A Woman’s Bridge spoke with Carol Loftur-Thun, Interim Executive Director of My Sister’s Place, the oldest women’s shelter in the DC area. My Sister’s Place offers a variety of services for women escaping domestic violence including emergency shelter, caseworkers, and programs for permanent housing. For help and information about leaving a domestic violence situation, click here. For the 24 hour emergency hotline run by My Sister’s Place, please call 202-529-5991.
My Sister’s Place is DC’s oldest domestic violence shelter. What inspired the founding of MSP? Can you describe how the public’s reaction to domestic violence has changed over the years since My Sister’s Place was founded?
My Sister’s Place started through the Women’s Legal Defense Fund and Junior League of Washington in 1976. We started as a hotline, actually, and we were shocked by the level of domestic violence that was happening. It was clear that help was needed.
1979 was when the shelter was started. Our founders’ philosophy was one of empowering women and that is still our philosophy today. We emphasized self-help, provided a place to stay and resources, and our staff members are also survivors of domestic violence. In those early years, the approach was very self-help oriented which was believed to empower women. It helped some, making them highly motivated by offering a helping hand and giving them resources. Others found themselves floundering a bit and that model didn’t help.
We now know that trauma changes how your mind functions. The research wasn’t there then, but we now know how trauma makes memories fragmented, changes thinking, so making decisions to move forward is difficult. In the 90s, MSP did a research study talking to clients and staff. There was a need for a more professional all-purpose survival skills, not just an empathetic hand. We began a new chapter of a more professional approach that helped some clients.
In terms of the public reaction, when the awareness campaigns started in the 70s, domestic violence was culturally still considered acceptable or private. It was seen as something for the courts to handle or a man and woman’s problem. As time has gone on, the public has realized the larger implications of domestic violence. Because the trauma has generational effects, children of abuse have a hard time in school and the abuse negatively promotes mental illness and drug abuse and even has direct health impacts. Domestic violence can cause an increase of heart disease and stroke, something like 70-80%. When people are threatened, our body has that fight or flight response and if we can’t actually take flight or fight, it causes a lot of internal damage. Chronic stress takes a toll on our physical and mental states. These effects are not just on the parents but on the children as well. Domestic violence also has this wide range of impact on our society.
A 2010-2011 study said 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence in our lifetime. The data for men is not as pronounced. The statistic depends on the study, but 1 in 7 or 8 men reports physical abuse. Women are more likely to experience severe physical injury including homicide. Both among men and women, we have epidemic levels of domestic violence. This is widespread, with severe negative impacts in America and worldwide.
Loss of work productivity in the workplace runs to billions of dollars. Increased risks to law enforcement is another consequence. Domestic violence seems to be a major factor in recent terrorist incidents. Here in our area, the DC sniper attacks happened as a part of his plot to kill his wife. In the public, it has gone from a private matter to this is a very dysfunctional and unhealthy kind of relationship dynamic that causes victimization and tragedy.
Could you elaborate on how MSP helps women transition to permanent housing and why this process is so important for breaking the cycle of domestic violence? Do other shelters focus on this process as much?
The evidence shows safe housing determines if abuse victims can break the cycle. Survivors can include women, men, and LGBTQ individuals. We are increasingly talking about survivors as more than just women. There’s been a change in that language over the past 10 years. Safe and stable housing is one of the pre-conditions for being able to move forward. Without a safe place to live, survivors are more likely to go back to an abuser or start a new abusive relationship. Unfortunately, we hear so many stories where women stay because they don’t want to be in the streets with their kids. We do invest the time and attention in each family to make sure they go on to safe and stable housing. Our emergency shelter usually lasts 90 days, but we have let women stay up to a year.
The old model used to be you had a set time, about 30 days to 90, to figure it out. Now, we are able to offer women more options. I wish we had more funding to accept more clients into our programs, because each day we see women beginning to lead independent and healthy lives for their children. In our programs, what makes a difference is highly skilled case management. It’s expensive but we believe it is worth it and makes a difference. At the end of the day it’s more cost effective; we’re not just cycling people through our shelters, they’re actually getting someplace where they can be safe and stable.
In our RISE program, the vast majority of our clients have stayed in the apartments we have helped them lease. Some moved to other apartments but they are in stable long term housing. The challenge is affordable housing. It’s a problem for many in the area regardless of domestic violence. A significant number of managers do discriminate against domestic violence survivors. The application fee can be a lot and discourages many. Domestic violence victims have to put in a lot of money without possibly getting an apartment at the end.
All shelters are focused on housing, but MSP is different in that we are low-barrier but we are more rigorous in our expectation. We offer voluntary services so clients don’t have to attend our services, but we do utilize a number of techniques to motivate them to use our resources that are provided along with shelter. We believe this does help them for ready and stable housing. We say to our clients, “if you work the program, the program will work for you.” So we do use that model of self-help and we don’t try to force them but empower them.
I’ve heard clients say they know their case manager cares about them, because even after they’ve moved on their case manager still calls them to see how they are.
Domestic violence is now more present in the public consciousness than in years past. Do you think the conversation has changed and if so how? Even though we know more about domestic violence, what areas do you think need to be worked on to end it?
A year ago, MSP decided to focus on a public health approach to domestic violence. This is a new, and I think, exciting approach. Traditionally, domestic violence was seen as a private family matter, then it was looked at as a law and enforcement issue and a victim services mindset. When the CDC national study came out, the first of its kind, folks started seeing things from a prevention and public health standpoint. At the end of the day if you have 1 out of 4 women and a high proportion of men who are going to become victims, that becomes a challenging situation for the nation to deal with the needs of those victims and prosecute all those crimes. As you would with any epidemic, you have to address preventing the spread of an occurrence if you are going to have any chance of combating the health issue. We started taking that public health lens to begin to see our work from a public health standpoint. You start to look at the community and societal level.
You have an extensive resume working in non-profits. What advice would you give about running a non-profit and an organization like MSP. How do you focus on the mission while keeping up with the day to day responsibilities?
I think it’s close to 20 years now. Throughout my career, I’ve reminded myself, “it’s about them, not about me.” I had the pleasure of working with a woman who has been working with vulnerable and homeless individuals for 40 years, and she said the same thing. So that’s really helped a lot in terms of my focus. Thinking about it in that way makes things really fall into place. In terms of advice, I probably don’t do a good job of keeping up with the day to day with everything else.
Non-profits are probably the most challenging. The range of constituents that you answer to are so astounding. It is beyond what most other organizations have to answer to. You are beholding to your clients, the community, donors, and the local government. Those external relationships make it a really challenging thing to do. I have a lot of experience with crisis management in non-profits. I have a luxury of getting to see many local community based non-profits and that’s given me perspectives you don’t get from one or two places. Others only know the places they have been. That has been something I really value.
I guess one of the things that helped me survive is I compartmentalize well. It makes it easier not to burnout because that’s one of the biggest risks in the field. The other thing I tell people is that it is a very small world. You’d be surprised how small it is. Try to be aware and mindful.
What are the key warning signs of domestic violence and how can the average person intervene?
We think the answer is bystander intervention. Good bystander intervention programs are trying to give people the skill to intervene in helpful ways as well as create this social norm that you should intervene. The sexual assault awareness movement did this. It was seen as a social manner for people not to get involved. We’re trying to make people realize if they see something they should say something, but in a way that’s appropriate to the situation and keeps themselves and the victim safe. This is community empowerment as well.
The other thing is trying to help the field develop more sophistication—not all victims are the same and they don’t have the same needs, and not all perpetrators are the same or have the same impact. There are gaps in services for victims besides housing options. For example, middle class women have a gap in services because many middle-class women would be at risk of losing housing, healthcare, and necessities if they left their situations. They would be reluctant to go to a shelter so they tend to stay in situations for even longer.
Can you talk about the Clothesline Project and any other efforts MSP is currently a part of?
I recently went back through our annual reports. We became the home of the project in the 90s. We have survivors and others impacted by domestic violence make t-shirts about their story. They run the gambit of abuse and trauma to forgiveness and hope to reconciliation and recovery. We display them on clotheslines in the public. One year we were in Freedom Square sewing them, it was a beautiful day. It was an amazing sight, all of these shirts blowing in the wind. We considered it a live art installation. This past year in McPherson square, there’s circular trail and our staffers decided to use that railing to display the t-shirts. We had quite a crowd of people. To me, they’re so inspiring because you see the tragedy but also see how people have come through with this hope. The power and authenticity of stories of domestic violence survivors are unmatched by anyone working in the field. They are their own witness to what they’ve gone through.
We are close to 400 volunteers, but I would love to have a volunteer for every t-shirt this October for domestic violence month. Maybe as a potential live art exhibit. Last year we had music and giveaways, and we’re excited about this year’s event.
Is there anything else you would like to mention?
The main thing we would like to see people do besides the Clothesline Project is follow us on Facebook or Twitter. It’s a great way for people to keep up with us and the community.
Interview by Jessica Flores