Name: Catherine McDonough School: University of Notre Dame Class Year: 2013 Hometown: Long Grove, IL Major: Psychology Minor: Poverty Studies
On a typical Monday morning, I drop my roommate off at the local Boys and Girls Club and drive on to the battered women’s shelter where I work. As I park outside the shelter, I take a precautionary look around to make sure I was not followed. I walk to the front door and am let in- only after correctly delivering the secret password. Inside, it is peaceful and quiet, but this morning ritual is a constant reminder of just how dangerous domestic violence can be.
I spent my summer working at The Family Center, a non-profit agency based in Helena, Arkansas. While The Family Center addresses a wide variety of needs in the community, my internship focused on domestic violence. I split my time between the office and the shelter, doing a little bit of everything ranging from grant writing and social media to teaching a financial class and one-on-one case management with the women at the shelter.
Upon first glance, you would never guess that the women living in this safe house had been beaten. However, as I began to get to know the women, I could not help but to be overwhelmed. Not only had these women been severely physically abused, but they had also been victims of sexual, emotional, and financial abuse. Some had even watched their partner abuse their children as well. Most of these children are now in foster care. The physical abuse heals. Scars and bruises fade, but the damaging effects of domestic violence do not.
Many of the women I worked with had a history of abuse dating back to their teenage years. Many came from an unstable household growing up, were unable to obtain a good education, and thus found themselves unemployed. Many were previously supported by their abuser, and now that they have found the courage to leave, they find themselves homeless. Had I not spent eight weeks working with these women, I would not understand the complexity of their current situations. In fact, I still cannot say that I know everything that led them to this point in their lives. However, I can say that I have a new understanding of what needs to be done to help.
Homelessness, domestic violence, and poverty are all related. They are all cyclical and generational. Children growing up in a violent, poor, or unstable household will not break this cycle unless something in their life changes. It is no coincidence that children who grow up in an abusive household are more likely to be abusers themselves as adults. If this is what they experience growing up, and are never exposed to anything else, they will believe that this is the normal way of life. This summer, I knew I would be exposed to the issue of domestic violence. However, I was not prepared to discover just how intertwined it was to so many other issues: homelessness, poverty, mental health, unemployment, food stability, foster care, healthcare, government benefits, education, and so much more. The women I worked with this summer are survivors; many of them have escaped relationships that literally almost killed them. However, they are not treated as heroes. Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women in the United States, yet it is an issue that too many refuse to openly talk about.
The cycle of poverty, violence, and homelessness has been going on for far too long. Once someone is caught up in it, it is hard to break. Individualized services and shelter are extremely necessary to help those caught up in these situations. However, I also learned the importance of prevention and education. These women have faced numerous issues since a young age. Where would they be if someone had addressed them as they were happening?
This summer, I am not only leaving with a newfound understanding of the complexities of poverty, but with a goal to address them before the cycle repeats itself. I thank the women at the shelter and The Family Center staff for sharing their stories and wisdom with me. I will never forget their strength and advice, especially the bits on how to properly cook some fried chicken.