'My life mattered': Domestic violence survivor credits Safe Haven with helping her start over
DULUTH — Jennifer Storm remembers the night she and her young daughter drove over the Blatnik Bridge to Duluth together for the first time.
The sun was setting and the city was bathed in a warm pink light. Storm's daughter, Sophia, was excited to enter Duluth, a place she had heard mentioned so many times. For Storm, it was a moment she had envisioned every night as she tried to sleep: What would be playing on the radio? What would the city's lights look like cresting over the bridge? What would it be like to feel safe?
"Whenever we go out of state and come back over that bridge ... there is something sacred about that," Storm said. "It's like a celebration."
Storm, 35, is a Michigan native who has lived in the Duluth area since March 31, 2016. That's the day after she left her husband, who for months had physically and mentally abused her, often in front of their daughter, now 3 years old. Storm said she endured rat poisoning, strangulation, broken bones and other forms of abuse before her husband was arrested for domestic violence.
Leaving that situation in Grand Blanc, Mich., with her daughter in her care took months of planning and legal research, with secret calls to domestic violence hotlines and other resources in the rare trips outside of her home. Duluth's Safe Haven Shelter and Resource Center played an important role in her eventual escape, acting as "a shield" for her and her daughter, making their new life possible.
"Every day I can't believe I wake up in Duluth," Storm said. "Every day I wake up and can't believe I'm alive."
Storm's husband died by suicide a few weeks after she left.
She is sharing her story because she wants to help other victims of domestic violence.
"I want women to know that even in the most dire circumstances, there is hope for transcendence," she said. "Trust there is something bigger taking care of you."
'Everything felt broken'
The couple of years before their marriage were normal enough, Storm said, noting her husband "even cried at our wedding."
But soon after Storm began dealing with a debilitating back problem that resulted in the need for surgery, and her husband's demeanor changed. He was angry that he had to devote more time to caring for Storm and Sophia, and had to step away from a large-scale garage-building project. It was around that time he grew physically violent, Storm said, but she discovered he had been poisoning her with thallium, an illegal substance typically used for poisoning rats, long before that.
The couple lived near Flint, Mich., so it was easy to blame symptoms on contaminated water. Doctors found arsenic in her blood, but her husband wouldn't allow the specific test that would identify what was causing her red skin, hair loss and the burning sensation when she walked. The poisoning led to a heart attack and seizures, Storm said, and when Storm refused to take liquids from her husband, the violence began.
Like many victims, she said, she first rationalized his behavior or was resolved to tolerate it, and blamed herself or the garage project. It wasn't until his rage affected Sophia that Storm began planning their escape in earnest.
One day, her husband came in from the outside wearing steel-toed boots, angry that Sophia's toys were in his way. Storm got to her knees, scrambling to move them.
"He didn't want her to have toys," she said, and most came from other family. "He wouldn't let me buy her a $2 toy when she was teething."
In his anger he began stomping on Sophia's toys, destroying in particular a favored white truck that Storm begged him to leave intact.
"He left, and (Sophia) was there looking at me, and I can't get that image out of my head," Storm said, crying. "After that, everything felt broken."
Because the violence was unpredictable, Storm had a hard time sleeping, often sneaking into a sunroom she could lock and drawing in coloring books into the morning. She found firearms, crossbows and other weapons in and around their home, some strategically placed, she thought, in case she tried to escape. Once, she found a gun lying on their bed, casually aimed at Sophia in her crib. Sometimes, her husband would calmly talk about how he could kill her, she said.
She would confront each day with an activity that would help with the eventual escape: Make one phone call or find a library book with guidance. She clung to the comfort and encouragement of music.
"Every day it was, 'We've got to figure out how to get out of this,'" Storm said. "How can we get to Duluth? What am I missing?"
A former psychologist, Storm wasn't working because of her health problems, and had no money of her own. Her husband gave her an allowance of $60 a month. He wouldn't allow her to take Sophia out of the house. She could divorce him, he once said, but he wouldn't allow her to take their daughter, Storm said. And leaving without Sophia wasn't an option.
An increased need
From October 2016 through this past September, Safe Haven served 1,812 people in entirety, up from 1,312 in 2010. Its 39-bed shelter is always near capacity, having housed 488 women and children during that time.
The resource center's more visible presence on First Street, across from the St. Louis County Courthouse, and its increase in program offerings has boosted numbers, said Safe Haven executive director Susan Utech.
But society has become more violent, she said, and the work the organization began in 1978 has not waned.
"If I didn't work in this world, I would not believe there is that much domestic violence in our community. But there is," said Utech, who noted that all of the planning that went into Storm's eventual escape is typical.
Safe Haven works with the Duluth Police Department on cases and has someone available to take phone calls every hour of the day. The organization offers legal resources, support groups, counseling, child care, and self-sufficiency and youth mentorship programs. Safe Haven has seen an 82 percent increase in the number of clients needing legal resources since 2010. And while not every victim reports abuse to police, the organization followed up on more than 400 domestic violence-related arrests made in southern St. Louis County in the last year.
Nationally, Utech said, 1 in 3 women has been affected by domestic violence in their lifetime. It's rare to hear these stories publicly, she said, out of safety concerns, fears of retribution and the incredibly personal nature of abuse.
"We still shame women. We still blame our victims inappropriately for the abuse," Utech said of society. '"How come they don't leave?' people ask. Someone like Jenny is unusual in that she is willing to talk about it so freely. She has said, 'I am doing this for those who can't.'"
'She was terrified'
In the weeks leading up to Storm's final day in Michigan, her husband's abuse had worsened. On that last day, her husband slammed her head repeatedly against the floor and picked her up by her throat, choking her, she said, with Sophia watching, screaming. Storm was left with visible bruises, she said.
Somehow, she got her husband to consent to a dinner out alone with her friend who had a birthday coming up, but Sophia had to be left behind.
During that dinner, Storm confided fully in her lifelong friend, Katie Champlin, who had known some of Storm's history of abuse.
"I felt sick to my stomach," Champlin said, when she learned of the extent of the violence. "She was terrified that last night."
Champlin cleaned out her bank account to help Storm get to Minnesota. That same night, Storm called her uncle, Michael Gregory, a retired K9 police officer in Arizona who had texted her an Easter greeting in recent days. It dawned on her that he might be able to help her. And he did.
He told her to document her injuries, and he called the local sheriff's department, who went to Storm's home. Authorities then met Storm on the country road near her house and asked her to go inside with them to talk with her husband. It was the most frightening thing she had ever done.
"I got to look him in the eye and I said, 'You're not going to do this anymore. There are people that know what's going on now,'" she said.
Storm's husband was arrested, Gregory said, but he knew he would only be held for a short time. Gregory encouraged Storm to gather Sophia and head to Minnesota that night, an 11-hour drive.
"She picked up and left with the clothes on her back," he said. "It takes a courageous individual to do that."
Once in Minnesota, Safe Haven's legal advocates worked with Storm to avoid her and Sophia having to return to Michigan for custody issues, Storm said. Her husband died soon after. Despite everything, the death was difficult, Storm said.
"I still think of him as this person who was really sick, and couldn't get the right kind of help," she said.
A new purpose
Today, Storm and Sophia work on healing. Storm had visited Duluth and the North Shore earlier in her life, and had always wanted to call the area home. She took it as a sign when she was able to find a white plastic truck in Duluth identical to the one that had been destroyed.
Sharing her story helps her heal, she said, and if it remains untold, "all that awfulness sits and eats at you."
"If you can transform it into something good, it takes on a whole new life," Storm said. "That's how I wake up in the morning now. What can we do with this to help others? My life mattered. We're still here."
To get help:
Safe Haven Shelter and Resource Center: (218) 728-6481; 414 W. First St., Duluth; safehavenshelter.org
Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault: (218) 726-1931; 32 E. First St., Ste. 200, Duluth; pavsa.org
The Center Against Sexual and Domestic Abuse: (715) 392-3136; casda.org
Dabinoo'Igan, an emergency domestic violence shelter: (218) 722-2247; aicho.org
Domestic Violence Awareness Month
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Safe Haven shelter supervisor Brittany Robb shared the following essay about Safe Haven's work, lightly edited for clarity:
"Anna" had been held captive in her abuser's apartment for nearly two months, though the abuse started long before. She was forced to sleep on the floor with her dog because she was told that's what she deserved. Sometimes her abuser gave her a blanket, but not always. She never had a pillow. During that time she was prohibited from bathing and came to the shelter in the same clothes she'd been wearing for the duration of her captivity (a T-shirt and sweatpants). Neither she nor her dog had eaten in nearly a week. It was late October and she was barefoot.
I wish I could say Anna's story was unique and extreme. Her story is just one version of the accounts of abuse that I hear day in and day out. Anna, and all of the other 500 women and children we serve annually in our 39-bed shelter are so much more than their story of abuse. When a new woman comes to our shelter, I see impeccable courage and grace. I think of how brave she is to have left her abusive partner and how terrified she must be to start this new life. I think about the actual act of leaving — the planning she's done, or the in-the-moment decision to flee. I think about how lonely she must feel. I can see the desperation on her face to forget what's just happened paired with the intensity of her resilience. I see the exhaustion of survival. Sometimes her wounds are visible, but not always, and that doesn't matter — the look of exhaustion is always the same. To be able to offer her a hot shower, a fresh towel, clean linens and a soft pillow is both a heartbreaking actuality and an indescribable privilege. Those few precious, vulnerable moments in a safe place to reflect and reenergize are never taken for granted as she imagines the possibility of a new, safe life.
It was Anna who first made me realize how important these things are to a woman in crisis. She said that when she finally got to take a shower she allowed herself to cry and grieve. She told me that she had almost forgotten what a clean towel smelled like. She kept her freshly washed hair loosely swirling around her face just so she could breathe the scent of the strawberry shampoo. She even gave her dog Meeko a bath with the same shampoo. She told me when she went to sleep that first night in an actual bed, with a warm blanket and a new pillow that she cried again, but that her tears were grateful ones. She said that although she felt the heartache and physical pain of domestic violence, she also felt comfort, safety, compassion and peace.
Every time I make a bed for a new shelter resident I firmly tuck the sheets around the mattress. I turn down the corner of the comforter and fluff the pillow a little more than I would in my own home. I carefully choose matching shampoo and conditioner when I can. I make sure that she has a clean washcloth and towel at the foot of her bed, and I always think of Anna.