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Services, attitudes change toward domestic violence

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When shelters started popping up in Indiana and around the country a little more than three decades ago, women who were victims of domestic violence had limited options. There was also an element of shame, so they would hide their situations from friends and family. In some cases, they might be able to find another woman at their church or through social organizations who would be willing to take them into their homes.

While much has changed since then, domestic violence still exists and organizations continue to help victims with an added emphasis on prevention, said Laura Berry, executive director of the Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

The organization started in 1980 and celebrated its 30th year with a gala Sept. 11.

While there were some shelters for victims of domestic violence on the East Coast in the early 1970s, the national movement came in the late ’70s, Berry said. It was during that period when the first five domestic violence shelters were started in Indiana: Turning Point in Columbus, 1975; the YWCA of Fort Wayne, 1976; YWCA of St. Joseph County, 1977; Women’s Alternatives in Anderson, 1978; and The Caring Place in Valparaiso, 1978.

The directors of those shelters came together in 1980 to form a statewide network, which today is the ICADV. The ICADV’s website lists these five organizations and about 35 others around the state, some with more than one location.

Berry said the partner organizations are seeing more victims now than in the 1980s or 1990s, but the increase in numbers is due to a rise in awareness of available resources and services for victims, not necessarily a rise in violent incidents, which she estimates has stayed more or less the same over the decades.

Mary Jo Lee started with Women’s Alternatives in 1983. She’s now president and CEO of what is now known as Alternatives Inc. in Anderson, serving Madison, Marion, Henry, Hancock, and Hamilton counties.

“When I first began working in this field, domestic violence was still perceived as a family issue,” she said. “We were not supposed to be involved in family issues. It really was not recognized by many as a crime. So we had our challenges at first to begin to make the public aware that this is not a family issue, it’s a crime. People are being hurt, lives are being lost.”

She credited the women’s movement of the ’70s for raising awareness about the issue nationally, and said Anderson was fortunate to have a group of women in the local National Organization of Women chapter who wanted to start a shelter.

The main goals of the early shelters in Indiana, which all shelters continue to have, were to raise awareness, provide a hotline for victims, and provide safe shelter for victims, she said.

Many organizations have since added job training, financial education, and protective order assistance to help victims not only leave abusive situations but also continue to overcome the barriers they had to get over to leave their abusive relationships.

But her shelter – and others around the state – couldn’t have made it without community support, Lee said.

Even in the early 1980s, she said Anderson’s mayor at the time was supportive of the cause and the organization. She said the community has continued its support since then.

Nationally and locally, Berry added, members of law enforcement, the judicial system, and the general public still seemed to view domestic violence as a private, family matter even until the mid-1990s, when the Violence Against Women Act was passed in 1994.

Kerry Hyatt Blomquist, legal director of the ICADV, agreed. She said Indiana statute has been updated to strengthen the options for law enforcement and prosecutors to use in their cases against abusers. For instance, in 2006, the statute was updated to define strangulation, one of the most common abuse methods, as a Class D felony. The statute was also changed in recent years to make domestic violence battery a felony if a child is involved or witnesses the abuse.

Throughout the state, the ICADV has helped implement comprehensive training programs for all professionals, including training sessions for the law enforcement academy, training for prosecutors and judicial personnel, and all other professionals who work in this area, Berry said.

Blomquist credited the judges and law enforcement for welcoming these trainings. She also said most judges now have a better understanding of the issues of domestic violence situations; however, from time to time judges will still call out the victim in court about her record of going back to her abuser after previous incidents.

Instead, she said, they should still treat victims in these situations the same way they would treat the victim if her abuser was a stranger instead of someone who happens to be her spouse or partner.

The ICADV has also helped establish quality assurance standards for domestic violence programs and batterers’ intervention programs, encourages public awareness, offers a statewide toll-free crisis hotline, and works with legislators on public policy issues. Recently, they started prevention programs for middle and high school students. They continue to consider new issues, such as being sensitive to the various cultural backgrounds of victims.

The coalition helps the partner organizations. For instance, in 2002, after the police chief for Lapel shared the idea with Lee, Alternatives Inc. started a safe haven program with Ricker Oil, a gas company based in Madison County with locations in east central and northeast Indiana.

Alternatives Inc. trained Ricker Oil employees to work with domestic violence victims who might come to their stores needing to use a phone to call for help. This is critical for victims in rural communities, Lee said, because many people do not have phones, or if they do, they might not feel safe making a call from home. A gas station might be the closest place with a public phone.

After reading about the partnership between Ricker Oil and Alternatives Inc. in a trade magazine, the president of Gas America, based in Hancock County, asked Lee to help start a similar program. Lee realized she would need some help with trainings and called the ICADV for help.

Other than this program that involves private businesses, Lee said public attitudes, which could still be better in some cases, have improved in terms of seeing domestic violence as a crime that affects not just families but communities and society. More people seem to be aware the decision to leave a violent situation is never an easy one.

Lee said she’s now less likely to be asked, “Why doesn’t she just leave?” Her answer after working with victims for almost 30 years: “What would you do if you didn’t know if you could still feed your children after you left?”

Berry said when she is still asked that question from time to time, she would likely point out that in many cases where a person died because of an act of domestic violence, the victim had left – but the violence doesn’t necessarily end when the relationship does.

Looking back over the past 30 years of the organization while preparing for the Sept. 11 gala, Berry said the shelters and ICADV have come a long way in supporting victims and raising awareness in Indiana, but the event would also include the organization’s goals for the future, such as continued prevention efforts.

She also thanked Baker & Daniels, whose attorneys have given their pro bono hours on appellate work and received an award at the gala. Deborah Hepler, who died in October 2009 and had founded the Protective Order Pro Bono Project of Greater Indianapolis in 2000, which merged with the ICADV in 2007, was also recognized with an award named for her that will be given annually to individuals or law firms for pro bono work.•

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