An apple-cheeked 6-year-old is standing in a sunny dining room, dressed in his school uniform of khaki pants and white shirt, and in a rush, he says:
"I was upstairs crying a minute ago. I miss my daddy. He threw a shoe and the police came and the ambulance and now we live here and he lives there."
And he runs off to play with a toy keyboard.
Welcome to Interval House, the Hartford area's domestic violence shelter. Women (and often their children) come here to escape slaps, kicks, shoves and name-calling. They vow never again to be a victim, and they come here in the middle of the night, the afternoon, on weekends. They bring belongings stuffed in trash bags, suitcases or they flee their homes so quickly they come empty-handed.
For all of them, baskets of toiletries await in the shelter's sparse, dorm-like rooms. Staff members stand ready to help as they rebuild their lives. Some will return to their abusers anyway. Several staff members also survivors of domestic violence did that, too. They understand the pull. The devil you know, right?
But while the women are here, they belong to a sisterhood of hope.
Safety, Simple Rules
Now in its 32nd year, Interval House emphasizes the safety of clients and staff. The building is nondescript. You could walk by it and you may have and not know it is a domestic violence shelter.
For residents, sharing their whereabouts is grounds for expulsion. The shelter's first-floor windows are barred; security cameras dot the pro- perty. Women who call from within a few blocks of the shelter are referred else- where, rather than risk exposure. Visi- tors are buzzed in; people who knock on the door unannounced are turned away.
With few exceptions, no last names and in some cases, no first names are used in this story. The risk is too high.
The rules are simple: No drinking. No drugs. No visitors. Weeknight curfew is at 5, unless you've made arrangements. No contacting your abuser. Do your own laundry. Food is provided by the shelter, but residents prepare their own breakfast and lunch. Dinner is communal. The women take turns.
In one of the bedrooms, four beds with bright blankets line a wall. The belongings of the mother and three children who live here are neatly stored in a closet. You could bounce a quarter off the beds, and Gloria, a staff member who inspects the rooms daily, smiles. This is what a room is supposed to look like.
The women who stay at the shelter are mostly poor. With a paucity of affordable housing and decent-paying jobs, families often stay six or eight weeks, and then apply to stay longer, said Iris Ruiz, assistant director. Domestic violence permeates all socioeconomic groups, but wealthier women usually move in with family members or stay in a hotel.
Interval House worked with 6,000 adults last year about a quarter of the domestic violence cases in the state, said Rosemary Padin, development director. Most of the women did not stay, but relied on services like court advocacy, support groups, or safety planning.
The weekly support group for mothers is emphatically not a man-bashing seminar, says one shelter employee. The women talk about child-rearing. Everything is confidential unless someone mentions child abuse; group leader Penni, a mandated reporter, must report to the state any suspicion of child abuse.
Here, too, rules are simple: No swearing. Everyone signs in. You get out what you put in.
The women gather around a table in the dining room. A toddler gurgles in a playpen off to the side. A mother of three proudly announces she is about to leave the shelter for her own apartment. The woman next to her, tiny and mercurial, congratulates her. She can't imagine having her own place right now. Her abuser, the latest in a long line of them, broke her heart, she says.
Penni asks the women to talk about childhood. It's no secret that domestic violence can be generational. The women talk about how they were punished as girls. Some were grounded, some beaten, and then the tiny woman says that her father stubbed out his cigarettes on her skin, and when she was 18 he tried to sell her to his heroin dealer for a fix. The dealer called the police.
The only adult looking out for the girl was a guy who dealt heroin. The women are quiet. What do you say to that?
A new arrival sits nearby at a table by herself, listening intently. Her face is puffy, and on another canvas, the color of the bruises around her eyes would be beautiful. Her forehead is cut, and she moves slowly as she shifts to rest her head on her arms. When the tiny woman asks if she wants to join the group, she shakes her head and says quietly: "I am going to sit right here."
The Hot Line
In a utilitarian room nicked file cabinets, nondescript desks staff member Edna is working the hot line.
"Are you home now?" Edna says into the phone. "Is he there? Is he listening to your conversation now?"
Behind her is a white board with the legend "Shelter max 20!" underlined twice. They usually are full, says Ruiz. She breezes through on her way to give testimony at the Capitol. She's dressed up, but she's been similarly attired in the past, and, lacking a maintenance staff, has stopped to unclog a toilet on her way out.
Upstairs, happy birthday posters decorate executive director Cecile Enrico's office. She has been working against domestic violence since before there was an Interval House. On her office wall hangs a photo of her standing with former President Ronald Reagan.
Edna is on the phone trying to find housing for a 55-year-old woman who works in Hartford but is staying at an Enfield shelter, where she sleeps on a top bunk. The bunk is hard for her to climb up to, and the commute is tough.
On the other phone, staff member Gloria is trying to get details about an attack on a woman. Gloria grew up in Hartford, but now lives in the country; she says when she comes to town she does the mental equivalent of putting on armor.
A poster on the wall says "No te rindas" Do not surrender. Up and down the halls are similar affirmations and reminders that love shouldn't hurt.
The phone rings. A client has been in court filing for a restraining order and she fears her abuser is around. Gloria grabs her keys to drive the client back, armor-ready.
A woman with hair pulled into an elegant chignon sits in a shelter office talking about her life. Her teenage sons are with her. The woman is a nurse and she's embarrassed. She didn't leave the relationship when it turned violent.
"I should know better," she says quietly. The last seven months were the worst. She lost her job, went on state.
She came to Interval House because her boys were getting bigger, and they'd tried to step in to protect their mother. She worried they'd be hurt. She couldn't leave for herself, but she could leave for her sons. She's leaving soon for her own apartment, and another chance.
And in the hot line room, the phone rings.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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