Survivors helping survivors: Family Shelter victim advocates provide lifeline for victims of domestic violence
Victim advocates at the Family Shelter of Southern Oklahoma know how difficult it can be to break away from domestic violence because they’ve lived it.
DeeDee Hunter and Stacey Rose now help other survivors safely escape domestic violence situations, seek legal protection and learn skills to help them get back on their feet. Both Hunter and Rose have worked at the Family Shelter for several years now, and Rose is actually a former client herself.
“I feel like domestic violence is something that you don’t fully understand unless you’ve been through it,” Rose said. Even just simple daily tasks can be difficult for someone coming out of a domestic violence situation, and it’s important that they have someone there for support and someone who understands.
Advocates fill that role and are there 24/7, 365 days a year to help victims in any way they can.
“I can definitely see where I struggled in areas and I think it is very helpful,” Rose said. “I remember myself at the time saying ‘I just need someone who understands’.”
The Family Shelter provides free crisis and counseling services to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking in Carter, Love, Murray, Johnston, Stephens and Marshall Counties, but will also help take in victims across state lines when the need arises.
Victim advocates, along with police and emergency responders, are some of the first people to have contact with victims leaving domestic violence situations. Hunter said victim advocates are often called to the hospital to help assist victims of sexual assault, as well.
“The main thing that you have to really, really think about when you’re talking to survivors is you just need to listen,” Hunter said. “You need to hear them. Before we start talking we always make sure it’s a safe space to talk.”
If an abuser is in the next room, the situation can become extremely dangerous. Rose said 75% of homicides related to domestic violence occur when the victim has decided to leave or has already left.
“Generally speaking, a lot of people think that if you just leave it’s going to get better, but they don’t understand all of the dangers associated with leaving,” Rose said. “Stalking, for instance, comes into play sometimes.”
To ensure the safety of survivors, victim advocates make extensive safety plans shortly after the initial contact. “It’s definitely proven that advocacy centers save lives because we do extensive safety planning,” Hunter said. “Whether we have to get the police involved for court, to escort us, to have extra security. We keep their confidentiality and their privacy key with their safety.”
Hunter spends a lot of her time in court assisting victims in rural counties. As a victim advocate, she works closely with attorneys to get protective orders and helps victims fill out paperwork; and as a survivor, she knows that the legal process can be emotional for victims.
“Paperwork is kind of overwhelming when you’re going through trauma,” Hunter said. “I know the emotions that they’re going to have — nobody’s journey is the same at all — but when I see a behavior and I can see an emotion come on, it’s something that can be normal for that part of the process.”
Hunter said victims sometimes go through a rollercoaster of emotions, one day feeling empowered and feeling defeated the next. Explaining the legal process to them step by step is vital in helping them cope with those emotions.
Hunter also helps victims compile necessary evidence and goes with victims to court any time they have to testify, whether it’s for a protective order or criminal charges against their abuser. Facing an abuser in court can be terrifying for victims, and advocates like Hunter and Rose are there to provide emotional support.
“Sometimes they do have to testify and that’s really, really hard,” Hunter said. “When I meet them at the courthouse and they are trembling, they are shaking, they’ve been vomiting, they didn’t sleep, they’re not eating, I just encourage them and I tell them to look at me.”
Some victims have never been allowed to work or have any finances of their own, leaving them feeling helpless. Victim advocates can help survivors learn financial skills, prepare for job interviews, obtain clothing, shelter and food and learn how to set boundaries and have healthy relationships.
“Just teaching them how to be independent, and that they don’t deserve abuse,” Rose said. They also work with DHS when children are involved.
If there are any needs they can’t meet, they will refer victims to other organizations in the community that the shelter works in collaboration with. Over time, advocates see survivors become more empowered. “There’s more impactful moments than I can count,” Rose said.
Hunter said many former clients will keep in touch with advocates. Years later, they will call to tell them they’ve obtained an associates degree, or they got their nursing license — things they may not have been able to do previously because of the controlling environments they once lived in.
“We love hearing those kinds of stories. There is a bond developed because we are getting into the most vulnerable part of their lives,” Hunter said. “They stay in contact with us, a lot of times many of them do. We encourage them to stay in contact as much as they feel comfortable and to always know that we’ll be here for them.”
Rose said she never knew services like the Family Shelter’s existed until she needed them. Awareness is important not only for survivors, but for the general population in the event that someone they know experiences domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking.
“I think it’s important if they have someone come to them that they know the direction to point them in, and that services are free,” Rose said. Many people worry about the cost of services because many victims are uninsured or don’t have any finances of their own; but there is free help available.
Services can be accessed by calling the Family Shelter’s 24-hour crisis line at (580) 226-6424 or through email at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information visit familyshelterofsouthernok.net.
“It is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, but it's 24/7 in our world, and we want to make the survivors' world a little bit easier,” Hunter said. “Really digging deep to know who you are and not who you’ve been made to be is so important.”