At new domestic abuse shelter, input of past victims informs every detail

Several years ago, Sara Cornell fled an abusive relationship and showed up at Dane County’s only domestic abuse shelter, her two young sons clinging to her side.

The boys, ages 4 and 6 at the time, did not want to let their mother out of their sight, forcing Cornell to recount the scary details of their ordeal to an intake worker while the children listened.

Fast forward several years. On a recent afternoon, Cornell got a first look at the new Domestic Abuse Intervention Services (DAIS) shelter in Madison, which opens Friday and replaces the cramped shelter where Cornell and her boys stayed.

Seeing the new intake rooms, Cornell teared up, overcome with emotion. At a focus group with other domestic abuse victims during the shelter’s design phase, she told architects her story. The new rooms have windows so that children can be on the other side playing — still able to see their moms but out of earshot.

“I really feel like every single thing we talked about is addressed here,” said Cornell, 38. “It’s very therapeutic to think we’re helping other women.”

In designing the new $5.6 million facility, shelter officials sought to always remember the trauma their clients would be experiencing, said Shannon Barry, DAIS executive director. Input from former victims was critical in getting those details right, she said.

That’s why there are numerous private spaces, even a serenity garden, for contemplation and alone time. And it’s why there are separate, age-appropriate playrooms for toddlers to teenagers. There’s even a small kennel — emergency housing for a dog or cat so the family pet doesn’t have to be left behind.

The shelter, on Madison’s East Side at 2102 Fordem Ave., has been desperately needed for years and will vastly improve services to domestic abuse victims in ways both obvious and subtle, advocates say.

It will more than double the number of beds available each night, from 25 to 56. The staff will grow to about 45 workers this fall, up from 21 two years ago.

In another big change, the location of the new shelter will be publicized, not kept secret. The switch necessitated intensive security measures but ultimately will keep clients safer and increase awareness of services, shelter officials believe.

Waiting list

For a metro area of this size, some studies suggest Madison should have 100 emergency beds available for domestic abuse victims, Barry said.

DAIS currently has just 25, cobbled together between two connected houses at a confidential location in a residential neighborhood on Madison’s Near West Side. The setup was meant to be a stop-gap measure, but that was decades ago.

“Even 30 years ago, it was not in great shape and was not big enough to sustain the number of people going through it,” said Patti Seger, executive director of End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin, an advocacy organization in Madison. She was an early volunteer and employee at DAIS.

For the new shelter, DAIS used the bones of a former 1950s-era Sears warehouse and small-machine repair center that had sat vacant for years. DAIS is selling its old shelter to a buyer who intends to return the homes to single-family dwellings, Barry said.

Some nights in the last year, as many as 80 individuals in potentially life-threatening situations have been on a waiting list, Barry said. DAIS also can house a few victims in hotels for overflow but has limited resources to do so.

Due to the communal nature of the living spaces at the shelter, male victims of domestic abuse — typically two or three per month — are housed exclusively at hotels, Barry said. They are offered the same case-management services as women.

Demand for emergency shelter in Dane County has surged since 2010. The recession that hit in the late 2000s likely meant some victims remained in abusive relationships out of financial necessity, then found themselves with no other option than emergency shelter when the violence escalated, Barry said.

Also, DAIS launched a public awareness campaign in 2010 and started receiving increased media coverage as news of its plans to build a new facility spread.

“The spike in 2010 was very striking,” Barry said. “What I would hypothesize is that domestic abuse is somewhat hidden, and DAIS was sort of hidden, too. More people now know we’re here, which has led to more victims coming forward.”

As the organization becomes even more visible, another spike could be on the way, Barry said. Or, there could be a lull as victims hang back to make sure the shelter’s new public approach succeeds, she said.

Secrecy ends

That approach — leaving the shadows and publicizing the address — makes sense for both practical and philosophical reasons, Seger said.

“When programs have gone from confidential to public, they’ve experienced greater public support for the victims,” she said. “If domestic violence stays hidden, the community never steps up to hold the perpetrators accountable.”

DAIS already is seeing community support blossom. The North Side business community just completed a “Welcome Week” for the shelter. Trees and fences up and down Sherman Avenue and elsewhere are festooned with giant purple ribbons. Many businesses are displaying “Welcome DAIS” signs in their windows.

“With a project like this, you always wonder whether the community will embrace it,” said Laura Groenier, owner of Silver Leaf Interiors, 301 N. Sherman Ave. “It’s been very touching to see the response.”

Groenier donated the stylish, soothing furniture that brightens the new shelter’s front reception area and lounge, and her staff helped distribute welcome signs to other businesses.

For victims of domestic abuse, the visibility of the shelter and the community support “help them understand that while someone did something bad to them, they have nothing to be ashamed about,” Seger said.

Tight security

Cameras, both seen and unseen, ring the building. Shelter staff will monitor footage on closed-circuit TV screens 24 hours a day.

Visitors must be buzzed in and expected. Staff members will have access by key fobs to only those parts of the shelter pertaining to their jobs. Residents will be issued computerized cards for keyless entry to their bedrooms.

“I would feel 100 percent safe here,” said Margie Mills, 46, of Madison, another former domestic abuse victim who participated in the focus group and toured the new facility alongside Cornell.

One aspect of the new facility is particularly relevant to Mills. There are no longer any bunk beds. They were a necessary evil of the old, crowded shelter but not appropriate for grown women, Barry said.

When Mills needed emergency shelter, DAIS had to house her in a hotel. Her bruises and other injuries were so extensive, she would not have been able to maneuver the tight confines of a bunk bed.

From: Wisconsin State Journal.