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Shelter House marks 30 years of serving victims of domestic abuse

Battered women and their children have a friend in a program started 30 years ago in Willmar.

The program, called Shelter House, provides safe shelter and advocates support for battered women and their children in Kandiyohi, Swift, Chippewa, Lac qui Parle and Renville counties.

Shelter House will celebrate three decades of striving to create environments free of domestic abuse and sexual assault with an event open to the public from 4 to 7 p.m. on Tuesday at the Willmar Holiday Inn and Conference Center.

Shelter House history, scrapbook photos and memorabilia will be available for participants to see, and silhouettes will be on display of 20 women who lost their lives to domestic violence during the past 20 years.

"It's sad, but it tells a story of why we exist,'' said Connie Schmoll, Shelter House executive director. "We are meeting a desperate need to save the lives of people in our community.''

Shelter House staff members work with women who are running from domestic violence. Abuse doesn't discriminate: it happens to women of all ages, socio-economic levels, religions, races and cultures. Ninety-five percent of all victims are females; the abusers are males, according to Shelter House and statewide statistics.

The stories of victims are heart-wrenching, said Megan, the Shelter House volunteer coordinator and women's advocate, who asked that her last name not be used. She said domestic abuse is a problem everywhere, not just in Willmar.

And it's perpetrated behind closed doors by someone who may be known publicly as an upstanding citizen but who's really an abuser in private. Nearly all abusers are men.

"I've heard so many times, lately, that everyone thinks he's so great or everyone thinks that they're such a wonderful nice person and they could never see him do this,'' said Megan. "People change so much when that door is shut and when the whole community doesn't see them anymore.''

The number of clients receiving various Shelter House services has increased from 70 women in 1978 to more than 600 women in 2008. Of that number, about 100 women and about 150 children have lived temporarily at the shelter's residential setting until safe housing is found for them.

Most victims may not need safe shelter, but need assistance in working on court-ordered protection, safety planning, resources, custody and child abuse cases.

"They may be able to have the abusing partner removed from the home so they have their own home to go to. They may be able to find a family or friend to go to or they may have financial resources where they don't need residential services themselves,'' said Schmoll.

"Many more do not stay at shelter than do. The ones that come here have no other safe place to call home or to go to and reside, so they reside here while we're working with them,'' she said.

Filing a court-order for protection against an abuser is a dangerous time for the victim. It's during this time that the victim may seek shelter. Also during this period, shelter staff can help change locks and implement other home security features.

"They're taking a step to get control back in their life from somebody who's used to having power and control ... That's a dangerous time: taking a step to say no I'm not going to do this anymore. I'm going to stop it and order protection. That's just a piece of paper. It's a court ordered-document to stay away from them,'' she said.

"But who can manage that other than just to come to the shelter for a few days while it's the most critical time until that message is clear and they realize it, and then do some safety planning and then return back to the home.''

Schmoll said Shelter House works well with the local law enforcement.

"Our law enforcement agency here in Willmar takes us very seriously,'' said Schmoll. "They're a tremendous help to us, providing safety for us and for the people that are fleeing abuse.''

Besides serving women and children, the shelter provided services to 27 men last year.

"We may have one or two men who need safe shelter. It's closer to zero each year. We do not have them stay at the shelter. It's a battered women's shelter. We'd provide housing at another location,'' said Schmoll.

The maximum stay at Shelter House is about 17 to 18 days.

"We see that lengthening out the last few years because it takes longer to secure permanent housing, to find housing that somebody can afford, and to secure that takes a longer time, so they end up staying longer here in Shelter House,'' she said.

Schmoll said staff members try to watch for trends. Shelter House was "incredibly full'' this past summer. One reason may be that victims didn't want to take their kids out of school, so they tried to tolerate the abuse until school was out and then sought shelter.

Also, abuse tends to increase in January after the holidays and after the Super Bowl football championships.

"It doesn't mean abuse always all of a sudden starts happening then, but probably the incident of events or things happening is high then,'' Schmoll observed.

Community education and prevention are important parts of Shelter House programming.

Julie, sexual assault coordinator, said sexual assault and sexuality are not topics people like to talk about.

The sexual assault is most prevalent in the 18-to-24 age range when women are attending college or out on their own. An assault might occur when drinking or drugs are involved. Victims may not want anyone to know they got themselves in a situation that they don't know how to handle.

Shelter House offers support groups to help children and adult victims deal with the emotional scars caused by abuse.

Britt, community education coordinator and domestic violence advocate, said Shelter House staff members are making a difference every day in the lives of victims.

"Even if it's in that one-on-one relationship, we empower women. Children who see the way to solve problems is to hit ... learn that that's not the way. We help them learn how to develop new ways to solve their problems and to use their words and to live violence free. We really are making differences.''