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Fighting The Darkness

Sable House provides a safe haven for women and children facing the terror of domestic violence and abuse

DALLAS -- As Sable House starts its second decade serving women and children in Polk County, it has grown beyond the shelter and crisis hotline its founders planned. Sable House now serves more than 1,000 clients per year and has branched out into an art enrichment program through PEARL Gallery in downtown Dallas.

Executive Director Deborah Thompson, who took over in 1999, wants Sable House's momentum to help bring an end to violence. She lets the numbers tell the story.

Domestic violence victims spent more than twice as many nights in the Sable House shelter in 2002 as they did in 1999. Sable House gives three times as many educational presentations and serves seven times as many people through its support groups.

In 1999, Sable House had a yearly budget of around $100,000 and two employees. Sable House now has a $350,000 budget and a five-person staff, two of them bilingual.

Having more people use the shelter and other services doesn't mean more people are abusing their partners, Thompson said. "Awareness has been increasing," she said. "There's no more or no less violence."

As the word spreads about Sable House, more people get referred there. More people also volunteer there.

Around 30 community members completed training courses and volunteer their time.

Volunteer Angela Anderson saw an article in the Itemizer-Observer three years ago on the need for hotline volunteers. The Dallas day-care provider started working on the hotline and in the children's support group.

"I wanted to help the kids involved in the situation," Anderson said. "I felt someone needed to be there for them."

Children also suffer when they watch a parent get harmed or harm another. Anderson said she can see the effects in quiet, timid children.

"They're really apprehensive. They don't want to upset you. They hang their heads and don't look you in the eye."

Oregon law addresses the ripples from abuse. A misdemeanor assault can become a felony if a child observes it.

Despite the stiff penalty for batterers, children see the abuse more often than not, said Polk County Sheriff's Dep. Terra Duncan. Sometimes, they help officers get the story straight.

Domestic violence brings law enforcement into the complex realm of family relationships. To help make sense of this, Polk County takes a team approach.

The domestic violence task force brings local police agencies the expertise of Sable House, community corrections, school districts, the juvenile department, the district attorney's office and the health department, among others. That task force recently combined with the child abuse team, bringing those resources.

Duncan serves on the domestic violence task force. The group approach lets her go into domestic situations with a broader understanding of the issues.

For example, cases where the batterer has a history of violent assault and the victim doesn't want to leave can prove difficult, Duncan said. "How can we convince her she's in a dangerous situation and needs to get out?

"A fresh perspective of someone not involved with the case helps you avoid getting tunnel vision."

Despite the best advice, victims of domestic abuse often don't want to leave. Those who do leave a violent relationship sometimes come back.

That gets frustrating at times, Anderson said, but she has an optimistic take. "Once they come in for help, you give them so many resources that when they go back they tend to look at it a different way.

"If they go back, they don't always stay," she said. "They do what they need to do to move on to the next step."

Batterers try to cut off their victims from support -- friends who could help or a job that could lend some independence, for example. Victims can end up with few contacts outside the home.

That's why Thompson wants to tell as many people as possible about Sable House. "It's important to tell the grocery clerk, the doctor -- anyone she will come in contact with."

Duncan carries Sable House wallet cards with hotline and other information, as do all area police officers. She finds most victims have heard of Sable House or other services.

"Most of them know what their options are. Most know where they can go.

"They're just not ready."

Thompson understands why a woman -- 98 percent of domestic violence victims are women -- would choose her exit time carefully. Most murders happen when women have made the decision to leave their partners.

"It's always when she's trying to end it," Thompson said.

Killing a partner is the ultimate expression of power batterers use to control relationships. But it's the result of a cycle that can start with playground bullying or earlier.

"Kids are socialized that violence works," Thompson said.

It works when aggressive hits on the football field get the coach's praise. It works when dad gets his way by using his fist.

"They think `why would I use any other method, because that's so effective.'"

That helps drive Thompson's goal to teach children about violence before the patterns set. She wants to talk to every child in the school systems at least once a year.

Sable House board member Linda Jennings sees domestic violence awareness as the tip of a large iceberg. In the next decade, she hopes to make the whole iceberg visible and hopefully melt some of it.

"The goal would be that in another 10 years there's so much education and prevention that the amount of domestic violence would decline," Jennings said. "We haven't gotten there yet."

In the meantime, she said, children can learn how to protect themselves and have healthy relationships.

For all her successes, Thompson has no intention of slowing down. "I've seen Sable House over the last four years blossom and make a difference and I want that momentum to get stronger."

Thompson sees the arts enrichment program reaching more people, whether they have experienced violence or not. People can work out issues with theater, art and music therapists. Classes like digital photography and beginning art can bring in the general population.

"Not everyone is a victim or wants to be identified as one, but everyone needs to be safe," Thompson said. "And everyone has a story."

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