County's Only Battered Women's Shelter Turns 25 Years Old

By Andy McKeeveriBerkshires Staff
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Board members Kim Mathews, Sue Birns, Jane Lawless and Kim Rivers outside of the Elizabeth Freeman Center offices Friday. The organization's sheltering program is 25 years old.

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Inside a building at a private location in the county, women are taking back control over their lives.

They come out stronger, more resilient and confident.

The building is the county's only battered women's shelter, which is turning 25 years old this year.
And it could use some linens, towels, kitchen utensils and more. The Elizabeth Freeman Center is holding a "shower" to restock all of the shelter's supplies. 
"It is in the budget to keep things a replenished as possible, but it's not enough. It's hurting. It is really hurting. One of the reasons why we decided to use the 25th anniversary as a shower as a reason to try and restock it,"  board President Jane Lawless said on Friday.
The Elizabeth Freeman Center runs the shelter and is holding a "household shower" and has started registries at Target and Bed, Bath & Beyond to gather donations. The organization is holding a community party — the "shower" itself — at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Pittsfield on Wendell Avenue on Thursday, June 26, at 5 p.m.
"Our hope is that people go online, order something for the shelter, and they have have it sent to EFC or they can come to he shower," board member Kim Mathews said.
Built by the state in 1989, the shelter has helped thousands of women end the cycle of domestic abuse that has plagued their lives. 
"I oversaw the construction of the shelter. I worked for what is currently called the Department of Children and Families. What we thought at the time, though there is no proof of it, is that in Massachusetts and maybe nationally, it was the first shelter built from the ground up to be a shelter," Lawless said. 
"That is true in the state. We thought it was true in the country but we have no way to prove it."
Then, the state's department of Community Development reached a deal with the Department of Children and Families (then Department of Social Services) to build the structure if DCF paid to run services from there. The building's ownership was transferred to the City of Pittsfield's Housing Authority and the Elizabeth Freeman Center leases it. Operating the shelter is just one of many programs the Elizabeth Freeman Center offers.
"Before that, in this county we had a safe home network, which is sort of like a cross between the underground railroad and maybe, foster care for victims of domestic violence," said board member Sue Birns.
Domestic abuse isn't a new problem, but it only began to be recognized socially in the 1970s. By comparison, Birns said the first shelter for abused animals was built near 100 years before the first shelter for women and there are still currently more animal shelters than battered women shelters.
"It's illegal. It wasn't always illegal. It used to be that you were the property of the man you married and he could do whatever," Lawless said.
The abuse is much more of a problem for society than many know. According to the board members, abuse has been linked to homelessness, poverty, substance abuse and continued to child abuse. 
"It is not that because people are poor, they are victims. Very often then end up in those situations, whether it is poverty, homelessness, substance abuse, because they are victims of domestic abuse," Lawless said.
Even in the Berkshires, the problem exists and now more and more people are discussing the subject that had been hush-hush throughout most of human history. Since the shelter opening in 1989, the 10 bedrooms have never been empty.
In fact, the demand has been so high that the Elizabeth Freeman Center has sheltered women in hotels or found arrangements in shelters out of the Berkshires (sometimes that is done for safety reasons, too). In 2010, 171 women used the shelter for temporary housing.
"It is amazing the number of women just in this county alone who are in need of services," Lawless said. 
The shelter first and foremost provides a secure location for those trying to escape the abuse because oftentimes family and friends can't or won't provide that. 
"One of the ways they try to trap women is by threatening to kill them, to kill their children, to kill their friends and families. To take some one in, even through the safe home network, you are risking your own safety," Birns said.
"One of the critically important aspects of that is having a safe place to go. A lot of times friends and family can't take them in. They can't take them in because they can't afford it; they can't take them in because it isn't safe. Sometimes they don't take them in because 'you married him for better or worse, so don't bring your problems here.' ...
"Women have to have a safe place to go."
From there, the Elizabeth Freeman Center has connections with an array of services to help them rebuild. Whether it is helping them get into an education program or work or getting counseling, there are resources out there.
"A lot of the social service agencies work with each other. The services at the shelter is like the hub of the wheel where they can connect outwardly with all of these other programs," board member Kim Rivers said.
More importantly, the shelter gives women the confidence that had been torn away from them through the constant abuse. It ends the "full frontal assault on self esteem," Birns said.
"They realize, No. 1, that it is not some personal defect in them that is causing them to be beaten. That they are not the only ones that this is happening to. And that in fact they are smart and competent," Birns said. 

Tags: domestic violence,   shelter,   

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