BULLHEAD CITY — Are you safe?
The question is one of the first that WestCare Program Director Cheryl DeBatt asks when a victim of domestic violence calls and asks for help.
“They cry out for help and we do our best to help them and place them,” said DeBatt. “Domestic violence is probably one of the most difficult, challenging things there is. Across the country, it is a leading cause of homelessness.”
The link between domestic violence and homelessness is well documented. One study found that 92 percent of homeless women have experienced severe physical or sexual abuse in their lives and 63 percent of those women have been adult victims of violence by their partners.
According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, it is not because homeless women are more likely to be victims of domestic violence but rather that experiencing domestic violence or sexual assault often forces women and children into homelessness.
“Women may have left in the middle of the night with nothing but her kids and the clothes on their backs,” said Stacey Stutsman, WestCare domestic violence systems advocate. “For many, they have already been isolated from their families, have no access to the family income and don’t or haven’t worked outside the home in a long time.”
“When women leave an abusive relationship, they’ve often attempted to leave multiple times,” said DeBatt. “I think the average is eight or nine attempts. For many women, they initially go back because they have nowhere else to go. The question is when they go, where do they go?”
For victims of domestic abuse in Mohave County, the answer of where to go is often WestCare Foundation, which offers programs and services across a continuum of health and human services, including the issues of domestic violence and substance abuse.
“Last year I assisted 212 people out of this office,” said DeBatt. “Stacey worked with just over 400 victims of domestic violence. ...
“When it comes to domestic violence, we deal with both the victim and the perpetrator. We offer classes for the perpetrator and all kinds of services for victims, including the safehouse which is a 24-bed shelter for women and children of domestic violence.”
For many women fleeing violence, they need both short- and long-term housing assistance.
“The first thing is to get them into safe housing,” said DeBatt. “We also have transitional housing which is after they get settled and we help them get employment. Once they’re on their feet, we have apartments that are completely furnished. They take their clothes and they move in. A lot of them can live there from 18 months to two years, depending on their situation.
“Ours is the only facility in the city for transitional housing, which is really difficult. Even two years is long time when you can only place 10 (women).”
The problems related to domestic violence and homelessness are not limited by age or by economic status.
“I had a 69-year-old woman call and tell me that she’d had her fingers broken for the last time — she needed help,” said DeBatt. “In her case it worked out because she and her husband owned two residences. She’s living in one and he’s living in the other.”
“For many of our seniors, they never made much money to start with,” said Stutsman. “Some are living on only $735 a month. There is a woman in the safehouse right now who can’t move out because there isn’t any place she can afford to move to.”
A growing problem for Westcare is the number of women and children who are simply abandoned in the area.
“We see this every single day,” said DeBatt. “A guy, a gal and their kids get in the car somewhere in another state and head this way. They get here, run out of money and get into a huge fight. He pushes her and the kids out of the car in a parking lot, and then turns around and goes home, leaving her with no money, nowhere to go and no way to get there.”
Complicating domestic violence issues in the region is the problem of substance abuse.
“Substance abuse is a huge problem here,” said DeBatt. “I would say substance abuse is a problem for about one out of every three we see. Domestic violence and substance abuse go hand in hand.
“A lot of times women will join in just to get along, to be a part of something. There’s still an underlying problem. With women, it’s usually emotional — they’re trying to cover up something, they don’t want to feel. If you don’t get to the bottom of what is really going on, how do we expect them to change their behavior?”
“The majority of the people I work with do not go to the safehouse,” said Stutsman. “So many people simply don’t have any idea how to take care of themselves — they’ve never learned. I help them re-build their life and let them know that they can do this. I’m a survivor. I did it with two kids in diapers — if I can do it, anyone can do it.”
“We keep talking and talking and talking, hoping they are taking in what we’re saying,” said DeBatt. “I had a lady sitting in the lobby the other day and her eye was huge and blackened and she was sitting there, just shaking. I walked over and asked if she was OK and she said she was fine, she had just fallen on a door. I asked if there was something we could do for her and she said she was there because her husband was at our office to do a court-ordered domestic violence screening.
“I said, ‘OK, honey, I’m here if you need to talk. My office is right there.’ She said, ‘No, no, honestly, I fell on a door.’
“All we can do is keep talking and hoping that they hear us. Victims are just beat up to no end, not just physically but mentally and emotionally and they feel horrible about themselves. We try really hard not to re-victimize people. People have a hard time understanding that. Our goal is to help people find solutions and regain their lives.”