By Maureen Smith
JACKSON — The color for Domestic Violence Awareness Month is purple “to represent the bruises,” explained Betsy Smith. She is a social worker for the Catholic Charities Domestic Violence Shelter’s transitional housing, but she is also a survivor of abuse herself.
“It only took me once to leave, for some women, it takes seven or eight tries,” she said. Smith was living in California with her husband and children when the abuse began to take its toll. “I can remember my children would play outside all the time because they didn’t want to be inside with all that tension,” she said. Then her daughter began showing destructive signs of anxiety. “She started twisting her hair so much it was falling out. When I saw the impact of the situation on her, I knew it was time to leave.”
Smith carefully planned her escape, shipping her belongings and documents home to her family in Mississippi so when the time came she could just walk out with her kids. “My family was supportive,” Smith explained. “They supported me coming home. Many women don’t have that.”
Smith started working at Catholic Charities in 1990. By 1995 she had landed in the domestic violence program and has been there ever since. “I have a passion for this.”
She uses her experience to show the women who come to the shelter that they can make a new life for themselves. “I tell them, ‘don’t be a victim, be a survivor.’ You can be whatever you want. I don’t like excuses. You are going to have to get on with your life,” she said. Smith said many of the women who come have trust issues already so convincing them to seek therapy, to listen and to follow a program can be difficult. “Therapy is a hard sell,” she said.
“When they say to me, ‘you don’t understand,’ I can say, I do understand because it did happen to me,” she continued. When a woman comes to the shelter, the staff works with her to transform her life, but the women have to make the decisions, come up with the plan and act on it. “I tell them, ‘I don’t want to do anything for you. I want to know what you want to do.’”
Women and children can stay in the shelter for 45 days. The shelter offers support groups, case management, help to file a restraining order, childcare and meals. The staff helps the clients decide what steps to take to establish a new life, find a job and housing. If a woman is making progress on her journey, but needs some additional support, she may be able to move into the transitional housing Smith oversees. It is communal housing where women can continue to save money, work and learn life skills.
“Once a woman leaves the shelter we check on her in 30 days and again in six months to see if she is still living violence free,” said Arteria Puckett, program manager for the domestic violence program. She said her staff loves to see the success stories. In one case, a woman with five children came to the shelter with no job, no transportation and no local support system. That woman was able to get a license as a Certified Nursing Assistant. She is continuing her education and even found a home that can accommodate her whole family. “She did it because she never gave up,” said Puckett.
“Learning how to do all this is an education process,” said Smith. “They (her clients) have been just surviving, they have never dreamed,” she said. The staff at the shelter wants to give women the space and the tools to imagine the lives they want and then go get them.
The shelter will be moving into a new facility some time around the new year with more room for more families, but will continue to operate through the transition.
Anyone suffering abuse can call the shelter 24-hours a day at 800-799-7233 (SAFE).
By Maureen Smith