Respect and Healing

Coming full circle: The Women’s Shelter of South Texas advocates for all of those who are affected by domestic abuse.

By: Dayna Worchel
Photos by: David Olds and Mark Joseph/Dark lab Photography

Danielle was desperate to escape her abusive husband. She knew her life and the lives of her children depended on it after she “stared death in the face.”

“I knew it was time for me to love myself enough to make a change. I needed to burn bridges and create a distance,” she said, adding that she chose Corpus Christi because of its proximity to the ocean and its tropical weather.

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So she drove across numerous states and through two storms with her children, some suitcases and a very strong determination to build a safe and secure life for all of them. The Women’s Shelter of South Texas made arrangements to transport Danielle and her children from the Corpus Christi International Airport. Once she and her family arrived at the shelter in the South Texas area, they were given food and a safe place to stay with fresh linen on the beds and the resources they would need to start again.

“I needed an open door. Anyone does when they are in that situation,” Danielle said. “I came on a week day, so I got transportation passes and got my kids enrolled in school.”

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The shelter provided counseling for Danielle and her children, and through that process, Danielle said she was able to begin healing and to find some peace. And it gave her a way to begin a new life. “They saved my life. I couldn’t go back. I had to go where nobody knew me,” Danielle said of her journey to Corpus Christi.

The residential shelter offers a full spectrum of services for both male and female survivors who are fleeing the abuse of an intimate partner, according to Sammie Ramón, stewardship coordinator. These include counseling for survivors and their children, ages 5 and up, and food and safe shelter for as long as the survivor needs it.

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The shelter, which serves a 12-county area in South Texas, has outreach offices in Alice, Beeville, Kingsville and Sinton, and one residential shelter and an outreach office in Nueces County. It serves Aransas, Bee, Duval, Jim Wells, Live Oak, Refugio, San Patricio, Nueces, Brooks, Kleberg, Kenedy and McMullen Counties.

“We have advocates based out of each office, there to assist the 12-county region we serve,” Ramón said.

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“There is case management to see which services the survivor needs to rebuild his or her life, and we work with community partners for job placement,” added Julie Burnett, counseling services director at the shelter. “We also have a legal advocate.”

The criminal justice advocate is not an attorney, but she does have a criminal justice background. She can help guide the clients if they need a protective order or are having issues with child custody, and she can get a volunteer to go to court with them if necessary to guide them through the process, Burnett said.

“It’s a little daunting if you have never gone through the process in a courtroom, maybe facing the perpetrator for the first time since the abuse,” Ramón said. “The advocate can guide the client through the process.”

It is not only the survivors of abuse who benefit, but the batterers, as well. There are special classes for males, which they attend on court order, known as the Battering Intervention and Prevention Program. There are also classes called Turning Points for female abusers and another group known as Yield, which is for male and female abusers who wear ankle monitors and hope to get them removed early as a part of the pretrial process. “We try to come full circle and help everyone involved,” Ramón said.

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Linda Marie Rodriguez and Brian Keith Permenter are counselors who teach parenting classes approved by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services in Corpus Christi and Aransas Pass, respectively. Rodriguez works at the residential shelter and helps evaluate the women and children when they arrive in crisis mode.

“I do an evaluation of what type of support they have at home in case they do decide to go back,” Rodriguez said. “I mention to them that we are a 24-hour emergency shelter. Sometimes they just need a day or two to clear their heads.”

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The reality is that clients return to the abusers an average of seven times before they leave, Ramón said. And there is no typical look or education or socio-economic circumstance for an abuser or for the abused.

“If it were that easy to walk away from a situation like that, I assure you that someone would have figured it out,” she said, adding that there are so many different levels of abuse, and there is so much conditioning of abuse survivors that happens over time. “All of the cases will be a little different,” Ramón said, “but the common thread is domestic violence.”

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Permenter has counseled abuse survivors who are educated and can easily obtain a job anywhere in the country. But the situation changes once the violence begins and the abuse survivor needs help to escape because he or she is separated from family and friends, he said.

“The abuser has his network. The victim is brought down here with no family, no resources, and her family may be six or seven hours away. She is being watched. His family says to forgive him. It doesn’t matter how educated she is,” Permenter said.

Those who abuse also come from all economic and education levels, said Carolina Kolpack, BIPP coordinator for the shelter. Kolpack counsels male batterers at the shelter’s administrative offices in both Spanish- and English-speaking groups. They must attend for the full 24-week period to receive a completion letter for the court, and they must pay a fee, on a sliding scale, for each session as part of their accountability, according to Kolpack.

“We use current events and movies during our discussions, which allow us to know their mindset,” she said. “Their peers in the group will talk to them. We tell them there is a difference between respect and fear. We focus on respect.”

Very often, the men don’t realize the way they are treating their partners is abuse. The men in the BIPP groups learn tools for changing their behavior using the Duluth Model, which is a method of holding batterers accountable and keeping the victims safe, Kolpack said.

“We challenge their beliefs,” Kolpack said. “They will say things like, ‘I didn’t know when I don’t tell my partner how much money I make that is financial abuse. I didn’t know that I can’t touch my wife’s breasts whenever I want and that is considered sexual abuse.’”

They think physical abuse is only slapping or touching, according to Kolpack. There have been some positive outcomes in the BIPP groups. Kolpack said one man who was struggling with a drinking problem came to her at the conclusion of the 24 classes a few months ago with tears in his eyes.

“He said he is sober. He said he used to wake up in the morning and wonder where everyone went. He couldn’t remember what he had done the night before. He said coming (to the BIPP group) had saved his life and his marriage,” Kolpack said.

Danielle is still hopeful about her future, even though her plans took a detour recently. She had to leave her new home with her children and quit her new job because her abuser tracked her to Corpus Christi. But she was able to return to the home after spending a few days back at the shelter, where staff helped her devise a safety plan of escape, should he return.

She wants to be an advocate for domestic violence survivors as someone who has walked through it. “I am keeping the dream going while healing myself,” she said.

Some Domestic Violence Statistics:

One in three women and one in four men in the United States have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner.

• An abused woman will leave her partner an average of seven times before she leaves for good.

• In 2014, one in three women and one in four men in the United States experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner.

• The average shelter stay lasted just over 31 days.

• On a typical day, domestic violence hotlines receive approximately 21,000 calls, an average of close to 15 calls every minute.

• Seventy-five percent of Texas 16- to 24-year-olds either have experienced dating violence or know another young person who has.

(Sources: National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Women’s Shelter of South Texas)

No appointment is needed for face-to-face crisis intervention and advocacy services. Please call the 24-hour crisis hotline at 1-800-580-4878 or 361-881-8888. Note: The name of the abuse survivor has been changed, along with other identifying details to protect her identity. The facts of the story are accurate.

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