First in a three-part series
“This time of year is really emotional here,” says Gail Tobin. “You have to be really strong.”
As executive director of Iris Kirby House, a St. John’s shelter for women and children leaving abusive relationships, Tobin and her team are often
an abused woman’s first contacts once she accepts she’s in a dangerous domestic situation; the first people to whom she reaches out when living under the hand of an abusive partner.
Tobin’s used to welcoming women who’ve been beaten, inside and out, often appearing on the shelter’s doorstep like beautiful, broken butterflies.
“Their self-esteem is at an all-time low, and emotionally they’re distraught,” she says of the typical woman who seeks shelter at Iris Kirby House. It’s more than shelter they receive there, though — it’s a whole support network to help them transition, if they choose, into a whole new life.
Women make first contact by calling, if they’re in a situation where they’re able to do so, or by simply showing up at the shelter, either alone or with a social worker or the police, Tobin says. The admitting process includes an assessment tool to ensure the woman meets the shelter’s safety mandate (although if she doesn’t, she may be placed elsewhere), and once intake is completed, she’s admitted.
Unassuming on the outside, the shelter, particularly at this time of year when it’s decorated for the holidays, is meant to be a warm, inviting haven for abused women. A cozy living room has comfortable couches and a large TV; a children’s play area is perfectly outfitted with books and toys. An industrial-sized kitchen isn’t industrial looking at all, with wooden tables, curtains and other home touches. The grounds are large, tree-covered, and scattered with children’s toys.
The 22-bed shelter — and its sister facility, the 15-bed O’Shaughnessy House in Carbonear — runs on a co-operative living program, with women sharing chores. If a shelter resident works, staff will ensure they get to work. If she has children, and most residents do, staff will make sure they make it to school on time.
“We try and keep as much normalcy in the life of a child as possible,” Tobin explained, adding the shelter has a children’s services program with agre-appropriate activities and outings, if it’s safe.
The door to the shelter is always locked, and visitors are required to identify themselves before being allowed to enter. Should an abusive partner show up and refuse to leave, the house has a direct line to summon the RNC immediately.
Empowerment is the key goal, Tobin explains, and shelter staff run nightly group meetings for the residents, giving them an opportunity to talk about their day and their life.
“They get support from each other. Some of the most fabulous friendships are fabricated within the environment of this facility,” Tobin says.
Iris Kirby House also runs an empowerment group called The Power of 10, open to any woman in the community who’s experienced abuse in her lifetime, whether or not she was ever a resident of the shelter. The 10-week group has a maximum of 10 participants, and there’s currently a waiting list.
Women are welcome to stay at Iris Kirby House for as long as they need, until they find safe, affordable housing, which Tobin admits isn’t easy in the St. John’s area. Iris Kirby House has 16 second-stage housing units in the metro area where women can stay, usually for a 12-month transitional period while they reestablish themselves financially and otherwise. The housing units run on a 100 per cent occupancy rate.
“When a woman moves out here at Iris Kirby House, it’s a big day,” Tobin says with a smile. “It’s mixed emotions, because while they’re happy to be moving out and having their own place, they’re still really insecure about leaving this safe environment. We always make sure they can call at any time, can come back for our monthly dinners or quilting club, and they always know that we’re still here. It’s not that they leave here and never hear from us again.”
Shelter staff have a non-judgmental approach to their care, and will support a victim in her decisions, even if she chooses to return to her abusive partner.
“We understand that they may love their partner,” Tobin says. “If she decides to return, we make sure she has a safety plan. We wouldn’t phone the police and say she’s moving and she’s going back, because of confidentiality, but we do work with the police in terms of emergency protection orders and the lines of communication are very open.
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“Noteworthy is that our recidivism rates have dropped, so for us, that’s telling us that our programming is working.”
Abuse doesn’t just mean black eyes and bruises, Tobin says. While physical abuse is the most visible, victims of domestic violence suffer from emotional, psychological and verbal abuse — including degrading remarks, guilt trips, jealousy, threats and destruction of personal property — financial abuse, where a partner may deny them access to money or make them solely responsible for all bills while handling money irresponsibly themselves, and sexual abuse. Each form of violence leaves its own type of scars, and ravages the victim’s self-image.
Although each victim’s experience is unique, abuse in relationships often follows what Tobin calls the “Cycle of Violence,” which has three stages: a tension-building stage, in which the abusive partner becomes increasingly more demanding, controlling, jealous and impatient; the violent episode, which will usually be blamed on the victim; followed by a “honeymoon” stage, where the abuser becomes apologetic and loving, making the victim believe things will change.
Over time, the honeymoon stage usually becomes shorter, and the violent episodes more frequent.
“I could tell when something was going to happen because he’d start accusing me of everything,” says Caroline, a young mother of two small children and former Iris Kirby House resident. “He was convinced I was cheating on him if I came home late from work; if I didn’t take what he thought was a normal amount of time coming home from the grocery store, I’d have to explain myself. He’d call my office and if one of the guys answered the phone, I’d be in trouble.
“I found myself walking on eggshells, sucking up to him so as not to set him off, but it never worked, sooner or later I’d get it, out of nowhere. After that came the presents and the ‘I’m sorry’s and the ‘I only got upset because I care about you’s. It was constant torture. I wanted to leave, but I had a family with him, and no matter what, the kids’ dad is still their dad.”
Caroline eventually found the strength to leave, taking her children with her, and sought shelter at Iris Kirby House for a short time, until she moved in with relatives. Today, she’s back with her partner, who has gone through counselling and treatment for alcoholism. While things aren’t perfect, she says, he’s not physically violent, and she’s not living in constant fear.
“If you had told me back then that we’d still be together and our life would be this much better, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Caroline says. “I owe a lot to the shelter. I’m still friends with a couple of the ladies I met there.”
Most abused women are made to think the abuse is their fault, Tobin says. Many of them were abused as children and blame themselves for ending up in a violent relationship as adults.
It’s when they move into a caring environment and learn that they’re not to blame and they’re not going to be put down for speaking their mind that they star to heal, she explains.
“We see an improvement in their life and they blossom again, because they know they’re safe and they’re going to be supported,” she says. “It’s the process of empowerment, of making that woman realize she didn’t go looking for this, this is not her fault and she can move beyond this, and we’re going to help her do that.
“You watch them, you see them as their life begins to improve, and you see that glow coming over them, and say they, ‘I’m so much stronger.’ It’s very rewarding.”
In The Weekend Telegram: Domestic violence, as seen by police