|Bethany House Executive Director Catherine Hassinger (left) and Gayan Peart, family assistance program manager.|
When Alexandra [not her real name] decided she could no longer live with her abusive boyfriend after he beat her and threatened her with a gun, she landed in a shelter. But after her time there was up, she had nowhere to go.
Luckily, a friend put her in touch with Bethany House of Northern Virginia, a local organization that provides temporary housing and services to victims of domestic violence and human trafficking.
That’s one of many success stories shared by Bethany House Executive Director Catherine Hassinger during a recent visit to the group’s headquarters in Lincolnia.
A new start
Anyone in an abusive relationship or concerned about a friend, family member, or co-worker is encouraged to call the Bethany House helpline (703-658-9500). The organization places women who’ve been victims of abuse and their children in emergency housing for up to four months—along with access to counselors, employment assistance, and other services.
Bethany House has 25 beds in various locations in Northern Virginia. Some clients are placed in congregate housing arrangements or in a rented room in a single-family house. In the group homes—including one proposed for Mason District—everyone gets their own bedroom while they share a kitchen and living room. A staff person also lives there.
Bethany House works hard to keep its clients and the places where they live confidential, so their former spouses or boyfriends can’t bother them. People who live close by are notified, however. “We try to be good neighbors,” Hassinger says.
Most clients are from Fairfax County, but Bethany House also serves people throughout the region, including D.C. and Maryland. Victims come from all backgrounds. Bethany House has helped diplomats’ wives and professional women, as well as those at the lower end of the income spectrum.
One of the major reasons women find it so hard to leave abusive husbands or boyfriends is because they are financially dependent on them. “We work hard with clients to help them develop self-sufficiency, so they don’t have to choose between safety and food,” Hassinger says.
Employment counseling is crucial to help clients move forward. Some of them had to quit their jobs for their own safety. And others were barred from working by overly controlling abusers.
During their stay in temporary shelters, Bethany House counselors help clients who have jobs find a safe, affordable, permanent place to live. When that’s not possible, they find transitional housing through various organizations like Homestretch, Christian Relief Services, or Cornerstones.
Counseling is provided to victims’ children, too, Hassinger says. “The goal is to break the intergenerational cycle of abuse. We don’t want them to become a victim or abuser.”
For years, Bethany House raised funds to support its services with a successful thrift shop, Joseph’s Coat, on Annandale Road. When that shopping strip was torn down, the store was relocated to Columbia Pike in Annandale, but it only lasted about a year. “Unfortunately, we were not able to recapture our customer base. It just was not going to be feasible for us,” Hassinger says.
The organization has no plans to open another thrift shop, but is able to raise enough funds to keep going through donations, benefit events and other means. That’s crucial, because the problem of domestic violence isn’t going away.
A widespread problem
According to Hassinger, domestic abuse is far more common than the statistics indicate. Many victims don’t come forward because they don’t want to get their abuser into trouble or they’re afraid of retaliation.
One in four women will experience some level of violence in their life from a husband or boyfriend, she says. Every day in the United States, three women are killed by a partner.
In Fairfax County, domestic violence was the leading cause of homicide in 2010, according to the Fairfax County Domestic Violence Fatality Review Team’s 2013 Annual Report. Forty-four percent of homicides in the county were related to domestic violence.
Bethany House sees victims of physical, emotional, verbal, and sexual abuse, as well as women subject to “hyper control” by men who restrict where they go, what they wear, and who they talk to.
Beginning in 2008 when the economy started declining, Hassinger says financial abuse increased as families felt more stress. In many of those cases, a woman’s partner took her paycheck or restricted her access to the family’s money.
Stalking has become more prevalent, as technology is making it easier. If a woman is concerned about being tracked down after leaving an abusive relationship, Bethany House helps her develop a safety plan.
Women are warned to keep their new location a secret, change their daily routine, have their children transfer to new schools, get rid of their family phone plan, and never answer the phone. Sometimes Bethany House helps women relocate to another state.
“All this is overwhelming to clients,” Hassinger acknowledges. “Leaving opens a lot of doors but it also means they have to leave a lot of baggage behind.”
According to Hassinger, 84 percent of clients are abuse-free two years after they’ve been helped by Bethany House.
Getting to that point is a struggle for many of them, however. Women tend to go back to their abusers an average of seven times before agreeing to leave permanently, she says. The first 30 days are uncertain, as many of them are pressured to go back and it’s difficult for them to face the future on their own.
Once they are able to see a way ahead without abuse, it’s transformative. One client who carved out a new life for herself told Hassinger, “I’ve never gone 30 days before without getting hit.”