“One third of Virginia deaths are due to domestic violence,” says Beth Cross, executive director for H.E.R. Shelter. “That’s 33 percent.” Looking at those statistics, Cross explains how the shelter is more than “a nice program to help people. It’s actually homicide reduction.”
We’re sitting in a private room inside the organization’s Portsmouth shelter, where just outside these doors, more than 40 women and children are being housed after fleeing situations of domestic violence or sexual abuse.
I’ve come here this evening to learn more about what the nonprofit does and also to volunteer for childcare so mothers in the shelter can attend a weekly support group without the distraction of their babies.
Tonight’s gathering is called life group, focused on giving the women confidence and clarity, offering forward-thinking steps to get to the next chapter of their lives and empowering them.
I meet with a mother in the group, Tanya*, who shares with me that she arrived at H.E.R. Shelter several months ago with an almost 1-year-old and pregnant with a second baby. When she first met her kids’ father, she says, “the first year was fine, the second year was OK, and the third and fourth year, he just wanted to fight all the time.” He would cheat on Tanya, she says, but make it seem like she had done something wrong. He started to pick fights with her, which began as “something small,” she says, “like pushing his finger in the middle of my forehead or yelling.”
Even through her pregnancies, the abuse continued. “I was pregnant back to back,” she says. “He fought me while I was pregnant.” During her first pregnancy, Tanya says it “wasn’t that bad. He would just squeeze my feet or cut my clothes up or tear my car up, break all my phones and stuff like that.” With her second pregnancy, it was worse though. “At this point, it wasn’t breaking my phone or tearing up my car,” she says. “It was straight just … hitting me.” During one such occurrence, when Tanya was 5 months pregnant, he started hitting her. In that moment, as she looked down, she realized her child was standing beside him, hitting her as well, with tiny fists that weren’t even a year old yet. This was Tanya’s breaking point. “After that, I decided I was going to leave for real,” she says.
When Tanya first arrived at H.E.R. Shelter, she was scared and angry, broken and weak, and she cried often. “I felt like he had took everything from me,” she says. “He had torn my car up. I’d left my house, my career. I was pregnant. I came here with no clothes, no shoes, no nothing. I felt like the world was moving and I was at a standstill.”
Left: A playground right outside the Portsmouth shelter gives kids a safe place to
play outdoors; Rooms are furnished with bunk beds, lockers for personal belongings
and a sink and mirror.
A storage room holds donated clothes organized by gender, age and season.
A well-stocked pantry allows H.E.R. Shelter to provide meals for clients.
Tanya has been at H.E.R. Shelter for four months now and is gaining confidence and putting her life back together. “Now I can say that I’m stronger, back to being the same person that I was,” she describes. “I don’t feel like he has power over me. I’m not afraid of him anymore.” Tanya credits much of her transition to the programs and services that H.E.R. Shelter offers. “I’ve utilized every single service that they have here, and I mean everything,” she says. Throughout her time here, she’s attended therapy sessions every week, signed up for self-defense classes, taken advantage of childcare services, gained experience looking for jobs and attending job fairs, and she’s recently secured housing.
Tanya also shares that it’s been helpful for her to talk with other women at the shelter who have been in similar—or even worse—situations. “When I came here, I felt like nobody could have went through anything worse than I did until other people shared their stories” she says. “Some people had burn marks on them. Some people would say how their abuser pulled a weapon out on them. Some people have told me some really deep stuff that made me feel like—dang—that’s way worse than how I was. But I’m glad they made it out and made it here. I started realizing that I wasn’t alone. It wasn’t just me.”
Today, even though Tanya has found safety at H.E.R. Shelter for herself and her two babies, she’s still dealing with the aftereffects of having her 1-year-old exposed to domestic violence. “She’s been kicked out of two daycares,” Tanya says, for things like biting and not keeping her hands to herself. “She jumps into defense mode automatically when she feels like she’s being attacked.”
Even at age 1, she knows how to push her mother’s buttons but not in the way most 1-year-olds do. “She calls me a B,” Tanya says. “She says the S-word a lot.”
A big goal of the children’s programming at H.E.R. Shelter is ensuring that children don’t “lose out.” “When coming into a shelter, any kind of shelter, you are 10 times more likely to fail that grade,” Cross says. “We focus a lot with our kids in making sure they’re stable, they’re confident, they’re not losing in school.”
After talking with Tanya I head to the childcare room, where I’m handed an infant baby girl. The mood here is tranquil, happy and mostly quiet aside from a couple of toddler-aged sisters playing with dolls. I look into the baby’s dark brown eyes as she drinks her bottle, and I notice how joyful and carefree she is, despite whatever situation she and her mother escaped. Thanks to the efforts of H.E.R. Shelter, the cycle can stop with her, and she’ll have the opportunity to live a healthy and happy life, free from the bounds of physical, emotional or verbal abuse.
“We take freedom for granted,” Cross says to me, back inside the private room at the shelter. “We live in America; we know we’re free. But actually feeling like you have control over your life is a huge deal and passing that on to your kids and seeing a new future for people.”
What fuels Cross, she says, are the five families she knows have not gotten out of their domestic violence situation. “Just for them to know that deep down, at one point, they knew they were loved here, and they were cared for here, and they know they can always come back. That might be the only time those kids ever feel that,” Cross says, tears welling in her eyes. “That’s huge for me. We can create a space here where people can finally change and finally have a chance. And we do that pretty darn well.”
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of H.E.R. Shelter victims.
Great Cupcakes For A Greater Cause
During the economic downturn, it was difficult for H.E.R. Shelter clients to find jobs. “You had kids in high school beating them out; you had people with college degrees beating them out,” Cross says. “And when you did get a job … you can’t pay the rent working at McDonald’s.”
Over two years ago, when Olivia Smith Berger (who now serves as the crisis services director for H.E.R. Shelter) was working with the organization’s employment services program, she came up with the idea for Sweet Haven Baked Goods, where clients can bake cupcakes in different flavors and frostings. Why cupcakes? “Flour and eggs are cheap,” Cross laughs. “It’s focused on something that gives them self advocacy—something made out of nothing. They didn’t have a skill last week; now they have a skill. So building on that foundation as far as strengthening their training.” Once a client has successfully created the program, they have an updated resume with references, kitchen experience, a Food Handler’s Card, interview knowledge, basic employment skills and a desire to work. Sweet Haven is ideal for clients who have experienced serious emotional trauma and/or physical trauma. “They can just walk across the hall and start to learn and heal,” Cross says. “You’re not losing time.”
Victims Of Human Trafficking
Several years ago, H.E.R. Shelter began taking on victims of human trafficking after it was determined to be a major issue in Coastal Virginia. These victims are oftentimes difficult to spot. “They don’t even know they’re a human trafficking victim,” Cross says. “They think they were forced into prostitution or their boyfriend loved them but just forced them to do bad things. Or they’re still completely brainwashed.”
At the Chesapeake shelter, two beds are always open for victims of human trafficking, and the care for these victims versus victims of domestic violence is significantly different. “If you come in from domestic violence or sexual assault, something has happened to you, and you need help. They come here because they want to,” Cross says. “But human trafficking is the opposite. They’re in a web where either they’ve done things that are illegal (because they were made to), and they don’t want to get caught, or they’re terrified—they think their trafficker is going to find them, they know where their family lives, they have ties that can really hurt them in the long run.” Also, some of the situations are drug-related, so a victim may be dependent on their trafficker for drugs. “So they’re a flight risk. They almost always try to go back immediately.”
Cross shares that the average age of a human trafficking victim is 13 and that one of the most important actions to prevent human trafficking is to teach kids and youth about healthy relationships. “They should know right off the bat … if you’re 16, this 22-year-old should not be interested in you.” Cross stresses the importance of monitoring the runaways and the girls who could be in danger of getting sucked away by a boyfriend. “Pay attention to those kids that nobody notices because they’re eventually going to look for attention,” she says. “Those are the ones that are vulnerable.”