Sluggish economy forces domestic violence victims to stay longer at shelters

Oct 26, 2012

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and across the state, shelters are reporting that victims are staying for longer periods of time than in the past. Wyoming Public Radio’s Willow Belden reports that the reason has a lot to do with the economy.

WILLOW BELDEN: Jamie Barton was 19 when she met the man who would become her abuser. After her first son was born, the violence started.

JAMIE BARTON: He would force himself on me and start touching me, and then we’d escalate to a very severely violent situation. … My middle boy – I definitely wasn’t planning on having any more kids, and he was conceived forcefully.

BELDEN: The violence only got worse after that. Barton wanted to leave, but by that time she had three young children.

BARTON: It was really hard to know really what the right thing to do was. Part of me felt guilty for wanting to leave, because then I was taking my boys’ dad away.

BELDEN: Finally, after six years together, Barton reached her breaking point.

BARTON: He’d actually gone through and screwed all of our windows in our trailer closed so I couldn’t escape, and like literally beat me for like two days. … He had broken my ribs on the right side of my body. He’d broken my hip. My head right here was busted open; I’ve got a permanent lump from the bone protruding.

BELDEN: When she finally escaped, Barton went to a neighbor’s house and called 911. Her abuser was arrested and received a short jail sentence. Barton and the kids went to stay with her older sister. But her sister started worrying that there would be retribution.

BARTON: She felt mine and my children’s presence there put her in danger.

BELDEN: So Barton went to Cheyenne’s domestic violence shelter, the Safehouse. She thought her visit would be a quick turnaround, but it took three months before she was able to find her own place to rent. There just weren’t many options for someone with three kids and no job.

Barton is not alone. Three years ago, the average length of stay at the Safehouse was 15 days. Now it’s 25 days, and many women are staying three or four months. Assistant Director Nicole Casey says that’s partly because of the economy: jobs are hard to come by, waiting lists for affordable housing are long, and many domestic violence victims show up at the shelter with no money and no jobs.

NICOLE CASEY: A big part of domestic violence is control and isolation. So most women don’t have access to check books, accounts, they don’t know who their landlord was. They definitely don’t have a job nor a car, or many people to help them.

BELDEN: And with the tough economy, she says, it takes them a while to get back on their feet and out of the shelter.

Jennifer Zenor with the Wyoming Coalition against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault says this is something they’re seeing across the whole state.

JENNIFER ZENOR: Victims are generally staying in the emergency shelters longer than perhaps they did two or three years ago. They’re staying in transitional housing buildings and programs longer than they used to as well, just because of the condition of the economy.

BELDEN: Zenor says some shelters are almost always at full capacity these days.

ZENOR: If a shelter is full where a victim needs housing, we try very hard to work with a neighboring community to see if they might have space or funding available to shelter the victim. That does get difficult because many times victims have children in school. They may already have a job. And communities can be hundreds of miles apart in Wyoming.

BELDEN: That said, all of the shelters I interviewed for this story assured me they would never turn anyone away. And some shelters actually see the increasing length of stay as a positive sign.

Sharel Love runs the Community Safety Network in Jackson. She says victims used to come to her shelter for just a few nights and would often return to their abusers. But more recently, clients have been staying much longer.

SHAREL LOVE: To me, that indicates a greater readiness to make a change in their life and a greater ability to help advocate for the things that they’re seeking assistance with.

BELDEN: Still, she says money and housing can be barriers. Even if a woman is emotionally ready to sever the ties with her abuser, the logistical hurdles may seem insurmountable. And that can be a real problem. Again, Nicole Casey at the Safehouse in Cheyenne.

CASEY: That’s the kind of thing that push people back to their abusers. People don’t realize it’s those little things that women think about: well, my children were being taken care of financially; I was just getting hurt. So now I’m out of the relationship, have no job, no money, my kids are sad, Christmas is coming. I might as well just go back and be hurt emotionally and physically while my kids are being taken care of.

BELDEN: She says that just perpetuates the cycle of violence, because the children grow up thinking it’s normal. So the shelters are working to make sure that mothers have stable foundations so their kids don’t end up abused – or abusing – in the future. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Willow Belden.