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Kearns and Sons

Making the Bitterroot a SAFE place

By Michael Howell

2012 Courage Award recipient Earlene Ward, through tears and laughter, told her own story of the devastating toll that emotional and verbal abuse can take on a person’s sense of self-worth.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. It is a time to acknowledge the grim reality that instances of domestic violence and abuse continue to occur in our community. But it is also a time to recognize the individuals, organizations and government agencies that work together on a daily basis to help the victims of abuse, mostly women and children, but men as well, anyone in fact, who is caught in the stranglehold of an abusive or violent relationship.

Supporters of Abuse Free Environments (SAFE) is the primary agency in Ravalli County providing services to victims of family violence, battering and sexual assault. Its services include a 24-hour crisis line, emergency housing, case management, peer counseling, advocacy with the legal, medical, law enforcement and court systems, support groups and referrals.

SAFE gave its 15th annual Report the Community last Friday and celebrated the 14th anniversary of the Ravalli County Coalition Against Domestic & Sexual Violence, which sponsors the yearly “White Ribbon Campaign.” The aim of the White Ribbon Campaign is to raise awareness of family violence and to show support for the victims of family violence. The first White Ribbon Campaign in the valley took place in 1999. That year, 750 white ribbons were distributed. This year over 5,000 white ribbons were distributed.

In many ways Ravalli County sets the bar in the state of Montana for cooperation between law enforcement agencies, county legal services, public health services, the broader legal and medical community, non-profit organizations, private businesses and individuals in the effort to protect and advocate for the victims of domestic violence as well as in educating the community and instituting preventive measures. This is what the Ravalli County Coalition Against Domestic & Sexual Violence is all about.

Keynote speaker at Friday’s luncheon was Anna Whiting Sorrell, Director of the Department of Health and Human Services. She knows a lot about the value of cooperation and communication between agencies and departments and within departments. Sorrell currently oversees 3,100 employees, 2,500 agency contracts, and 150 major programs in DPHHS, the state’s largest agency with a biennial budget of about $3 billion. But her insights into the value of cooperation and communication were learned before taking on her current position. It was back when she was first appointed as Governor Schweitzer’s Policy Advisor to Families.

At that time, she said, “I had no budget, no staff, and couldn’t run a program. But I did have an office and I could bring people together.” So that’s what she did. What she learned by having people come together in her office was how one department program did not necessarily know what the other programs were doing, or, sometimes, that the other program even existed. She said a lot was gained by simply putting various people and programs in touch with each other. It helped eliminate duplications and resolved some contradictions between programs.

Sorrell offered her audience some personal advice about helping the victims of domestic abuse based on her own experience as part of a dysfunctional family “where there was drinking and some violence.”

“When you are thinking about that woman who you are reaching out to for services,” Sorrell told the audience, “and you are not sure if she’s going to make it, you are not sure what you have to say to her to make her safe, to help her make that decision to do something different, that she deserves better, that being loved doesn’t mean being hit, I hope you look at me. I hope you look.”

“Someone said to me,” Sorrell continued, “ ‘You don’t have to go through this. You don’t have to do this. You deserve better.’ One person, and it clicked in my head and I never looked back.”

Sorrell told her audience, “What I see as a survivor, is that you have come together as a community and succeeded in building something sustainable that will outlive each of us. What you have done is remarkable.”

A first at this year’s ceremony was the presentation of a Community Health Award and it went to Dr. David Laraway of Hamilton Obstetrics and Gynecology, “for his exemplary service to the community through his efforts to end violence against women.”

“Dr. Laraway has dedicated a significant amount of time and energy to making our community healthier around the issue of domestic violence, and he stands out as an example for what other members of the medical community can do to engage in this issue,” said Public Health Nurse Judy Griffin, who presented the award.

Dr. Laraway, who has been practicing in the valley for 11 years, said he was just trying to provide good health care.

“I’m probably my own worst critic,” he said. “There is a lot of work yet to be done.”

Dr. Laraway said that if we discussed abortion rights or birth control there might be a lot of differences between us.

“But one thing we can all agree on is that every woman and child has a right to be safe within their own homes,” he said.

Recipient of this year’s 13th annual Courage Award went to Earlene Ward.

“My first question to you is: What is abuse?” said Ward. Ward wanted to talk about the kind of abuse that doesn’t always show up in bruises on the skin, but nonetheless strikes deep, wreaking emotional havoc and smashing the self-confidence needed to make difficult decisions such as leaving an abusive relationship.

“Everyone is special,” said Ward, “and if you don’t think you are special, you are setting yourself up for a life that is hard to live, and I’ve lived one.”

Ward described the role that low self-esteem played in one abusive relationship after another, as it led her to doubt that anyone would believe her claims.

She did have enough sense to leave her last marriage, however, when it turned physically abusive. She said at that moment she realized, “I’m dead. Maybe not today. But if I don’t get out of this place, I’m dead.”

It was at that point that Ward found a SAFE place. She found the support necessary for such a drastic transition. Ultimately, she found a new way of looking at herself. As someone special. Someone with talent. Someone with abilities. Someone who can help others.

During the past fiscal year, July 2011 through June 2012, SAFE programs have served 301 primary survivors and 157 secondary survivors. The staff has handled 416 crisis calls and conducted a total of 1,103 in-person crisis counseling sessions. The Children’s Program served 74 children and 42 parents who received individual and group supported services. Transitional Housing served 14 families, including 28 children. The Emergency Shelter served 53 adults and 47 children who received a total of 2,710 nights of emergency shelter. Average stay in the shelter was 18 days.

The Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence facilitated 44 presentations, professional trainings and public awareness activities this year attended by 1,744 people. Ninety dating and sexual violence prevention presentations were given to 301 valley youth.

In an attempt to hear reasons why community members wear white ribbons, SAFE started a “Why do you wear a white ribbon?” survey. To participate in the survey or to read what others have said, visit SAFEintheBitterroot on Facebook.

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