haunts Figland, director of the Mitchell Area Safehouse.
“The woman survived, but she had a big scar,” Figland said, noting that the child’s emotional scars will be equally lasting.
After a brief safehouse stay, the woman and her daughter fled to parts unknown. She was still being tracked by her abusive husband.
Figland has spent more than two decades helping domestic violence victims, but she’s worried about the increasing number of victims seeking help.
This year the safehouse, which serves an eight-county area, is on track to nearly double the number of victims it sheltered last year, she said.
In 2011, the safehouse sheltered 132 people (58 women and 74 children).
In 2012 — through the end of October — it has been a temporary home for 211 people (95 women and 116 children), an increase of 60 percent.
“I think there’s more violence, and I think the violence we’re seeing is more intense,” Figland said. “People are changing. It’s very scary out there for victims.”
With today’s computer technology, abusers have more tools than they had in the past.
“The ability abusers have to track people today is frightening,” Figland said.
Victims of domestic violence often arrive at the shelter with only the clothes on their backs and cash in their pockets. They are afraid to access bank accounts or to use credit cards lest they be tracked through their transactions.
Women from higher socioeconomic groups often have family and other financial resources they can draw upon, but poorer women have fewer options. Both groups typically have endured years of abuse before making the decision to go to a safehouse, Figland said.
Mitchell’s safehouse, unlike many similar shelters that don’t advertise their locations, depends on its high visibility and quick police response to ensure the safety of those it serves. The house has seven bedrooms, 25 beds and a variety of cribs and rolling cots.
The presence of any victim is considered confidential and victims are given code words that can be given to people the victim wants to see.
Numbers up elsewhere
Yankton has seen a similar surge in shelter numbers, said Desiree Warren-Johnson, executive director of the Yankton Women’s and Children’s Shelter, which serves Bon Homme, Charles Mix, Hutchinson and Yankton counties.
“Shelter night numbers have gone up a ton,” she said. “Our shelter has been in operation over 20 years and this year we’ll break some records as far as the number of shelter nights we’ve had.”
A shelter night is one person staying one night.
To date, Yankton has had 1,373 shelter nights in 2012 — up 54 percent from the 893 shelter nights registered in 2011. Warren-Johnson predicts her facility will hit 1,500 to 1,600 shelter nights by the end of the year.
Prior to this year, 2009’s 981 shelter nights were the highest numbers recorded in the shelter’s history. In 2011, the Yankton shelter had 893 shelter nights, which was up from 566 shelter nights in 2010.
“So you can see, we’re way up,” Warren-Johnson said. “We’ve had to double-bunk some of our women and use outside resources because we’ve not had room.”
The uptick in cases at her shelter, Warren-Johnson said, could be due to recent economic pressures, or it could be because domestic violence is getting a higher profile in her community.
“We want to believe some of this has to do with the use of the Sexual Assault Community Response Team, which has highlighted community awareness of domestic violence,” she said.
First responders to a domestic violence situation use a lethality assessment checklist of 13 questions to determine likelihood of a victim being killed if she stays. The evaluation is used to help victims understand the level of danger they face if they remain in the relationship.
At least one person has been killed by domestic violence in the Yankton area, Warren-Johnson said. The abuser, who tried but failed to commit suicide, is now serving a prison term for murder.
Shana Flakus, executive director and victim’s advocate at the Winner Resource Center for Families, said her organization has seen an increase in the demand for services since 2008 and stays are up about 20 percent this year.
Flakus attributes the demand for shelter services, in part, to the recent economic recession that added stress to some already difficult family situations.
“It has really impacted families,” she said. “There isn’t a day that goes by you don’t hear about a murder-suicide in the news.”
Flakus cited two recent news items: the Sept. 12 murder of Amanda Connors, manager at a Sioux Falls Cost Cutters salon, who was killed by Tyrone Smith when she tried to intervene on behalf of Smith’s girlfriend, a Cost Cutters employee. Smith later committed suicide.
She also noted the Dec. 3 case of Kansas City Chiefs’ linebacker Jovan Belcher, who shot and killed his 22-year-old girlfriend and then drove to Arrowhead Stadium and killed himself.
Flakus said the demand for her shelter’s services have been split 50-50 between the area’s white and American Indian families.
In Mitchell, Figland said she and her staff are also seeing a greater number of domestic abuse cases involving weapons, drugs and alcohol. While drugs don’t cause domestic violence, she said, they can intensify it.
“We’ve had some women come back to the safehouse as many as 10 times,” Figland said. “Statistics show that women will leave a relationship five to seven times before they leave for good.”
The Mitchell Police Division hasn’t experienced as dramatic an increase in domestic violence reports this year, said Detective Lt. Don Everson, but its domestic assault cases are up.
Mitchell police took 109 reports in 2011 and 118 by mid-November this year.
Figland wasn’t surprised at the statistical variance, partly because her shelter serves a wider area than just Mitchell, but also because only 1 in 10 domestic violence incidents get reported to police, she said. Victims are afraid abuse will increase if they call police.
Fear usually drives such a desperate reaction, Everson said.
“Sometimes an abuse victim is afraid that if their spouse goes to jail, they’ll get beaten worse the next time,” he said, and they often worry that a spouse’s arrest will cause a loss of financial support.
Experts agree that abusers, as well as the abused, come from all socioeconomic groups.
In earlier times, they were known as wife-beaters.
“In my mother’s day there was no way to report domestic abuse,” said Jan Manolis, who operates the Jan Manolis Family Safe Center in Huron. She is also seeing a higher demand for services.
“We serve a very diverse population and the needs of victims differ,” she said. “Many come from cultures where domestic violence is not a crime. They are reluctant about reporting abuse and (in their native country) they are used to police not reporting abuse.”
Huron has a growing population of minorities, including Hispanics, who have come for newly created meatpacking jobs in recent years.
“I don’t know if there is more of it, or if we’re just offering victims more choices,” she said.
Figland said the demand for services at the Mitchell Area Safehouse has the shelter’s board and staff considering expansion plans.
“We have no permanent plans at this time,” she said, “but we realize we need more space. We’re running full all the time and we need more space for families.
“We’d also like to have a separate section for male victims.”
She sees a practical need that must be filled, but she wishes it weren’t so.
“We need, as a society, to start holding abusers accountable,” she said.
“Our judicial system is a great deterrent, but we all need to step forward and say we will not accept abuse in our communities. We need to speak out when it happens and we need to teach our kids about healthy relationships.
“We need to stop asking, ‘Why doesn’t she leave?’ and start asking, ‘Why does he have the right to abuse her?’ ”