Teaming Up to Root Out Abuse

Written by LIFT Alliance

Karen Bartoletti,Matt Womack,Mark Mouritsen, LIFT Alliance Board Chairs, wrote an Op-Ed for the Austin American-Statesman this week about how an alliance between SafePlace and the Austin Children’s Shelter would allow them to offer new programs to clients, combine their voices to advocate for change, and share costs.

By Karen Bartoletti,Matt Womack,Mark Mouritsen

Despite years of effort — building bigger shelters, providing increased therapy and support, developing engaging community education projects and the myriad other ways Austin Children’s Shelter and SafePlace address child, sexual and domestic violence and abuse — both agencies have been swimming against an ever-rising tide with ever-dwindling resources for the past several years.

As board members of these organizations, we have watched first-hand as battered women have continued to lose their children, teen moms in the foster care system have moved out and into abusive relationships, eventually losing custody of their children, and teen boys have ended up in the juvenile justice system because of violence toward their girlfriends – doing what they learned in their own homes. We haven’t been ending abuse; we have, all too often, only been pausing it for a brief time.

So last year when the leaders of these two agencies recommended that we develop an alliance that would allow us to offer new programs to clients, combine our voices to advocate for change, and share costs at the same time, we soon realized that it was our opportunity to do much more for survivors than we’d ever done before.

We could see the similarities in the work we did, providing shelter and support to victims of abusive homes. But as we listened to the front-line professionals in both organizations, we realized that there was more to the idea than that. The people we are serving at both ACS and SafePlace have too often been deeply damaged by the abuse they’ve suffered. Children have witnessed and experienced violence in their homes, learning those same abusive patterns of behavior all the while. The true “aha” moment came when we realized that 80 percent of the women in SafePlace’s supportive housing program – which helps women establish independent lives after an initial stay in emergency shelter – had a background in the foster care system.

It stands to reason that children who are traumatized by prolonged exposure to abuse would need support to learn healthier patterns of behavior. It also stands to reason that young adults who “age out” of foster care may not have the support network or resources to maintain independent lives in the face of poverty, unemployment, and unresolved post-traumatic stress.

We recognize that our work, our clients, and our issues are interconnected, and therefore, as of January 1, ACS and SafePlace have formed LIFT: An Alliance to End Abuse. The two organizations will maintain their names, facilities, and independent 501(c) 3 statuses; the Alliance will engage in long-term planning and service coordination between the two. Over time, we anticipate that the Alliance will offer the clients of both organizations more and better services, give us the opportunity to advocate for more responsive and intelligent systems that would help to stop the violence altogether, and use scarce resources more efficiently.

Our first project together is the UT George M. Kozmetsky Charter School, located on the SafePlace campus. Established as a K-8 school many years ago to serve the children who are at SafePlace with their mothers, the school offers a supportive atmosphere and a staff that receives ongoing training in helping kids in crisis. This year, the school added grades 9-12 and welcomed students from ACS, giving them a supportive, normalized school environment.

We are also now able to tailor services to each client much more effectively – as an example, a teen mother who arrived at SafePlace has been transferred to the Teen Parent Program at ACS, where she will receive more support and training to build a healthy life for herself and her child.

With the LIFT Alliance, we are determined to chart a new course on these issues, to recognize that child abuse and family violence aren’t really two separate problems, but part of a larger cycle of violence that is learned over time and repeated over generations. We can’t fix the bureaucratic tangles that can often endanger the lives of victims, or create new sources of funding that will stretch to fully meet the need in our community. But we can begin to develop systems and approaches that help to strengthen families, keep kids safe, and prevent problems before they occur.

In 2011, 102 women and 231 children were murdered in Texas by family members. Thousands of our Central Texas neighbors are trapped in abusive homes right now, traumatized and terrified of what will happen if they try to escape. Those murders, those injuries, that stress and fear and trauma – we refuse to accept that those are inevitable. We choose to serve on the boards of these organizations because we want to do everything we can to stop the violence and prevent it from recurring in future generations. With the LIFT Alliance, we believe we have a powerful new tool to accomplish those goals.