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She was standing with a positive pregnancy test in her hand. Tears rolled down her cheeks as her eyes met mine, and she broke down. I glanced around for the other shelter advocate working that morning. Before I could get her attention Meredith* threw her arms around me and collapsed into my arms.
It was my third week of working at a domestic violence shelter and I was not ready for this. How can one prepare for this? The training I was put through had prepared me with safety planning skills, focusing and empathetic statements and a book full of community resources. The training had not given me, however, the response to, “I can’t have this evil man’s baby. What do I do?”
According to the State of Florida Department of Children and Families Domestic Violence Annual Report, 14,207 women, men and children were served in Florida’s 41 domestic violence centers in 2006-2007. I work in one of them.
Before this position I had no idea what it is like to work as a shelter advocate. In my interview, program director Jane* and shelter director Kendra* grilled me on what I could handle.
“What would you say is your biggest weakness? “Jane asked. I didn’t know how wrong of an answer “I get nervous in new situations” would be.
There is no typical day as a shelter advocate. Each shift brings a new experience, new challenges, new questions, new residents and new memories. The house is equipped with four full kitchens, counseling rooms, children’s rooms, a meditation room and much more. Women can rest, receive counseling and case management to get their lives back in order.
In 2006-2007, the shelter provided care to over 180 women and children. With them, they brought their children, their tears, their baggage, their stories and a life journey for me.
Walking into the house one evening I could sense the palpable tension. With each incoming group of women, a certain dynamic develops. With some groups, the house has a homey feeling. It is always clean. The women interact together well, and overall it’s a better environment for everyone. This was not one of those weeks.
Rumors had been circulating about stealing occurring in the shelter. While we provide lockers for the women to lock up valuables and offer to keep medications in our locked office cabinets, we do not monitor the women’s belongings.
I had just settled in and was reading the log book when Angel* burst through the office door. “That bitch just stole my money. I walked in and her hand was in my purse!” she screamed. I quickly identified Rachel* as the offender.
To apprehend the situation, Loletta*, the other advocate that night, and I walked to Angel’s room three doors away from Rachel.
Rachel was waiting. “I didn’t take your money, how dare you accuse me!” she screamed. We tried to calm her down but the situation was unraveling inevitably.
Before I could get in a word, Rachel stormed back to her room and began tearing it apart to show all of us the money was not in there. To ensure her innocence, she began to strip down, despite our insistence it really was not necessary.
I was speechless. Rachel was naked. Angel was livid.
Many of the women coming into the shelter believe they have hit their ultimate low. The shelter has a staff of trained counselors to allow residents to talk things through. That is not always the avenue they choose to take.
May* had been staying in shelter with her two children for about two weeks when Patricia*, a children’s advocate, found her nearly comatose in her room. She was feeding herself pills from her purse and slumped against the wall.
Patricia and Margret*, the shelter facilitator, called 911 and tried to get May to speak. Through slurred words she told them she had given her kids away; that she did not deserve them.
The children have since been returned to the abusive father.
It is the day-to-day trials that bring the women living in shelter to their knees. According to the Florida Domestic Violence Needs Assessment for 2006-2007 by the Institute for Family Violence at Florida State University, women in domestic violence situations feel many unmet needs. The most prevalent need was the need for low-cost services in the areas of legal, health and child care services.
Michelle* is 18 years old, a mother of two, a full-time student and a domestic violence survivor.
“There are days when I just want to lose it. Quit. This is not the life I asked for and this isn’t what I deserve,” Michelle said. “If I could walk away from providing for my children and this life that was created for not by me I would. I’m grateful to be in a safe shelter but this is by far the hardest thing I have ever done.”
According to a study by the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, children are 1,500 times more likely to be abused in a home where there is domestic violence.
At any given time, there are more children in shelter than women. They bring life and energy to the house. Despite the trauma they have been through, they are resilient.
Patricia works on giving children a fresh start, somewhere to vent and a comforting hand to hold.
“There is nothing better than helping a child through this time in their life,” Patricia said. “So many times they have taken on such big roles and such adult roles they have forgotten how to be little. That’s my job. To save their childhoods.”
Andrea* is only 7 years old. Her mother Mary* is Mexican and an illegal immigrant. Andrea and her two brothers are American.
Fear of deportation is a reality no little girl should have to worry about, but Andrea knows the fear well.
“I could lose my mothers and brothers,” she said. “Then where would we be? I miss my dad, but I can’t live without my mother.”
Her sweet spirit carries over into all she does. One morning, as I was finishing a midnight-to-8 a.m. shift, she came into the office to say hello. Instantly, her face clouded.
“What is wrong? You are different,” she said. “You are sad. Why are you sad?” She threw her arms around me and hugged as tightly as she could. “There. Now you are not sad anymore,” she said with a smile.
My heart filled with gratitude. In her time of turmoil, where I was supposed to be helping her, she was helping me.
“My first crisis call was a suicidal caller. I was scared out of my mind,” Kendra said. “Everyone in the office was watching me and I was on the phone for a good hour trying to convince her life was worth living. I haven’t had a suicide call since.”
My first crisis call was a woman named Janet*. She was living with a friend who began mentally abusing her and controlling her every move. The night she came into shelter she was subdued and timid. As time progressed, she became an enormous asset to the shelter. She cooked meals for all the residents and staff, sang while she cleaned and encouraged the other women along in their goals.
It is not only heteroxual women that are helped by domestic violence shelters. One evening a woman named Rachel* called. She had moved from out of state to be with a woman she met online. They had been talking for a year but had only met three weeks ago. Since Rachel arrived in Florida, her girlfriend began to control her and threatening her life.
I spent more than three hours trying to find some way to rescue Rachel and her Chihuahua. She was supposed to call me back in an hour. I never heard from her again.
Kathy*, a shelter advocate, had a caller one evening that was being beat while she tried to relay information that could save her life.
“I could hear him smacking her. It was sickening. She was screaming for help, and I couldn’t do anything,” Kathy said. “When the line went dead, I sat there listening to the silence. She never called back.”
After four months, I burned out. Shifts at the shelter were fading into a blur. I felt it coming, but it wasn’t until I attended the Children and Youth Institute, a training conference in Orlando for two days with Patricia and Martha*, that it really hit me.
Martha taught a workshop on self-care for advocates. As she opened the workshop she began to discuss secondary-trauma and compassion fatigue. Explaining the details to the class, she began to tell exactly what I was feeling: irrational fears, unexplained exhaustion, dread of work, that was me.
A shelter advocate from a 100-bed shelter in Florida told the story of one batterer who had gained inside information on the shelter. He presented himself as a potential donor and arranged a tour of the shelter where his wife resided.
He wanted revenge and upon arrest police confiscated a list of the shelter workers’, counselors’ and directors’ home addresses, phone numbers and more.
Another children’s advocate from a shelter in Florida told of a batterer who had kidnapped his children from daycare before heading to the shelter to find his wife. As the advocate entered the gate, he followed her in. She had to block his truck with her car and force the gate shut. All the while he was screaming obscenities at her while the children watched from inside the truck. In the end he left, the children still crying inside the truck but the shelter and the residents were left unharmed.
Sitting in silence after the conference, I felt jumpy and nervous. All I could think about was domestic violence and the conference. My mind was churning with how easily I could be any of the women I see every week. There is no exception to violence; no one is safe.
I called out of work and took a day to myself. I questioned why I was working there and if I could handle it.
Then I remembered Meredith.
Sitting in a hospital room with her for seven hours, we both did a little soul searching. While we waited for the results of her ultrasound, we talked and watched bad television. She cried one minute and joked the next. Her heart was breaking.
“He wanted to kill me. He wanted to kill me, and now I am having his baby,” Meredith said as she wiped tears from her black eye. “I am going to lose my mind.”
We talked about everything from the violence, to sex, to her plan to move back to her home state and everything in between.
The baby was alright. Two days later, Meredith left on a bus. She asked me to drive her to the station. It only seemed right that I did.
Standing in the cold, we ignored the steady drizzle and tried to get a few more minutes of conversation in. We knew we would never talk again. We knew the road ended here for our short-term friendship. We knew we had changed each other’s lives.
“You saved my life,” Meredith said. “You saved this baby’s life. I have never had a girlfriend before because of him. I never talked to anyone the way you talked with me. I will never forget you, and don’t ever quit doing what you’re doing. People like me need people like you.”
With that, she was gone.
*Editors’ note: Names have been changed in this story to protect the identity of all of those mentioned. The author’s name was also withheld for this reason.