Finding hope to escape domestic violence

Advocacy services work to combat, prevent domestic violence 


Sun CURRENT Newspapers


Domestic violence and abuse are difficult problems to solve, but there is hope.

After, or even before, law enforcement steps in, a variety of advocacy services are available to help victims break free of domestic violence, whether their needs are physical, emotional, financial, legal or otherwise.

Cornerstone Advocacy Service in Bloomington is one of many advocacy groups providing children and adults with a continuum of services that build sustainable self-reliance.

“We encourage them, wherever they’re at in the process, and make sure the victim is still engaged, not pulling back,” said Project Coordinator Bob Olson.

Cornerstone works with the communities of Bloomington, Edina, Eden Prairie, St. Louis Park, Richfield and Brooklyn Park. A wide range of people reside within these six communities, but Cornerstone is committed to providing safe housing to anyone in imminent danger, regardless of whether or not they live within these cities.

A variety of advocacy services are available to help victims break free of domestic violence, whether their needs are physical, emotional, financial, legal or otherwise. (Photo illustration)
A variety of advocacy services are available to help victims break free of domestic violence, whether their needs are physical, emotional, financial, legal or otherwise. (Photo illustration)

Domestic abuse affects people of all backgrounds, but the family or relationship aspect remains a constant and can complicate the situation.

“The victim can often be talked into dropping charges from family,” Olson said. “The abuser knows their trigger points and intimate details to manipulate the victim.”

Cornerstone was awarded a two-year Violence Against Women Act grant in 2011 to implement the Blueprint for Safety in partnership with the cities of Bloomington, Eden Prairie, Edina, Richfield and St. Louis Park. The Blueprint for Safety is broken down into separate chapters and training memos for advocates, law enforcement, 911 communicators, prosecutors and judges.

The advocacy service was awarded another two-year grant in 2013, adding the cities of Brooklyn Park, Brooklyn Center, Crystal, Maple Grove and Robbinsdale, as well the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, Hennepin County Attorney’s Office and Hennepin County Probation.

The two goals of implementing the Blueprint for Safety are to bolster domestic violence victim safety and to increase offender accountability.

Olson, a former leader of the Eden Prairie Police Department Domestic Abuse Response Team, now leads the Blueprint Project.

“After working 25 years in the system, I was able to see some gaps,” Olson said. “Part of intimate relationships is that you can’t just let go.”


First steps

Partnerships between law enforcement and domestic violence advocacy agencies provide a holistic approach for helping victims, according to Brooklyn Center Police Department Community Liaison Monique Drier.

The department partners with Project P.E.A.C.E., a domestic violence advocacy agency that helps victims in need of orders for protection, harassment restraining orders and help going through the court process, said victim advocate Tracy Becker.

Project P.E.A.C.E. also serves the cities of Robbinsdale, Crystal and Maple Grove.

Drier said a holistic approach in domestic violence cases can include visits by law enforcement to a victim’s home to determine the severity of the situation and reviews of the needs of both the victim and the offender, Drier said. Before working in Brooklyn Center, Drier was employed by Hennepin County Community Corrections and handled cases of people with repeat domestic violence offenses.

While offenders face legal consequences for their actions, they need help to not repeat those actions in the future.

“If it’s not a holistic approach, it’s like sending someone to treatment with no help,” Drier said.

Nancy Halverson, a corrections unit supervisor for the Hennepin County Department of Community Corrections, said offenders must complete domestic violence counseling based on the level of crime they commit.

“We find if offenders complete their domestic violence counseling, they are statistically less likely to re-offend,” Halverson said.

Services for victims range from those offered through Project P.E.A.C.E. to having an advocate at the courthouse for domestic violence victims who need help through the legal process.

Becker said there is in an increase in the number of orders for protection filed by people with the help of their advocates this year. The number of homicides related to domestic violence this year, 37, is one reason more people are requesting orders for protection, Becker said.

“People are taking that extra step to make sure that they are safe,” she said.


Resources available

No matter how bad the situation, victims of domestic abuse and violence have options to help them escape and recover from those situations.

In the west metro, the Minnetonka-based Sojourner Project provides a safe shelter for women and children, along with advocacy and education, for individuals and communities victimized by domestic violence.

The Sojourner Project shelter began in 1977 in a four-bedroom house in Hopkins. The shelter has grown through the years and is now located in Minnetonka, where it offers space for nearly 20 women and children who are unsafe in their own homes because of domestic violence.

“They usually stay for about a month,” said Judy Nelson, Sojourner’s coordinator of community education and outreach. “We provide whatever you would need if you left your office and (didn’t) go home for two weeks. Very often, they come in with nothing.”

Shelter staff members provide programs and services that help victims to heal and learn ways to create greater safety for themselves and their children. Residents receive food, clothing, individualized and group support and legal advocacy, Nelson said.

A transition advocate is also designated to help residents as they re-enter the community.

“While they are there, the shelter helps them rebuild a safety plan,” Nelson said.

Sojourner offers a 24-hour crisis phone monitored by shelter advocates and volunteers.

The Sojourner Community Advocacy Program is for women who choose not to leave their homes but still need assistance and advice.

“The majority of women do not go to shelters,” Nelson said. “The majority stay in their homes and look for resources to improve their lives.”

The advocacy program offers legal advocates who work in criminal and civil or family court on behalf of women. Each of its domestic violence cases are followed by Sojourner advocates from the first court appearance through sentencing. Advocates keep the victims informed throughout each case.

Sojourner also provides therapists for group and one-on-one therapy.

Nelson said she has worked with women who are victims of felony attacks, gun violence and who suffer from post-traumatic stress.

“Sometimes, there needs to be a little extra therapy involved,” she said. “The therapist will work with her if it’s something beyond what a support group can provide.“

But group support can be a life-changing resource, Nelson said.

“Support groups are some of the most transformative areas I have ever worked in,” she said.


Always on-call

Day One Minnesota Domestic Violence Crisis Line, a statewide program of Cornerstone, provides a 24-hour help source.

The Day One organization was founded in 1995, inspired by the stories told by survivors of domestic violence who reported making between eight to 15 phone calls to reach safety. The crisis line – developed through a partnership between Allina Health System Foundation, the Twin Cities United Way and Minnesota battered women’s shelters – connects callers directly to their local advocacy service by using the caller’s area code.

“This program is extremely unique to the U.S. and it started right here in Minnesota,” Day One Manager Colleen Schmitt said. “There are a lot of other programs that have a hotline that connects to advocacy services, but not one that connects them directly.”

The program stands out as an example to similar offerings across the nation. Schmitt recently traveled to Seattle to help another advocacy service upgrade to a model similar to Day One.

If the victims are seeking shelter, advocates can use the Day One website to check for beds available at shelters in real time. This ensures victims get to a safe place as soon as possible and are connected to the resources they need immediately.

“So victims only have to talk to one person who can provide the resources they need,” Schmitt said. “There’s no middle man. The advocacy service can then place a three-way call to an advocate at the shelter to reserve a space.”

Since its inception, Day One has expanded its network to include nearly 60 domestic violence and sexual assault programs throughout the Minnesota area. Opening the Door, an initiative of Day One, improves access to services for variety of cultures, including immigrants and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities. The organization has also recently been working to reach those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Day One also oversees the Minnesota Alliance for Family and Animal Safety, which provides shelter for abused animals and a program for abuse in later life. The latter is an initiative to reach victims of domestic abuse who are 50 and older and not as able to access services as younger victims.

The organization strives to reach those in need, no matter where they live throughout the state.

“We get about 12,000 calls a year, and 2,000 are about finding shelter,” Schmitt said. “The rest are about getting help. Every time, they’re reaching out.”

The Day One crisis number is 866-223-1111.


Preventing violence from the start

Domestic violence profoundly affects not only the lives of the victim and the perpetrator but also the children who have witnessed the abuse and have been victims themselves. According to Cornerstone, children who have witnessed abuse learn early on that to get what they want, violence works.

The advocacy service works toward ending generational cycles of violence and abuse by reaching out to these young children early in the learning cycle and teach them appropriate, healthy relationship skills through Preventing Abuse and Violence through Education, or PAVE.

“For domestic violence especially, we want to make sure they understand power and if they’re using it to hurt someone,” said Barton Erickson, a school-based prevention coordinator. “Also recognizing the use of gender or feminine terms is key.”

The PAVE program is in 17 schools in the Cornerstone service area. PAVE educators start in the elementary schools to educate young children on family violence, self-esteem and healthy communication. In junior high, PAVE educators focus on age-related issues around family abuse and violence in the schools. Educators at this point not only focus on classroom presentations but work with students, both individually and in group settings, on family abuse issues, healthy relationships, anger management, communication skills at home and in school, as well as bullying and harassment.

When it comes to bullying, many students struggle with social blindness, Erickson said.

“Bullies are often treated nice by their peers, so they think they’re great and that they’ll never get caught,” Erickson said. “When they hurt another student on the playground, they’re not doing it to hurt others, they’re doing it to get attention from the other students.”

Every case is different, as is every student dealing with abuse or violence.

“Sometimes they know why they are here,” Erickson said. “Because they got into a fight or something. They’re learning what the line is for appropriate behavior. Most of the time, it’s the drama at school and they just get caught up with it, but others need long-term help.”

As students enter high school, they have already acquired a firm understanding of violence prevention and established strong relationships with PAVE educators and their peers. In high school, PAVE educators continue to educate students on domestic violence, focusing both on dating abuse and violence in the home, peer relationships and violence prevention in the schools.

“For their first relationship ever, learning what’s healthy is really important,” Erickson said.

While educators are available to help students with a variety of issues, they use Fairview as a referral for more extreme cases, typically when significant mental health or substance abuse problems arise.

Domestic violence between parents or relatives is commonly at the root of a student’s behavior problems, especially relationship issues, and PAVE educators are prepared to contact child protection services to get students to a safe place if need be.

“Growing up is an extremely confusing place to be when parents both love and hurt each other,” Erickson said.

PAVE educators are consistently working to reach students through a variety of platforms of new media and technology. Erickson said their ultimate goal is to make things relevant and tangible and to make change.

“We try to embed ourselves in their phones, their world,” Erickson said. “As adults, it’s hard to understand their world. We really don’t understand what this world is like. This world operates differently.”

Building alliances with youth is at the heart of PAVE, but it is easier said than done.

“The hardest thing is to not be cheesy, and be as real as possible,” Erickson said. “Kids are extremely savvy. They can tell when you’re not telling the truth.”


What can you do?

As a bystander, domestic violence is an especially hard issue to deal with.

There are many signs and red flags. The biggest sign is controlling and manipulative behavior, according to Jamie Olson, the domestic violence prevention coordinator at the Brooklyn Park Police Department.

“Abusers use power and control over victims, which does not limit itself to physical control,” she said. “It’s getting children involved, physical, emotional and financial. Every abuser uses different tools to put power and control over the victim.”

Once signs of domestic violence have been observed involving family or friends, the most important thing is to be non-judgemental, according to Bob Olson at Cornerstone.

“Take the time to educate yourself about the dynamics of domestic violence,” he said. “It’s OK to approach them and ask if they’re OK.”

Friends or loved ones of a victim or someone they think may need help are also encouraged to contact their local advocacy service or, more importantly, the police.

“If you see or hear something, call the police,” Becker said. “It’s surprising to me how many people will hear domestic violence happen but not say something or call the police. If you hear abuse occur … call 911.”

The reality is that until provisions are taken or a safety plan is drafted, it may actually be safer for victims to stay in the relationship.

“When they leave is the most dangerous time,” Schmitt said. “We can work with them prior to leaving, develop safety plans on how to continue and take control.”

Picking up the phone and asking for help is the first step – and it is not an easy one.

“It takes a lot of courage to pick up the phone and make that call,” Schmitt said. “It really is a process. They just need to know there is help in the community.”

At the end of the day, domestic violence simply isn’t like other crimes, Jamie Olson said.

“If someone steals your purse or robs you or burglarizes your home, you have no issues pursuing charges or cooperating with police, but when the person that assaults you is a spouse, a child, a parent, it’s someone you share a relationship with, and it’s not stranger,” she said. “It’s important to understand that situation the victim is in. It’s a crime with a personal relationship attached to it.”


Community editors Paul Groessel, Matt Hankey and Katy Zillmer also contributed to this article.


A survivor’s tale


I am a domestic abuse survivor.

I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for the amazing people surrounding me. I was able to grow resilience because of the love and support I received from my friends, family and community. Speaking out about abuse is my way of giving back and expressing gratitude after escaping my abusive marriage.

Love can be healthy, or love can be dysfunctional and dangerous.

Love is not controlling.

Love is not shame or blame.

Abuse and control are not love.

Adrenaline can trick you into thinking it’s love, but it’s not.

I was in an abusive relationship for 13 years. While I was in it, I thought I was in love. It wasn’t until I got out that I was able to see clearly what my life had become.

There was never a frontal attack that I would have recognized as abuse. It was just a continuous stream of actions and words disguised as jokes. Jane Gilgun, a professor with the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development, calls it “kidding on the square,” which is putting someone down while presenting it as a joke.

My example is a situation where my young daughter was sitting on the couch with her father. He looked into the kitchen at me and said, “Look at your mom. She’s so beautiful, she’s so hot. Too bad I hate everything else about her.”

Is this a joke or a slam?

Behavior like this eats away your self-esteem and makes you doubt yourself. My abuser used this type of behavior to get to me in a roundabout way, then he would turn it back on me, telling me that I was too sensitive or too emotional, which continued the pattern of self-doubt.

Everything that went wrong in our relationship was always my fault. My life became a game of trying to be two steps ahead of him. Because of that, I unknowingly became the buffer between him and the world. I was exhausted because I was living two lives: his and mine.

I thought it was love.

It wasn’t.

What I thought was love was nothing more than adrenaline, guilt and fear.

Emotional and psychological abuse does not leave the telltale marks of physical abuse, but they are just as damaging. Violence often begins with emotional abuse and threats, and then moves to physical abuse. Fifty-percent of all women will experience physical violence in an intimate relationship. Many will never be physically abused until the last time.

My ex was an emotional abuser. He used words and acts to make me feel worthless and powerless. He attacked my self-esteem and sought out my strongest qualities and tried to destroy them. He stalked me and used physical size to intimidate me. He also used money to control and scare, leaving my children and I without funds and almost homeless.

His lies, gambling and abuse came to a head in 2007. I told him he needed to seek help for his behavior. When he realized he may be losing me, he became erratic and threatening.

Please remember: If you think you are in an abusive relationship, the most dangerous time is when you decide to leave.

I turned to the community for support. First, I called the police. The Eden Prairie Police Department suggested that I go to Cornerstone for help. I did. Cornerstone helped me get my order for protection. The order didn’t mean that he was going to go away, but it gave me an opportunity to define my safety needs and created a foundation for me to get out.

Over the last six years, my order has been amended – because he didn’t follow it.

Held up by the Court of Appeals – because he appealed it.

Reissued every year – because he violated it.

Last year, the order for protection against my abuser was extended for 10 more years.

There is no stereotypical abused person. You cannot recognize us by the color of our skin, the economic background we came from, the clothes we wear or our gender.

Domestic abuse can happen to anyone.

If you think you or someone you know is in an abusive situation, there is help. There are people and programs designed to help and protect. Cornerstone also lists red flags and myths on its website. I was helped by both Cornerstone and the Domestic Abuse Project.


– Written by K.T. Bernhagen of Eden Prairie. She shared this story with the public during an Oct. 7 domestic violence vigil in Eden Prairie.