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Social services programs provide a lifeline for domestic violence survivors

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Sylvia Woodward, Warren Marshall and Kim Kline are members of a domestic violence support group offered by the Fauquier County Domestic Violence Advocacy and Sexual Assault program.

After living with her partner for 45 years and enduring decades of verbal and emotional abuse, Elizabeth Ramey said she found herself homeless at age 71. Now 75, she lives alone and works in the nutrition services department at a local public school, so she has enough money to take care of her dog Molly. “Nobody comes between me and my dog,” she said.

Ramey and three other members of a Department of Social Services support group for victims of domestic violence recently shared their stories with the Fauquier Times, supported by Daniela Gamon Vargas, a domestic violence advocate.

Kim Kline, who attends the support group with Ramey, said that when her friend first attended the group four years ago, “Liz kept her head down and would just cry and cry. Now, you wouldn’t recognize her. She’s wearing makeup; she fixed her hair.”

About 25 people are part of the support group. Some weeks the group hosts three to seven participants, sometimes 15. Usually, a meal is provided.

Angel Walters, outreach coordinator for the Fauquier County Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Advocacy program, said that it’s amazing to see the difference in people from the time they “arrive at the group and when they feel OK to open up.”

Mittie Wallace, adult services program manager, said, “The support groups are amazing. In one group we have five or six people in their 80s. They can speak freely because there is trust and mutual respect. Their brains have been traumatized. The group’s purpose is beyond building rapport. It’s building relationships.”

Kline said the friendship and inspiration she gets from Ramey and others in the group is invaluable. She said, “A lot of people who come are reluctant to talk at first. We encourage each other to live.”

The group meets once a week and follows a curriculum designed by the social services department’s domestic violence advocates. Occasionally, the group takes a two-week break so that its leaders can review the curriculum and prepare for upcoming sessions. “I hate the breaks,” said Kline, but some of the members get together outside of meetings to share a meal or a laugh. “We’re family,” said Kline.

Warren Marshall said that the support group helped him get his self-respect back, though not all at once. Marshall, 63, said he was sexually abused by his sister when he was 11, and suffered physical, emotional and verbal abuse from his mother and several wives over the years. He was in the armed services from 1976 to 1983, served in Vietnam and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, bi-polar disorder, depression, severe anxiety, bone deterioration and spinal stenosis.

He began attending the support group at the recommendation of someone at Hero’s Bridge, a group that supports elderly veterans. Marshall said, “I am more ambitious now. I applied for a part time job at Food Lion.” Marshall said he can’t do the work he was trained to do because it is too stressful, but this is the first time he has had the confidence to enter the work force at all in many years. Group sessions as well as one-on-one therapy through Rappahannock-Rapidan Community Services have helped, he said.

Marshall is even considering dating again. “I’m on a dating site now. I realize I can’t blame all women because I’ve had some bad apples. I’m being very cautious. In the group we learn to trust ourselves again, to trust our instincts. The group has taught us to do for ourselves.”

Kline added, “it gave us tools to cope.”

There are more women than men in the group meetings. Marshall said that may be at least partially because, “a man’s not willing to admit domestic abuse.”

Sylvia Woodward has been attending the support group for about a year. She said the group has given her “a better outlook on myself. There is trust and respect.” She said the group is an exception to her reluctance to get close to anyone because, “every time I do, I’m going to get hurt again. I have always liked to take care of people. That’s when I’d get hurt. I’d care for them, but instead of returning that caring, they were abusive.”

At 63, Woodward is without permanent housing, and she lives alone in a hotel room. It’s lonely and boring, she said. “If I was in town, I could walk to meetings, but I’m out in Opal. The Circuit Rider bus doesn’t go there.” A DSS advocate picks her up and brings her to meetings. “They call and check on us,” she said. “They are always right there.”

Because of the isolation, she said, “I really look forward to Wednesdays [support group meetings]. … When we had to go virtual, we didn’t have [in-person] interactions for 16 weeks.

“The support group has helped me a lot. I didn’t have nobody else to talk to. … I wouldn’t have talked to a group about the abuse before. Now, I rattle off about it,” she said.

Woodward said she likes to cook -- “I grew up in a big family. At 3, I was helping to cook family dinners” -- but now she manages with a toaster oven, a crockpot and a skillet. A DSS advocate will take her to the grocery store sometimes, she said.

Lack of housing a barrier to independence

Woodward said she stayed in her last abusive situation as long as she did because “I had nowhere to go.” She had been living with her grandson, his mother and her husband; they were emotionally and verbally abusive, she said. “I needed to hide from them. It was like walking on eggshells all the time.”

All of the support group members agreed that a lack of affordable housing is a huge problem. Ramey said that about seven months before she left her partner, he told her, “You have to go. I don’t want to be seen with you.”

But she, too, had nowhere to go. “We had built a home together, but everything was in his name. He was very controlling. I didn’t have anything.”

Ramey said that when she finally left, she lived with her sister and brother-in-law for a while. “He wouldn’t let people in the house to help me move out, but I wanted to get out no matter what. … I don’t know what I would have done without my sister and brother-in-law.”

Woodward said, “As a homeless person, my biggest thing with Fauquier County is they don’t have enough short-term places for people to stay.” There are few, if any, affordable options, Woodward said. “And now that I’m retired, I really can’t afford anything. The past two weeks I’ve been trying to find a place to live, but everything requires an application fee” and by the time she applies, the place has already been taken, along with the application fee.

Kline, too, was without housing after leaving her husband. “I lived in my van for 6 months” before finding a place to live on her own. “It was the first time in my life I felt safe.”

A lifetime of abuse

Kline has been diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety and depression, as well as dissociative identity disorder caused by trauma. She said, “Being DID is difficult. It is hard work to try and keep other parts of me from reacting to situations.”

She is 56 now; she was diagnosed at 26. She takes 14 different medications.

Kline described a life full of violence and sexual abuse. The abuse started in infancy, she said, and continued until 2019.

But now Kline said, “Social services are my lifeline, my security. When I was in crisis, they were there for me. Without them, I don’t know where I’d be. They give us tools to fight through.”

Ramey agreed tearfully, “It took a village of people to get me where I am today.”

Reach Robin Earl at rearl@fauquier.com
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