Thursday, December 3, 2009

Recession hurts abuse victims, as many are now without jobs (Warren, Michigan)

It's not that the bad economy is "causing" abusers to strike out more. They strike out at their victims on the flimsiest of excuses all the time (note the woman below, whose boyfriend's abuse was "triggered" by cell phone use). But the bad economy is limiting the choices of victims, who may not be able to exit a violent home in a timely manner because of the lack of a job or other financial resources. It is absolutely horrifying that 75% of the DV victims showing up at the Mount Clemens shelter are now without a job, up from an average of 30% in previous years. Because women can't get out of abusive situations as easily, calls to shelters have increased--and abuse fatalities are way up to, nearly DOUBLE what they were last year.

Recession hurts abuse victims

Catherine Jun / The Detroit News

Warren -- Diana's boyfriend pushed and hit her when he went into rages.

It wasn't until he unleashed his rage onto two of their children -- slapping their 15-year-old daughter and grabbing a 13-year-old son by the neck -- that Diana took their four children and left.

Looking back, the stay-at-home mom, 46, says that had she found a job, which she sought for a year, she would have left earlier. Now, she and the children are scraping by on food stamps and welfare checks.

"I know I wouldn't have (gone) back with him," said Diana, who asked to be identified by her first name only. "I felt as if I didn't have anywhere to go. I didn't have a car and I didn't have any money. Who's going to take in me and four kids?"

Victims of domestic violence face an additional hurdle in fleeing their abusers: the economy.

Shelters around Metro Detroit report that fewer victims are able to gain financial freedom from their abusers as they face scarce resources, like jobs and affordable housing. Shelters and nonprofits say they are responding to more crisis calls, as financial stresses are in some cases pushing domestic assailants over the edge.

And getting victims free from their abusers is critical as violent incidents have grown more lethal in recent years. Last month, for instance, members of two families died in southeastern Michigan in separate domestic murder-suicides.

"The violence we're seeing is more and more horrific," said Sue Coates, program director of Turning Point Inc. in Mount Clemens.

About 30 percent of victims seeking shelter at the agency in previous years did not have jobs. Now that figure is closer to 75 percent, Coates said.

"They're starting with absolutely nothing," she added. "We're trying to keep them on their feet."

Keeping families afloat
Experts that work in assisting victims of domestic violence say that finances can often determine whether a victim leaves an abuser for good.

Carrying their clothes in trash bags, Diana and her children fled in April. After 44 days in an emergency shelter, the family is now renting a home, paid for with state cash assistance, in lieu of child support Diana's boyfriend is not paying. Diana left her job as a secretary at a financial planning firm six years ago. She said this year she has submitted job applications to countless retailers and is awaiting an interview opportunity.

Several agencies say they've been focusing on getting abuse victims stopgap assistance, like Medicaid, food stamps, and access to pantries -- anything to keep families afloat until they find steady work.

And those resources are stretched too, says Kalyn Risker, founder of Detroit-based Sisters Acquiring Financial Empowerment.

The organization that she founded in 2006 helps victims prepare for job interviews and find job training and schooling. In the last year, though, some have not been able to find employment, she said.

"It's a longer turnaround," Risker said. "If they're willing to take a step in another direction, it's four months.

"And four months is a long time if you're in a critical situation. All these things are just barriers to moving forward."

Like most nonprofits, shelters have seen donations drop and are now hard pressed to offer families cash assistance for, say, a security deposit, utility bills or bus tickets to job interviews.

"The safety net that's there is just really crumbling," Coates said.

At HAVEN, a shelter for victims of violence, which has several locations in Oakland County, extensions past its 30-day maximum stay have grown common as families struggle to find apartments or income.

"That's greatly limited the number of people who can stay in the shelter," said Beth Morrison, president and CEO of HAVEN. The shelter has been forced to prioritize families in immediate physical danger and to refer victims to shelters as far away as Saginaw and Lansing, she said.

Meanwhile, HAVEN has seen calls to its crisis line increase to 6,293 this year from 5,045 last year.

A mother of three, who spoke on condition of anonymity, has been in a Wayne County shelter since fleeing the father of her youngest child in the summer.

In an interview, she said that during altercations, her boyfriend would threaten to pull his gun on her. One time he slammed her hand in an oven door, leaving her with a burn scar on her wrist.

After she left the western part of the state, it took her several months to find a rental home in southeast Michigan, one she could afford on the $598 a month in welfare.

"I was looking at anything and everything," she said.

Number of victims grows
The number of reported victims of domestic violence has more than doubled from 2000 to 2007, to 101,388 from 46,711, according to the latest statistics compiled by the Michigan State Police. In this same period, the number of fatalities from abuse instances rose to 101 from 52.

And abuse experts say they have seen the severity and frequency of violence rise.

In November, members of two families died in separate murder-suicides -- one in Milford, one in Columbus Township. Two months before that, a Detroit detective shot his wife, also a police officer, in their Canton Township home and then shot himself, township police reported.

Experts are careful to note that the economy alone is not to blame for domestic violence; statistics do show that incidents occur during good times and bad. But they say economic strains, like a layoff or foreclosure, does seem to affect stress in a household and can lead abusers to become more violent.

"It makes that abusive person more abusive," Morrison said.

'Not scared anymore'
Diana's boyfriend choked her during one altercation. When he was home, she and the children were on eggshells to keep from angering him, which could be triggered by anything like using his cell phone, how much food they would take from the refrigerator or if they weren't home when they promised.

Diana is now renting a home with a roommate in Warren. Her finances are tight, and she may have to move again. But she's optimistic.

"We don't have a lot of material things, but we have peace of mind," she said.

"I'm not scared anymore."