“I felt like it couldn’t happen to me.” Kelly*, the woman seated across the table from me, is young, attractive, and articulate. She speaks confidently and openly, looks me straight in the eye as she talks, her hands resting in her lap. Nothing on the surface suggests a problem, and that’s exactly what she’s trying to explain. She didn’t think it could happen to her.
She bears no visible scars, but Kelly is a survivor of domestic violence. It’s been about a year since she left her boyfriend to seek emergency shelter with Domestic Violence Solutions for Santa Barbara County (DVS), and in that short period of time, she has regained control of a life she never thought she’d get back.
Kelly grew up in Santa Barbara. As a child, she witnessed her mother in an abusive relationship, and remembers the terror of knowing her mother was being mistreated, but feeling powerless to stop it. “It’s not like I wasn’t educated about what domestic violence looks like,” she said. “But when it happened to me, I didn’t recognize it.”
Though Kelly felt like she wasn’t at risk for domestic violence, her story parallels thousands of others. She met a boy; she fell in love. He was wonderful: charismatic, bright, and popular. Then he started to lose his temper sometimes. If dinner wasn’t on the table and hot the minute he walked through the door, he would erupt, hitting her, shaking her, and pushing her. He began to isolate her from other people, and make rules about what she could and couldn’t wear, where she could go, and with whom. He showed up unexpectedly when she was visiting with friends. He told her she was nothing without him, and that she could never leave him. She tried to leave once; he begged her to come back, and she did, because she was in love. “Being in an abusive relationship is like being addicted to drugs,” Kelly reflected. “You’re so addicted to the high. It’s such a secretive thing that you don’t talk about it with anyone-it’s shameful, it’s embarrassing. I kind of felt like this was how it was going to be-I had to stay and smooth things over.”
Then, one day, they got into an argument, and while he talked, he was fingering a knife. “I thought, ‘He’s going to kill me,'” Kelly remembered. Her mother had told her about DVS, and she had the hotline number-she called, and the emergency shelters were already full. But Kelly was determined: She had prepared an extra car key in case she ever had to get away, and she kept calling until there was space in the shelter. When there was, she drove straight there with little else but a change of clothes. “I don’t think I was really ready in my heart,” she said. “But I knew I had to make myself ready. When I came to the shelter, I felt I had no confidence. I had lost myself.”
Today, Kelly credits DVS with her life. The agency-which runs a confidential 24-hour crisis hotline, provides 45-day emergency shelter, and up to 18 months of transitional housing for women and children, counsels both victims and perpetrators of domestic violence, runs support groups, and trains advocates to go out on domestic violence 911 calls-is the only full-service domestic violence agency in the county. In addition to its Santa Barbara offices and shelters, DVS has a transitional housing center in Santa Maria and an outreach office in Lompoc, from which a countywide teen services program is run. Founded in 1977, the agency changed its name in 2001 from Shelter Services for Women to Domestic Violence Solutions in order to reflect the full range of services it provides.
DVS Executive Director Rebecca Robertson is adamant that domestic violence is not just a women’s problem. Male victims of domestic violence have access to every service offered by DVS with the exception of shelter at its women-only sites, while women convicted of domestic violence face the same mandatory, 52-week counseling program as do men. (Approximately 10 percent of the domestic violence perpetrators with whom DVS works are women).
“It’s also not just a relationship problem or an anger problem,” Robertson said. “It’s about one person having power over another.” Robertson also emphasized that get ting help from DVS doesn’t necessarily mean giving up on a relationship. “Most of our clients stay with their partners,” she said. “It’s not our goal to break up relationships. Our goal is safety.”
24-Hour Hotline numbers for DVS
Santa Barbara …………………….. 964-5245
Santa Maria ……………………….. 925-2160
Lompoc …………………………….. 736-0965
Santa Ynez ………………………… 686-4390
Those who enter the DVS shelter program tend to arrive there either by calling 911 and making arrangements on the scene with the Domestic Violence Emergency Response Team (DVERT) or by calling the DVS 24-hour emergency hotline. Once admitted to the emergency shelter, women are given an apartment with enough space for themselves, and, if necessary, their children. The location of these apartments is undisclosed, and with privacy and security assured, the healing process begins.
When Kelly arrived at the emergency shelter, she was terrified. “I’d never been in a shelter before; I just about died!” she said, laughing a little at herself. “What’s so interesting is that after you’re there, it doesn’t matter what you look like, what kind of clothes you have, or what your job or your race is. You have this common bond with the other women. There’s such a benefit to being in a group setting. It really unites everybody.”
One-on-one counseling, group sessions, goal-setting, and job searches helped Kelly focus on what she wanted to achieve. “I got interested,” she said, “in whatever I could do to get my life back.” Within 45 days, Kelly had moved into transitional housing. Eight months later, she moved out and then into her own place. Robertson said Kelly’s was a particularly fast transition back to healthy independence, but said the full 18 months is long enough for clients to achieve their goals. “People who go through the program have enough time to change their lives,” Robertson said. “Mostly, they’re addressing a lifetime of trauma and abuse, not just one relationship. They love the group sessions-for some, it’s the first time in their lives that they focus on themselves, and they realize they are worth saving.”
Many of DVS’s clients are mothers with young children, many have a history of substance abuse, and many have experienced domestic violence for some time before they finally seek help-according to Robertson, a victim often makes as many as six or seven moves toward safety before finally leaving an abusive relationship. Despite these patterns, there’s no part of society that’s immune to domestic violence: It affects people of all races, ages, incomes, religious backgrounds, and even educational levels. As Kelly learned, even awareness can’t always prevent it.
“When I was first out of the relationship, I felt like I would never get better, that he’d always come and get me, that I’d never be free,” Kelly remembered. “If only I could have seen what a short time it would take, how much support I was going to receive, and how soon I’d be back on my feet. I left with nothing but my clothes, and here I am with a dream job and a beautiful apartment.” For Kelly, ongoing counseling has been central to her recovery process. “I was really angry for a while,” she said. “I felt like a victim. But now I’m thankful for the opportunity he gave me. People don’t always get the chance to look at who they are and where they want to go and who they want to be.” She smiled and added, “I like who I am, where I am, and where I’m going.”
For info about Domestic Violence Solutions, call 963-4458 or visit dvsolutions.org. On Sunday, August 26, DVS will hold a fundraiser at White Hills Vineyard, Santa Maria, to support its North County programs for domestic violence survivors. For info, call 347-9994.