It takes incredible bravery to leave a relationship marked by intimate partner violence. Yet those individuals who do seek refuge at a shelter may bring with them a sense of shame about the course their lives have taken.
GreenHouse 17, the advocacy agency formerly known as the Bluegrass Domestic Violence Program, wants to change that narrative of embarrassment to one of empowerment for its clients.
“We try to create an environment where you’re proud to be there. You took great strength and courage beyond words to find your way to this building, and we’re going to celebrate you,” says Darlene Thomas, executive director of GreenHouse17. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of. The shame belongs somewhere else.”
Instead of seeing their time in a domestic violence shelter as something that’s taboo, Thomas says GreenHouse 17 works to be place of beauty and opportunity for the individuals it serves. She says that’s part of what drove the name change for the organization founded in 2004 that now serves people in 17 central Kentucky counties.
“We really wanted to capture the positive energy of survivors, and we wanted our name to reflect the possibilities,” says Thomas. “A greenhouse is a place where you grow and nurture things in a protected environment, and we believe we’re helping families grow and learn to nurture themselves while being protected by our organization.”
Domestic Violence During COVID
When the COVID pandemic started, Thomas says demand for services at GreenHouse 17 declined. She describes those first few weeks in the spring of 2020 as “eerily quiet.”
But as time went on, reports of violence began to surface from people who were trapped at home after businesses, schools, and churches shuttered.
“We were all told to be safe at home. For domestic violence victims, that’s the least safe place for them,” says Thomas. “The violence was more severe. People were calling with horrendous stories of being held prisoner.”
Instead of getting better as the world reopened, Thomas says life for domestic violence victims and their children only got worse. Abusers had less control as they saw their partners return to work and their children return to school.
“Abusers don’t like to lose power, and they’ve had more than they’ve ever had” during the pandemic, says Thomas.
Some victims seek an emergency protective order (EPO) from a judge that requires an abuser to have no contact with the person being abused, their children, or other family members. Thomas says victims feel safer having a court order, and police generally respond quicker to situations that involve an EPO.
But the orders don’t guarantee a victim’s safety. Thomas says research from the University of Kentucky indicates that EPOs are violated about 65 percent of the time.
“Without the protective order, it would’ve been violated 100 percent of the time,” she says. “None of it would stop.”
Court orders can help a victim leave an abusive relationship, but Thomas says EPOs shouldn’t be the only preparatory action a survivor takes. She says leaving requires extensive planning across a range of emotional, logistical, and financial issues: How can children and pets be protected, what clothes and personal effects will they need, what documents and bank records should they take, do they have cash, should they get a temporary cellphone. For people already struggling to survive their day-to-day existence, the thought of planning an escape can be overwhelming, especially when living under a constant threat of violence.
“We need to understand there’s greater risk in leaving than staying,” Thomas explains. “There’s still violence that’s going to happen when you stay but it really has a tendency to escalate... when you leave.”
Firearms and Domestic Violence
Research indicates that as many as 45 percent of women and 35 percent of men in Kentucky experience violence at the hands of an intimate partner. The acts aren’t just physical or sexual. Thomas says the violence can be verbal, mental, financial, or any other method someone may use to exert control or dominance over his or her partner.
Even though an individual may not be ready to leave their abuser, Thomas says it’s important to let the victim know that they do have options.
“You empower them with knowledge, you plant seeds of possibilities and hope,” she says.
While intimate partner violence is an age-old problem, Thomas says American society still struggles with how to hold perpetrators responsible. In most cases, it’s the victim and the children that end up uprooting their lives and moving into a shelter while the abuser gets to stay in the family home.
“We’re always expecting the victim to have to change, or to do better, or to protect themselves and their children,” she says. “We’re not really good yet at figuring out how we hold that batterer accountable.”
Another societal issue that has serious ramifications for intimate partner relationships is the prevalence of firearms in America. Thomas says about 80 percent of domestic violence victims who are murdered are killed with a gun. While many of those perpetrators were known to be violent either through police reports or EPOs issued on them, they were sill allowed to keep their firearms.
“Common sense says that we should remove weapons from those who we know to do harm,” says Thomas.
The ‘Healing Journey’ at GreenHouse 17
In addition to a 24-hour hotline, counseling services, legal advocacy, medical treatment, and transportation assistance, GreenHouse 17 also operates a 42-bed emergency shelter located on 40 acres in rural Fayette County. Thomas says the safe, calming atmosphere helps survivors readjust their minds and bodies to living without a constant state of fear.
“We need to help them see their beauty and their possibilities and their capabilities,” she says. “The only way to do that is with time and patience and providing so many ways for them to get their hands into new opportunities.”
During their stay at GreenHouse 17, survivors can spend time in nature, work on an active farm, and eat fresh, homegrown fruits and vegetables. Those who do choose to work on the farm receive a small stipend for their efforts. Thomas says counselors don’t place unrealistic expectations for a speedy recovery on survivors and their children, but rather help them build on the strengths they already possess.
“For victims to begin that healing journey,” she says, “they have to know that they belong to something bigger than themselves.”
Because of the stigma and shame that can so often accompany domestic violence situations, the cues that a victim may exhibit to others can be subtle. Thomas says there may be a change in the way the person dresses, or the individual may avoid making eye contact when talking. Sometimes people will stop socializing with family and friends that they previously enjoyed visiting.
Since intimate partner violence can occur in any relationship – straight or gay, married or dating – Thomas says it’s important to pay attention to sudden changes of behavior among family members, friends, or coworkers. She says someone we know and love may be a victim or a perpetrator of abuse.
“We have to take a hard look around and be willing to stand up and be a voice for what’s right and wrong,” she says. “It doesn’t mean you have to cut people out of your lives, but it does mean we have to make clear, conscious decisions about what’s appropriate and how we treat each other.”