All this week, for our Sense of Community series, we’re highlighting children in need in our community. I’ve just pulled up in my car to what I believe to be Christos House, the domestic violence shelter for south-central Missouri. It’s unmarked, and it’s in an undisclosed location. The reason I’m here is because the untold story of domestic violence in our state is the children—thousands of them—who both stay in these shelters every year, and who are turned away because shelters like this one are operating at full capacity. So, I’m gonna head in and see who we can talk to here.
[Sound: car keys, car door, intercom beep]
The door is locked and there’s an intercom button—so I’m thinking I’m probably in the right place.
“We’re operating at capacity and beyond capacity,” says Kelli Neel, the volunteer coordinator for Christos House. She’s also a counselor and case manager here.
“All of the shelters are finding themselves full. So, if they’re in our vicinity and in our service area, we do what we can to get them here,” she said.
She says when an abused mother leaves her abuser, it’s often with children in tow.
“It affects the kids in the same way that it affects the adults: they’re hurt. They’re struggling. They’re trying to make sense of it all. But they’re the helpless ones. They’re relying on a mom who’s broken and battered,” Neel said.
“Do you think you’ll have kids here for Christmas?”
Neel: “Oh, I’m sure we will. Every year, we have a house full of children, with stockings hung by the fire, the whole nine yards. We’ve got a pseudo-fireplace. They get to have Santa Claus come in and do something for them. Santa doesn’t forget them here.”
Also working at Christos House is Amber Brignole (Brignull). She gives presentations throughout the community on how to foster healthy relationships and prevent domestic violence.
“We have children come in here from in the womb to 16,” Brignole said.
The school bus makes a stop here, Brignole says, and the other kids know this isn’t a normal “house.” She says this has led to bullying, and to kids feeling ashamed.
Sometimes, the staff here go with the mothers to the school to talk to teachers or the principal about security, bullying, or grades.
There’s a full-time child advocate here who plays with the children and provides counseling. Brignole said many children have witnessed their parents fighting, and they often come through these doors drenched in fear, shame…and guilt.
“The adolescent boys who have come in, and even the younger boys, they have tried to be the protector. And they hold themselves accountable for what had happened,” Brignole said.
The average victim of domestic violence leaves and returns to her abuser an average of seven times, Brignole says, before finally leaving for good. Money, a lack of shelter, and most importantly, a ruined self-esteem all contribute to why victims sometimes return. But the children are usually following on that path of turmoil, too.
“They’re being put in a position where they’re kind of stuck, and they don’t really have a choice. And that’s what really hits me—whenever I know that mom is taking the kids right back to the same situation. And I understand it—because I understand the dynamic of it. But it kills me to know that the kids are going back to the situation and they are very well aware,” Brignole said.
Zach Wilson is a spokesman for the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic & Sexual Violence.
“In 2011, the shelters around Missouri served 4,823 children in domestic violence shelters. And then, during that same time, we saw 8,333 children turned away because of no shelter space,” Wilson said.
That’s a turn-away ratio of about two-to-one—two children turned away for every child admitted.
Wilson says Missouri must make sure all of its agencies and organizations – like Children’s Division, family court judges, and court advocates—have an intimate understanding of domestic violence so they can respond most appropriately to children caught in the crossfire.
“We need to look at what we can really do to support that growth. So, we’re really seeing that a lot of stuff directly targeting mothers is the best way to get there: providing them with home-based services, and home-based visiting programs, and different kinds of social supports around that, as opposed to penalizing them when they’re in these domestic violence situations,” Wilson said.
The coalition is focusing more and more on prevention—changing those social norms in our state that make gender-based violence so prevalent. They target college campuses—but also high schools and middle schools.
Wilson also says shelters are relying on public partnerships, and on individuals stepping up in their communities, rather than hoping for funding that may never come.
There are many shelters throughout the Ozarks for victims of domestic violence: Lafayette House in Joplin, Harmony House in Springfield, shelters in Lebanon, Branson, and Harrison, to name a few. But again, most of them report having no empty beds…which means that many children and their mothers are forced to find somewhere to stay—and often, it’s right back with their abusers, especially since one tactic abusers use is to keep their victims isolated, and cut off from finances and transportation.
At one shelter in the Ozarks, I found this 25-year-old mother and her three-year-old daughter. They had just arrived the night before.
[Sound: Little girl watching TV]
Her boyfriend’s extreme jealousy had led her to quit three jobs, and drop out of college, where she was studying business management. She wasn’t allowed to have a phone or her own car. She’s at this shelter, which we’re not identifying for her safety, because her boyfriend’s brother whipped her repeatedly with a belt.
“I already filled out paperwork for HUD housing. I’m wanting to get into a house and start over for me and my daughter, and work and stuff,” she said.
There was no vacancy at the shelter she approached, either—but she had a stroke of luck in this otherwise dismal spell. The shelter moved a queen-sized mattress into its kids’ playroom, so that’s where she and her little girl will lay their heads tonight.
“She’s a corker. She’s just…she’s everything I need. She is my best friend,” she said.
Her daughter has already found another little girl and two little boys she can play with in this rusty sanctuary.
“I hope that, you know, this place gives us a place safe to be, until we get on our feet… give her a bit more solid foundation for our time right now. And it’s gonna be okay. Because these people are gonna help us get on our feet,” she said, fighting back tears.
She says she hopes to finish college and give her daughter a better life. With no money, no home, and a bruised self-esteem, the wind is not in her sails right now. Still, the shelter she’s landed in offers support for all of those challenges, meaning that she – and her daughter – at least have a fighting chance.