Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part series. Part two will be published in Monday’s edition.

Why is domestic violence on the rise? It may be because society still turns a blind eye on the crime. Don’t believe that? Consider these cold hard facts. Across the nation there are more animal shelters than shelters providing a safe haven for domestic violence victims. In Oklahoma, the penalty for animal cruelty ranges from one year in county jail to five years in prison. The penalty for first time domestic violence offenders is only up to one year in county jail and a second conviction earns an offender just four years in a state prison. Even more unsettling is many domestic violence perpetrators never see the inside of a courtroom. Why?  Because their victims are too terrified to seek justice.
While the penalties do not appear to fit the crimes and many abusers are never punished by the law,  the numbers of domestic violence victims recognizing they don’t have to stay in abusive relationships or allow their children to be traumatized by domestic violence is on the rise
“It doesn’t have to be a dirty little secret any more” says Yolanda Gay, a Family Shelter of Southern Oklahoma victim advocate.
But the result of those victims’ bid for a normal, non-violent life is reflected in the inadequate space at the current FSSO facility. Gay says there are simply not enough beds to go around.
“Although our goal is to get everyone into the shelter when they need it, right now we have to prioritize. Since we serve four counties, we are sometimes forced to call around to see if there are beds available elsewhere. We need need to make sure we have beds here in a facility that can offer victims a new home-like and safe environment,” Gay says.
Tracie Owen, FSSO’s new executive director, says the need for a larger facility turned into action Aug. 1 when the shelter’s board purchased the former Western Hills Nursing Center, located at 402 Pawnee St.
“The shelter board has been carefully weighing the idea of a new facility for some years. The opportunity arose to purchase the building and and after much thought, investigation, and consideration, they moved to purchase the building,” Owen explained, adding “ We’ve signed a contract with Corner Greer Architects and plan to renovate the entire building.  Funds for the project will come from an upcoming Capital Campaign. The architectural plans are not finalized, but the intent is to be a 16-bed facility.”
While Owen said safety and security is a top priority, the address of the shelter will no longer be a secret. In fact, a sign will be installed identifying the shelter as a safe haven from domestic violence. Why? Increased visibility within the community. Victims can’t seek shelter if they don’t know it exists.
So how will safety and security be improved?
“The building will have state of the art security and that takes money.  Another need is for the building to be as safe and secure as possible without looking or feeling institutional,” Owen said. “Clients have been victimized enough without feeling like they’ve left a domestic violence situation only to find themselves (and their children) in a cold and sterile environment.”
Owen says she hopes to use her combined college degrees to assist in reaching the dual FSSO goals.
“My master’s degree is in human resource administration counseling, but my bachelor’s degree is in interior design, so I plan to help in any way I can to ensure that the clients who find their way to our shelter are surrounded by a peaceful, comforting, and home-like environment.  The plan is to have both an indoor and outdoor play area for the children, with commercial grade playground equipment. The goal is for the entire building, both inside and out, to look and have a residential feel.”
Additional objectives include: being user friendly which translates into ease of access for those with handicaps and/or injuries; bedroom “suites” with full bathrooms; commercial kitchen, lounge and dining areas, laundry facilities, and a technology area with computers for clients’ use.  
While clients will cook and clean for themselves and/or their children during their stay there will be a number of  site advocates to offer guidance on a variety of topics from finding employment to securing permanent housing to accessing legal services.
Are there requirements victims must meet for sanctuary in the current FSSO that will also be used in the  new facility?
“We are often asked if we are a homeless shelter.  While there is always a need for that, our answer is no, we are not.  We have specific criteria that needs to be met in order for someone to be accepted as a residential client. Personal housing or financial status is not part of the criteria.  Clients have to meet a list of criteria, all dealing with their current safety situation and domestic violence exposures,” Owen explained.
Residential services are usually a 30- day program. During that time advocates work hard with victims to develop a service plan that meets the needs of the victim and provides the victim with direction and resource guidance. Residential extensions are review on a case by case bases.
In addition to in-house services which includes a variety of counseling programs for adult victims and children, as well as support groups there are numerous services offered on an out-client  basis (victims not requiring housing). Some of those services will be featured Monday in Part two of Shelter from the domestic violence storm.