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Former Shelter Director Reveals Why She Left

Abuse shelters surround themselves in a shroud of secrecy. On March 10, 2007 RADAR staff interviewed a former abuse shelter director to learn what goes on behind closed doors. The woman requested anonymity because she was fearful of the consequences of disclosing her identity:

I worked at an abuse shelter located in the mid-Atlantic area for over 10 years. I first worked as a counselor and was eventually promoted to the position of shelter director. Our shelter had 8 rooms, with a capacity of up to 30 women and children.

Our shelter received funding from a variety of private and government sources at the federal, state, and local levels. A large share of our budget came from the state Child and Protective Services program to pay for abused children and mothers who resided at our facility.

Our shelter provided a broad range of services, including shelter residency for up to 2 months, 3 meals a day, counseling, advocacy, and transportation to arrange for local services. When necessary, we connected our residents with nearby welfare, immigration, and pro bono legal services. And we provided transitional services for former residents. Counseling was based on Lenore Walker's battered woman syndrome and the Duluth model's power and control wheel.

The shelter did not provide services to male victims of domestic violence, even when the men had suffered physical abuse similar to what women had experienced. Instead the men were referred to a local police station to request a restraining order.

Our staff consisted of about 30 persons, who did administration, counseling, transportation, child care, and other activities. We had a similar number of volunteers, who were generally women with previous histories of abuse. The volunteers were sometimes more of a problem than they were worth because they were still dealing with their own personal issues. Even though the volunteers were not paid anything, the shelter received funding for their services.

Most persons think of women in an abuse shelter as victims of severe physical abuse, bloodied and broken. In our shelter, however, only about one in 10 women had experienced any kind of physical injury. A similarly small number had been threatened with any physical harm, although they may have been involved in a previous incident of physical abuse.

So the great majority of women were there because they claimed to have been subjected to verbal or psychological abuse. We did not verify the claims of new residents - if the woman answered the questions correctly, we basically believed what she said. There is no question that some women, many of whom were on welfare, were gaming the system to benefit from the many services our shelter provided.

When I first started working at the shelter, the staff was held accountable to professional standards and services were regularly audited. We shared a feeling of altruism, of helping needy victims. But over the years, I saw a big change.

The shelter became more ideologically oriented. We began to sponsor workshops and training on lesbian issues. Shelter residents who were pregnant were advised of the difficulties of raising a child alone, and were encouraged to get an abortion. In order to service illegal immigrants, we stopped requesting any form of personal identification. But then you began to wonder who you are really dealing with.

Around the same time, the number of staff increased and employee benefits expanded. I once calculated that the average staff member was away from work 60 days out of the year - 5 weeks on vacation, plus holidays and sick days. After a while it became impossible to have a cohesive staff.

In the end, we would refer the women to other programs, and they would refer clients to us. It became a self-serving numbers game.

The staff became less accountable in their work and began to see their job more as an entitlement. The shelter lost its grass roots appeal and began to feel like an employment center. There was little professionalism or accountability.

That's when I resigned my position as shelter director.