In a private waiting room at Virginia Beach Juvenile Domestic Relations Court, I sit on a bench beside a young woman who is nervously wringing her hands around the strap of her purse. At her feet, a boy of three or four plays with a plastic kitchen set. It’s clear that this woman is his mother. She looks up at me. I smile and ask if she is doing okay.
She sighs and says, “I’m going to ask for relocation help this time. I’m over it. I can’t do it.” She flips open a folder and hands me photographs of her face. Her left eye is bloody and swollen. I glance back at her and see that it is still swollen but healing. Each photograph documents the effects of a serious beating. “I still can’t see clear enough to read out of this eye,” she says and gently touches her face.
“I’m sorry,” I say and hand the photos back to her. “I’m glad you are okay. It’s good that you have these.” She nods. She is familiar with this process.
As Samaritan House’s education and outreach coordinator, I am often in the community working to raise awareness of domestic violence, which is a pattern of behaviors that one partner uses in a relationship to maintain power and control over the other. Each year, one in four women and one in seven men will be victims of serious physical assault, and 15 million children will witness the violence in their homes. One in three homicides is the result of domestic violence. In addition to sharing these tragic statistics, I provide free training to service agencies, churches, businesses, community groups, military, schools, and others who are responding to the epidemic of domestic violence.
Every time I provide one of these trainings, someone shares a story of her experience as a victim or the experience of a friend, family member, co-worker, or neighbor. Domestic violence happens every day in every community. Shelter hotlines in Virginia answered more than 67,000 calls for help last year, and Virginia judges and magistrates issued more than 51,000 protective orders.
This year marks thirty years of Samaritan House’s work in Hampton Roads. For those who need help, we are here.
Friday is protective order day at the courthouse in Virginia Beach. Today, I am playing the role of Samaritan House victim advocate alongside two of my coworkers whose job it is every day to help people navigate the complex world of domestic violence, particularly in the legal system. They are sitting in this waiting room, too, talking with women about what will happen when they go into the courtroom to petition for a protective order. I look around at the seven women waiting for their cases to be called. All of them look tired and scared, and I get the sense that most of them have never been to court before. I watch my coworkers skillfully provide support, and I can feel the victims’ relief when they say, “I’ll be in the courtroom with you.”
Some of these women are staying at Samaritan House, which provides temporary emergency housing to victims of domestic violence and families experiencing homelessness. Everyone at Samaritan House—including children—is connected with an advocate who acts as a guide, helping to make the next steps possible for families and individuals leaving a dangerous situation.
Having done this outreach for thirty years, Samaritan House staff and volunteers have helped countless women, men, and children reclaim their lives, their stability, their independence, their identity, and above all their sense of worth. It is affirming to watch children open up and feel safe—sometimes for the first time in their lives. The thrill is contagious when they move into their own homes.
One of Samaritan House’s current board members, Akete Joyner, is a former client who credits Samaritan House with changing her life. She was able to secure a job with a major financial company, move into an affordable apartment, and provide a safe home for her daughter, Najah. Samaritan House paid her first month’s rent and furnished her apartment, down to linens for the beds.
It is amazing what strength and resilience people discover when they are surrounded by support.
A woman’s case is called, and she stands up taller than I expected. My coworker stands up with her, gives her a nod of confidence, and smiles. “You’re almost there,” she says and pats her back as they walk toward the courtroom. There, I think, is a much better place than here. I can’t imagine what it would be like if she had to go there alone.
Samaritan House urges anyone who needs help to call the 24-hour Crisis Hotline at 757-430-2120. For more information on Samaritan House’s services, please visit: SamaritanHouseVA.org.
Larissa Sutherland is the Samaritan House Education & Outreach Coordinator.