A promising new start

Tue, 06/05/2007 - 5:22pm
By: Ben Nelms

Promise Place opens shelter with a full house

A promising new start1

Have you ever known a friend or family member to flinch at a sudden movement by her spouse after he makes a spontaneous gesture with a hand or arm? Have you ever seen someone flinch after hearing a loud, unexpected noise? Muscles in the neck and upper torso will often tighten and the person, usually female, will turn her head just slightly to one side with her eyes appearing to squint. But most of the time there is no overt sign at all that anything is wrong since humans are quite adept at pretending all is well.

In America, nearly one-third of all women will be physically or sexually abused by a husband or boyfriend at some time during their lives. And unless we are living life in a bubble, anyone who does not believe there is a problem with domestic violence in Fayette County should think again. Being Georgia’s highest per capita income county provides absolutely no insulation for a crime that hides in the shadows of every community in America. But for the first time, domestic violence victims in Fayette County have a shelter from the onslaught. The local non-profit organization, Promise Place, opened its new emergency shelter on May 15. But the shelter was filled to capacity with 15 women and children on its first day of operation and people are already being turned away with no other shelter available in Fayette County. Those fortunate enough to have found refuge will spend up to two months in a safe living environment.

A promising new start2

“Domestic violence is not just a women’s crime. It affects whole families,” said Promise Place Executive Director Sonja Strickland. “If you don’t address the domestic violence, what happens to the little boys that are victims as well as their parent. They grow up and can become abusers. The little girls grow up to become abused. If you don’t stop that cycle it will keep perpetuating itself.”

Promise Place works with 700 women and their children each year, providing services such as case management, children’s counseling, date violence education, legal advocacy and assistance, domestic violence response, emergency food and transportation and many others. The hundreds of cases handled each year by Promise Place staff are all too familiar in the world of threats and violence.

One such case involved a woman who called Strickland, saying that her husband had not abused her for a couple years but had recently began threatening to kill her. Hearing the threats, the woman’s teenage son had begun sleeping with a knife under his mattress. He wanted to be able to protect his mother from his father, Strickland said.

“She told me there was nothing she could do. The court system would not listen, the police would not listen. Her church told her it was up to her to fix things because her husband had a problem,” said Strickland. “Everyone told her she had to fix it but she couldn’t. She said her husband was angry and controlling. If she had a job it wasn’t good enough. She said everything she did is wrong and her child was terrified. These are the people we deal with so often. They really need someone to listen to them and believe their story.”

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Though domestic violence can often masquerade behind the walls of a home, there are other occasions where deeds done in stealth cannot be hidden, and some of the cases handled by Promise Place are instances of extreme violence, cases that accentuate the need for the confidential setting provided by competent staff at the new shelter. Though some of these cases are not for the faint of heart, they are nonetheless real.

“We had a lady whose boyfriend actually took a hammer to her hands. He made her hold her hands out and struck her because he became convinced she had stolen from him,” Strickland said. “He took her into the bathroom and put her in the bathtub. Then he put cans in a pillow case and came back into the bathroom. He had her corralled and he methodically beat her. She was beaten black and blue. She looked worse than the pictures of some dead people I’ve seen. She was beaten on her legs, on her back. She was black all over her body. She had bruises everywhere except on a part of her forearm and the bottoms of her feet. After it happened she had to sneak outside and hide in the bushes until she could get a family member to come pick her up. The family member had to quickly go to the courthouse to try to get a protective order and then try to get a warrant out against him and then try to find a place to hide because she had no place to go. If the shelter had been open when that happened she would have had a place to go. Today, she would have a place to go.”

The chief aim of Promise Place is to protect the victims of domestic violence. Though access to the organization can come from referrals by police or the court system, Strickland said, those are by no means the only routes to a safer life.

“We also have brochures everywhere, we have a 24-hour crisis line at 770-468-1673 and we do have trained staff that answer those calls,” she said. “We make arrangements to meet them in a public place before bringing them to the shelter. We get protective orders and also have arrangements with police to transport victims after hours.”

A promising new start4

Once in the new shelter, an assessment and case planning is done. Center staff work with the victim to determine her goals and what she wants to accomplish. The center has a volunteer mentoring program for those clients that need additional help with issues like budgeting, Strickland said.

The cost of operating a shelter is approximately $350,000 each year because you have to staff 24 hours a day, Strickland said. The shelter is being leased for $500 per month. The organization’s transitional house, opened more than a decade ago, is up for sale. The proceeds from that sale, Strickland said, will be used toward the purchase of the new shelter.

“There is a lot of faith at work here. We were always well supported through the community but we were stuck at no growth because you can only fundraise so much,” said Strickland. “And we knew that state money was supposed to become available but we weren’t positive. But we received notification on June 1 that we’re going to receive $183,000 this year from a combination of state funding, Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) and federal Family Violence Prevention Services. This carries an annual renewal that we hope will be available each year. We’ve been trying to get into this funding for seven years. It’s been a long time.”

Along with the recent grant announcement, Promise Place receives approximately $150,000 in annual funding from local sources. Needed dollars come from sources such as the $20,000 from Peachtree City United Methodist Church, $36,000 from proceeds at the organization’s thrift store, $20,000 from Fayette County, $7,500 each from the cities of Fayetteville and Peachtree City and through many annual fundraisers.

Strickland said the average victim of domestic violence leaves her partner seven times before leaving for good. That departure comes from a host of reasons, though it is primarily because the children in the relationship are growing up, for financial reasons or because the abuse is getting worse, she said. Once at the shelter, Promise Place has a short window of time, 30-60 days, to help change a woman’s mindset and to build her back up, to show her what she can do on her own, Strickland said. And once at the shelter, domestic violence victims are exposed to a number of resources geared to alter the worldview that abuse created. Those resources include on-site counseling, parenting classes, life skills training, financial training and employment acquisition.

“These resources are good because we are showing them that they are not second-class. Even in terms of the shelter itself, they are not receiving the hand-me-downs and the throwaways from Fayette County. They walk into a shelter where everything is brand new and tasteful and home-like. All this reinforces the fact that someone cares about them,” Strickland said. “What we really want to have happen, is that when a domestic violence victim leaves the shelter that she feels valued. When women are victims of abuse, they feel very low, they don’t have self-esteem, they’ve been told they’re not worth anything, their measure of themselves is down in the dirt. So when they leave we want to pack their suitcases full of resources so that they are able to help keep themselves from getting into that situation again.”

Formerly known as Fayette County Council on Domestic Violence, Promise Place has been serving Fayette County for nearly two decades. The organization’s reach now extends throughout the Griffin Judicial circuit in Fayette, Spaulding, Upson and Pike counties. But the great majority of victims served by Promise Place, a full 80 percent, come from Fayette County.

The Promise Place emergency shelter is now open and the need for additional space is crystal clear. Open only two weeks and the shelter has been forced to turn away three women and three children due to a lack of space. Attempts to situate those six people in other shelters out of county failed due to lack of space, Strickland said. Promise Place needs more funding for a second shelter and a new transitional setting to accommodate 20 families for up to a year.

“So we have many more needs,” Strickland explained. “People think we can stop now because we have a shelter. But we’re just at the very beginning. When you open a shelter you’re promising these women that you’ll provide what they need and that when they leave us they will be okay and will have all the tools in their bag to make it on their own. We haven’t reached that yet.”

Promise Place provides a wealth of other services. The organization can be contacted in confidence at 770-460-1604 or at www.promiseplace.org.

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