Domestic violence creeps up on you. “It’s gradual,” says Esther Munch, director of development and marketing at Harmony House. “It’s taking away control in almost a romantic way. ‘Oh you don’t need a car. I’ll drive you where you need to go. You don’t need to work. I’ll take care of you.’ Before you know it, you have no car, no cell phone, no job, a baby and you’re being beaten up.”
As Missouri’s first and largest domestic violence shelter and Springfield’s only shelter, Harmony House takes in hundreds of victims each year, and demand is on the rise. In 2015, the shelter turned away nearly 2,000 men and women due to lack of space. The Victim Center, a 24-hour organization that provides free services to victims of violent or sexual crimes, has seen a 50 percent increase in victims seeking services since 2013.
Springfield isn’t the only place struggling with a rise in domestic violence. The state of Missouri has seen an increase in domestic violence since 2010 when the number of reported incidents spiked by more than 4,000. Although Greene County doesn’t have the worst record on the books (that designation falls to Miller County, near Lake of the Ozarks, where 2,216.4 people per 100,000 experience domestic violence), Springfield reports more cases of domestic violence than both St. Louis City and Jackson County (home to Kansas City). In 2014, Jackson County reported 971.7 cases of domestic violence per 100,000 people, and St. Louis City reported 222 cases per 100,000. Springfield reported 1,142 per 100,000.
“This really is a community health problem,” says Brandi Bartel, executive director at The Victim Center. “This is huge.”
Deborah Holt spent nine months at Harmony House with her kids after leaving her abuser. Now she is the donation coordinator for the organization.
FACING THE ABUSE
It was June 21, 2010, when Deborah Holt took her three young kids and fled her abusive husband. “I was nervous and unsure, but I felt free,” she says.
Today, Holt is the donations coordinator at Harmony House, but back in 2010, she was one of hundreds of women who took refuge at the downtown shelter. Holt and her husband were high school sweethearts who reconnected later in life, but the confident and powerful teenager whom Holt had fallen for years ago was now controlling and angry. “I came home one time at the beginning of the relationship, and as soon as I came in the door, he punched me in my face,” Holt says. When Holt wouldn’t answer her phone, her ex would break it. It didn’t take long before Holt was isolated from family and friends and dependent on her abuser.
Still in nursing school at the time, Holt relied on her husband to take her boys to school during the day. When the abuse was at its worst, Holt skipped clinical shifts, too embarrassed to show up with bruises on her arms and face. By the time she found the strength to flee, she had missed too many hours to sit for the state board.
It took Holt a year to leave her abuser. The final push was when the abuse started happening in front of her boys. “I didn’t want them to grow up thinking this was okay,” she says. So one night, Holt gathered the kids, waited for her husband to leave, then fled with the children to Harmony House.
After a few weeks, Holt and her kids settled into life at the shelter, and a month after arriving, Holt had a job as a patient care associate at CoxHealth. She took sewing classes, learned to knit, joined self-esteem workshops—anything to help take her mind off life at the shelter. Nine months after arriving, Holt and her kids moved into their own apartment, and a year later, she returned as a volunteer. Holt participated at speaking engagements, walked in a Harmony House fashion show and volunteered to help in the donation department. When the position of donation coordinator opened, Holt landed the job.
It’s been six years since Holt and her kids fled. They’ve all been through counseling, and for the most part, the two boys don’t seem to remember much of the abuse. They were 9 and 3 at the time. But Holt’s daughter, who was 16, remembers it all. “She lost total respect for me and started talking to me as harshly as he did,” Holt says. “It’s been a long road between us, but we’re in a good position now.”
Deborah Holt and her children Christian, Isaiah and Amber sought shelter at Harmony House six years ago, and Deborah now works to help other families like hers recover from domestic violence.
HOW ABUSE AFFECTS KIDS
In July of this year, there were more children at Harmony House than adults. Numbers were also high in 2015, when 36.5 percent of residents were kids. “People forget about the kids,” Munch says. “We have newborns on up to age 17, and they’ve almost all seen violence.”
Often, there are clear signs when a child has witnessed or survived abuse. “They might act out and be more aggressive,” says Harmony House Executive Director Lisa Farmer. “Or they might become more isolated and depressed. Trouble with anxiety often manifests with stomach issues, headaches [and] difficulty focusing at school.”
Harmony House and The Victim Center would love to do more preventative programs in schools to teach kids what healthy relationships looks like, but until funding is available, Farmer and her team are focused on getting families into counseling to end the cycle of violence. A huge part of recovery for survivors and for kids is counseling, but sometimes the first step is getting the victim to acknowledge they were in an abusive relationship in the first place.
“Abusers are so good at courting,” Farmer says. “They’re good at sweeping you off your feet. You could be in a normal relationship for a year and think this guy is my prince charming. Yes, maybe he’s a little jealous and wants to know where you are, but there are no big signs, and then boom, the abusive behavior starts. We’ve worked with so many women and even staff who came from relationships like that. They lived normal, middle-class lives and knew what an abusive relationship looks like, but they still got sucked in.”
UNDERSTANDING DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
As the number of reported cases continues to rise, community leaders are left asking one question: Why is domestic violence so prevalent in Greene County? “That’s the million-dollar question,” Farmer says.
Many factors play into the rising numbers, and Farmer believes Springfield’s pervasive drug culture and high rate of poverty are contributing factors. The Springfield Police Department’s increased efforts to report each case instead of walking away from situations once tempers have calmed may have also contributed to the rise. In the end, no one has a definitive answer.
With domestic violence incidents increasing, Springfield organizations are starting to join forces to fight back. Six months ago, Harmony House and The Victim Center teamed up to pool their resources. Harmony House has case managers who meet weekly with residents to identify resources and needs and make a plan for life after the shelter. The Victim Center has therapists and victim advocates who help file orders of protection, provide counseling, attend court hearings and even go to the hospital with victims if needed. While the two organizations serve the same clientele, they offer vastly different resources.
Natalia Maschino is an adult therapist and Spanish-speaking therapist with The Victim Center. Her office is now at Harmony House where she meets with residents and other clients once a week for 50 minutes. These sessions are often as much about opening up about the abuse as they are about dealing with the lasting effects of the trauma.
Victims of domestic violence can suffer from a long list of issues: co-dependency, lack of trust, low self-esteem, PTSD, anxiety, poor memory, trouble sleeping, difficulty relating to others, poorly regulated diets and, most common, trouble managing and identifying triggers. “Triggers ignite a memory,” Maschino says. “Maybe it’s a smell, touch or location.”
The road to recovery can be a long one, and not everyone is able to break away from their abuser right away. Nearly 20 percent of Harmony House residents return to their abuser. That might sound like a lot, but it’s lower than the national average. The national recidivism rate (the number of times victims return to their abusers) is seven to eight times, Farmer says. But at Harmony House, the rate for 2015 was just 1.5 times. “We believe our rate is significantly lower than the national average due to the comprehensive support services we provide,” Farmer says.
It took Holt a full year to leave her abuser, so she understands how hard it can be to break away. “There are a lot of women who come back to the shelter who were here six years ago when I was a resident,” she says. “Everyone grows at their own pace.”
THE VIEW FROM THE FRONT LINE
The rise in domestic violence can be traced back to 2012 when the number of reported incidents in Springfield jumped by more than 370 to an alarming 2,583. That averages out to 6 incidents per day. That same year, the Springfield Police Department formed the Family Violence Task Force (now managed by the Community Partnership of the Ozarks under the Violence-Free Families Initiative), but the numbers kept rising. By 2014, the number of domestic violence cases had risen to a record high of 2,701. In 2015, the numbers dipped a little to 2,695, but those on the front lines, including Lieutenant Tad Peters, believe that dip will be short-lived.
The statistics are alarming, and no one is immune. Domestic violence doesn’t discriminate based on age, sex or socioeconomic status, and sometimes, the people most in danger of becoming a victim are the ones you never think it could happen to. One such incident stands out in Peters’ mind: In 2013, a domestic violence situation between a local doctor and his wife became lethal when the doctor killed his wife and then took his own life.
Peters, who supervised SPD’s domestic violence unit, joined the Family Violence Task Force in 2012 and still serves on the force today. He has learned not every call results in an arrest, but starting in 2013, officers implemented the Lethality Assessment to identify escalating violence in hopes of preventing serious injury or domestic violence–related homicide. They’re not the only ones making this change.
Three years ago, Mercy Hospital created a team of Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners who go through special training to identify domestic violence, human trafficking and other forms of abuse. There are currently 18 nurses on the team. “We are looking for bruises in multiple stages of healing and on sensitive areas,” says Chandra Hazen, a clinical manager at Mercy. “These are bruises on the outer arms that show self-defense, intimate areas like the buttocks and breasts and injuries on the outer thighs like someone was curled up in a ball.”
Of course, not all domestic abuse shows up as bruises or cuts. That’s part of what makes this epidemic difficult to prevent. There are all types of abuse, including physical, emotional, sexual, economic, religious, isolation, intimidation and threats. As a result, it can be hard to spot domestic violence even if you’re the victim of it, which is why Springfield hospitals, shelters and hotlines and the police department are working to better identify signs of the problem.
Lieutenant Tad Peters of the Springfield Police Department supervised the domestic violence unit before joining the Family Violence Task Force in 2012.
HOW TO ADDRESS THE PROBLEM
As the numbers continue to increase, resources in the area are getting creative with how they address domestic violence.
Harmony House’s new shelter is scheduled to open in Springfield later this year. The 50-bed increase will make Harmony House the largest shelter in the state, and when the shelter’s new permanent housing apartment structure is complete sometime next year, it will be the first of its kind in Missouri.
The Victim Center recently moved one of its victim advocates into the City Clerk’s office when orders of protection began to flow in at high speeds. Between 2014 and 2015 the number of protection orders increased by 200 to a total of 3,555, and 2016 is on track to blow past that number with 2,092 orders already filed through July (that’s an average of 9.9 orders filed per day). It is understood that change is needed to keep up with the new demand, and efforts are in place to help build awareness—in October as part of the shelter’s month-long iCare event, Harmony House will tweet each time a victim is turned away due to lack of space. (You can follow Harmony House’s Twitter account at @Myharmonyhouse.)
Counseling services, including H.I.T. No More (417-869-8332, hitnomore.com) are offering therapy for abusers to help them control their anger and hopefully prevent future abuse. The city’s prosecuting attorney has started handling victim’s court cases in a way that doesn’t require the victim to appear in court. And as part of the SPD’s response to the increase in domestic violence, they are now routinely placing those people who are arrested for violating an order of protection on a 24-hour hold so the case can be presented to the Greene County Prosecutor for the immediate filing of charges.
Everyone is teaming up to fight back against domestic violence, but only time will tell if the effort is paying off. After the first quarter of 2016, the SPD had responded to 629 domestic violence calls. That’s 88 more than in the first quarter of 2015. With numbers like that, Lieutenant Peters isn’t optimistic, but he also isn’t giving up.
Holt isn’t giving up either. Although she was able to break free from the cycle of violence, she hasn’t forgotten her struggle, and she’s making sure her two sons don’t repeat the offenses of their stepdad. “I’m very vocal with them about how they do not hit women,” she says. “I’m not going to allow them to break someone’s spirit. I won’t allow it.”
How to Help
Harmony House relies heavily on volunteers, and you can help, too. They need assistance with a variety of tasks, including working the front desk, sorting mail, staffing the donation center, landscaping and working in the kitchen. If you would like to find out more about how your time can help make a difference in the lives of others, call 417-837-7700.