A Safe Place: Dr. Ozella Barnes

Dr. Ozella Barnes, A Safe Place's chief operations officer, presenting at Emergency Shelter Center in Lake County (Photos by Tanya Tucka.)

You would probably be shocked at just how prevalent domestic violence is, even in the most affluent communities. A staggering number of women, children, and even men suffer in our own backyards, and right under our noses.

In Lake County alone, the numbers of people affected by domestic violence this year are expected to be:

  • 117,000 women
  • 90,0000 men
  • 60,000 children

The advocates at A Safe Place (ASP) tend to see people on their worst days and they are there — ready to assist — in a crisis. ASP is Lake County’s sole provider of services exclusively addressing domestic violence.

In the coming year, they expect to help 14,000 of their neighbors. According to Kate Johnson, ASP board president, 94 percent of their clients don’t return to their abusers. That staggeringly positive statistic is the result of a lot of hard work, providing comprehensive services from the first phone call, to shelter and counseling, and ultimately to self-sufficiency. Here are a few of their stories.

One unnamed victim showed up on ASP’s doorstep asking for help in getting away from her abusive ex explaining, “He says I’m his. He knocks on the windows of my house and has tried to get in three times. He calls to harass me saying he’s suicidal. For five years he’s been texting me up to 200 messages a day and pics of guns, his genitals, his belt, other women. I’ve gotten 3,600 texts since July. Every time I leave the house, he texts to let me know he’s following me. I don’t want any harm to come to him, I just want him to leave me alone.”

After completing a 22-page “order of protection” with the help of ASP staff, this victim was able to get an emergency restraining order, after which she petitioned for the longer, two year order. “This is one of the milder cases,” says Damaris Lorta, legal advocacy coordinator at ASP. So far this year, the organization has helped complete 2,100 such orders, an increase over last year at this time.

A Safe Place: Pat Davenport

Pat Davenport, CEO of A Safe Place, speaking to A Safe Place attendees at Halas Hall Dinner

When victims arrive requesting assistance, they are stepping away from danger but also toward it. Abusers often feel a loss of control and try to re-assert themselves with increasingly violent behavior. “The most dangerous time for a victim is when she tries to leave her abuser,” says Lorta.

“I arrived at A Safe Place as a client, after my husband punched my 12-year-old daughter in the stomach,” says “Suzie,” who now serves on the ASP board. “Domestic violence doesn’t discriminate — it happens regardless of socioeconomic class, race, gender, orientation, or education,” the mother of two explains. She was involved in the PTO and living in an affluent suburb yet no one knew that for two years she had slept on the floor of her kids’ room to protect them from their father. “Any night could be the night,” she says. Meanwhile her daughter learned to smile, nod, be quiet; keeping her emotions tucked away resulted in hives and severe joint pain and eventually paralyzed half of her body with conversion disorder. Suzie told her ASP counselor Angel (an apt name) that she was afraid to leave because “he said he’ll kill us.” Angel said, “Honey, what’s he doing now?” It gave Suzie the courage to go to her sister’s home. Through ASP, her daughter engaged in art therapy. She says, “On that first day my daughter painted a black mask. On her last day, she painted with colors that represented a new life — hot pink, lime green, yellow. She’s 17 now and just spoke at an event as a survivor.”

But when children are involved, the issues surrounding domestic violence don’t just end when the abuser is out of the residence. Suzie’s kids, like many others in their situation, must still spend court-ordered time with their father.

Lisa Raddatz, director of the Family Visitation Center, says, “Right after the victim leaves the abuser, the chance of death at their hand becomes nine times more likely and often it happens at child drop-offs.” The Family Visitation Center, run by ASP, was created to be a safe space for children and their parents to rebuild their relationships. With staggered arrivals and separate entrances, the mothers and fathers never need to see each other. In addition, the site has a room to host visits that require court-ordered supervision.

Raddatz describes the scene of such a visit: “In the front door comes the trembling mom for the first time. She is clutching her baby and knows her abuser is here. In a different room, a dad is pacing, nervous to see his child after being separated. An advocate sits with the mom and listens to her fears and calms her before bringing the baby into the visitation room. The baby, bawling, reaches out and wants mom. As visits continue, the dad learns to distract or soothe his child. Eventually the judge orders unsupervised visits or for mom to supervise. By now, she has grown stronger.” Raddatz points out that they are planting seeds of hope and change.

Daniel was a child spending time with a parent at the Family Visitation Center. “I didn’t want to walk in that room,” he says. At seven, he stuttered and was terrified of talking. Volunteer Gene Minsky created a mentoring program at the center for boys like Daniel. Minsky says, “It’s five or six males helping with younger males who might be future abusers. We want to break the cycle of violence.” Daniel joined a Tuesday group and says of the other boys, “We all had one thing in common: We had survived an unsafe household.” The mentors took the boys for group dinners, games, and to the park every two weeks. Now, Daniel is eloquent and grounded and says “Uncle Gene” Minsky is his best friend. Minsky says, “Daniel turned his pain into power.” More recently, Daniel set an ambitious goal for himself — he wanted to attend Lake Forest Academy. He met his grade goal and got accepted to the school, which he now attends on a 95 percent scholarship. He says, “I love A Safe Place because it allows other stories, like mine, to exist.”

A Safe Place: Gene Minsky and Daniel

Gene Minsky and Daniel with Staley Da Bear

The abusers are often victims’ fathers, uncles, or other family members and ASP also offers services for them. “Every one of the abusers was once a victim [in childhood],” says Dr. Ozella Barnes, ASP’s chief operating officer. “We don’t meet them with judgement and condemnation. Their empowerment has gone left of center and we tell them that they have to take responsibility for what they’ve done. They must be on time, pay their class fees, do their homework, and be engaged in sessions.”

The scope of ASP’s support system is staggering. In addition to court advocacy, their 24-hour crisis line (847-249-4450 or 800-600-SAFE), and counseling programs, they also provide emergency shelter and transitional housing. “When victims arrive, they have their babies and what’s on their back,” says Barnes. “The shelter is not the hotel everyone is waiting to get into. It’s a time when no one wants to talk about what’s going on, let alone strangers.”

A Safe Place’s work is only possibly because of their network of volunteers and donations that help them maintain and increase services.

Brian J. McCaskey, senior director of business development for the Chicago Bears, who spoke at a recent ASP event aimed at providing a glimpse into the lives of domestic violence victims, sums it up well when asking for help on behalf of ASP: “We’d love to have your time, talent or treasure.”

A Safe Place: Brian J. McCaskey

Keynote Speaker Brian J. McCaskey at Halas Hall

*There are Safe Houses providing assistance in Deerfield, Highland Park, Northbrook, Lake Forest, Lake Bluff and others based on location needed by clients. Call 847-249-4450 or 800-600-SAFE for more information.

How you can help:

  • Volunteer: Last year, volunteers donated more than 10,400 hours to ASP and the Lake County Crisis Center; there are spots at the courthouse, on the helpline, as mentors, and more
  • Serve: ASP’s Board of Directors meets quarterly in the evenings and conducts lunchtime phone meetings to accommodate busy professionals
  • Donate: A gift as small as $50 will provide a night of shelter for a family of four while $250 will feed the residents of an entire shelter for a week

 

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Pamela Rothbard

Pamela Rothbard is a writer and photographer living in Glencoe, Illinois. Her work has appeared in various literary and mainstream magazines and on National Public Radio and her parenting and baking blog, Flour on the Floor, was featured in Better Homes and Gardens. Pamela has been a regular Make It Better contributor since 2013. When she’s not behind a keyboard or a camera, she’s trying new recipes and restaurants and adding another layer of clothing because she’s always cold. Pamela is also a supporter of no-kill shelters and animal rescue organizations (her favorites are PAWS Chicago and Best Friends in Utah). Find her on Twitter and Instagram @pamelarothbard.