84° F Friday, July 28, 2017

By Matt Womack, Karen Bartoletti and Mark Mouritsen

Despite years of effort — building bigger shelters, providing increased therapy and support, developing engaging community education projects and addressing child, sexual and domestic violence and abuse in myriad other ways — both Austin Children’s Shelter and SafePlace have been swimming against an ever-rising tide with increasingly limited resources for the past several years.

As board members of these organizations, we have watched first-hand as battered women have continued to lose their children, teen moms have moved out of the foster care system and into abusive relationships, eventually losing custody of their children and teen boys have ended up in the juvenile justice system because of violence toward their girlfriends – doing what they learned in their own homes. We haven’t been ending abuse; we have, all too often, only been pausing it temporarily.

So last year when the leaders of these two agencies recommended that we develop an alliance that would allow us to offer new programs to clients, combine our voices to advocate for change and share costs at the same time, we soon realized that it was our opportunity to do much more for survivors than we’d ever done before.

We could see the similarities in the work we did, providing shelter and support to victims of abusive homes. But as we listened to the front-line professionals in both organizations, we realized that there was more to the idea than that.

The people we are serving at both Austin Children’s Shelter and SafePlace have too often been deeply damaged by the abuse they’ve suffered. Children have witnessed and experienced violence in their homes and incorporated those same abusive patterns into their own behavior.

The true “aha” moment came when we realized that 80 percent of the women in SafePlace’s supportive housing program, which helps women establish independent lives after an initial stay in emergency shelter, had backgrounds in the foster care system.

It stands to reason that children who are traumatized by prolonged exposure to abuse would need support to learn healthier patterns of behavior. It also stands to reason that young adults who “age out” of foster care may not have the support network or resources to maintain independent lives in the face of poverty, unemployment and unresolved post-traumatic stress.

We recognize that our work, our clients, and our issues are interconnected, and therefore, as of Jan. 1, Austin Children’s Shelter and SafePlace have formed Lift, an alliance to end abuse.

The two organizations will maintain their names, facilities, and independent 501(c)(3) statuses; the alliance will engage in long-term planning and service coordination between the two. Over time, we anticipate that the alliance will offer the clients of both organizations more and better services, give us the opportunity to advocate for more responsive and intelligent systems that would help to stop the violence altogether and use scarce resources more efficiently.

Our first project together is the UT George M. Kozmetsky Charter School on the SafePlace campus. Established as a kindergarten through eighth-grade school many years ago to serve the children who are at SafePlace with their mothers, the school offers a supportive atmosphere and a staff that receives ongoing training in helping kids in crisis. This year, the school added grades nine through 12 and welcomed students from ACS, giving them a supportive, normalized school environment.

We will also be able to tailor services to each client much more effectively. As an example, a teen mother who recently arrived at SafePlace has been transferred to the Teen Parent Program at ACS, where she will receive more support and training to build a healthy life for herself and her child.

With the Lift Alliance, we are determined to chart a new course on these issues, to recognize that child abuse and family violence aren’t really two separate problems, but part of a larger cycle of violence that is learned over time and repeated over generations.

We can’t fix the bureaucratic tangles that can often endanger the lives of victims, or create new sources of funding that will stretch to fully meet the need in our community. But we can begin to develop systems and approaches that help to strengthen families, keep kids safe and prevent problems before they occur.

Last year, 102 women and 246 children were murdered in Texas by family members. Tens of thousands of our Central Texas neighbors are trapped in abusive homes right now, traumatized and terrified of what will happen if they try to escape. Those murders, those injuries, that stress and fear and trauma – we refuse to accept that those are inevitable.

We choose to serve on the boards of these organizations because we want to do everything we can to stop the violence and prevent it from recurring in future generations. With the Lift Alliance, we believe we have a powerful new tool to accomplish those goals.

Womack is board chair of Austin Children’s Shelter, Bartoletti is board chair of SafePlace and Mark Mouritsen is board chair of Lift Alliance.

We welcome your comments on our stories but will publish only those that do not violate our commenting guidelines

Comments

Leave a Reply