Battered women among bad economy's victims

"I've been doing this work for 25 years and I have never seen a convergence of issues that impacted battered women in the way that this does now"
courtesy of Susan Neis

The stay was supposed to be temporary. A couple of weeks, maybe. A month at the most. When Tay checked into Cornerstone, a Bloomington domestic violence shelter, the only thing on her mind was getting herself and her four children away from her abusive stepdad.

Tay (last name withheld by request) checked herself and her four children into a boxlike 12-x-15-foot unit on July 14, 2008. The cramped living space was a far cry from the comparatively spacious five-bedroom in Eden Prairie where she'd been living. But, she reminded herself, it's only temporary.

More than eight months later, Tay and her family still live in the same unit. She shares the house with about 40 other victims of domestic violence (including children). They are crowded into a five-unit space meant to house 35.

Centers devoted to helping victims fill out the necessary legal paperwork for protection have seen their budgets and staffs gutted. Minnesota's shelters for battered women (which have a total of 662 beds) find themselves overwhelmed by a flood of victims who are finding it harder to get back on their feet because of the high jobless rate.

"I've been doing this work for about 25 years, and I have never seen a convergence of issues that impacted battered women in the way that this does now," says Susan Neis, Cornerstone's executive director. "I don't think we've ever seen a time when so many elements were working against women—men, too—who are fleeing someone that was supposed to love them that was going to hurt them."

It's an old truism that in bad economies, men lash out at their wives and girlfriends. It turns out to be a bit more complicated than that.

"It would be unfair to say economic stress causes domestic violence," says Deb Foster, director of development and communications for the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women. "But when controlling or abusive tendencies are already present, an increase in financial strife will lead to an increase in the frequency or severity of abuse."

In 2006, the Minnesota Domestic Violence Crisis Line received roughly 500 calls per month; that figure has now climbed to more than 900. Shelters are experiencing the same thing. Incoming calls to Minneapolis-based Harriet Tubman Shelter's headquarters are up about 20 percent so far this year, says Martha Naegeli, Tubman's chief development officer.

This increase in demand, combined with difficulty finding jobs during the recession, has transformed battered women's shelters from transitional recuperative sanctuaries into de facto homeless shelters.

"Victims are having a much more difficult time accessing safe, affordable housing, which means that they're staying much more longer than in years and months past," says Cyndi Cook, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women.

In the early 2000s, the typical length of stay at a women's shelter in Minnesota was 8 to 11 days. Now the average is 32 days and climbing. Consequently, many shelters, particularly those in the metro, are operating above capacity.

To deal with the glut, Cornerstone's Day One program has had to relocate victims to other sites, busing women to places like Willmar and Bemidji. In the past three years, the number of outstate-bound victims has nearly tripled, from 15 per month in 2006 to 44 per month so far in 2009.

The woes don't end there. Getting help in the first place has proven more difficult in recent months. To secure an order for protection, victims of domestic abuse must first file a petition. For those in the metro, this means making a trip to the Domestic Abuse Service Center in the basement of the Hennepin County Government Center.

But last year, the center saw its staff nearly halved from seven to four. Advocates worried then that the cuts would make it more difficult for victims to get the help they needed. Ten months later, those fears have proven well-founded. Since the first of the year, lines have been forming outside the center, sometimes a half-hour before it opens. Some victims have had to be turned away or directed to other sites.

"We know of one woman who took time off her job to go down there, only to be turned down and told to return the next day," says Carol Arthur, executive director, Domestic Abuse Project. "She was abused so violently that that night she ended up in Hennepin County hospital."

Even the current inadequate level of staffing may be seeing cuts. Two temporary staffers—brought on board about three months ago to ease the burden—will see their stints end in June.

"Whether we continue to be able to help staff the DASC depends on our funding level," says Hennepin County Chief Judge James Swenson. "We have an obligation first and foremost to fund things that are purely a judicial branch function before we start helping handle executive branch functions."

Back at Cornerstone, Tay sits with Susan Neis in a well-furnished basement meeting room, a room larger than her living quarters. Tomorrow will likely entail more calls to try to find an apartment. More applications. More uncertainty.

"I don't feel like an accomplished mother," Tay says. "It's like I want to curl up in a ball every day. But I don't, because I don't want my kids to see." 

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