At the Family Abuse Center domestic violence shelter in Waco, on any given day about 50 women and their children seek refuge in this emergency facility that serves seven Central Texas counties. Many women living here fear for their lives and that of their offspring.
The majority have fled physically and emotionally abusive relationships toting tots on their hips and wearing only the clothing on their backs, center executive director Kathy Reid said. They arrive at the shelter disoriented, disheveled and uncertain what their next course in life will be.
Once safely behind bulletproof glass doors, shelter staff and certified counselors begin to piece together these families’ lives bit by bit. It’s a complex process that often involves helping them get copies of identification cards, like driver’s licenses and indigent health cards, enrolling their children in local schools and day care centers, applying for jobs and ultimately finding a permanent place to live.
“One thing we are very proud of is that we don’t turn anybody away,” Reid told Waco Today as she gave access to this 55-bed state and federally funded shelter.
No names of shelter victims or their specific circumstances were allowed to be used for this story, nor the shelter’s address. That is so these families can remain hidden. Nevertheless, Reid said plenty of people know where it is located and have sought refuge here since this facility opened in 2006.
The overnight stays might be free, but the families work hard to re-establish their lives and learn how to avoid future abusive relationships. Hopefully they won’t ever return, nor will their children.
Statistics, however, appear to be against them. Typically, about one-third of children from abusive families grow up to be victims; one-third will grow up to be abusers and one-third will go on to lead healthy lives, Reid said.
“A motivated client who is really trying to make a change in their life, our case managers are capable of helping them so they can be successful and that is part of the reason for our success rate,” Reid said.
The No. 1 factor that will determine whether victims succeed is their mind-set, Reid said. They must be fully convinced and determined to end an abusive relationship and start anew.
But that is not easy for many of these women, especially those from rural areas who tend to have had little education or few previous choices in life and have existed dependent upon their abusive partners. Reid says it’s not uncommon for a domestic violence victim to have been forbidden to work outside the home, have had regular medical care, or have a say in the number of children they bear — reproductive coercion is prevalent among abusers. Many have never been to a major shopping mall or were allowed to do the grocery shopping.
“One woman at age 30 had never stepped foot in a Walmart because he’d never let her shop,” Reid said about a former client. “It’s getting people to understand that the big thing is power and control in which violence is the tool they use to control the person.”
Beatings and strangulation of victims are not uncommon. Reid says many abusers are savvy enough to beat women on their torsos and below the neck line so bruising doesn’t readily show. “They are smart enough to do it in ways they won’t be held accountable,” Reid said. “A person can be strangled to the point of a seizure and unconscious and 50 percent of the time it doesn’t leave any marks.”
Abused victims often are stalked, verbally abused, made to feel that they are worthless and incapable of living on their own. Some are killed.
In 2005, 1,181 women were murdered by an intimate partner, according to Bureau of Justice statistics. Of all the women murdered in the U.S., about one-third were killed by an intimate partner.
According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, women experience about 4.8 million intimate partner-related physical assaults and rapes every year. And less than 20 percent of battered women sought medical treatment following an injury.
Those who safely make it to this shelter in Waco have a fighting chance. But they need a lot of help. And that is where the generosity of donors and shelter volunteers makes the difference.
The Family Abuse Center in Waco operates through 65 percent federal and state grants and 35 percent community donations. Reid said there was a time when the center collected 85 percent of its funding through state and federal grants, but has dropped that during the past three years due to the giving attitude found in Waco.
“This is very expensive work. This is not just about handing out food or finding them a space to sleep. This is about long-term changing peoples’ habits and staying safe,” said Reid, a former pastor who was executive director of the Texas Homeless Network in Austin for seven years prior to coming to Waco in 2009 to head the shelter’s staff.
The center has four case managers, three full-time counselors, three legal advocates and eight interns from Baylor University, the University of Texas at Arlington and Tarleton State University to help victims.
Most of the 55 beds are usually full and the center accommodates many more small infants and children every day.
“This is the most meaningful job I’ve ever had. I feel like every day I’m saving peoples’ lives,” Reid said.
An entire closet at the center is filled with toiletry items, such as shampoo, toothpaste, soap and lots of diapers and wipes. Every victim who comes here gets to fill up on hygiene items. Reid said donations of small, individual hotel-type containers are especially appreciated.
Another closet has overnight wear and extra-large T-shirts that are an easy way to fit any client in pajamas. The closet also is stocked with baby onesies and children’s sleep wear. All of the clothing and items are donated by individuals, churches and local charities and enable the center to continue operating on a shoestring budget, Reid said.
Clients are given access to $50 worth of vouchers to “shop” in their thrift store filled with donated goods. Reid said $50 can furnish an entire closet. Most of the clothing is slightly used. But one woman — who wishes to remain anonymous — every week brings in several hand-sewn smock dresses for little girls. In the pocket of each dress she puts a special message, such as “Made especially for you with love.”
For these children, this might be the first piece of new clothing they have owned. And it might be the start of something bright in an otherwise scary and depressing existence.
How they came to the center is usually a sordid tale and differs with each family. But the average victim returns to their abuser seven times before finally deciding to leave them forever, Reid said. Before that, they usually will flee to live with family or friends but often are discovered by their abuser and forced to return.
“By the time they get here, it’s really the end. So many of our clients are not even on the fence with it. They are done,” Reid said.
One woman who consented to be interviewed was driven here from a rural area by police. She left overnight with her child and failed to grab her child’s medication. Another woman said she had been gang-raped and her abuser was part of it. She also was in need of medication, which both women were able to get through an on-site urgent care clinic operated at the shelter on Tuesday evenings.
Area volunteer doctors provide the care and prescriptions. Other tests were purchased through grants and an initial startup grant of $10,000 from the national nonprofit crime-prevention organization Futures Without Violence.
The center is one of the only domestic violence shelters in the state to operate an urgent care clinic; and possibly among only six in the nation to do so, Reid said. The clinic first opened in November 2011 and was held every other Tuesday. In June, it began operating every Tuesday evening and so far has treated about 80 patients.
Getting to the Waco shelter sometimes involves a clandestine trek aided by emergency workers and/or local businesses and volunteers stationed throughout town who pick them up and take them here. But sometimes they can’t stay because their abusers might be aware of the location; some might be sitting in the parking lot waiting for them to leave. In those cases, the victims are transferred to other shelters and sometimes out of state.
The families who seek refuge here are free to come and go. They are given three full meals a day plus two snacks for children. The shelter serves 23,000 meals a year, Reid said.
At night, a long line forms for the industrial-sized raised-up bathtub, where moms soak multiple toddlers at once, Reid said. The women are encouraged to pair up and help one another watching each others’ children while they apply for jobs. While in the center, they must follow strict rules that forbid alcohol use or bringing men there.
A special room closer to the security guard booth houses older male children. Rooms farther down the hallways are equipped with cribs for newborns, toddler beds and entire family units. Women without children bunk together in rooms that sleep nine. Two rooms are equipped for handicapped clients.
A media and computer room is available where the women are encouraged to apply online for jobs and children can be entertained by watching a big-screen TV.
In the cafeteria, music blares from speakers and smiling children laugh and dance as they eat nutritious meals. Forming happy memories is essential to their recovery, Reid said.
A reflection garden out back is a serene place for a moment alone, and a nearby playground offers children a chance to swing and be carefree.
The women are required to attend counseling sessions several evenings a week and guest speakers are brought in to help them learn about job openings, prepare them for job interviews and even provide knowledge of court proceedings.
A giant playroom for smaller children is available to care for children while the women are in these sessions. Colorful wall murals offer encouraging and empowering messages to children, who are supervised by certified child-care providers. The room is full of toys for all age levels. Donations of instructional puzzles and educational computer software is always needed, Reid said.
Probably the most striking aspect about this shelter is its obscurity. These families flee here and blend into society. Some hold jobs; some children might be classmates. But they are all survivors and victims and they are seeking a better life.
Family Abuse Center
The 24-hour hotline number if you are the victim of abuse is 1-800-283-8401.
Online information: familyabusecenter.org