Give me shelter


Issue: "Bush's tax-cut plan," March 10, 2001

Seek, and safe havens can be found. That's how it is with Open Arms, a refuge for battered women. Hidden behind a high wooden fence in a quiet Fort Worth suburb, the seven-acre Christian facility aids women seeking a permanent exit from domestic abuse.

On an evening three weeks before Christmas, Dorm C on the Open Arms campus bustled as single moms returned from work to crowd around a tiny four-burner stove. In this 9,000-square-foot dormitory, 17 mothers and 42 children share a kitchen, communal bathrooms, and an adjoining "day room," complete with two flower-print couches and toys strewn about the floor. A chore chart tacked on the kitchen wall designates cleaning responsibilities for each family.

"It doesn't matter which family makes most of the mess. If it's your chore you have to do it," said 44-year-old Debbie, who entered the shelter this fall after her husband assaulted her and her 15-year-old daughter. (Since battered women face the highest risk of repeat abuse after severing a relationship with their abusers, WORLD granted Debbie's request not to use her full name.) With snappy brown eyes and freckles sprinkled across her cheeks, it's hard to imagine this feisty redhead running from anyone. But after 10 years of physical abuse at the hands of a violent alcoholic, Debbie fled to the safety of Open Arms.

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The shelter is both campus and fortress. Playgrounds and two cheerful blue dormitories dot the grounds, but security is tight: The facility is accessible only through a code-activated gate. Residents must agree to a 10 p.m. curfew and a no-dating policy. Open Arms' goal, says director Pam Easen, is that women fleeing abusive relationships achieve emotional and financial independence. The method: a two-year, Christ-centered counseling and life skills training program.

"Most of our women have young children. They are controlled [by their abusers] financially," Ms. Easen said. "I have many women that didn't have keys to a car, didn't have a driver's license, and had no cash to leave [home]."

Open Arms helps these otherwise helpless women. Founded by members of Richland Hills Church of Christ, the shelter receives private funding from churches and local businesses, as well as rent assistance from county grants. Women who enter the program receive free shelter on certain conditions. They must hold a job, attend school, or enroll in a job-training program. They must also attend Bible-based counseling sessions.

For Debbie, that counseling helped her forgive her husband. "He did some awful things to me that still hurt when I talk about it," she said, shying away from describing specific abuse. "You don't know how many times I would think about pushing him off the balcony and nobody would ever know. I mean I was so angry and I had to deal with that anger. I had to ask God to forgive my anger and give me forgiveness for [my husband]."

Leaving him required both humility and courage, Debbie said. Humility to admit publicly she didn't have a perfect family and courage to confront her husband with his behavior, then courage to leave the predictable for the unknown.

Barbie dolls, stuffed animals, and homecoming mums decorate the small room Debbie shares at Open Arms with her two daughters. Her 15-year-old has tried to create personal space by wedging a small desk littered with pink diaries behind a closet. The 10-year-old is content to share the bedroom dresser where stuffed animals sit next to mom's curling irons and hairspray.

If Debbie can meet a budget consistently and demonstrate emotional independence within three to six months, the shelter will provide her family with transitional housing in one of 14 off-campus apartments and homes it maintains for that purpose. While living in transitional housing, she must continue in counseling.

The shelter's stringent requirements in this area have helped curb recidivismÑrepeating past errorsÑamong women who complete the program, said Pam Easen. Of 800 women served during the past 10 years, 85 percent have remained economically independent and free of abusive relationships.

Open Arms' Christian approach not only helps Debbie look to the future, but also deal with her past. She had grown up in an abusive family (her mother was the violent parent, she said), then fell into a sad pattern. Studies show that children who witness or suffer abuse feel worthless, and often grow up to be adult victims or abusers themselves.

"Maybe if I had felt better about myself, I wouldn't have made these choices," she said, referring to her decision to stay with a man who regularly beat her. "The Bible has helped me in that I have learned that I have to forgive.... I'm learning who I am in Christ, and who I am in Christ gives me my strength."


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