Domestic violence shelters struggle with growing inquiries
COLUMBIA - As the number of reported domestic violence incidents in Missouri increases, some Missouri shelters are having to turn away victims due to a lack of space.
The Missouri State Highway Patrol's Uniform Crime Reporting numbers indicate that domestic violence incidents in Missouri are on pace to be the highest in at least 10 years. If so, the number of incidents would surpass 42,000 for only the third time in over a decade.
Zak Wilson of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence said he thinks the increase isn't so much about an increase in violence as it is an increase in reporting. He said the increase shows that the Highway Patrol and local jurisdictions are doing a better job at counting the statistics, and organizations like coalition are working to encourage reports.
"It shows that there has been a step down from the taboo about domestic violence. We're removing stigma, and we're offering services, and those services are good," Wilson said. "People wouldn't be reporting if they didn't see a way out."
Detective Tom O'Sullivan of the Boone County Sheriff's Department said the removal of some of the stigma has uncovered more of the problem and allowed more people to get help.
"Reporting is obviously a big step in reducing it and dealing with it, when the victim reports it and can avail herself of the resources that are out there to help her," O'Sullivan said.
There has also been an increase in the number of domestic violence victims seeking shelter. Wilson said a big concern statewide is a lack of room for them all. He said, for every one person staying in a domestic violence shelter in Missouri, two people seeking shelter are turned away. And the ratio is growing.
"Some of it's the simple reality that is our economy. Shelter stays are becoming longer because people might not have permanent housing to resort to, or a job for financial security," Wilson said. "But a lot of it is brick and mortar. There just aren't enough beds."
The True North domestic violence shelter in Columbia has experienced the problem. Executive Director Barbara Hodges said the shelter had to turn away 17 victims in the last year.
"We don't want to turn away anyone," Hodges said. "But we're glad that it's not higher compared to the total rate in Missouri, so we feel fortunate that we're able to house as many as we do house."
Hodges said whenever True North has to turn someone away from the shelter, it works with the victim to provide another plan of action. Shelter workers communicate with neighboring counties to see if they have room in their shelters, and they brainstorm housing options locally if the victim has family nearby.
Hodges said the best way to avoid overcrowding is to decrease domestic violence, and the best way to do that is to focus on prevention programs.
"The goal for me is to end domestic violence," Hodges said. "We need to continue education so that the community is more aware, and with that education generally comes increased support so that we can expand our services."
O'Sullivan said he agreed that education plays a role in decreasing domestic violence, but he said he doesn't see it ever disappearing completely.
"As long as you have men and women associating with each other, getting married, living with each other, you're never going to totally eradicate domestic violence," O'Sullivan said. "But I think with education and strict enforcement, I mean that's a step in the right direction."
Wilson said funding prevention education is another issue. He estimated that prevention programs make up 5 percent of the budget dedicated to domestic violence services, roughly $400,000, compared to about 95 percent, or around $52 million, dedicated to intervention programs.
"Prevention is definitely something that does not get a lot of funding, but is shown that it works," Wilson said. "Right now, we're spending a lot of money to respond to the problem, but we're not really spending a lot of money to solve the problem."
Wilson said one of the first steps to keeping people safe from domestic violence and holding perpetrators accountable is to stop looking at it as just a women's issue.
"It's something that affects women, but is predominantly caused by men," Wilson said. "So until men take responsibility for that, and we start teaching our young boys how to treat women correctly, and looking at gender stereotypes and looking at all those things that feed into this abusive situation, then we're really not going to see any major changes."