While domestic violence remains at epidemic level in northeastern Oklahoma, local agencies are cooperating on a program they hope will lessen its impact.

The Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse services blames rising poverty and drug abuse for increased reports of domestic violence. It now affects one out of every six couples in Oklahoma.

While reports rose 40.9 percent between 1993 and 2007, workers in the field say many more cases go unreported. And abuse between couples has a continuing impact on children in the home.

“We have seen it reported more, but it is still grossly underreported,” said Sandie Edgmon, program member for investigation with Cherokee Nation Indian Child Welfare. “Community members still say ‘it’s none of my business,’ or that she can leave if she wants to.”

The reality is that the victim lives in fear for her life and the lives of her children, and is not able economically to face life without her partner, Edgmon said.

Beginning last October, a new partnership between Help-In-Crisis and Cherokee Nation has begun. “Empowering Families-Strengthening Communities” has received funding through September 2009.

“What we are doing is seeing the Cherokee people who come into the Help-In-Crisis shelter,” Edgmon said. “We initially start to identify their service needs. We are a brokerage into the services available in the community.”

The first step is to provide counseling for the woman and her children. The program, which has a staff member at the shelter, obtains the necessary documentation for children to enter school and places the woman in contact with other agencies that can help meet her needs. The ultimate objectives are for her to obtain housing and whatever is necessary to land and keep a job so she can live independently of the abuser.

“Our goal is to prevent them from returning to their abusers and also giving them the skills they need for a life outside that situation,” Edgmon said.

The program involves parenting skills and is intended to help children avoid becoming involved in abusive situations, to break the cycle of spousal and child abuse that often occurs from generation to generation.

“Empowering Families-Strengthening Communities” will follow the families for two years to see how these goals are being implemented.

Situations of domestic violence frequently occur when people become parents too young, and haven’t grown up in families with good parenting, Edgmon said.

“Unfortunately, babies don’t come with instruction manuals,” she said.

The young parent normally doesn’t have the skills and education she needs to raise her child independently and must rely on her partner for financial support.

Mary Jo Cole, education coordinator for Help-In-Crisis, hopes the program will provide good results for the families involved.

It also provides a victim-witness coordinator in the district attorney’s office, and a prosecutor who focuses on domestic violence cases.

“We’ve hired someone for the Stilwell office to go out and distribute the information,” Cole said.

She attributes the increased reporting of domestic violence cases to two factors: education and the availability of help.

“I believe one of the things that causes people to report more often is that we do have more shelters available. Our shelter has been full more often this year, and I think it’s because it’s available,” she said.

The Tahlequah shelter can serve up to 36 women and children. Most come from the four-county area it serves – Cherokee, Adair, Sequoyah and Wagoner – but some come from outside the area. The average stay in the shelter is 45 days, and Help-In-Crisis has some transitional housing help available when women leave the shelter.

“We support their efforts to find a job, obtain job skills, resumé writing,” Cole said.

A computer lab at the shelter helps women practice their computer skills and research job and educational opportunities.

“I don’t know that there’s necessarily more domestic violence, but I think that they’re reporting it more,” Cole said.

Help-In-Crisis is also working with Northeastern State University on a grant to promote prevention of domestic and sexual abuse on campus. That’s a more frequent situation than most people think, Cole believes.

The statewide study, reported by the Associated Press, cites beliefs that domestic violence is more prevalent throughout society than many people realize.

“People just kind of shuffle it under the rug,” said Lynda Powell, founder of the Bethel Foundation for abused single mothers. “Of course, no one wants to deal with ugly stuff, and this is ugly.”

Julie Young, coordinator for Trauma and Prevention Services with the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, said state groups are increasing trauma services because there are few, and have domestic violence and child abuse trauma centers.

Jo Prout, executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), is familiar with the cycle of domestic abuse and the child abuse that results. “I’m saddened by that, but I don’t think I’m really surprised,” Prout said of the statistics. “The stresses on families today are more than I think anybody ever thought they would be.”

Economic conditions keep many men and women stressed about whether they will have jobs in the near future, let alone plan for retirement. Prout said families have changed tremendously since the days when dad had a job he could count on to support the family for a lifetime, and mom was able to stay home with the kids.

“Major corporations can always fire their older people and hire the younger ones,” Prout said.

She also sees global and national disasters adding to family stress.

“People don’t always sit around the dinner table and talk about how that affects them,” she said. “We can’t even afford to buy gas. It affects the way they treat each other as a couple, but it also affects their behavior toward their children.”

“What we at CASA see all too often is that many people marry too young and have children, and they weren’t parented well,” she said. “Abuse and neglect aren’t diminishing as well. The numbers are continuing to increase each year, I don’t care what people say.

“The baby itself is a stresser. They aren’t prepared for what the baby is going to mean, how to raise a child.”

The local CASA program covers Cherokee and Adair counties, as well as Cherokee Nation courts. For the past five years, CASA has seen more than 500 children annually wind up in court because of domestic violence and poor parenting. CASA continually seeks additional volunteers to advocate for these children as their cases progress through court.

Cole said more programs to help women obtain the job and parenting skills they need will mean fewer women will stay in situations where domestic abuse exists.

“I think we’re seeing more women who really are on the path to getting out and staying out,” she said. “I really think it’s because of the availability of the shelter, a place where they can be safe.”

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