- IT'S NOT ALL ROSES: To stay at the shelter, director Angela McGraw says, but women will get the support they need to move on.
For years, a woman this writer willcall Beverly thought the physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband was explainable. "Ah, he's under stress. Ah, it's work," she remembers telling herself. "He's going to cool down. Everything's going to be all right."
But when Beverly's daughter told a relative that her father had abused her and Beverly heard about it, a switch flipped in her mind. "That opened up the door for me to leave," she said. Beverly saw the abuse not from her own perspective — as someone who had grown up in a home where abuse had been normalized and kids "walked on eggshells" to avoid a man's rage — but from her daughter's. "And once you start seeing certain things, it's like, these are not just typical 'I'm under stress' type of things,' " she said.
Beverly called the police to report the violence without any real plan; she just needed to get out. "The first thing you're thinking is, 'I don't have any money, where am I going to start?' " she said. Beverly had a job but was not the main breadwinner. Soon all the particular concerns of a normal life that she'd built presented themselves: How am I going to find an apartment? How am I going to keep my job? How will I help my kids get through this? "Your whole foundation of what you've built is just taken away," she said. "Unless you walk in those same particular shoes, you have no idea. It's so easy for people to say: 'If it was me, I would've done this, I would've done that.' But, you have no idea." Beverly had to choose not only to leave her husband, she said, but to start a new life.
After Beverly left home, police connected her with Women and Children First, a Little Rock nonprofit that advocates on behalf of and shelters women and children escaping abusive relationships. While each story of abuse is specific, abuse itself is common, said Angela McGraw, executive director of the agency. In Arkansas, one in three women and one in four men have experienced physical violence by an intimate partner, McGraw says, and one out of three girls under the age of 18 will be physically assaulted. "Those are pretty high statistics," she says. Perhaps more staggering: 97 percent of abused women never go to a shelter like Women and Children First. Some of this, McGraw says, is because they use social networks, but much is also due to lack of knowledge of resources and fear of reaching out.
"Loss for words," Beverly said — sweeping the air in front of her with one hand — when asked about what it would've been like to leave an abusive household without the shelter. "You would just never see people break the cycle [of abuse]," she said, "if you didn't have the shelter or the police or these organizations to help you. You're basically like fish out of water."
After staying in a hotel the shelter provided, Beverly began living with other women in the home, taking her children — she also has a son — along with her. It was hard, she said, living there and changing her habits to fit a group environment — you can't ever leave the dishes for the next morning, she said. But, the benefits were almost beyond measure: counseling sessions throughout the week, help raising her children, help for women in everything from balancing a checkbook to creating a resume. McGraw was blunt on this point, too: "I'm not going to tell you it's roses to stay in the shelter ... but the other part is that it gives them the support system and the resources to get the next part of their life."
Some women, Beverly said, struggle to rebuild their lives and go back to their abusive husbands. It's complicated, she said, the emotional turmoil and demands of leaving. But, the shelter always welcomes people back. "Once you enter these doors it's a sisterhood for life. No matter the amount of time you've left or it's your 10th time coming back here: It's a sisterhood for life."
It's crucial to have a community that understands this complexity, she said. "I think the most important thing in this situation is that you know you're not alone," Beverly said. "And you have others that will help you, elevate you, praise you; give you the strength to say, 'OK, there are 24 hours in the day, you've got one more second. And then, keep going, another day will come.' And you keep going on."
Beverly spent two to three months in the shelter before moving out. She stayed within the organization's programming for another year, getting more support. But, it did not end there. "Since then, I've stayed in contact with my sister," she said, clarifying that her "sister" is a staff member. "I call her my sister; I've adopted her. ... She's my big sister." She calls for advice and support. The shelter helps her with housing. It connected the children with counseling.
"We're available," McGraw said of Women and Children First's services. "Everybody knows they can come back to our shelter for additional support services as long as they need."
This has helped with both her material and mental transformation, the kind that is necessary after abuse, Beverly said. You have to "learn to love yourself," she said, and even forgive. "I forgave my husband," Beverly said. "You have to learn to forgive that person that has done the worst thing in the world; and that will release whatever hold he has on you." But, she still struggles, even now, with how to view herself. "Then you have to learn how to forgive yourself," she told me, which she's still working on. "As a woman you carry so much; it's just harder. Even now I forgive him for what he did, but I still have to forgive myself."
To donate to Women and Children f]First, visit wcfarkansas.org. To reach the hotline, call 800-332-4443.