REACH’s Community Based Advocacy Program addresses the unmet needs of domestic violence survivors and their children by providing an alternative to shelter, giving them access to resources to overcome the physical and emotional trauma caused by abuse. This allows REACH to work with individuals at various stages on their journey and to assist a far greater number of survivors than can be helped through shelter alone. The following is an example of what a REACH Community Advocate does on a given day.
Today I’m starting out in court with a survivor named Abigail for a 9 a.m. hearing to get her restraining order extended. I met with her earlier in the week to explain the process, to prepare her that she might have to face her abuser and hear him argue that he’s not a threat. We talked this over ahead of time because once we’re in the courtroom, the bailiff will reprimand us if we talk.
In some courts there’s a space reserved for people waiting for restraining orders and they get called first. If it’s a court that knows REACH, I get to stand next to the survivor as they talk to the judge. Today, it’s a less familiar courthouse, so Abigail is sitting next to strangers, listening to all sorts of cases before hers gets called, and all I can do is hold her purse while she stands before the judge to make her case. Since the abuser isn’t there, the case is held over for 2 weeks.
From there, I’m off to run a support group at a local group home for mothers in recovery. Today we talk about warning signs of abusive behavior. I can tell the group members are becoming more comfortable with me and with each other, they’re speaking up more, or nodding their heads and looking engaged.
Now, I’m back at the office, for the first time in a couple of days. I spent almost all of yesterday at the housing office with Celeste, a survivor who was in a horribly abusive relationship for years. Several months ago her husband was deported when she reported the abuse. But recently he called saying he was back in the area and was coming for her. She had to move – quickly. With four kids and no place to turn, we put her up in a hotel for a couple of nights until we finally found a shelter with enough space. Since her first application for public housing had been denied, I walked her through the appeal process and finally got an appointment for 8 a.m. yesterday. I picked her up at 7:30 and after a long day (with her tired, hungry children in the waiting area) translating for her and asking that she be placed nearby so REACH could continue working with her, they approved her application at 3:30 in the afternoon. After all that, her new landlord said to be there by 5:00 or he wouldn’t see her today. She was running late, and I had to call this man, who wanted to clock out and go home to his own family. I said, that’s the difference, you have a home, this woman doesn’t. He eventually conceded and waited around to give her the keys. I wondered, without someone advocating for her, would Celeste and her four kids be sleeping in the car?
Back at the office today, I update our database logging the hours I spent with each survivor and exactly what I did, noting when that latest restraining order will expire, photocopying handouts for support groups, setting up appointments, faxing forms to a survivor’s therapist. I check voicemail and there’s a message from Kate, a survivor I haven’t worked with in years. At REACH, because we never ‘close’ a case – people are always welcome to contact us – I have to be prepared that someone who has not actively been receiving services can reappear, and when they do it’s probably because they’re in crisis and need help right away. I make a note to call Kate back, and wonder if this will involve rescheduling my appointments for tomorrow.
I spend some time researching – apartments for one survivor, scholarships for another one’s daughter, day treatment programs for another struggling with mental health issues. Survivors’ needs differ so dramatically. But what they share is that they’ve experienced trauma and need support. I can help by validating their experience and saying, you’re not overreacting, you’re not being unreasonable. Many of them are dealing with pressure from friends and family to ‘make it work.’ They need someone to listen to them as they weigh their options and balance what’s best for them and their kids.
At the end of the day sometimes I feel exhausted and overwhelmed. It helps to talk with my colleagues, who understand what it’s like to do this work. It’s also rewarding, as survivors gain confidence and get their self-esteem back. I watch their faces start to change, either talking with me or in support group as they share with one another and make those valuable social connections that help them heal. I’m doing the best I can. I remind myself that today is one day, that this work is always going to be a process, and that I can make a difference.