It started out so innocently. She was a teenager, dreaming of a fairytale life — and he would be her Prince Charming. It was young love at its best: swift, fast and completely overwhelming.
Two months later, a subtle shift began. Barely noticeable at first, it crept up on Sarah (whose name has been changed to protect her identity).
Slowly, ever so slowly, Prince Charming’s charms faded. It happened the way the worry lines on your face happen — the change isn’t noticeable from one day to the next, but one random Tuesday you wake up and wonder when you got so old.
But Sarah wasn’t waking up with a decade’s worth of laugh lines — she was waking up with bruises.
Sarah is now a resident at the Shelter for Abused Women and Children in Naples and while her name has been changed, her story is real. Although her story is still a raw and painful thing for her to talk about, she wanted to tell it, to, “let other women, anyone who reads this, know that it’s not OK to be abused by anyone. Even if they say they love you.”
Sarah is recovering. She arrived at the shelter with her two young children just three days before our interview — she’s still in the period that the staff at the shelter refers to as “crisis mode.”
But she’s happy to be there to tell her story. There was a time in her not-too-distant past when she wondered if she’d live long enough to tell the tale.
“At some point, I realized, if I go back, is this the last people are ever going to see of me?” says Sarah, who spent seven years with her abuser. Seven tumultuous years. “I’ve left him and gone back probably 15 or 20 times. Going back to him is my weakness. But he’s charming and very manipulative. He always told me that this time he’d change.”
He never did.
“I got pregnant with my first child and things got worse. He was verbally abusive and then when I was eight months pregnant he pushed me into a closet. When my child was born with a birth defect, he made fun of him,” says the young mother.
When she got pregnant with a second child, things escalated further. One night in a fit of rage, Sarah’s abuser pulled his very pregnant girlfriend across the house — by her hair.
“I had nowhere to go, the cops came and made me leave, they didn’t arrest him or anything. I didn’t have anywhere to go that night. No one told me about the shelter.”
Finally, after her abuser slapped and punched Sarah in a grocery store parking lot — and not a single bystander stepped in to intervene — Sarah knew she was the only one who could extract herself and her children from this abusive situation.
If there’s a silver lining to Sarah’s story, it’s that Collier County has intensely good resources for dealing with domestic violence. With a well-appointed, dedicated shelter for abused women and children (that includes a kennel, so victims may even bring their pets with them), a child-only facility and many other community organizations that provide truly wrap-around services for victims of domestic violence, Collier is actually leading the way in helping victims of abuse.
“I’ve worked in a lot of places and in my experience, the cooperation here is remarkable,” says Youth Haven’s executive director, Roseanne L. Winter. In Winter’s opinion, three key features make the county unique.
“It’s a relatively small area, people know each other, and the service providers all know about each other. Plus, we all exist without much state and county funding, so we rely on the other agencies for support. But the third reason is that there’s such a strong philanthropic culture here, a culture that insists that organizations work together and talk to each other,” says Winter. “The organizations have really worked together to weave a safety net, and for me that’s really a remarkable situation.”
Here’s an example: one of Youth Haven’s major focuses over the past several years has been to provide more in-home parent counseling. This counseling works to help families before abuse or neglect happens. Often Youth Haven will receive referrals from the Collier County School District, the Collier County Sheriff’s Office, or from judges within the county court system or those being treated at the David Lawrence Center, a Naples mental health facility.
“The point is to try and keep families together,” says Jinx Ligget, director of programs at Youth Haven. “We’ve been able to be much more aggressive and reach out into the community with our in-home counseling because of the support of our community partners.”
Proactive programs like Youth Haven’s in-home parenting counseling have been proven to be effective at stopping neglect and or abuse before it happens. But if it doesn’t, local programs — for the most part — have that covered too.
The Shelter for Abused Women and Children is an amazingly comprehensive shelter. If you can think of something that a victim of domestic violence might need, the shelter provides it. But don’t get the impression that this sprawling safe house is a free-for-all, where the staff caters to the resident’s every whim. Instead, it’s a safe spot where women (and occasionally men) are granted access to the things they need to feel in control while restarting their lives.
“We don’t cook for our residents, there’s a pantry they can use to cook their own food. It’s all about having our residents feel empowered to make their own choices,” says Danielle Mordaunt, the shelter’s residential manager. “It’s really all about empowering them.”
And Sarah is a perfect example. After being at the shelter just three days, she’s already applied for — and landed — a new job.
“I was always financially dependent on my abuser, but I know that if I want to be on my own, if I want to not go back, I have to depend on myself. My first day here I applied for a bunch of jobs, and I just heard today that I got one of them,” she said.
While having a job is a great first step, Sarah has a long road ahead of her.
“It takes the average woman seven times to finally leave their abuser,” says Mordaunt, “and we’re noticing that the bad economy is really making it tougher for women to get back on their feet. One thing that’s really lacking here is access to affordable childcare.”
According to stats provided by the Shelter for Abused Women and Children, the average cost of childcare in Collier County can easily reach upwards of $150 per child, per week. Sarah, with her two children, can expect to shell out more than $300 each week — a hefty percentage of a minimum wage paycheck.
With jobs being harder to come by and childcare just as expensive as ever, Mordaunt says she’s noticed it’s a slower process to get women to full solvency — and harder to keep them from going back to their financially stable abusers.
But that’s not the only effect the bad economy has had. While reports from both the Collier and Lee County Sheriff’s Offices show that domestic violence rates have held steady over the past few years, even decreasing slightly since the earlier part of the decade, the staff at Youth Haven insists the bad economy is a risk factor for abuse and neglect within a family.
“When a family is experiencing financial trouble or the loss of housing, that’s a stressor. We know that stressors strain families. And it’s never just one crisis; usually there are multiple issues that become multiple stressors. We have more families in our family support services than ever,” says Ligget.
But bad economy or not, Sarah says that she’ll do whatever it takes to stay away from her abuser.
“We set goals here, and my goal is to be independent. It’s time for me to be independent, to show my kids that I can be responsible for myself,” she said. “Being here, seeing all these women who have been where I am, who have gone through it, it’s like it’s put a lock on my heart where no one can hurt me no more.”
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No room for teens?
With the Shelter for Abused Women and Children taking only adults and children accompanied by adults, and Youth Haven being for children up to 14 years of age, there’s a critical gap in Collier County for unaccompanied teens.
“Our model is that we empower our women, so we can’t really have a teen here who needs a curfew or needs to be told when and where to be because we won’t tell you what to do,” says Danielle Mordaunt, the shelter’s residential manager.
This lack of coverage has been discussed at length at Youth Haven, and it’s actually in the organization’s strategic plan to eventually add a shelter specifically for teens. However, for insurance and logistic purposes, as of right now, the shelter cannot accommodate them — meaning those who fall prey to abuse or abandonment at this age are often left to the mercy of the foster care system.
And space in foster homes in Collier County is hard to come by. “We really need more foster families,” says Youth Haven’s executive director, Roseanne L. Winter. She stresses that without enough foster homes in the county, children are often sent to surrounding areas, which ultimately uproots them from what was often the only source of stability in their lives — their schools.
While Winter hopes that more families will open their hearts and homes to foster children here in Collier, eventually, she hopes to make a space on the Youth Haven campus for unaccompanied teens a reality soon.
“It’s definitely part of our strategic planning. We’re currently working with our partners to find money for the initiative, but the community should not get the message that this is purely a Youth Haven program. Whatever and whenever it happens, it will be a community program.”
There’s a common talking point in domestic abuse advocacy that domestic violence doesn’t discriminate — crossing the line happens across all race, economic and gender lines. Four years ago, the Shelter for Abused Women and Children hired an advocate just to work on elder abuse issues within the county. Over the past four year’s she has seen her casework slowly increase.
“I wouldn’t say that’s because there’s more elder abuse, instead, I’d say it’s because people are more aware of elder abuse as an issue and are seeking out help,” says Vickijo Letchworth, the elder abuse advocate for the shelter. “It’s increasing, but probably for no other reason than people are more aware of it.”
Letchworth says that there are two main types of elder abuse. One is abuse carried out by a caretaker — either an adult child, grandchild or paid professional. The other is later-in-life domestic abuse from a partner.
“With later-in-life domestic abuse, often it’s been ongoing abuse, maybe they’ve been living that way for years. They thought they’d leave after the kids were gone, but now they’re stuck for health insurance or financial reasons.”
After 30 years of living with an abuser, leaving can be especially tough. Yet Letchworth insists that often the most difficult cases of elder abuse are those where a child is abusing or neglecting a parent.
“One woman we reached out to whose son had been arrested for threatening her with a weapon, all she wanted was help getting him out of jail,” recounts Letchworth. “It’s so extremely hard because their concern is often for their children, not for themselves.”
Letchworth says that common signs of elder abuse include a sudden lack of interest in personal hygiene; isolation from visits by the abuser (if every time you call you’re told they’re napping or in the shower, they may be being isolated) and bruises on the upper arms and other places that people don’t normally accidentally bump.
“If you suspect elder abuse, call the Florida hotline for elder abuse at 1-800-962-2873,” she suggests.
Local events support domestic violence victims
• If you’re looking to learn more about domestic violence or to help local victims of domestic violence, consider attending Abuse Counseling and Treatment Incorporated’s upcoming event “Speak Up, Breaking the Cycle of Abuse.” Featuring keynote speaker Victor Rivas Rivers, a former Miami Dolphins football player and best-selling author, this event will focus on how to break the silence on domestic violence.
The event is being held Tuesday, May 8, from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. at the Harborside Event Center in Fort Myers. Tickets are $35 per person and can be purchased by calling (239) 939-2553.
• Want to brighten up a victim of abuse’s Mother’s Day? The Fort Myers-based branch of Two Men and a Truck is hosting their second annual Movers For Mom’s supply drive. The moving company is collecting gently used children’s clothing, books, toys and gifts for moms to distribute at local women’s shelters on Mother’s Day.
“The company on a whole is very philanthropic,” says Two Men and a Truck’s marketing manager, Marykate O’Connell, adding, “For me, I like this drive a lot because the moms in these shelters are so easily forgotten on Mother’s Day. This is an easy way to show we care.”
The company is also encouraging anyone who is moving to use this as a time to clean out their closet and donate the unwanted items to their drive. “We’ll pick those items up and deliver them, it’s the perfect time to donate what you don’t need,” says O’Connell. To arrange for pickup, or to get a collection box, contact Two Men and a Truck at (239) 337-3331.
• Michelle Reed Photography is making a difference this Mother’s Day as she gives complimentary mother and daughter portrait sessions. The only thing she asks in return — a donation to be made to the Shelter for Abused Women and Children. Michelle Reed, a longstanding advocate against domestic violence, feels the need to do more with her resources to give back to the abused community.
“A few years ago I asked my husband and son, ‘If I died today, how would I be remembered’. I heard: great photographer, awesome mom and good wife. That’s when I knew that I wanted more. I want to make a difference in people’s lives and give back,” Reed said.
Reed’s passion for photography has transformed her passion for helping people in need. As a survivor herself, she knows the importance of raising awareness to the very prevalent issue in southwest Florida.
“I once was a victim of domestic violence and I know the horror and pain that these women and children have experienced. It just makes sense to pay it forward,” she said.
Appointments are available now through Mother’s Day. To find out more or to book your portrait session, contact Reed at email@example.com or by calling (239) 566-9797.