The times were very different in 1977 when five women decided El Paso desperately needed a shelter for battered women and that they were going to start one.
Their names are well known to many El Pasoans today: Ruth Kern, Iris Burnham, Nancy Neumann, Nancy Kohutek and Carol Welch.
They began by taking hotline phone calls in their homes and finding safe houses for women and children who had to get away from the dangerous, often life-threatening circumstances at home.
Two years later, they opened the Shelter for Battered Women on a shoestring budget at a secret site because that’s the way it had to be.
That’s still the way it has to be, but today, El Paso’s Center Against Family Violence holds a very public place in the community through its Family Resource Center at 580 Giles.
The center has 60 employees, a $3-million budget and provides a wide array of services to women, children – and yes, men – who have been victims of domestic violence and often sexual violence as well.
Last year, the center’s safe house in a former church offered refuge to nearly 1,000 women and children. But they helped thousands more.
The center’s executive director is Stephanie Karr, who has led the center for the past eight years. She will announce a name change for the organization on Thursday. It’s part of April’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month events nationwide and at the center on Giles.
Society’s views of domestic and sexual violence seem to have changed a lot in the 36 years since the shelter opened, but not all the old attitudes have disappeared.
“There’s still room for lots of improvement, because I think we still tend to blame the victim,” Karr said.
That goes for law enforcement, too, despite the advances that intense training about abuse and rape have brought, she said.
As for the abuse that goes on behind closed doors or the deadly spectacle of domestic violence that sometimes spills out in public, that hasn’t changed – or decreased – over the years, she said.
Asked what makes some men so crazy, Karr offered a reluctant “No comment.”
But she had plenty to say when she sat down with El Paso Inc. to talk about the April events, the name change and the origins of family violence in homes today.
Q: April is Sexual Violence Awareness month. Do you have anything special planned?
We’re going to launch Sexual Assault Awareness Month on April 2 with a press conference at our Family Resource Center. We will lay out our month’s worth of activities. Then on April 8, we are going to have a rally at the plaza in front of the courthouse where District Attorney Jaime Esparza, County Attorney JoAnn Bernal and Sheriff Richard Wiles will speak about sexual assault in our community.
That’s followed by the Mighty Mujer Triathlon, which is a great event that’s done to support the center by Race El Paso. We have Take Back the Night at UTEP on April 22 and some additional trainings and activities.
Q: You are changing your name. When will you announce that?
At our press conference, we’re going to be talking about our sexual assault services and our new name to reflect that.
Q: You’ve expanded the center’s purpose to take on not only family violence but also sexual violence. When was that and what has it meant for the center’s operation?
We started that process in 2011, as recognition of a couple of things. At least 50 percent to 60 percent of individuals who come to us to seek services for domestic violence will talk about sexual assault or coercion as part of the array of domestic violence after we’ve established a trusting relationship with them. We knew it was happening to people in families that came to us.
We’re also in partnership with STARS (Sexual Trauma and Assault Response Services), which is our local rape crisis center. We decided it would be in the best interest of the survivors of sexual assault to have one crisis line to call. We combined the Rape Crisis line with our Crisis Help Line. All domestic violence and sexual assault calls come through our Crisis Helpline number: (915) 593-7300.
Q: And if someone calls 911?
That also starts when there’s a call to 911 to report a sexual assault or if the person is calling our hotline about rape. With STARS and law enforcement, we have a continuum of care set up to make sure that someone goes to the hospital and stays with the victim for the length of time they’re in the hospital, if they choose to have a sexual assault forensic exam.
It assures crisis intervention after that and then long-term support, counseling or whatever services that person may seek. It’s a plan we put together with STARS to maximize use of limited resources and make it easier for a survivor to access services.
Q: How many employees do you have, what’s your budget and where does the center’s income come from?
The center has about 60 employees. Most are fulltime. There are a few part-time. Our annual budget’s around $3 million. About 55 percent of our revenue is public money, so it’s federal and state grants. We get some money from the County of El Paso and some money through the city that’s Community Development Block Grant money.
About 45 percent of our money is private money, which means its United Way contributions, foundations like the El Paso Community Foundation and the Paso Del Norte Health Foundation. And we get corporate grants from Helen of Troy, Western Refining, Hunt Family Foundation and then national grants from Verizon Foundation and Allstate Foundation.
We have private fundraising activities and individuals who write us a check.
Q: You take in women and families at one location or more than one?
We operate one emergency shelter for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault at a confidential location. Last year, we had 950 persons stay at our shelter. The majority were women with children. But we also have men at our shelter, because we recognize that men can be survivors of both domestic violence and sexual assault, and we want to be inclusive, so men can stay at our shelter.
Of the 950, 500 were children. We always have more children than adults because usually it’s a woman who comes in, and she’s a mom who has two or three children with her. Then, about 400 are women and 50 are men. It may not even be that many.
Q: Tell us about the services you offer.
The emergency shelter is really the core, which is how we started. It was the shelter for battered women. That was in 1979. Since then, we’ve added our family resource center, which is our public nonresidential program. Last year we had 2,200 individuals that came to our family resource center. Not everyone who is a survivor of domestic violence or sexual assault needs or wants to be in a shelter. They often have family or friends they can stay with.
We have advocates who help with legal advocacy and court accompaniment because going to the courthouse is really scary. It’s important to have someone by their side to guide them through that.
Our third major program is our batterer intervention program. It’s located on Piedras and it’s for those individuals who have been convicted of assault family violence for both men and women. It’s a series of 26 classes that are held once a week. It’s a program that is certified by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The object of that class is to hold aggressors accountable for their behavior and their violence and to learn responsibility and understand the dynamics of violence so that they can rearrange their behavior and their thinking in a positive way.
Q: Is domestic violence more prevalent here than in other large cities?
I think our prevalence rate is similar to other major cities. The national statistics are that one in four women at some point is going to be victimized by some kind of harassment or violence, and one in 20 men.
Q: Does the center make presentations in schools about abuse and date rape, and how are they received?
We do lots of things with schools because we think that primary prevention is so much more effective than dealing with families that have been devastated after the fact.
In middle schools, we spend time talking about bullying, and what healthy relationships look like. Monitoring your partner’s cell phone calls or text messages 24/7 is not a healthy sign of trust in communication. We also talk about what’s the age of consent and what does the law define as rape. We do the same presentations with the parents and staff at school.
Q: So cell phones make stalking someone a lot easier.
We are seeing GPS systems as a bonus to stalkers. We have to work with individuals to turn off their devices because they may have apps that they did not authorize and we have to turn it off for them at the shelter.
Q: The first shelter opened in 1977. That probably seems like the dark ages today when you look back at community and law enforcement attitudes about domestic abuse and sexual assault. How were women and their complaints treated by authorities 35 years ago?
The prevailing attitudes in large measure have been it was the victim’s fault, and if she just was a better wife or a better girlfriend or a better mom, then she wouldn’t have found herself in that predicament. It was also a family matter, not a community issue or a social issue.
There’s still room for lots of improvement because I think we still tend to blame the victim.
Q: Today, are you satisfied with the way El Paso police and sheriff’s deputies treat women who report that they have been abused or sexually assaulted?
I think both our sheriff and police departments have really worked at training their officers how to respond with awareness of what a victim may report at the time of the incident and why that story might change later.
One of the things that the district attorney’s office has done in their 24 hour Initiative is to equip police officers with cameras and video taping equipment, so that they can take pictures and video tape the person reporting the crime at that moment, because that’s the moment when things have just happened.
Q: Why do stories change?
One of the difficulties in prosecution has been that stories change and so she changed her story and she does not want to prosecute and so why is that? Because she was lying at the beginning of the incident and it didn’t really happen? Probably not. What’s more likely is that there were pressures put on her to change her story either by the aggressor or by the family members of, whomever.
And at the time of trauma, your memory may not be that good. I think the fact that law enforcement has become attuned to those dynamics has helped. There’s always progress to be made, but I think we are in a much better place than we were in 1979 or 1989. I know our counterparts at STARS spend time at all of the regional command centers on a rotating basis training police officers on how to respond both to sexual assault and to domestic violence.
Q: Is there recent or pending Texas legislation that has you concerned or that you really like?
I think one of the most important pieces of legislation was passed two sessions ago by Texas. Under it, the prosecution of assault or family violence does not depend on a cooperating witness. So, the victim does not have to press charges.
She can say, “I don’t want to press charges,” and the district attorney has the discretion of moving the case forward anyway.
I think it was a very transformational law for survivors. It means that they can move forward with their lives, seeking services and getting help, without the fear of retaliation by whoever hurt them.
Q: Things are not always what they seem, and every guy knows or should know that all it takes is one 911 call and he’s probably going to jail. Do women report men for abuse just because they’re angry or want to show their power?
I’ve certainly heard that question before. My answer to that is research statistically reports that close to 90 percent of reports are valid. Fewer than 10 percent are invalid reports for either domestic violence or sexual assault.
Q: How does abuse start?
There’s plenty of evidence that family violence is cyclical in nature and that children raised in families where there is violence have a much higher incidence of either being aggressors or victims.
Here’s my best story to describe it: I was talking with one of the principals here in El Paso and he was talking about a second grade boy who was called into his office for hitting a girl on the playground. This second grader reports that he did hit the girl, but said it’s okay because “she’s my girlfriend.” The principal asks, “If she’s your girlfriend, why would you be hitting her?”
The boy says, “Because my dad hits my mom and he likes her, so it’s okay to hit my girlfriend.” That cycle is hard to break.
By the time you’re a teenager and you’ve seen these examples of power and control that are what domestic violence and sexual assault are about, they’re pretty instilled. They may not see it as control, they may see it as love.
Q: So it’s about power and control. I’m not sure most people understand what that really means. Besides the cyclical family pattern, what do experts say is at the root of this conduct?
It’s also a need to control another person. It’s not so much about anger. Many people say that violence is an anger management issue, that you’ve lost your temper. But it’s a focused violence. You picked this particular person. You’ve worked on them for an extended period of time.
It starts with verbal and emotional abuse. They say things like this: You know no one else will love you because you’re ugly or you’ve gained a lot of weight and you’re really fat. Or you’re really dumb so you won’t be able to do anything else in your life and only I will be able to support you.
It starts with that kind of systematic destruction of a person’s self-esteem. Then, when that push becomes a shove and a shove becomes a slap and that escalation, the groundwork has been laid.
If it were an anger management issue, then you’d yell at the waiter or at your boss. But if your violence is focused on one person, then it is very controlling and it’s more than lost temper.
Q: When we hear about the awful cases of former husbands or boyfriends who stalk and murder the women they were with because, maybe, they’re with someone else or they’re just free, it seems insane. What makes some men so crazy?
Q: What should a woman look for in a man she is involved with or about to marry? And what should she do short of walking away on the suspicion or fear that the guy’s going to go bad?
I think some of those warning signs are things we’ve talked about, like wanting to be the only person in your life or trying to isolate you from family or friends.
Wanting to know where you are all of the time. Also wanting to change what seems like minor things, like “I like it when you wear your hair this way” or “why don’t you wear these kinds of clothes?”
What can seem very flattering and attentive, when taken to the extreme, is not very flattering.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.