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Providing Shelter from the Storm for Florida Victims of Domestic Violence

By David Boegaard

Even in a paradise like St. Augustine, Florida, trouble can descend on families, and it typically falls hardest on women and children. Women and children who suffer under domestic violence sometimes lack the money and skills to easily leave their abuser, and frequently have nowhere to live if they should escape. Victims of sexual assault often find their support networks suddenly unsupportive, or uncertain about guiding victims in the aftermath. That's why a group of citizens in St. John's County formed the Betty Griffin House. Their stated goal is to "offer protection and quality services for victims of Domestic Violence and their minor children and/or victims of Sexual Assault." For 25 years, the organization has provided a wide range of essential services to these people in need, from 24-hour hotlines for advice, to shelters for battered women and children, to advocacy in court and legislatures.

The Betty Griffin House began in 1990 as an effort to provide a shelter for victims of domestic violence. Initially called Safety Shelter, they began by providing spaces in motels and a 24-hour crisis hotline. By 1994, they had opened the doors on a home they had bought for shelter. As the Betty Griffin House became better known, they expanded the building to provide more spaces, and expanded their services to include assistance with the victims of sexual assault. Today, the Betty Griffin House continues to serve these purposes, as well as engaging in advocacy for the rights of the victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault.

The CDC reports that approximately 25% of women will experience domestic abuse at the hands of a partner sometime in their lives. "It is so commonplace," says Malinda Everson, Development Director of the Betty Griffin House, "that it often goes unnoticed and fails to receive the level of concern it deserves and it can have devastating effects on children and families."

The services that Betty Griffin House provide strive to provide comprehensive aid to domestic abuse victims. "As a full service domestic and sexual abuse center, Betty Griffin House provides information and referral, a 24-hour crisis hotline, safe shelter, court advocacy, civil legal representation, individual and group counseling and other support services to shelter residents and non-residents," says Everson.

Betty Griffin House also provides extensive services to aid the victims of sexual assault, says Everson, including "a Sexual Assault Recovery Program for advocacy, service management, legal representation, rape crisis unit forensic exams, advocacy coordination and crisis counseling services." Last year, alone, they fielded thousands of calls on their crisis hotline, and accompanied dozens of sexual assault survivors through forensic exams.

But it is not enough to help remedy the symptoms of domestic violence while leaving the root causes unchecked. Domestic violence does not end when the bruised eye or broken ribs heal. It is a profoundly destabilizing force in the lives of people, a substantial public expense, and a major contributor to children's difficulties in school and relationships. And ignoring the problem will not make it go away, says Everson. Children raised in households with domestic violence are much more likely to commit crimes, especially to commit domestic violence, themselves.

Fortunately, says Everson, there are ways to break the chain, especially if you can get to children early enough. "Developmental research shows that early intervention with children from violent households may restore normal developmental processes, such as empathy and self-control, and minimize the risk of further harm caused by exposure to abusive adult role-models." We may never end domestic violence, but there is hope that we can reduce it much further.

Betty Griffin House uses a combination of activities and education that they use to help train young people in effective ways of thinking and acting in relation to these delicate but important issues. "We have developed a comprehensive strategy, through a Primary Prevention Model, to address the prevention of domestic and sexual abuse in school aged children with a school based awareness and skill development program," says Everson.

Working in collaboration with St. John's County public schools, they bring the Primary Prevention Model to work with kids beginning in kindergarten. After age 13, the program also adds emphasis on dating violence and developing healthy relationships. "Our primary prevention strategies introduce new values, thinking processes, and relationship skills that are incompatible with violence and that promote healthy, non-violent relationships," says Everson.

These sorts of preventative efforts are especially essential, suggests Everson, because children are sometimes taught the opposite lessons at home. "Domestic violence is learned behavior that is often modeled, rewarded, and supported by families and/or the broader community."

For the women and children trapped in the horrors of household violence, the Betty Griffin House is a lighthouse, beckoning to safety and tranquility. And for the young people introduced to the skills and awareness that their preventative lessons can provide, they can change the course of a life. There are few services which can do so much good for individuals and communities, both in the short term and the long term. Help is available 24-hours a day. If you or someone you know is being abused, call (904) 824-1555.

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