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Interact debuts a new model for violence prevention in Raleigh

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Editor's note: Survivors of sexual assault are identified by first name only.

There's no such thing as a normal day at Interact, the Wake County agency that serves victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. April, a graduate student who works at the center, wears a beeper on her hip throughout the day as she walks through the freshly painted purple hallways, greeting clients with an energetic smile.

Since the doors opened at Interact's Family Safety and Empowerment Center in early March, more than 200 families have come seeking counseling, legal help, food from the pantry and many other services—and found them all in one place. The $5 million facility, located in the renovated YWCA building on Oberlin Road, houses not just Interact but nine other partner agencies and organizations within 60,000 square feet. Clients can access job training, substance abuse counseling, primary medical care, mental health services, legal aid and childcare. The Raleigh Police Department has moved its Family Violence Prevention Unit on site, with a separate entrance.

But it's not just Interact clients who come here. Members of the general public shop at the Pass It On thrift shop. The YMCA, an anchor tenant, runs afterschool and summer programs for children, making use of the swimming pool.

Clients fleeing violent situations often struggle with transportation, time off work, childcare and other logistics that make it difficult to track down information and help. In placing many services under one roof, Interact appears to be the first family violence prevention agency in the country trying out a new "one-stop shopping" model for help. And by visibly integrating the facility into the community, Interact hopes to create a new model for safety, as well.

"We've created an atmosphere where the community should feel welcome to come in and be a part of what we're doing," says Executive Director Adam Hartzell. "We hope to research this model and, a few years from now, to prove it is a more effective way to serve families."

Hartzell says the new model is the result of three years of research. About a dozen Interact staffers, volunteers and a board member—as well as a former shelter resident—interviewed other agencies across the country and visited sites in Atlanta, Boston, Minneapolis, San Diego and Birmingham, Ala., as well as several within North Carolina. They found that collaboration is nothing new.

"There are other agencies out there that are recognizing the need for a fuller range of services beyond just crisis intervention," Hartzell says. "While we saw people recognizing there needs to be a fuller range of services, there are not many out there doing the complete wraparound."

"They're doing something very innovative," says Rebecca Macy, an associate professor of social work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who worked with Interact on a number of studies. "We do know from the research that survivors of both domestic violence and sexual assault tend to have other problems besides just that violent trauma." Mental health and substance abuse problems, for instance, are often the result of that trauma. "They may just need time and support with picking up the pieces of their lives after this horrible experience. The research shows that survivors of violence are more likely to get help if they can access it easily."

Click for larger image • Surviving domestic violence in college led April to a career in helping other victims. - PHOTO BY D.L. ANDERSON

When April first sought help years after being raped on a college campus, she needed counseling and assistance finding her way back to school.

"Sometimes women feel depleted of energy and like they can't go on and they don't know where to start," she says. "It's much better to have everything under one roof. You just have to walk down the hall, as opposed to get on the No. 4 bus and go across town."

A high school cheerleader, April earned a scholarship to a college in Texas. Cheerleaders and athletes were told not to fraternize, or risk losing their scholarships. So she turned down the football player who asked her for a date. A few days later, as she was leaving the library, he raped and assaulted her, leaving her bleeding and unconscious in the bushes.

"I kind of hid out for a week or two and didn't want to talk about anything. I felt really guilty about it. I kept thinking, 'What did I do? How could this have happened to me?'" She went to campus police, who told her to go to the city authorities, who sent her back to campus. "This tennis match back and forth made it very clear to me that they did not want to pursue pressing charges," she says.

Two months later, April found out she was pregnant. Her personal faith dictated that she would carry the baby to term, but she decided to put the child up for adoption. Depressed, she dropped out of school and didn't tell her parents about the pregnancy until a month before giving birth.

Years later, April finally sought counseling at an agency in Austin. She returned to school and began leading a group session with other survivors, which launched her career in violence prevention. Her son, now 14, lives in Florida. She sees him every summer, and she is the mother to young twins as well.

April says her long path to recovery is a fairly common experience for survivors. "I've noticed on the crisis line people calling in dealing with things that happened years prior. They've gotten comfortable and thought, 'OK, I can talk about that now. Can I come in and talk to someone?'" she says.

Interact's new space has dramatically expanded both the quality and quantity of its client services. At the old, cramped office on Wade Avenue, clients used to rummage through piles of donated clothes, toys and household goods stacked in the entryway. Today, they receive gift certificates to the thrift shop next to the entrance—one more thing that improves quality of life, Hartzell says.

Inside, the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle runs a commercial kitchen and dining hall that offers vocational training. There's a business center where clients can send e-mail and work on their résumés, a spiritual center with comfortable couches and a small library, and a healing garden.

The residential shelter, too, has expanded, from 18 beds—the lowest per-capita of any county in the state—to 45 beds.

So far, the agency has raised $4.3 million of the more than $5 million cost through grants and corporate and individual contributions.

SouthLight, an agency that offers substance abuse counseling with a family focus, runs its entire program out of the Interact center.

"I think that's really remarkable they've been able to get all of those folks who are willing to collaborate with them," Macy says. "For better or for worse, there's often turfism with human services, and I'm really seeing there in Raleigh that people are willing to pitch in and collaborate together."

Click for larger image • Jennifer, a survivor of domestic violence, volunteers at Interact. - PHOTO BY D.L. ANDERSON

When Jennifer invited someone from Interact to speak to a group of women at her church years ago, she never imagined she would one day be a client. "It's sort of weird and ironic," she says.

For years, her husband's temper would flare into Jekyll-and-Hyde rages. He would yell, throw things at the wall, and do what Jennifer describes as "mentally obnoxious things," like pulling her covers off while she slept. He once broke down their bedroom door when she refused to open it. If they argued in the car, he would accelerate to dangerous speeds to scare her. But because he never physically hurt her, she didn't think of his behavior as abuse.

"It's very important to educate people about domestic violence and some of the red flags, because there are some things that happened in my relationship that I don't think I truly, fully comprehended or clued into being red flags," Jennifer says.

The problems worsened following the births of their two children. With his business struggling, Jennifer's husband suffered from anxiety and depression. "It seems like it was the perfect storm, all this stress on our marriage, stress on our finances, his impulsive behavior and volatile temper."

One Sunday evening following a weekend-long argument about money, he threw the telephone at Jennifer, hitting her in the back. Angry, she left the room and went to bed. A few hours later, he joined her and made a pass.

"I said, 'What do you think you're doing? This is not going to happen.'" But her husband's rage escalated rapidly. He chased her out of the bedroom and into the kitchen, where he raped her. "I just had this vision of him smashing my head down on the kitchen floor. I was screaming, 'Jesus, God help me!' I said, 'Please don't kill me, don't kill me,' because I honestly thought that's what was going to happen."

Incredibly, their sons, then 4 years and 18 months old, didn't wake up during the incident. Jennifer was worried they would be traumatized by her screaming—or by the sight of police officers at their door in the middle of the night. She did her best to devise a plan.

In the morning, she called a friend who took her to the courthouse for a protective order. That was when she first encountered an Interact volunteer, who helped her navigate a confusing system. "It's wonderful that they have people there to help, because just any person walking in off the street, it's a puzzle," Jennifer says. "I have a graduate degree, I'm an educated person, and I still found it infuriating."

Leaving her husband was a dangerous and frightening experience, Jennifer says. Even after he was served with the court order telling him not to contact her or come to their home, he sat in the bathroom with the light turned off, waiting for her to come back to the house to collect some belongings. Luckily, two friends and a sheriff's deputy were with her and made him leave. He repeatedly left messages threatening to abduct their children and leave the state. He showed up at the daycare center, but Jennifer had made other arrangements that day. Only after he spent two days in jail for violating the order did his threats cease.

Jennifer saw an Interact counselor four times, and her oldest son saw a children's counselor for several months. "I worried a lot about him. I had this fear in the back of my mind that he might have heard me screaming. He was very, very sad. It was [the counselor] who helped me explain to him that his daddy wasn't a bad person, but that he made some bad choices. He's trying to work his problems out, and until then, he can't really be their daddy."

Today, Jennifer juggles a full-time job and parenting with a desire to do more to help other survivors of violence. "It's important for people to understand that a man can rape his wife. There's still a lot of ignorance about that, which seems crazy," she says. She volunteers for Interact by sharing her story. "I just feel very strongly that it's my duty to do something to help."

The sudden, volatile rage Jennifer witnessed is a common aspect of domestic violence. The challenge for service providers is to find a way to keep victims safe during the most dangerous time in their relationships: when they decide to leave or seek help.

When battered women's shelters first began in cities across the country, they were like an underground network, their locations hidden from would-be assailants. But confidentiality is an increasingly ineffective safety measure. In 2006, a woman's estranged husband shot her to death at a domestic violence shelter in Sylva, N.C., where she had taken refuge. In the age of the Internet, when information can be easily found and shared, some people in the field are reconsidering the best way to keep clients and staffers safe.

The location of Interact's new shelter remains confidential, but Hartzell recognizes that it may be unrealistic to expect it to stay secret. "With all the technology we have, information is just a lot easier to get," he says. "If someone wants to find someone or find an address, they can."

That attitude is controversial, according to Macy, the university researcher. She recently surveyed nearly 100 agencies across the state to find out what their staffs think are the best practices for counseling, support groups and shelters. There was consensus on nearly everything, Macy said, except the topic of whether shelter locations should be kept a secret. To her surprise, a few shelters—some in rural areas, some in urban—have chosen to make their locations public.

"People have really strong feelings about it either way," Macy says. "There are some real philosophical differences. One, is it reasonable to expect survivors who haven't done anything wrong to be hidden away? And there's also just the practicality of keeping it secret. Unfortunately, there's just not a lot of research. Right now people are going on their best judgment. It may be that what's safe in one community isn't safe in another because of differences in the way communities respond or the community support available."

Both Interact's shelter and the Family Safety and Empowerment Center, where services are offered during the day, have state-of-the-art security systems that include cameras, swipe cards, door locks and other measures. "Having the police department on site definitely helps," Hartzell says.

In addition, Interact is calling on the community's involvement and presence to boost safety.

"The building and the project definitely represent a change in our recognition that we must have the community be a part of the solution and be a part of what we're trying to do here," Hartzell says. "When you have hundreds of people coming and going through the building every day, we believe that actually adds to the security, because there are more eyes and ears on what's going on."

The approach also adds to confidentiality, Hartzell says, since someone could be there to shop or take their kids to the pool. "Seeing someone's car in our parking lot does not necessarily mean they're coming to Interact to receive services."

Interact's new center also marks a new beginning for the old YWCA building. When it first went on the market, some in the community feared it would become just another condominium complex. Just as neighbors feel invested in the fate of this property, Hartzell hopes they will feel invested in the well-being of the people inside.

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