BROOKSVILLE – It’s almost like being rescued from a sinking ship.
On a surface level, they are as different as night and day. Some are young, others old, some wealthy, some poor. They look like any other people you’d see walking down the street – the polished executive, the young blonde graduate, the former gourmet chef.
But underneath the surface, there’s an unspoken commonality: They’ve all been victims of horrific abuse, and have often done the only thing they could – sought refuge at the Dawn Center, Hernando County’s center for domestic and sexual violence.
Defining Domestic Violence
When the Dawn Center’s executive director, Debbie Andrews, speaks to groups about domestic violence, she often cites an alarming statistic: One out of every three women has been, will be or is in a domestic violence situation.
Whether verbal, emotional or physical, it affects everyone – mothers, sisters, brothers, children.
“(Victims) come to the center because they had no choice,” she said. “Home wasn’t safe.”
By Florida law, “domestic violence” means any assault, aggravated assault, battery, aggravated battery, sexual assault, sexual battery, stalking, aggravated stalking, kidnapping, false imprisonment or any criminal offense resulting in physical injury or death of one family or household member by another family or household member.
Defined more loosely, domestic violence is a complex form of power and control, and is often passed through generations. It destroys victims’ self confidence, causes developmental delays in children and continues for numerous reasons.
“It takes women an average of seven to nine times to leave a domestic violence situation,” Andrews said.
Many times, women stay for financial reasons – they know they wouldn’t be able to support their children on minimum wage, for example. Other times they feel they did something to deserve the abuse or fear their abuser will hurt them if they try to leave.
And the aggressor is not always a boyfriend or husband. More recently, the center has seen a resurgence of young women escaping from abusive brothers, uncles, step-parents and fathers, Andrews said.
Some stay. Some go back.
Either way, the shelter’s staff is there to support them on their journey.
How It Began
The Dawn Center – one of 42 certified domestic violence centers serving Florida’s 67 counties – originally began in Hernando County in the late 1980s as a grassroots organization in which local residents invited women and children facing abuse to take shelter in private homes.
“Back then, it was just friends taking in friends, neighbors taking in neighbors,” Andrews said. “It was an incredible movement.”
With the shelter’s current, centralized outreach concept that started in Marion County in 1986, the first safe house in Hernando was acquired in 1994.
Two years later, through fundraising efforts from local citizens and U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, officials purchased the “safe house” currently in use. Three years ago, a new addition was added, with a renovated children’s wing that opened in May 2005.
The shelter – which has top security in place to protect residents and is located in a private, undisclosed area of the county – now has 40 beds and several cribs that are typically filled, though occupancy changes daily. Many women bring their children, and some have given birth while living at the shelter, Andrews said.
From June 2007 to July 2008, the shelter’s staff saw 282 new victims, not including those who had sought help before. Each day, they responded to an average of five to seven crisis calls and provided emergency shelter for 30 local women and children.
Residents receive necessary food and supplies, including clothing, diapers, baby formula and toiletries.
While the current safe house only has space for women and children, Dawn Center staff can also find alternative living arrangements for men needing shelter.
What The Center Provides
The center does not aim to rescue women, but to provide an eight-week intervention program to allow victims to heal, build strength and examine their options.
Staff members are specially-trained to operate a 24-hour crisis hotline for victims of domestic violence or rape, with advocates available to talk victims through situations and help them formulate a safety plan.
If a person needs to leave their home and a staff member is not available, deputies from the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office will meet them in a safe place and transport or lead them to the home.
“Even if they don’t need shelter, we provide telephone advocacy,” Andrews said. “There’s no time limit on how long it takes someone to leave.”
Once at the shelter, a resource coordinator and shelter advocate meet with victims to determine what assistance they need and provide resources, ranging from arranging rape examinations and filing injunctions to finding a job and applying for government assistance.
The Dawn Center also employs a legal advocate in the county clerk’s office, who helps residents with hearings, filing injunctions and locating necessary legal services through referrals and other resources. All information is kept confidential.
‘Hernando County may be small and limited, but the services we have and people we partner with is unprecedented,” Andrews said. “My staff talks to people throughout the state. It’s incredible.”
Life At The Home
By the time they arrive at the shelter, most victims are numb. They aren’t aware of what they’re feeling, what to do next or what their options are, let alone how to make choices.
While many have endured life-threatening injuries, the majority of residents don’t display obvious signs of abuse. No black eyes, big bruises or broken bones.
But psychologically, the scars linger. Many are withdrawn, haunted by years of being molested, beaten, berated or manipulated by those closest to them.
Residents prepare all of the shelter’s food, and take turns cooking and completing chores. Andrews estimated that last year, women in the shelter prepared almost 33,000 meals.
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Often, victims and their children have had to leave quickly and have left behind many of their belongings. They must learn to survive without items often taken for granted, such as a vehicle, cell phone, credit cards and for children, favorite toys.
The center’s staff acts as peacekeepers, with ongoing parenting classes and support meetings. They help victims set goals, build their lives from scratch and teach them how to care for themselves.
Since residents share bedrooms, tensions sometimes arise from sharing personal space, particularly between adults and children accustomed to independence.
They also must abide by strict safety rules, which include always notifying their whereabouts, signing out before they leave and being in before 10 p.m., unless work requires otherwise.
After they leave the home, victims rarely remain in contact with the center’s staff. However, the success stories make the work worthwhile, Andrews said.
She recalled a young, 20-year-old resident who lived in the shelter twice with her two young children. She accepted help and moved on, but occasionally calls the center’s staff and leaves messages.
“She just says, ‘I know you remember who I am, and wanted to let everyone know I have a really good job, I just bought a house and am doing really well,'” Andrews said. “Those are the calls we look forward to getting.”
Keeping The Shelter Going
The Dawn Center is constantly facing challenges. Since state funding covers 80 percent of the center’s budget, the center’s staff must cover the additional 20 percent through private donations and grants.
“This is a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week job,” she said. “It never stops.”
Andrews, who became director in 2005, estimated that she will need to raise $150,000 this year alone.
“We want to make sure there are no fees attached to anything,” she said. “Our outreach through advocacy programs is free and ongoing.”
Dawn Center staff members regularly participate in local and state trainings and conferences, and the center aims to partner with as many other local organizations as possible, such as the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office, State Attorney’s Office, Department of Children and Families, the Brooksville Police Department and local hospitals.
And the little things matter more than people may realize. While nonperishable food is easy to come by, the center’s staff struggles to keep the refrigerator stocked with everyday staples such as milk, cheese, meat and eggs, Andrews said.
“Cash donations are how we are able to provide the daily staples of what we need in the household,” she said.
Donations also pay for transportation costs, such as driving victims to doctor’s appointments or providing gasoline or bus passes so they can job search, Andrews said.
The center is also in constant need of local volunteers, who do everything from answering crisis calls to helping women navigate their way through the legal system.
And domestic violence itself is showing no signs of letting up.
“As the economy is slowing down, crime is on the rise – and domestic violence is definitely on the rise,” Andrews said. “Also, because of people losing their jobs and homes, we have more women and children needing our services than we can provide, at this point.”
For information about the Dawn Center or its services, go to www.dawncenter.org.
Reporter Linnea Brown can be reached at 352-544-5289 or [email protected]