Exiting an abusive relationship is often more than just getting in a car and driving away.
Ask Susan Shipman, director of 2nd Chance in Anniston, and she will tell stories about the violence people do to their families. She’s an expert in the aftermath, too, which she and her team of outreach specialists work every day to scrub away for abuse survivors. There’s more than personal safety to think about — what about the kids? What about the dog? Where do you spend that first night?
“We don’t say ‘leave,’” Shipman said Friday morning in a meeting room at 2nd Chance. “We prefer to use ‘flee’ or ‘escape.’ There’s a whole lot more to it than just leaving.”
According to the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, there were 1,169 incidents of domestic violence in Calhoun County in 2016, the most recent year on record. The number includes simple and aggravated assaults — 824 and 332, respectively — along with one homicide, 10 rapes and two robberies. Those numbers are just what’s reported, Shipman said, and don’t represent what’s actually happening.
“Only 10 percent report,” she explained. “There are still 90 percent that are still living with and in the midst of violence.”
The problems presented to people fleeing abuse are myriad, and many people outside of those situations don’t understand why victims don’t up and leave. But some organizations are cropping up to try and ease the transition to freedom, working alongside established outreach groups like 2nd Chance.
One is SafePet, a statewide program established in 2017 working out of the Shelby County Humane Society in Columbiana, which will take dogs and cats and set them up in foster homes for up to 60 days, free of charge. Abusers sometimes threaten animals as a control tactic, Shipman said, which makes the service valuable for people prying themselves free from abuse.
“The pet thing is just huge,” she continued. “Batterers will threaten victims, ‘You know if you leave I’m going to kill Oscar’ — so Oscar has to come too.”
Shelter for pets
SafePet’s program coordinator, Oxford resident Perry Trice, said that giving up pets to an animal shelter is sometimes a breaking point for survivors.
“When you’re already suffering from trauma, making a decision like that is impossible,” Trice said, sitting with Shipman. “They’ve given up so much already and giving up one more thing is a bridge too far for them. They realize they just can’t do it and decide to go back to the abuser or become homeless.”
Dogs and cats — exotic animals, ranging from ferrets and fish to snakes, aren’t eligible, though Trice said other organizations may help with those — are put in foster homes either in or near the county where the owner lives. Those animals are taken care of even if their owner has to move between shelters, he said, and they can get trips to the vet if they’ve sustained abuse themselves.
“Anecdotally, it’s sort of like your dog’s going off to summer camp. We send a picture and an update every week, that way they’re not ‘out of sight, out of mind,’” Trice said.
Once the owner is ready to have their pet back, the animal is returned within 24 hours, usually at a neutral drop-off point like a veterinary office. Clients are required to work with a domestic violence program to use the service, Trice said.
“It’s temporary emergency fostering, enough time to regather yourself, regather your independence a little and think about what your next move is going to be,” said Trice.
Paying for freedom
There’s also the matter of finding a place to live, gathering the money to pay for it and securing transportation. Many victims of abuse don’t have financial independence from their abusers, Shipman said. They may find themselves living in housing rented or mortgaged in someone else’s name, driving cars that don’t legally belong to them and without a bank account to sock away money for an eventual escape.
Organizations like 2nd Chance and the Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence exist to lift some of that burden off a survivor’s shoulders.
The Montgomery-based coalition can connect survivors with resources the Special Assessment Intervention and Liaison program, or SAIL, a product of the coalition and the Alabama Department of Human Resources. The program provides current and past victims of domestic violence, who also have children under 18, with financial aid.
“They can assess for safety when a survivor applies for benefits,” said an employee of the coalition, who asked not to be named due to safety concerns for workers involved in domestic abuse outreach. “They can work with a specialist and get help with fleeing if they need to. There are numerous services available.”
Stigma in the community
Rebuilding a life takes time. It also takes support from the community, something that’s sometimes in short supply, Shipman said.
There’s a stigma around domestic violence, she explained, that its victims chose it, or that they are of a lesser social class. Survivors often torture themselves about it, she said.
“There’s a whole lot of guilt, shame and remorse, for getting themselves into a situation like that in the first place — which they didn’t do that, it’s totally out of their control,” Shipman said. “Or for staying for however long they did, or they’ll think they can’t have successful relationships.”
Trice said he often speaks to people who don’t understand the challenges survivors face. He simplifies it with a metaphor about house fires.
“If a house burns down, no one says ‘You should go back in that house that burned down because maybe the fire wasn’t as bad as you thought,’” Trice said. “Nobody says, ‘I’ve known that fire for 30 years and it wouldn’t do that.’ They think there’s some catalyst that could have been avoided if they’d done X instead of Y.”
SafePet is looking for foster home volunteers anywhere in the state who are willing to take on a few animals here and there, Trice said, and volunteers who are willing to transport animals to and from foster homes. The agency manages about five cases per month statewide right now, he explained. Foster homes never have to permanently take animals, according to Trice.
“We don’t do ‘foster fails,’ so it’s a 60-day max,” he said.
Those interested in helping can call SafePet at 205-669-3916, where more information and help is also available, or visit shelbysafepet.org to learn more or donate. To learn more about 2nd Chance or make donations, visit its website at 2ndchanceinc.org.
Anyone in a domestic violence situation can call 800-650-6522, a statewide number that connects the caller to the nearest domestic abuse outreach group in their area. Shipman said it’s reliable with cell phones.
“We’ll speak with them on the crisis line and let them know they’re coming to a safe place,” Shipman said. “You’ll know we’re going to feed you and clothe you, and that the place is clean — and that there’s no violence here.”