Safe Space is Franklin County’s Domestic Violence and Sexual Assaults Services Program, located in Louisburg, NC. The nonprofit provides direct intervention services for victims who have experienced domestic violence or sexual assault in our community. The program has a 24 hour crisis hotline, a 13 bed shelter for people fleeing domestic violence (male, female or children), screening for children who have experience domestic violence, emotional abuse, substance abuse, and hosts a support group twice a month, for adults and children. Other services includes prevention work in the community, where the volunteers go into middle and high schools to educate youth on topics, such as, how to be in healthy relationships, boundaries and how to flirt without hurting.
The program began in 1997 with current county manager, Angela Harris. At the time, she was working with social services, as the director, and saw a lot of victims of domestic violence come through the system. Angela wrote the grant to Governor’s Crime Commission for Franklin County to provide domestic violence services. As a result of her efforts and help from volunteers, Safe Space was established as a nonprofit.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Monica McInnis (Execute Director), Maria Renteral (Latino DV Project Coordinator), Sarah Harden (Child Advocate), and Tiffany Dunston and Traci Dunston (Rape Prevention Educators) to discuss the program and how it helps the community. (The ladies, except for Tiffany Dunston, are pictured above, in purple from left to right).
What kind of trauma or emotional issues do you see from the kids, who come to you for services?
Sarah: I see it all. The more prevalent abuse, I see, is emotional, because kids see their parents fighting and it’s very traumatic. I see a lot of physical abuse and several cases of children being sexually abused. When I do my screening, I screen for everything that’s ever happened in their life, and in the last six months. I look at how their moods and behavior have changed and how things are going in school. That’s how they screen in, according to how they are acting. Then, I decide the type of treatment is best for them. If they don’t have insurance or a way to get to therapy, I have resources I can call and have therapy come to them.
Do most of your cases come through the courts or is it voluntary?
Sarah: I work with DSS and I have a lot of mothers who come in; it’s voluntary for me to screen their children. It’s about 50/50, between DSS and voluntary services.
Monica: If a parent comes in for domestic abuse services, we’ll offer the services to the child. A lot of the time, children are considered the silent victims. Parents don’t realize children are affected by the abuse, they see and hear.
Sarah: When we start going through the moods and behaviors, the parents realize they have seen the changes and how the abuse is affecting them.
Are the kids more open to talk without their parents there?
Sarah: I have a short window of time to get them to open up. I haven’t had any child refuse to answer any of my questions. I try to engage with them, while the parent is speaking with their advocate, to gain their trust. We’ll watch Netflix or play games. That’s my time to get to know them. That’s how I get them to open up.
How receptive is the program in the schools?
Traci: It’s very receptive. In the beginning, there was a little hesitation from students, because it’s offered during PE and health classes. They would much rather be playing than talking, but once they engage in the program, they find themselves coming to the end of the program and they are disappointed because it’s over already. They hate to see the program end. The students give us feedback and responses. They share a lot with us. I believe we’re really making a difference. Also, we have fun.
What does rape prevention education consist of?
Traci: The rape prevention education program consists of teaching teenagers how to handle rejection, how to have a healthy relationship and engage with their peers – in intimate and classroom settings. According to the administrators, it has really been effective and has changed the school’s climate. They’re seeing a decrease in bad behavior because the program consists of teaching students about boundaries, respecting people’s personal spaces, the difference between hurting and flirting, and being able to effectively communicate if they are interested in someone.
Tiffany: I find it interesting how open kids are with how they feel. When we first go in, the kids sort of treat us how they treat their teachers, and sometimes it’s rude – but Traci don’t play. From the beginning, she sets boundaries about what’s acceptable and it sets the tone for the next three weeks we’re there. Eventually, it flows to whatever the kids are doing in their daily lives and even with their teachers. Teachers tell us, they see the difference in the kids. We teach the kids, in order to have healthy relationships, it starts with respect and the respect starts with them and how they treat themselves. The kids are very open with sharing the relationships and sexual activities, and we need to know this to help them.
Traci: We see kids who are in the sixth grade who think they are in relationships. But, according to the state of North Carolina, you can’t give consent unless you are sixteen. So, those who think they’re giving consent are really not. They understand this and the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships. Also, we give one on one help to kids who need it.
I remember when my daughter first started daycare; she was one. I would go to pick her up, and the teacher would say, she was playing with her boyfriend. My daughter was one years old; she didn’t have a boyfriend. This continued for a couple of visits, until I had to forcefully tell them to stop using that term. A one year old has no concept, of a boyfriend or relationship, and should not be put in a situation where she needs attention from another child. It’s not cute or appropriate for an adult to put kids in adult situations.
Traci: Yes, you will see this happening a lot, even within our own families. People try to play it as normal but it’s not normal.
The essence of the program is to change the societal norms we have adopted. Yelling, screaming and cussing could go on in someone else’s house and when youth get into relationships, they think it’s normal, but it’s not. That’s abnormal. We have a responsibility, to everyone, to create some form of change, to educate, and to stop harming people. Everyone needs to be taught to unwind and how to proceed in life to have happy, healthy relationships. That’s what we all want. At the end of the day, everybody wants love and acceptance, and if I can help you do away with some of your bad behaviors, then that’s what I was going for. I was born for prevention work. You want to talk, let’s talk. I’m here to listen and help.
How receptive is the Latino and Spanish speaking community to the program?
Monica: We have two advocates, Maria is one of them. She provides a support group, where they can come be who they are and not feel like they have to assimilate with a certain group or mindset. They can be in session with themselves, speaking their language, and with someone who is not just bilingual, but a Latina. As an organization, we try to provide an atmosphere where no matter race, culture, male or female, there is someone who understands your journey and the barriers you face.
Maria: I can see it has increased in the last couple of years. When I first came, there wasn’t anyone – no one came. As you go out in the community, you didn’t see them participate in community activities. We still don’t see them much, but after I did an event at the Catholic Church, they got to know we are here. We speak your language and understand your culture. Now, they start to come into the office, seek services, or try to figure out what to do in life next.
Monica: The Latino community is the fastest growing community in Franklin County. Over the past ten years, it’s grown by 100%. I think one of the hardest parts of Maria’s job is the outreach component, going where they are and knowing where their population is, so we can reach them and provide the services they need.
If the statics for domestic violence is 1 in 5 for women and 1 in 7 men, there are a lot of people in this community that are being harmed. We try to equip ourselves with tools, education, knowledge and training, to help learn ways to reach the underserved population. For our agency, it’s the Latino and African American community.
What more would you like to see from the community, to help you do your job, or to help reach more people?
Monica: I would like to see our community be open to learning. When I think about Safe Space, I think of us being a guiding light, where when you know better, you do better. Some people don’t know what direction to go in and I would like to see community leaders and people who have authority and power in this community, to be open to learning. When you come from place of – this is how it is, this is just how we do it, – you become stagnant. Your community can’t grow and what we’re seeing right now with the increase in violence and substance abuse is a community being impacted by lack of knowledge and, almost like, it’s the result of trauma. We’ve had this wound opened of violence: in 10 years we’ve had 15 homicides from domestic violence. That alone should tell you something.
For this place to be so small, we could just come together, bring the fragmented services providers together and say we are here. The people in charge need to be open a different way and pour the funding into the programs that work. We can’t keep band aiding these issues. Sheriff Winstead can arrest a million people, but he doesn’t have room. The justice system isn’t trying to but anyone on trial, but that’s not the answer. We need to look at the root. Knowledge is power, but it’s not anything if it’s not used to make a difference in your community.
What do you think is the top reason the community and community leaders don’t want to come together?
Monica: I think they do. I think they don’t know how. It’s like, here is this sore, we know how to put a band aid and Neosporin on it, but how do we know that, because we learned it as kids. You have a wound or sore, you treat it, but for issues such as domestic abuse and mental health, people in charge don’t know what to do, so they do what they think is right. That’s why gaining new knowledge is so important. We have to put action behind our priorities. We’ve been trained as a society, to just throw people in jail. We haven’t been trained, or taught, to look at the root cause, or get to the root of the problem. Also, we don’t put the money into prevention. Even when we talk about health, the cheapest food is the worst food for you, so why wouldn’t the good food be cheapest food so everyone can have access, but we want people to eat healthy so they won’t get sick. We have to do it different.
Traci: There’s such an acceptance of the social norms. The leaders are just still marching to what’s normal, instead of looking outside the box at prevention effort, and seeing how they make a difference.
When you think of Safe Space and the work you do in the community, what’s the feeling you get? What’s the inside feels you get to make you want to keep doing this?
Sarah: People come and tell us that we saved their life, “If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be here. If you haven’t helped me I would have stayed, he would have killed me and my kids would have been killed”. So, I love running into my clients and hearing how much better they’re doing and how we empowered them.
Maria: We see them empowered, moving on taking care of their children, having their own home, and they come over here, and say, my life is completely different. They aren’t the same person; they look and act completely differently. You have helped and empowered them. You see them, and you’re taken aback by how far they have come and you see them empowering others. There’s no greater feeling than that.
Tiffany: I can see they are learning, when they get lightbulbs and interact with us. When we first go into the school, they looked at us like, let’s just get this over with. Then, we kind of like, dazzle the kids, so when we come back the next time, everybody’s trying to get a seat in the front. We don’t have to ask them to fill in the seats. They are attentive and it makes me feel good, to know, they are enjoying what we are teaching. It makes me feel good, to know, they won’t grow up to be people who hurt people.
Traci: It’s totally empowering. The satisfaction you get helping someone to help themselves.
Talking with these ladies, and listening to them discuss their passion, was very educational and rewarding. I only learned about Safe Space a couple of years ago. Since then, I’ve donated multiple items to their thrift store and helped spread the word about their services. These volunteers are doing amazing things in our community and for our youth. If you’re looking for a worthy, local cause to support, this is definitely one of them.
Stay tuned, for part 2, when we go deeper into media, religion, and societal influences. Until then, check them out on Facebook @ www.facebook.com/www.ncsafespace.org/ or visit their website @ www.ncsafespace.org.