Groups team to help domestic-violence victims

Julia Vail

RALEIGH, N.C. – SAFEchild of North Carolina, which works to combat domestic violence in Wake County, has seen its share of perpetrators referred by the court system.

However, SAFEchild staff began to notice that many of the arrested women referred to their programs were not abusers, says Marjorie Menestres, the organization’s executive director.

Instead, she says, they had been arrested for inflicting injuries while defending themselves or their children.

“They’re victims who fought back,” she says.

Though the women could not be placed in groups designed for perpetrators, they needed guidance to overcome, and help their children overcome, the emotional toll of domestic violence, Menestres says.

As a result, SAFEchild partnered with Interact of Wake County to launch Mothers Overcoming Violence through Education and Empowerment, or the MOVE program.

The 13-week program has served about 40 women and their children in the two years since its inception.

“It’s designed to help them recognize the strengths that they have, and the survival skills,” says Kathy Johnson, associate executive director of Interact.

The group, which meets Tuesdays at 6 p.m. in the SAFEchild building, starts with a dinner provided by the program. After the meal, mothers and children are divided up for group skill-building.

Two facilitators from SAFEchild work with the mothers, while five or six Interact personnel work with their children, who are grouped according to age.

In the sessions, mothers and children learn safety planning, anger and stress management, and appropriate expression of their feelings, Menestres says.

Children learn the best way to respond to violent situations, including the safest place in their homes to run and hide, says Stacey Sullivan, MOVE program coordinator.

Facilitators also teach the children to protect themselves first instead of trying to intervene, she says.

“Particularly boys as they get older, there’s this impulse to jump in and protect Mom,” Sullivan says.

Another important component of the program is helping mothers regain their self-esteem and trust in their own judgment, Sullivan says.

“Often the perpetrator does things that make her feel crazy, like telling her that no one else would believe her,” she says. Abusers also have a tendency to put the blame on their victims, she says.

One program participant, whose abuser bashed her head against a floor, was convinced that she was responsible for her own injury because she did not “stiffen her body” enough during the attack, she says.

“[The program] challenges some of these faulty thought processes,” Sullivan says.

Regardless of what time of the year it is, the program holds a “Mother’s Day” celebration during each of its sessions, in which every participant receives roses and gets to enjoy a special menu, she says.

“They feel so valued, and many of them haven’t felt that anywhere else,” she says.

The MOVE program takes 85 percent of its referrals from the Wake County court system. The rest of the program’s participants are referred by child-protective services.

The program, which has an annual budget between $75,000 and $80,000, was launched with about $85,000 from the North Carolina Governor’s Crime Commission to fund the first two years of the program.

The Duke Endowment plans to contribute up to $53,000 after the commission’s grant runs out in June.

The endowment also gave a $600,000 grant to Rebecca Macy, associate professor at the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to evaluate the impact of the program’s first year.

“The mothers reported significant life changes because of the program, including improvements in their families’ safety,” Macy says. “For example, mothers told us about how they had moved out of violent living situations into their own housing with their children.”

Based on a series of focus groups with program participants, Macy’s research team recommended that staff devote one initial weekly meeting to answering participants’ questions and building trust, Macy says.

“Some of the women had negative experiences with human services in the past,” she says, “so they were not welcoming of these mandated services at the beginning,” she says.

As a result of the research, SAFEchild and Interact expanded the program to 13 weeks from 12 weeks, and Sullivan meets with each mother individually to explain the program.

The program’s initial year, which began in October 2007, consisted of three separate groups of about eight mothers each. With referrals up, the program plans to offer four groups instead of three during the next fiscal year.

However, it has no plans to increase the number of mothers in each of the groups.

“Having more than 10 women I think would really decrease the benefit of the group,” Sullivan says.

SAFEchild and Interact are preparing for the final group of its second year, which will begin April 14 during National Child Abuse Prevention Month.

Menestres attributes some of the program’s success to its ability to show domestic-violence victims that they’re not alone.

“They come together in groups and realize they’re not the only people struggling with these issues,” she says. “That’s very powerful.”

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