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Finding a safe place

Safe Avenues provides an escape, support for abuse victims

With the National Football League undergoing a heavy blitz following the unfortunate news of four of its star players involved in domestic violence cases, people may finally understand that this a more significant problem than previously thought.

“I don’t think very many people realize that one in four women will have suffered domestic abuse at least once in their adult life, said Jen Johnson, director of operations at Safe Avenues in Kandiyohi County. “Every two minutes there is a sexual assault in America.”

One of the main reasons that more isn’t being done is because of the vast number of abuse that goes unreported.

“Only 40 percent of the domestic or sexual abuse cases are reported,” Johnson remarked. “That means that 60 percent of the abuse cases are unreported. That’s why abuse is always referred to as the thing no one talks about.” There may be more cases reported now following the NFL’s recent high-profile cases involving Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens, Greg Hardy of the Carolina Panthers, Ray McDonald of the San Francisco 49ers, Jonathan Dwyer of the Arizona Cardinals and, closer to home, Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings.

“It’s an unfortunate way for people to understand how significant abuse is,” said Johnson, referring to celebrity cases. “But maybe this is what it will take to help change things for the better.”

Many more shelters similar to Safe Avenues need to be available throughout Minnesota and across the nation. Excluding the metro area, there currently are just 13 shelters in outstate Minnesota.

“We have several agencies,” explained Tabatha Larson, a court advocate for Safe Avenues. “But (the state) could use many more shelters.”

One of the biggest misconceptions about domestic violence is that only women are abused.

“Male abuse is highly unreported because there is so much stigma involved in it,” said Johnson. “But we did provide service to 20 men in the past year.”

What is Safe Avenues? Safe Avenues is a victim services provider offering advocacy services to victims of domestic violence.

Safe Avenues has a shelter based in Willmar and has branch offices in Benson, Olivia, Hutchinson and Montevideo. It provides domestic violence intervention for six counties (Kandiyohi, Renville, Meeker, Swift, Chippewa and Lac qui Parle) and sexual violence intervention in four counties (Kandiyohi, Renville, McLeod and Swift).

Safe Avenues and other shelters around the state provide an abuse victim and his/her children a safe place to get away from their abuser and get all the necessary assistance they can in order to gain self-sufficiency.

They provide services for victims of domestic violence, victims of sexual assault, child abuse victims, child witnesses of family violence, and children in need of supervised visitation of parental exchange.

Victims who work with advocates experience less violence over time, report higher quality of life and social support, and have less difficulty obtaining community resources over time.

“For someone that is abused and they don’t know where to go for protection or help, they and/or their children can come here,” said Johnson. “We have rooms for them and their children to stay.”

The shelter provides advocacy and support for victims, personal safety planning, material assistance for victims, referrals and transportation, legal advocacy, support groups, supervised visitation and exchange public awareness and education.

“A lot of victims who decide they need to leave their abuser don’t have anywhere to go or don’t have food or money for themselves or their children,” said Larson. “We help them with those things. We will work with them to find them a place to live and even get them started with basic furnishings like a bed and a lamp and things like that.”

If the victim or their children need to see a doctor or a counselor, transportation is provided. There are also bilingual interpreters available.

“We do whatever we can to provide them with a better quality of life,” Johnson said. “We work to assist them to be self-sufficient.”

There is also a program available for children who have observed domestic violence. What is Sexual Violence?

Sexual violence is defined as the use of words or actions of a sexual nature that are unwanted or harmful to another.

It includes: child sexual abuse, clergy sexual exploitation, date or acquaintance rape, drug-facilitated sexual abuse, incest, pornography, professional sexual exploitation, prostitution, ritual sexual abuse, sexual harassment and stranger rape.

Sexual abuse can happen to anyone: women, men and children of all ages.

When sexual violence occurs, a victim should get to a safe place immediately, call a crisis number, such as a shelter or a sexual assault hotline, seek medical attention as soon as possible, and do not change clothes or shower, as DNA evidence is important if or when the victim chooses to report the crime.

What is Domestic Violence? Domestic violence is a pattern of coercive behavior designed to exert power and control over a person in an intimate relationship through the use of intimidating, threatening, harmful or harassing behavior.

Why do victims stay? When a person is abused and decides to leave their abuser, sometimes they will return even after seeking help or being in a safer environment.

“Statistics show that someone that is abused will leave seven times before they leave for good,” said Johnson. “There are many reasons why someone will stay with their spouse or partner after they are abused.

“The (victim) might really feel love for that person that abuses them. If they truly love that person and they are abused, it’s hard to just shut off that love.

“An abuser might assure the victim that they are sorry and won’t ever do it again. It might be they don’t leave the abuser out of fear or they might not have the finances to go somewhere else.

“Or an abuser might threaten the victim with harm if they try to leave. Or they even threaten to kill themself. Or they threaten to harm the children or a pet.

“Victims might not want to leave because they have children and don’t want to break up their family.

It could also be a status thing, and they don’t want relatives, friends or the public to know they are being abused.”

“Or, as sad as it may sound, the victim simply blames themselves for the abuse they receive. The list goes on and on.”

Why do they abuse? Again, there are numerous reasons why a person abuses someone they are married to or supposedly loves. If they dislike that person so much that they are capable of abusing them, why doesn’t the abuser leave and find a partner they are happier with?

“Abusers often enjoy being in control,” Johnson explained. “And the more they see that they can gain power and control of the victim, the worse it can get.”

Control can start out small, such as humiliation about a person’s physical appearance, their parenting skills, or their choice of friends. It can then escalate into economical abuse, like preventing a person from getting a job so the abuser can control the purse strings. And from there, it might develop into even more severe behavior, with the abuser threatening harm to the victim, their children or even the abuser.

“Domestic violence often starts out as concern by the abuser,” said Johnson. “Once an abuser has established the power and control, it moves from concern to isolation. And they will do anything to maintain that control.”

Domestic Abuse Awareness Month October is Domestic Abuse Awareness Month and Safe Avenues will be hosting a community breakfast on Oct. 2, from 7:30-9 a.m.

There will also be community awareness activities throughout the month of October.

For more information or to donate to Safe Avenues, phone 320-235-0962 or toll free at 1-800-792-4210 or write Safe Avenues, P.O. Box 568, Willmar, MN 56201. Donations can also be made on their website by visiting

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