“I was at a conference, and someone came toward me covered in expensive jewelry — diamonds. She pulled me aside and told me her story. She was a survivor.” Sistercare’s executive director, Nancy Barton, shares that not all victims of domestic abuse fit the cultural stereotype of poor and uneducated women living in sparsely populated rural areas. What is now being referred to in 21st century America as “interpersonal” or “intimate partner” violence cuts across all socioeconomic, societal and race lines.
Nancy’s background is in mental health counseling, and she was first asked to serve on a board for a domestic violence organization in another state years ago. It ignited a passion for alieving the great needs of those embroiled in such a life, and she accepted the opening for an executive director at Sistercare in Columbia more than 20 years ago.
Sistercare became established in the late 1970s by the Junior League of Columbia, the YWCA, individual clergy, social workers and survivors of abuse. Prior to the 1980s, the common course of action for a woman abused by her husband was to stay silent and endure. Law enforcement considered it a personal matter. There were no domestic violence statutes, only laws against assault and battery. For a woman to have her husband charged with assault and battery was rare; often it would lead to harsher abuse or even death.
However, the Civil and Women’s Rights era of the late 1960s and 1970s empowered women of all ages and races to push for legislation against abuse. Thus, various Violence Against Women Acts were passed by Congress that have helped victims’ advocates and government agencies work together to attempt to stem the tide of abuse in the United States.
Unfortunately, South Carolina has repeatedly been bestowed with an annual top position in state rankings for deadly violence against women. According to the Violence Policy Center in 2015, South Carolina ranked first among states for women murdered by men in 2013. As a result, Gov. Nikki Haley signed a bill into law that increases penalties and gives prosecutors more options for punishment. This year it was reported that the state dropped to number five in 2014, according to Nancy.
Upon its inception, Sistercare immediately became a refuge for women desperate to escape a life of threats, emotional abuse, psychological torture and violent beatings. It was organized as an official non-profit in 1981 and opened a temporary emergency shelter, then a crisis hotline –– and then began to offer free counseling services. So many women flooded into the shelter when it first opened that women and their children sometimes had to sleep on the floor. “That just showed those involved in establishing the organization that there was a great need for ‘safe space,’” explains Nancy.
The first shelter houses up to 25 women and their children, while a second houses up to 24, and a third up to 14. All are in secured locations in and around Lexington and Richland counties. Women and their children can stay 60 days. However, Nancy points out that if a woman is working to establish a more permanent situation and there is space in the shelter, often the time period will be extended. Plus, there are services that assist women and their children with transitioning into homes throughout the Midlands where they can continue to receive counseling, parenting services, financial assistance and employment advice. Two of the facilities now have on-site children’s counseling centers. The main office in Cayce also has individual counseling opportunities as well as education programs.
The numbers served by Sistercare are staggering: 500 women and children annually receive care in the emergency shelters, and up to 7,000 are provided with various services, from counseling to education to transitional housing. Sistercare also offers paralegal family court advice, and there is a family practice attorney available.
A typical scenario of an individual assisted by the organization is one that Sistercare featured in a recent newsletter:
When Maria was safely escorted to Sistercare’s emergency shelter by a police officer, she was scared. With her 5-year-old daughter in tow, all she had for the two of them was a small bag hastily packed with a few items. Her handbag contained $27.
After leaving her abuser of eight years to seek shelter with Sistercare, Maria didn’t know what to expect. However, as soon as she arrived, a Sistercare shelter advocate immediately made her feel safe and secure. Maria and her daughter were given a clean room, clothing, toiletries and a hot meal.
The shelter advocate privately met with Maria to complete a danger assessment. Understanding she was at risk, Maria felt comforted knowing she and her daughter could reside in a confidential location and if needed, law enforcement could be at the premises in two minutes.
The shelter advocate explained to Maria that while at the shelter she would work with a resource counselor to develop an individual plan to meet her needs. It would outline a plan for securing a job, finding housing, continuing education, creating a household budget and utilizing available community resources. The shelter advocate also explained about individual and group counseling at the shelter, along with life skills workshops and children’s counseling. As the days went by, Maria began to feel empowered and ready to take control of her life. She worked with the resource counselor to create a résumé and began applying for jobs. She attended group counseling and participated in individual counseling. Her daughter also received counseling from the children’s counselor, and Maria was even able to receive holiday gifts for her daughter from generous donors. While living in an emergency shelter is an adjustment, many battered women like Maria take advantage of the services Sistercare offers to make the first steps in living a life free from interpersonal violence.
Even though Maria’s story may be all too common, the ones involving affluent, successful, well-traveled women who have master’s degrees and Ph.D.s are as well. Nancy says other “abysmally high” violence rates are among teens. “Most recently, we’ve tried to focus on early prevention,” she shares. There is a growing trend of teenagers becoming involved in controlling and abusive relationships. The Teen Group, for ages 13 to 17, meets weekly from 5:30 to 7 p.m.
Sistercare shares helpful information at its office and online. For example, its Signs of Dating Violence list includes red flags to alert friends, family and parents, especially as they witness teens dating. Some concerns include: apologizing for their dating partner’s behavior or makes excuses; unexplained injuries or explanations that don’t make sense; or a casual mention about the dating partner’s violent behavior, but laughs it off as a joke.
To curb abuse, Sistercare works to get more men involved –– on its 18-member board, as speakers to groups and churches and even as volunteers. “Men of all ages need to understand what it is to be a man … to learn how to be in a healthy relationship,” Nancy says.
Plus, Sistercare reaches out to those who have grown up in abusive homes. “The greatest risk factor of who is going to become an abuser or a survivor is what that person experienced in the home,” Nancy explains.
So many times, she maintains, the abused woman stays in an abusive situation because she is afraid that either the man will take away her children or that he will hurt the children if she tries to take them away. “However, sometimes when a survivor gives up all hope that the abuser will change, that’s actually when she is most ready to act and do something to end the cycle of abuse,” says Nancy.
Personally, Nancy hopes that her job and organizations such as Sistercare are one day no longer needed. That would mean that abuse in the home or within dating relationships ceases to be an issue. Consistently witnessing women freeing themselves from interpersonal violence, due in part to the work of Sistercare in their lives, fills Nancy with hope.
“I stay positive and hopeful, because for as much heartbreak as I see and hear, I have an experience like I had tonight when a woman approached me looking bright and cheerful,” she says. “I asked if she was a volunteer. No, she was a resident in one of our shelters, and she told me about the incredible difference it made for her to be safe, to have time to think and plan and to be surrounded by support. She explained that the improvement in her children’s moods and behavior was marked and how that alone was the most valuable part of her family’s shelter experience.”
Because it is a non-profit, Sistercare is always in need of financial donations, volunteers and tangible items — not just during the holiday season, but year-round. For example, ongoing supply needs for shelters include toiletries, diapers, dish and laundry soap, shampoo and conditioner, toothpaste, paper products and cell phones in any condition. Used cars that still have some life to them are also in need as Sistercare allows some survivors to use them as they are trying to establish independence away from an abuser. There are even opportunities to foster or adopt pets that have to be left behind if a woman must seek refuge in a shelter. Finally, funds also provide survivors with the means to relocate out of state if they feel their lives are at risk from abusers.
For more information about Sistercare, call (803) 926-0505 or visit Sistercare.org. The crisis line number is (803) 765-9428.