by Melissa W.
Domestic violence has proven to be a major cause of homelessness both in Cleveland and nationally. Every year, literally thousands of battered women fleeing violence to protect themselves and their children are forced to live in shelters or on the streets.
Statistics show that in America 1500 women a year are killed by an abusive male partner. Equally disturbing is the fact that domestic violence is the greatest cause of serious injury to American women, and that roughly 21,000 domestic crimes against women are reported every week. There are more than one million assaults, murders and rapes in a year. It is estimated that, including unreported crimes, there are an estimated 1.8 to 4 million incidents of domestic violence a year. Sources vary on the estimates.
The real story is not the numbers, but the human consequences of domestic violence. It is estimated that almost every person in the United States has contact with an abuser or a victim of domestic abuse. It is largely a hidden crime. Leaders in the community may secretly abuse their spouses. Only in the last few years has the practice of abuse come under national scrutiny with high profile cases exploding in the media.
The Gender Bias Committee's Domestic Violence Study showed that the injuries that battered women receive are at least as serious as the injuries suffered in 90 percent of violent felony crimes, yet under State law, they are almost always classified as misdemeanors.
There are many complex issues surrounding domestic violence, such as: Why do women stay in a violent relationship? Why do men batter? Why does the court system seem to let abusers off lightly? And should domestic violence become a criminal act against the State, like child molesting?
When a woman is faced with a life-threatening abuser, she may only have the option of living in a shelter or on the streets in order to escape the violence.
And it's not only her home and belongings that she's forced to leave behind. She may even have to give up her job, her friends, and her lifestyle. At least 74 percent of battered women who work report that they are harassed on the job by their abusers.
As a safety precaution, they often have to leave behind their siblings, friends, homes and jobs in order to start fresh in a new part of town. Moving out of a violent household and staying with a friend or relative doesn't always lead to successful new start. The batterer usually knows where to find his victim and will usually do whatever it takes to convince her to come back to him. When she does, he continues to abuse her - physically, verbally, sexually or emotionally.
Michelle Clay, Domestic Violence coordinator for the East Side Emergency Shelter in Cleveland, explained how difficult it is to help victims who have jobs: "If a woman wants to make a clean break from an abusive partner, then unfortunately, she may have to give up her job because her abuser will follow her from her work to her new home so that he can harass her again."
There are seven shelters in Cleveland which cater to homeless women and their children. Two of these shelters have comprehensive support programs to help victims of domestic violence.
Templum House is one such shelter and its Executive Director, Diana Cyganovich, said that during her ten years with the agency she has seen a rise in the number of victims seeking refuge at the shelter. "When I started here we were not full for weeks at time, but now we don't have empty beds for more than a day or two. When they are empty it's because a family has just left," she said.
Templum House can accommodate 28 women and children. Annually, it provides shelter for roughly 400 people. Approximately 90% of these women and children are victims of domestic violence. And in two other homeless shelters contacted in Cleveland, around 65% of women and children are victims of domestic violence.
Every year, Templum receives over 17,000 crisis calls from women in the local area. The shelter's legal help program serves over 1,500 women, and helps around 500 women to take their batterers to court.
"After a woman gets a civil protection order she can also attempt to get her batterer ordered out of their home, but she would have to show evidence that there's been physical violence or that she's in danger," said Cyganovich. "Even if she succeeds, she will never be permanently free of him because the order is only temporary."
"I think judges are getting more knowledgeable about the safety issue, and probably in most cases where a court order is needed, one has been granted. I have found that more women are seeking to get their abusers court-ordered out of the house."
If the court awards the woman the residency of the home, she can still be at risk by staying there. "There is a chance that the partner will come back after the court has ordered him out," said Cyganovich. "There is not 24-hour police protection for the victim. After all the court order is just a piece of paper."
"It depends on what the abuser feels he has to gain by violating the order," she explained. "Some partners are abusive but otherwise obey the laws of the land."
"There are some alarm systems being used which warn the victim if the batterer is coming near her home. He would wear a bracelet which would set off a signal in the victim's house, warning her and the police that he is too near the house. But nothing is totally foolproof - the bracelet could be broken off and the police may not get to the house in time."
Courts can evict an abuser from the household, but many judges believe that evicting the batterer violates his due process rights and that, even after notice, it is unfair to subject him to hardship, even though he beats his wife.
In one tragic case, which underlines the weaknesses of this type of court order, a judge ruled that an abusive husband was allowed to stay living in the same house as his wife but was banned from entering her bedroom. Shortly after the court hearing the husband killed his wife.
"We have fairly good laws in the state of Ohio, but how they are enforced and interpreted, and who's giving the message and how that person delivers that message to an abusive person, that's a lot different," Cyganovich explained.
"In my experience, some judges are very strong with everybody and the message to the abuser is very clear. The abuser's actions are wrong and he is solely responsible for his behavior. Meanwhile, in other court rooms the message is not clear at all," she added.
According to a report prepared for the Ford Foundation, 50 percent of all homeless women and children in this country are fleeing domestic violence.
Dawn, who is 24-year-old mother of two, had been physically battered and verbally abused by her husband for six years. In 1994, she finally found the strength to say enough is enough when her husband turned his abusive attention to their two young children.
"You name it, he did it," explained Dawn, "but when my children were witnessing the violence and then becoming the subjects of it, I had to get out of the relationship. And I knew once I left there would be no turning back. It had got to the stage where if I didn't leave, one of us would get killed, either him killing me or me killing him in self defense. I left my nice home with its lovely, big yard and all of my belongings."
Dawn's relationship with her husband started off on seemingly normal terms. "If I'd known what signs to look for, then I could have prevented the relationship. At first he was just very jealous. If a guy looked at me he would get mad and start calling me derogatory names. It was mostly verbal abuse at the beginning."
"Then it got worse. I learned to cope with the different abuses as each one was dealt, and at the same time I was becoming isolated from my friends and family. While the battering was happening I felt too embarrassed to tell my parents and friends about it. His parents witnessed the violence but chose to ignore it."
In desperation Dawn looked in the telephone directory and found a hotline number for domestic violence victims, which put her in touch with Templum House.
"I was terrified of going to a shelter. I thought it would be like living in a gym with lots of cots everywhere and with all sorts of strange people in them, but it's not like that at all," Dawn remembered.
"The staff at the shelter was really kind and the residents were very nice. I think my children, who [were] aged three and four years at the time, thought it was like a vacation. They would ask when we were going home." "I couldn't stay with any of my friends or relatives, or even tell them where I was going because there was a chance my husband would find me. He calls my mom to try and find out where I'm living."
Dawn wanted to press charges at the time of her escape, but later, after fearing for her own and her children's safety, she thought it would be better to be left alone.
She said, "The woman is always in a difficult position. If she presses charges she runs the risk of being attacked by her abuser. If someone else, such as the State, were allowed to bring charges against her abuser, even if she refuses, then again the abuser will blame her. In the eyes of the batterer it's always his partner's fault."
Dawn stayed at the shelter for two months and then she spent a year in Family Transitional housing. During this time she has gained help from one of Templum's many counseling programs.
Templum House saw the need to provide a good support network for women after they made the initial escape from an abusive partner. The additional support has been instrumental in helping women live independently from a violent partner.
"We realized more had to be done than just providing beds in the shelter, because once the women and children left the shelter they were returning to their homes and their violent partners because they had nowhere else to go," said Cyganovich.
"We aim to keep women and children together. We encourage women, through our support network, to help them become independent. A staff member will go with the victim's children to make sure they are enrolled in their new school."
It has been some time since Dawn escaped her violent husband. She has, with the help from Templum, successfully started a new life for herself and her children in a new home, which she is renting to own. Furthermore, she has returned to college and is proving to be an excellent student.
Cyganovich believes that there is a need for a major shift in people's thinking to overcome domestic violence. She said, "In this society we promote male aggression and violent behavior, and as long as we continue to do that and raise our kids to buy into this belief system, then we are going to continue to have a problem and the police aren't going to be able to solve it."
"We do have a problem challenging abusers, and a part of that is because we see some of ourselves in them. So we have a lot of trouble when cases are brought before the court and the person looks like your neighbor, your co-worker or your buddy. We have a hard time accepting that that person can be very abusive to his partner and children," Cyganovich surmised.
Templum House also provides a counseling program for abusive individuals: "Not only do we have to change their behavior," said Cyganovich, "but we also have to change an attitude and a belief system which drives it. And that's hard to do."
Changing people's belief system is important, but many advocates believe that, in addition, domestic violence should be treated as a crime against society.
"The Supreme Court recently had an opportunity to support the philosophy that this is a crime, and that the prosecutor, on behalf of the state, would have the power to proceed with the case even if the victim has had a change of heart," said Cyganovich. "But instead the Supreme Court went with the trial judge who said that the judge could dismiss the case if the victim wanted to back out, regardless [of whether] the prosecutor wanted to go ahead or not."
Unlike many cases, Dawn's had a positive ending. But it seems that if a victim wants to lead a non-violent life she has to give up everything to stand a chance of gaining it.
And if a woman stands up and fights her case, not only does she run the risk of losing her life, but she has to struggle with a court system that is just waking up to the issue and with society's attitude towards violence within the home.
Editor's Note: For more information about volunteering or services call 631-2275 for Templum House or 391-HELP for the Domestic Violence Hotline.
Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine published January – February 1997 Issue 19