Enabling Victims Who Feel Trapped to Escape

Enabling Victims Who Feel Trapped to Escape

Enabling Victims Who Feel Trapped to Escape
Enabling Victims Who Feel Trapped to Escape

From its start, the highest priority of the battered women’s movement has been to provide tangible aid at a time of great need. To offer immediate support to victims during a crisis, activists estab- lished shelters as places of refuge. In 1974, follow- ing the lead of feminists in England a few years earlier, a self-help group in St. Paul, Minnesota, transformed an old meetinghouse into the first of

many women’s shelters in the United States (Martin, 1976). These “safe houses” offer a number of services to their temporary residents. First and foremost, they provide short-term room and board in a secure setting for women, and often their children, who are in continuing physical dan- ger. Most also furnish emergency clothing and transportation. By bonding together in self-help groups, the women can give one another emotional support when grappling with transitional issues, particularly about whether to try to sever or to sal- vage their relationships with abusers. Counselors discuss legal issues (such as pressing charges; obtain- ing court orders of protection; and navigating the complexities of separation, divorce, child custody, and alimony), educational matters (such as a return to school and retraining for displaced homemakers), and job hunting. Hotline staffers instruct victims where to go, because the addresses of shelters are kept secret to protect the residents from being stalked. Through outreach activities, staff members raise public awareness about the needs for empow- ering these otherwise dependent women and for reforming the criminal justice and social service systems (Warrior, 1977; Neidig, 1984; Dutton- Douglas and Dionne, 1991; and OJP, 1998). In recent years, service providers at shelters have begun to recognize the importance of being sensitive to racial, ethnic, and cultural differences in order to design effective outreach strategies, ther- apeutic intervention programs, and criminal justice policies (Bent-Goodley, 2005; and Sokoloff and Pratt, 2005).

Although the first safe houses were set up ini- tially as independent self-help projects staffed by volunteers, many argued that local governments had a responsibility to establish permanent shelters run by social service agencies. As government- sponsored shelters spread during the 1980s, a back- lash against them emerged. “Pro-family” organiza- tions sought to limit local, state, and federal funding for shelters, and police referrals of victims to them. These critics contended that shelter workers tended to be home wreckers who contributed to the breakup of marriages by encouraging battered wives to divorce abusive husbands (see Stone,


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1984; and Pleck, 1989). Actually, most women who took refuge in a shelter did return to live with their mates again, and many of them suffered additional beatings, according to limited follow-up studies by researchers attempting to assess the effectiveness of this method of intervention (Dutton-Douglas and Dionne, 1991). As might be anticipated, women who flee violent mates and seek refuge in government-sponsored shelters tend to be the poorest and most desperate. Two surveys of women seeking emergency housing estimated that they were suffering between 60 and 70 beat- ings per year, whereas the average victim endured 6 per year. They also differed from the “norm” in another way: These targets of routine beatings rarely dared to fight back (see Straus, 1991).

By 1987, about 1,200 battered women’s shel- ters were operating across the country. By the end of the 1990s, about 1,900 shelters had been estab- lished (“Domestic Abusers,” 1999). The first tem- porary shelter run by a police department opened in Virginia during 2000 (Ellis, 2000). About 1,450 shelters across the country housed nearly 17,000 women and over 19,000 of their children on a typ- ical day in 2013, according to an annual census of service providers (NNEDV, 2014).

Unfortunately, shelters for battered women are not as numerous as needed, and often are filled to capacity, necessitating waiting lists and time limitations. There are also restrictions about the maximum age of children accompanying their mothers. Prohibitions on bringing along dogs and cats deter some women from leaving danger- ous living arrangements, so animal welfare organi- zations have established safe-haven partnerships with shelters to provide short-term boarding for family pets (Humane Society, 2014) but only in a limited number of areas outside of big cities.

Shelter residents still may feel terrified at the thought of having to live in hiding at secret loca- tions like fugitives and of uprooting their children, and might be outraged at the “solution” of aban- doning their homes to wrongdoers. Furthermore, they may know of women who are separated or even divorced but still get tracked down and beaten by their former intimates. Refuge seekers

who are turned away from overcrowded facilities or whose time runs out face the same limited choices that battered women confronted before there was a movement to shelter them: Return home and face renewed attacks or seek temporary respite with friends, relatives, or parents (Abrams, 1987; Browne, 1987; and Mechanic and Uhlmansiek, 2000).

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