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Beacon update: Things getting worse for domestic violence victims and groups that serve them

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 1, 2010 - Usually, things get a little better around the holidays for victims of domestic violence. People try and keep it together, says Erin Ercoline, executive director of ALIVE, Alternatives to Living in Violent Environments.

Not this year.

In May, the Beacon reported a rise in the use of domestic violence shelters and domestic violence reports to police, thought to be caused, in part, by the economy. We contacted some of the same sources from that story, and all report a continued rise.

ALIVE finds motel rooms for domestic violence victims when shelters are full. Ercoline says shelters are usually at about 95 percent capacity. "It's now at 100," and that's been true since June of this year, she says.

ALIVE is serving 25 percent more clients than this time last year, "but the amount of time they're spending with us is up over 110 percent," she says.

In the past, people would use ALIVE for a week, maybe 10 days. Now it's about a month.

Last May, St. Louis' Domestic Abuse Response Team reported cases were up by 50 percent from the same time the year before. According to Erica Van Ross, director of public information, as of Dec. 3, DART opened up 1,055 new cases. Last year at this time, they opened up 778.

"Meaning they're up about 35 percent," Ross said in an e-mail.

In St. Louis County, the first quarter of 2009 had 99 more cases than the first quarter of the year before. 

Ercoline thinks the economy is still a big factor, and while it's an indirect one, says Zachary Wilson, development director with Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, it does act as a stressor.

Like in St. Louis, Wilson says the trend of an increase in domestic violence holds true statewide. The biggest change he sees is that shelters are starting to have to turn more people away.

Last fall, National Domestic Violence Hotline saw an 18 to 21 percent rise in calls, compared with the same time the year before. 

And like in the spring, the stressor of the economy on domestic abuse is also impacting the support network for victims, Wilson says, causing less funding and donations.

Both Wilson and Ercoline noted one place where donations have actually increased -- the individual level.

"I will tell you if people can give, they will," Ercoline says.

And though it's been tough, Ercoline says they're trying to keep focused on the goal of serving people who need it. Yes, the economy's bad, but it's not something affecting just one industry.

Read the Beacon's earlier story below.

- Monday morning, Sylvia Jackson walks through the biting April cold. There's no sign outside the Women's Safe House, just blooming tulips growing near brick walls, a keypad on a locked door, a warm lobby with padded chairs and ringing phones.

Inside, the executive director hears the clatter of women and their children hustling to get ready for the day.

Jackson sticks her head into a tiny room with tan and white walls. Her eyes fall on three white boards straight ahead. They're covered with numbers like elementary math problems. They tell Jackson the shelter's census in black marker, top to bottom.

Today, she sees, the St. Louis shelter for battered women and their children is over capacity of 50 people by one.

Jackson heads back to her office to begin her day, not surprised one bit.


The St. Louis area, including the city, county and St. Charles County, has about 173 shelter beds, according to Erin Ercoline, executive director with ALIVE. ALIVE, or Alternatives to Living in Violent Environments, finds motel beds for victims when those shelter beds are full, and that happens on a daily basis, with the shelters operating between 90 and 95 percent capacity. That's been true for several years, Ercoline says.

What's changed recently is that more women are reaching out for services and many organizations have less funding and resources to help.

During the last quarter of 2008, the Women's Safe House remained steadily at capacity, as they have during the same time in years past. But in the first quarter of this year, when numbers tend to drop, they've stayed at capacity of 50 people, sometimes rising above it. A few weeks ago, Jackson said, they had 57 people here.

Jackson sees the economy as a major factor in that: "When he normally may have just cursed her out, now he's gonna hit her."

Area police departments have also reported a rise in numbers.

In St. Louis, the Domestic Abuse Response Team, or DART, reports cases are up by 50 percent from the same time last year. According to Erica Van Ross, director of public information, DART handles cases where there's a pattern of domestic abuse, so there are even more cases of domestic abuse calls that aren't included in DART's numbers because they don't fit their criteria.

In St. Louis County, Sgt. Tracy Panus says domestic violence cases are up by 99 cases in the first quarter of the year compared with the first quarter of last year -- 477 this quarter in contrast to 378 in 2008's first quarter.

Panus hears from the officers on the street that the cause is the economy.

Now, some women in already abusive relationships see a quicker escalation of violence, though everyone interviewed stressed that isn't an excuse for it.

"But it can make it worse," says Retha Fielding, chief of communications with the National Domestic Violence Hotline, "and that's what we're seeing."

Last fall, the national hotline saw an 18 and 21 percent increase in calls in September and October compared with the same time the year before.

"That caught our attention."

So for six weeks, they conducted a survey, which while not scientific has been helpful. When people called the hotline, they were asked if there had been a change in their financial situation. Fifty-four percent said yes.

The next question: "Do you believe the abusive behavior has increased in the last year?"

This time, 64 percent said yes.


Now and then, Jackson gives a presentation about what battered women need. She calls it "Shelter from the storm."

Today, though, with the economy and joblessness, it's more like there's a tornado, moving fast, destroying everything in its path, both for women in abusive relationships and for some of the institutions that serve them.

"Now it's like the state of the economy is the storm," Jackson says.

Last fall, the AVA program left Bridgeway Behavioral Health in St. Charles, where they'd worked with abusers for 12 years in five counties holding 11 classes a week.

In March, Alison Brown reopened AVA Counseling Services on her own in a rented space in St. Peters. She uses volunteer counselors and holds one class a week for six men.

AVA closed because the grant funding that supported the services were cut.

For other programs, cuts have come from the state services to victims fund, which took away 20 percent of funding, according to Lisa Weingarth, spokesperson for the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. At the federal level, while there have been no cuts in funding, it has remained static, she says. With more programs competing, the money isn't rising to meet the need.

The Missouri coalition has asked for a million-dollar increase in the domestic violence and services grant program statewide. The state currently provides $5.57 million.

"It doesn't look like we're gonna get it," Weingarth says.

Along with statewide cuts, individual donors are also able to give less, says Michelle Schiller-Baker, executive director of St. Martha's Hall. And even though St. Martha's had a backup plan, that plan -- the stock market -- hasn't quite backed them up.

"We're really very lucky at this point," she says, "because we haven't had to cut services, but we're on the cusp."

St. Martha's has stayed consistently at capacity for almost a year. That's nine women and 15 children, and usually when someone moves out, the space is filled within the day. Shiller-Baker doesn't blame the full house on the economy, though. They're usually full, she says, and they haven't seen an increase in calls in the last six months.

The Women's Safe House hasn't had to cut services either, and they won't, Jackson says, but they have cut back on their part-time staff, there have been no raises for a few years, and they're currently eyeing other places to trim.

Even the National Domestic Violence Hotline has cut two staff people.

Most programs are applying for some of the federal stimulus money, going after dollars meant for abuse prevention, mental health and funding children's programs. But Jackson says it won't be enough.

"The economic stimulus money is simply a bandage," she says. "We're not gonna rely on it."


Dorothy (not her real name), a current resident at the Women's Safe House, begins crying when she talks, not about the abuse she's lived through, but about the future.

She lived in fear of her abuser for years, relieved when he'd leave, feeling his presence even before he'd return. But she only has six weeks total at The Women's Safe House. And it's not enough.

"Most women that are rich, they can hire a counselor, but then there are people, this is all we have, and I wish that this place here could get more funding and more training sessions," she says. "If it wasn't for this place, I don't know where I'd be."

While the link between domestic violence and the economy is just now getting attention, domestic violence has been on the rise for several years, says Ercoline. ALIVE, which provides many services to victims of domestic violence, served 25 percent more people in their 2007/2008 fiscal year. The 2008/2009 numbers have maintained those levels, she says.

That's because families in crisis feel the effects of the economy first, she says, with no cushion.

In fact, the stress of the economy is nothing new to any non-profit, she says. All are struggling.

"We are so used to making due," Jackson says, "that we just have to put our heads together and figure out how we can do this."

Right now, Dorothy doesn't share that resolve.

Sometimes, when she passes the office, she hears a staff person answer the phone. No, she hears them say, we don't have any space.

And most mornings, in a tiny room with tan and white walls, the numbers on the census boards show it.