by Samantha Thompson Hatem
photographs by Jillian Clark
Typically, about half of residents in domestic violence shelters return to their abusive relationships. But in 2013, 89 percent of InterAct shelter residents did not return. Last year, the number was 90 percent.
There were many stops along Ashley Martin’s bloody and bruised path where someone could have talked to her about InterAct. At the urgent care, where she told them she’d cracked her ribs in a fall; at her Raleigh home, when the police arrived after her boyfriend beat her unconscious; at the hospital, where she was patched up and sent back home.
But it wasn’t until Ashley was at the Wake County Courthouse with her parents to file a restraining order against her violent abuser that someone from InterAct, Wake County’s only domestic violence agency, saw her swollen, bloodied face in the lobby and stepped in to help.
That was nearly two years ago. Since then, in part thanks to a fresh spotlight on domestic violence in professional sports, there’s been a remarkable change in the public conversation nationally and locally about the issue. Finally, it’s becoming OK to talk about it. InterAct says that’s a vital change. Because awareness could save the life of someone like Ashley Martin.
“I was so lucky it turned the way it did and that she found me in that lobby,” Martin says. “For the longest time I was so sad, and I was always afraid I was never going to be again. But I’m alive, and I was 20 minutes from being dead.”
In 2012, 11 women in Wake County weren’t as lucky. They all died as the result of domestic violence. The number was higher here than in any other North Carolina county.
It was a wake-up call for Leigh Duque, InterAct’s executive director. “It really made me mad,” she said. “I realized we have to be investing more heavily on breaking the cycle of violence.”
Since then, she’s been on a mission to not only shake up how InterAct helps survivors, but also how Wake County tackles its domestic violence problem. She’s forged new partnerships with local law enforcement, pioneered electronic filing of restraining orders with law enforcement directly from the safety of InterAct, and is part of a new multi-agency fatality review team.
“It used to be, people would call our crisis line or walk in our door, people over and over who were in crisis,” Duque said. “Now we’ve reorganized to where we still see people in crisis, but our focus is on the journey for these people. We stabilize them and help them make a plan.”
The strategy is working. Typically, about half of residents in domestic violence shelters return to their abusive relationships. But in 2013, 89 percent of InterAct shelter residents did not return. Last year, the number was 90 percent.
“It’s making a real difference in people’s lives,” Duque said. “We’re able to focus more on breaking the cycle of violence in our community, not just responding to crisis.”
The non-profit’s renewed mission to break the cycle of violence comes even as its resources are ever-more stretched. On most days, 23 people, often in serious crisis, arrive in InterAct’s lobby. That’s up from an average of seven people a day five years ago. The troubled economy tripled demand for service, Duque says, but staffing levels and resources have stayed the same.
Regardless, InterAct never turns away a victim.
“If we don’t have a bed in our shelter, we will find a bed,” Duque said. “We will find a safe place for someone to be. That is the culture of InterAct. We’re doing these ground-breaking kinds of initiatives because it’s the right thing to do to for our community, not because we have the resources.”
It all begins at InterAct’s office in the old YWCA building on Oberlin Road, an office that opened five years ago with a ground-breaking concept to provide a one-stop shopping approach to helping survivors thrive.
In the sprawling 10,000-square-foot space, a victim can arrive with nothing and get legal, emotional and financial help. She can find a new place to live, a new job, and day care for her children. Eight organizations, including the Raleigh Police Department, Legal Aid of North Carolina, and the YMCA of the Triangle all operate there under one roof, providing the various pieces of what a survivor needs to get back on her feet.
“We’re wrapping services around people in one place,” Duque said. “People are accessing services like they never could have before. Typically these are people who are walking out the door with no more than a suitcase, if they even had time to pack. Here we’re able to talk about housing, educational resources, skills building, child care.”
Eleanor Dawson is one of those who showed up in crisis. She arrived at InterAct’s lobby nearly three years ago with only her car and some clothes. She had driven half way across the country, running from her husband whose violence and abuse had escalated. The final straw came when he pulled out a gun, kicked her in her newly-replaced hip, shot his gun into the ceiling, and told her she better be home when he got back.
“I knew right then it was time to go,” she said. “I knew this man was going to kill me.”
She crawled to her neighbor, who packed up her car. With no money and no place to go, she drove through the night. “I was so desperate for my life, I wasn’t thinking about money, which is what I needed,” she said.
She ended up in an emergency room here, where she was given an anonymous name and a place to stay the night, and was told to be at InterAct the next morning.
Dawson is one of thousands who have graduated from InterAct’s residential shelter, a 45-bed facility in a secret location where survivors come to stay for eight weeks. Here, they remake their lives, moving beyond abusive relationships with new jobs and homes with the help of a team of counselors.
“Whatever I needed, Interact had for me,” Dawson said. “My life is not like it was. But I’m alive. InterAct saved my life. Whenever I needed someone to talk to they were there. They were my family. They got me to where I needed to be.”
Ashley Martin didn’t need InterAct to remake her life. She did, however, need InterAct’s help with the complicated process of filing a restraining order.
Like other domestic violence victims seeking protection, she had to go downtown to the courthouse, which can be a daunting, confusing place. Then there’s the challenging process of filling out lengthy paperwork. Martin had face all of that less than 24 hours after being severely beaten by her boyfriend – while she was literally scared for her life. “Trying to navigate the system is hard and intimidating,” Duque said.
That filing process, however, will soon change in Wake County. Domestic violence victims will be able to do it all from the safety of InterAct’s office, where they will meet with an InterAct advocate and a representative of the Wake County Clerk of Court’s office who will help them file the paperwork electronically. InterAct also will have the technology to videoconference with a judge.
Once an order is granted, it will go directly to an officer’s cruiser so the perpetrator can be served quickly. The entire process will shave off crucial hours during the filing process – hours that can be an extremely dangerous time for victims.
“This is a game changer, to be able to file in the moment of crisis, without having to go downtown and deal with the bureaucracy of the courthouse,” said Tucker Shade, who chairs the InterAct board.
InterAct also is getting more help from area law enforcement by taking cues from Maryland’s Lethality Assesment Program, which is being used as a model to combat domestic violence in a number of states.
Thanks to a grant, local law enforcement here are now being trained to ask domestic violence victims 11 questions to assess the likelihood that a victim could be killed, and to respond appropriately. “What we were finding was that we were missing people who were at risk of serious injury or death,” Duque said.
Thanks to the program, InterAct is seeing victims earlier in the violence cycle, Duque says, and is able to help them before their situation worsens.
InterAct also has a new plan for when tragedy does strike and a victim is killed. In 2013, InterAct was tapped as the lead agency on a Domestic Violence Fatality Review Team, something the region hasn’t had in years. This new interdisciplinary team looks at each Wake County domestic violence homicide, from birth to death. “It’s our opportunity, not with shame or blame, but in a positive way identify the lessons learned,” Duque said.
The team will gather records from a victim and perpetrator, and meet to find out what led to the death, and what could have been done differently. The first report with recommendations to specific agencies is due out later this year.
“I can’t tell you how great it feels to be really operating on a systemic level,” Duque said. “We’re so proud of what we do under our roof, and will continue to do. It’s a different kind of conversation we’re having in the community.”