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It is safe to say that National School Lunch Week and National White Cane Safety Day went unobserved in many quarters this month. But three local organizations took pains to ensure that Evanston did not ignore Domestic Violence Awareness month in October.
The Tears Project shines a spotlight on an uncomfortable issue. The project was conceived by the Zonta Club of Evanston with the Victim Witness Advocacy Unit of the Evanston Police Department and the Evanston/North Shore YWCA. Victim Advocate Beckie Fischer, one of the project’s organizers, says she hopes it will encourage the many victims who feel isolated to see they are not alone and to seek help.
Hanging in prominent Evanston buildings, hundreds of cardboard tears – fashioned by residents of the YWCA shelter all too familiar with real ones – suggest the extent of the problem. Each tear on the walls of the YWCA, the Evanston Public Library, the Lorraine Morton Civic Center and the EPD represents a request for service made to the EPD in 2010 – 551 purple tears for crime-related and 538 for non-crime-related cases of domestic violence.
That adds up to 1,089 reported instances of domestic violence in one year – just short of three per day. And it is common knowledge that many situations go unreported.
In each exhibit, the stories of struggle and survival of two shelter residents are displayed with the tears. Library patrons encounter them on a bulletin board by the checkout desk. The story of “Melissa 2011,” awash in a sea of paper tears, stops more than a few people, says Jan Besser, Zonta Club president. They are moved by Melissa, whose breathless prose contrasts the life she wants with the violent one she has known: “I don’t want anyone to tell me I’m crazy … or stupid … or fat … or old … or slow … or gullible. If I’m undesirable, then leave me. … I don’t want to be scared. … I’m tired of looking over my shoulder. I still look over my shoulder. My mind races like I’m still running.”
YWCA Shelter for Battered Women
Melissa and many others find respite at Mary Lou’s Place, the 32-bed YWCA residential facility that last year provided emergency shelter to 529 women and children. The shelter opened in 1981 with five beds, a staff of volunteers from the Junior League and “no counseling component,” says Wendy Dickson, director of Domestic Violence services at the Y.
Thirty years later, “a lot of issues have become more complex,” she says, and “the field of domestic violence has been ‘professionalized.’” Ms. Dickson says the women who seek shelter these days often have mental health and/or substance abuse problems. A Y staff of 30 assesses the problems and helps the victim take the next steps.
Three full-time Y staffers serve as legal advocates, assisting victims with court business. The Y provides individual or group counseling in both Spanish and English for those women who need ongoing education and support.
Yet in the realm of domestic violence, “success” by any definition is difficult to achieve, Ms. Dickson says, adding, “Our version of success may not be the client’s.” She tells her staff, “It’s a tough field to stay in” and whittles their expectations to a minimum: “We give [abused women] the education and tools to make choices on their own, and we keep them safe for a time.”
Victim Services Unit, Evanston Police Department
The shelter is perhaps the most extreme choice for victims of domestic abuse. Statistics indicate that it takes battered women on average “nine times leaving and going back before they make a break,” Ms. Dickson says.
Along the way, Evanston victims are likely to meet Beckie Fischer and her partner, Sara Jayes. These professionals, familiar with the cycle of violence – the tension-building, acute and honeymoon phases – know “it is not an easy thing” for a woman to walk out on an abusive relationship, Ms. Fischer says, adding, “Offenders aren’t bad all the time.”
As victim service advocates of the EPD, Ms. Fischer says they follow up on all police reports of domestic abuse within 24 hours of a call “to talk about what’s going on.” Once one of the advocates contacts a victim, she keeps that client, building rapport that will help the victim to be more comfortable should she need services in the future.
Not police officers but social workers with master’s degrees in forensic psychology, the victim advocates have the task of “pointing out options. We’re not here to make decisions,” Ms. Fischer says.
She wants women to know it is not necessarily true that a report of domestic violence means the offender will spend a long time in jail. Fearing this outcome, many victims avoid seeking help. Anger management or parenting classes or drug and alcohol abuse treatment are often the result, says Ms. Fischer. “The purpose is to get [the offenders] services,” she says. “The goal is rehabilitation.”
Other misconceptions surround the order of protection a victim can file against an offender. Many women “may not be ready to pursue the most restrictive option,” Ms. Fischer says. “It is not all or nothing,” An order of protection can be tailored to each individual case, specifying, for example, the distance an offender must maintain from the victim, under what conditions he can visit children and more.
Victim advocates are on hand to support the victim in the sometimes traumatic investigation that requires her to reconstitute the event, sometimes for a male police officer. Advocates accompany the victim to court. Commander Tom Guenther notes that Evanston initiated the Victim Witness Advocacy Unit in 1976. “The EPD was a pioneer in starting this type of assistance to the victim. … Our crew is good and skilled – and avant garde,” he says.