Pregnant Abused Teen Turned Away By Shelter, Is A Definition To Blame?
SIOUX CITY, IA —
We often hear stories about people 'falling through the cracks,' not being able to get the help or services they need because of some type of a snafu.
Siouxland News has the story of a pregnant, teenage abuse victim who says she was denied help by an organization created to come to the aid of domestic abuse victims.
And you might be surprised to find out why.
Siouxland News Reporter Beairshelle Edmé has been investigating the incident and reports.
The young woman we spoke with is still reeling over what happened to her.
In our video, we've modified her picture and voice to protect her identify. And we'll refer to her as "Haley," throughout this article and piece.
"Haley" says she and her unborn child were abused by a cousin and when she looked for help, she was turned away.
And it appears the reason all hinges on how you define domestic abuse.
6 months pregnant and nowhere to turn to "Haley" asked her sister for a place to stay until she got on her feet.
"So,I paid her rent to stay there for a month and a half and about a week later they were all drinking and having a party and..." said "Haley".
That's when things got bad.
"Haley" says she got into an argument with her cousin who lived in the home.
The fight escalated and got physical.
"Um, she punched me in the stomach. I ended up in the hospital the next night after church and they put me on bed rest," said the teenager.
Like many victims of domestic abuse, 'Haley' didn't want to report a loved one to the police, so she returned back to the home with the abuser.
Soon after another fight started, this time, with a different family member who later kicked her out of the home.
In the middle of the night at 10 p.m. "Haley" had no place to go.
She started making calls and was directed to CSADV, the Council on Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence-- what happened, next shocked her.
"And she says that ,um, 'I'm sorry but I can't help you cause this isn't considered a domestic case.' And I said 'so family disputes aren't considered domestic?' And she said no. I said 'so if I were to get hurt by a family member, no matter what gender or anything, it wouldn't be considered domestic' and she said no," explained "Haley".
We found that hard to believe but when we called CSADV, they confirmed that's their policy.
"So, it's-it wasn't domestic violence, a woman 6 months pregnant being hit in the stomach by her cousin" asked Beairshelle?
"That was a family- as you have talked about it, I don't know the specifics of the situation, but that was a family matter," answered Margaret Sanders, executive director of the Coalition Against Sexual Assault & Domestic Violence (CSADV).
CSADV's website says "No one in a dangerous, unsafe situation is turned away." But Haley was turned away. In that case, who does CSADV protect?
"We meet the needs of individuals who are in an unsafe situation because of domestic violence and sexual assault," said Sanders.
"But that will only be in a romantic, intimate relationship" asked Beairshelle?
After a pause, Sanders replied, "As we define domestic violence."
That's not how the state of Iowa defines domestic violence, which the Center openly acknowledged.
Iowa code defines domestic abuse assault as "a harmful touching or doing something that puts another in immediate physical fear" that includes relationships of "family or household members living together at the time of the assault."
Why does CSADV use a different definition?
One possible reason is limited funds.
"There are not resources sufficient in the agency- in the community to respond to the many, many needs of our community. There are not the resources to respond," said Sanders.
Sioux City's shelter isn't the only one with a narrow definition because of funding.
For 30 years, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence has used a similar guideline.
And while, the legal definition of the abuse may have broadened since then, funds have not.
"Well, I think that something that programs in Iowa would need to decide whether they have the resources to expand to include other kinds of victims because, you know like I said, we have limited bed space, we have limited funds to support their services and so expanding into a broader definition and expanding the number of victims who could in fact call in our services we may not be able to meet that needs if we don't have the resources to financially back it up," said Executive Director Rita Smith of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Sioux City taxpayers gave an additional $32,000 dollars in 2012 to offset funding cuts.
On average it costs $400,000 dollars to run Iowa shelters, but in the 2013 fiscal year federal funds were cut by18 percent and state funds by 7 percent.
Siouxland News turned to Mayor Bob Scott, who says funding is tight, but that someone should have been there to help "Haley".
" and I don't know what their limitations are but I'm sure that probably is one of them and unfortunately in this particular young lady's case... the system probably failed a little bit," said the mayor.
National leaders agree something went wrong in "Haley's" case, but suggest "Haley" might share in the blame.
"...makes me curious about whether or not she was being clear that she was in danger and needed help or if she was trying to gather information about what her options were. So, um, so I think that it- it's important that someone is in fact in danger and needs help that they're very, very clear about communicating that with the crisis line worker," said NCADV's executive director.
"'When you think of a domestic abuse shelter, what do you think they're there in place to do," our reporter asked?
"Help people in need that are being abused, abandoned or hurt," said "Haley."
"And did you feel like they did that for you," asked Beairshelle?
"No I didn't," said the mom-to-be.
For now, "Haley" hopes her story can bring change to the system.
"I want to know that not only women but men, but especially women like me, 6 months pregnant, have no where to go- are capable of having a place to go because it's sad to know that the domestic violence shelter wouldn't help me. I mean what if I couldn't find a place to stay, I could have froze to death on the street, you know, you never know. Like-and that's not only taking away my life, that's taking away my son's," said "Haley."
Sanders says she sympathizes with "Haley's" experience.
But says the shelter is also struggling to meet the needs of women and families who fit their guidelines.
"Haley" did eventually find shelter thanks to a Facebook page created by some concerned people.
If you have a subject or incident you think needs to be investigated, our reporter Beairshelle Edmé wants to hear about it.BEdme@siouxlandnews.com