Shining a light: Starting Point to open children's therapy program for families of domestic violence
Published Date Written by Tom EastmanCONWAY — In cases of domestic violence, the victims are not just those who are assaulted or abused: younger members of a turbulent household also often pay an emotional price.
Afraid to communicate the family's dark secret, who do they turn to?
Beginning in July, however, a new support program for children who have experienced domestic violence is being launched by Starting Point, according to executive director Suzette Indelicato.
"We have always provided services to children in some respect," said Indelicato, now in her 16th year at the Conway-based center for victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence. "But over the past year, our staff has received training [in child counseling], and we are very excited about starting this program."
Economics often play a role in determining just how many members of a household can afford to get mental health counseling treatment — and it's often not the children, said Indelicato.
She said the goal with the new program is to give kids a safe space to talk about their experiences.
"Often, in many households, it comes down to: Who gets to go for counseling when you can only afford one person? So the kids often get lost in that scenario," said Indelicato. "Kids are resilient, and most do well — but some do not. So we are building this program to give kids a space to acknowledge what is happening in their lives — and we hope it will halt the cycle of them becoming perpetrators themselves. We try to give them alternative tools, and to help understand it through the eyes of a child."
Indelicato said many of us grow up blissfully, playing with our toys and watching TV at home. For those who live in households with domestic violence, however, the coming of the night is akin to waiting for a blanket of terror to fall, night after night.
"When you grow up in a home with domestic violence," said Indelicato, "you are not sure what safety looks like. We are helping to work with kids to explore safety."
Founded in 1981 as Carroll County Against Domestic Violence, Indelicato says over the years the organization's name was changed to Carroll County Against Domestic Violence and Rape and finally in 1997 to Starting Point.
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Starting Point has been in the news of late. That's because the organization for the past two Junes has presented its Boots and Bling sold-out social fund-raising galas.
Last year's was held at the Glen-Ellis Campground, and raised $33,000. Due to heavy rains, this year's was moved from that site to the Grand Summit Hotel and Conference Center at Attitash June 2. This year's event raised a similar tally, according to Indelicato.
Another fund-raiser was held Sunday, June 17, when Fryeburg resident Donna Woodward's son, comic illustrator J. K. Woodward, appeared at The Met Gallery in North Conway to autograph prints of his work and donating proceeds from the sale of any prints to Starting Point.
Looking ahead, Starting Point on Aug. 4 presents its sixth annual women's tea party.
"It's an opportunity for women to come together and support one another, women who may have experienced violence in their lifetime," said Indelicato.
The organization also depends on volunteer donations and funding from the respective towns it serves at annual town meeting.
It gets 75 to 80 percent of its funding from grants, according to Indelicato, even though she said those resources in these tough economic times are continuing to be harder to come by.
Shelter getting heavy use
The organization successfully completed a $215,000 capital campaign a year ago October.
The organization used that money to pay off its debt for the purchase and renovations of a home in Conway that is used for staff office space — and to house its shelter for victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse and their children.
"We also maintain a working reserve so we have a five- to six-month working capital reserve that our board required of us," said Indelicato.
The organization features a staff of four full-time employees, including Indelicato, as well as three part-time employees.
They are assisted by a network of 25 volunteers who take calls after hours at their homes, giving the crisis center 24-7 coverage.
The shelter can accommodate 11. It's been busy from the start.
"In 2011 our shelter was full 217 nights. In 2012 already our shelter has been full 136 nights," reports Indelicato
She said that statistics show that one in four women will experience domestic violence or a sexual crime in their lifetime. Most abusers are men, although a minority are women.
According to Indelicato, the center has helped an average of 650 to 700 people per year over the past five years.
Asked whether the shelter and center see more business during tougher economic times, Indelicato answered that there are varying ways to determine that.
"Our calls are not up," she said, "but in challenging economic times, what the people we do see we provide services for a longer period of time, versus a one-time crisis intervention."
Or, says Lt. Chris Perley of the Conway Police Department, in tough economic times, those who are battered may not want to jeopardize their economic base by reporting abuse.
"In tough economic times," said Perley, "people may be more willing to tolerate abuse more as they have less access to money. So, it could be they don't report it — we have to know about something to do something. It could be a tradeoff of a punch in the eye for a paycheck."
When times are good economically, the same rationale may be at work in reverse.
"In higher economic times," said Perley, "you can have a depression [in the number of calls] because victims may be more willing to tolerate abuse more when the money is flowing."
Indelicato says while the economy may not lead to more calls, it has affected the nature of what victims may need for services and for how long.
Clients may not be able to afford an attorney, so they access the center's services more in depth, said Indelicato.
"They may need to work with us more for restraining orders, for support groups, to engage with us on an ongoing basis to try and get resources to try and maintain their safety outside the home.," said Indelicato. "They may need transportation to get to certain appointments. They may come from a one-cell phone family, and if the perpetrator has the phone, they may need our help.
"So," she said, "people's needs at this time are much greater. Say two people were in a home, and the person causing the violence left, so now the person left cannot pay the rent. We are seeing that people are needing more financial assistance. Our resources are limited, but we work with local welfare offices to assist them."
Accessing such local resources such as food pantries is key in such instances, even though as has been well reported, all local pantries are strained to meet the need, due to the economy.
Friends of the center provide gift food cards to help clients buy groceries.
"We hook people up to long-term resources, and we provide immediate ways to fill the shortterm gaps — the needs from getting help Saturday morning until they can access more traditional services come Monday morning," said Indelicato.
She said a minority of the center's clients are men who report abuse, but that the overwhelming majority are women.
Her center's mission is clear, she said: "Our goal is to empower victims to take steps he or she feels is best for their family," said Indelicato, adding, "It's not our goal to break up families. Our goal is to help domestic violence victims, whether they are male or female."
Mandatory arrest law
Lt. Perley said when he first came on the job, it was difficult to respond to a domestic violence call because there was no mandatory arrest law back then as there has been since the mid-1990s.
"You would mitigate a disturbance as a law enforcement officer, and you had a number of ways to do that and none of them were very effective," said Perley. "You would separate the parties, you know, 'cool off,' your standard presence. But there would be no resolution. You would drive off, worrying about the situation all night, wondering if after you left the aggressor said, 'See, I told you nothing would happen, now keep your mouth shut!' When the mandatory arrest policy was adopted, it was great, because you had one less thing to worry about."
Indelicato agreed with Perley that adoption of mandatory arrest laws for domestic violence has been helpful in many cases — but cautioned that it is not a panacea.
"With any system of mandatory arrest," she said, "some batterers are very good at calling police and appearing calm and collected when the police get there, while the victim is not thinking very clearly after her husband just assaulted her. So, it some times makes the police's job harder, because they truly have to decide on the spot who is to be arrested. Mandatory arrests are just one tool to hold batterers accountable."
She and board president Dot Seybold saluted the police department for its training and collaborative efforts with Starting Point.
"We should be very proud of our Conway Police Department. They are very well trained and they know what domestic violence victims' needs are and they use our resources — and that's not always the case in some towns," said Seybold.
Indelicato praised law enforcement agencies throughout the county for their help.
She also said her organization works closely with local hospitals, including Memorial Hospital.
"The police departments throughout Carroll County are very supportive of the work we do with victims," said Indelicato, saying her non-profit is involved with a collaborative known as the Lethality Assessment Project.
"The goal of the project is to link victims of domestic violence who are at greatest risk or being seriously injured or killed with a Starting Point advocate," said Indelicato.
She said Memorial hospital has been "very supportive" in cases of sexual abuse and domestic violence.
"When a patient goes for the hospital part of their intake process," said Indelicato, "it is to screen for domestic and sexual violence. When a patient is screened in as a victim an advocate goes to the hospital to speak with the patient."
Control and anger
Above all, Indelicato said, sexual abuse and domestic violence are about control — and when people feel economically threatened, they may turn to violence as it is their one sure way to maintain control.
"Domestic violence is about power and control," she said, "so when [abusers] feel powerless, they resort back to what they feel they should have control over, and that's their domestic partner."
She said community events such as Boots and Bling help to bring the taboo subject of domestic violence out onto the table.
"It's a balance [to throw a social event like that and then have a talk about domestic violence in the middle [of it]," agreed Indelicato, "but those at that party were there for a reason: to socialize and support Starting Point. Clearly the generosity that came out of that event speaks directly to the fact that people want to help."
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All Starting Point services are offered free of charge and are strictly confidential. For more information, call 447-2494 or visit www.startingpointnh.org. The center also operates a Wolfeboro office that may be reached by calling 452-8014. To access the 24-hour crisis line, call 1-800-336-3795.