Thursday, March 1, 2012

Fort Wayne Women & the Fight Against Domestic Violence

By Marilyn Moran-Townsend

History Center Board Member and Chair of the YWCA’s Circle of Women

Let’s start with a Pop Quiz. What does a horse have to do with the story of our region’s domestic violence programs?

According to the research of our foremothers, in the early 1900’s, the Humane Officer was in charge of both horse and wife beatings. Routinely, the horse beatings were given larger fines.

Let’s turn back the clock.

The year was 1975. Domestic Violence wasn’t in our lexicon because people generally believed it wasn’t in our homes. To quote one local leader, why provide an opportunity to flee when a woman “goes zooey”? The Board of Directors of the YWCA wasn’t particularly looking to create a Women’s Shelter related to domestic violence; they were just trying to decide what to do with the resident space they had at the facility.

Board President Peggy Hobbs set up a committee to explore the unmet needs of women needing shelter; and Marion Coufoudakis was chair of that committee. The committee surveyed over 120 churches and social service organizations. That survey indicated a strong need for a shelter from domestic violence, but community funders at first didn’t believe the need was real. So IPFW Professor Mike Downs gave the YWCA an intern, Myrtle Slater, to document the legal cases of domestic abuse.

By then, the matter had moved from the Humane Officer to traffic court! Myrtle extrapolated from the data at least 6,000 cases of domestic violence in one year…and those were only the known cases.

As our foremothers were building the case for a shelter in Fort Wayne, one of their stops was the new shelter in Elgin, IL. There they heard the story of how a local politician embarrassed himself at a public meeting when we responded to their request for funding by saying, “I’d sooner fund a cathouse!” A picture of him on the front page of the local paper and the resulting outrage led to the shelter’s funding.

The Fort Wayne women were counseled, “You can always count on some local politician to say the wrong thing at the right time.” Sure enough, a local politician said the wrong thing at the right time in Fort Wayne and that got Journal Gazette Editorial Page Editor Larry Hayes involved.

Here’s the story: A Journal Gazette reporter was at a local township meeting when the YWCA was seeking funding. When Marion Coufoudakis got to the point in her presentation that the shelter would be located at an “undisclosed location,” the Trustee interrupted the presentation, reportedly saying that if we “interfered” with his marriage and took in his wife, that he would come after her and “tear the house down.” The reporter was so incensed….and that got Larry Hays incensed too. A major editorial followed, becoming the turning point for community sentiment.

In late 1977, United Way approved a hundred-eighty-thousand-dollar grant for a pilot project. The Woodhaven building, a former home for unwed mothers, was identified. The first Women’s Shelter in Fort Wayne, and one of the first in the nation, opened in the middle of the GREAT Blizzard of 1978…somehow very appropriate for the whirlwind of awareness the YWCA had created in what was the largest freestanding shelter in Indiana and one of the largest in the nation.

Carol DeWeese was the first Shelter Director. Jan Bates was the second. She and other Fort Wayne pioneers helped start the Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence in 1980. Bates was one of the first Chairs. The Coalition got the first Domestic Violence legislation passed, adding $10 to the cost of a marriage license to help fund domestic violence services.

In 1986, the YWCA built its current women’s shelter, again becoming the largest freestanding shelter in Indiana and the only one designed specifically for this purpose. Bea Williams-Tevis was the Women’s Shelter Director at the time. Bea’s many contributions included the development of the domestic violence outreach services, the self-sufficiency program, the unlearning racism program and the shelter’s first domestic violence children’s program.

Fort Wayne’s reputation as a pioneer in this field also includes the story of Deputy Police Chief Dottie Davis, who helped start a lethality assessment and is training thousands of police officers across North America to use the assessment to prevent domestic homicides.

In retrospect, Marion Coufoudakis identified two critical success factors for the Women’s Shelter: It began under the umbrella of the YWCA, which had a significant track record in both management and fiscal responsibility; and the women who started it all were highly respected in the community.

The funding for the YWCA Women’s Shelter began with women in the late 70’s who had little earning power of their own. Then, in 1997, YWCA Executive Director Becky Hill and volunteer Chair Sandi Kemmish teamed up to create the first Circle of Women. The goal was to identify 20 table captains who would each invite 9 other women to attend a luncheon and contribute $100 apiece to help fund the shelter. Now there are nearly 600 in attendance at the annual event! And as for the table captains, there are many, including Chris Rupp and Irene Walters, who have been table captains every year for 15 years! As a result, YWCA CEO Debby Beckman says the Domestic Violence Services are now able to serve our entire region.

YWCA Board Chair Jan Wilhelm says the 35-year story of the Shelter is an important legacy we must continue to preserve and grow. As this year’s Chair of the Circle of Women, I would add, “I can think of no better proof of the VALUE of the YWCA Domestic Violence programs than the time, talent and treasure invested by so many for so long. It is mission-critical that the Circle of Women remains unbroken.”

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