Domestic violence programs see an increased need

WEIRTON – A local agency is seeing a growing number of people from various walks of live who are affected by domestic violence.

Domestic violence has never been limited to the lower class but Jamie Bernardi, program director for C.H.A.N.G.E. Inc.’s Lighthouse Domestic Violence Shelter and Domestic Violence Awareness Center, said the programs are seeing a growing number of people from the middle and upper classes.

“We’re seeing a rise in individuals of higher economic status, including professionals, who need domestic violence services,” Bernardi said.

She added elder abuse also has become more common, with adult children physically abusing or neglecting their elderly parents, often because they are taking their parents’ money to support their drug habit.

Bernardi blames drug abuse and the area’s high unemployment rate for the rise in domestic violence.

She said since January, the domestic violence shelter and awareness center have served 150 clients, including 23 children and 27 men.

Bernardi said the shelter, which has beds for eight women and children, has been at full capacity for several months. Other safe accommodations are found for additional women, as well as men, who come to the shelter for help.

She said nationally one in four women are victims of domestic violence at some point in their lives and three are killed each day by a current or former partner, with a domestic homicide occurring in West Virginia about every 14 days.

Bernardi said domestic violence can be physical, emotional and financial.

Judy Raveaux, chief executive officer of C.H.A.N.G.E. Inc., said, “Domestic violence comes in many forms, and it is our responsibility to make individuals aware that if they are experiencing any form of abuse, C.H.A.N.G.E. Inc. will be available to provide help and safety.”

She noted through the shelter and awareness center, as well as a 24-hour crisis line, C.H.A.N.G.E. Inc. is working to help victims of domestic violence become independent and to educate the community about signs of domestic violence and ways they can help.

Bernardi said individuals who commit domestic violence often rely on mental abuse, such as name calling or insults, in an effort to demean their partners; often try to limit their contact with family members, friends and others; limit their access to money and may threaten to take their children away or do harm to their pets.

She said when a victim of domestic violence calls the crisis hotline at (304) 797-7233, they are instructed in making safe escape plans for themselves and their children if applicable.

Bernardi said hotline staff also have received calls from family members, neighbors and others who are concerned about victims of domestic violence. She said unfortunately, the Lighthouse staff can’t intervene but they do encourage those callers to refer the victims to the Lighthouse or a law enforcement agency.

She said unfortunately, many domestic violence victims come to the Lighthouse after police have been called. New clients have come to the shelter in the middle of the night, with few of their own possessions, and staff have met them in hospital beds, she said.

A few pregnant women have given birth to their children during their stay at the shelter.

“I became a birthing coach,” Bernardi said.

She said from taking calls through the crisis hotline to temporarily housing victims at the shelter, everything, including the shelter’s location, “All of our help is extremely confidential.”

Victims and their children receive counseling and assistance as their cases head through the court system. When possible and safe, children continue to attend their respective schools to maintain some sense of normalcy.

Bernardi said she takes pride in the cleanliness and home-like interior of the shelter, which has beds, not cots, and separate rooms. But she added the support of various organizations and individuals have helped to make it that way.

Bernardi said the Lighthouse always welcomes donations of money and gift cards for groceries, personal hygiene items, diapers and other baby supplies and gasoline used by women and children at the shelter.

Bernardi said the shelter can’t use donations of clothing because the sizes needed often varies. But she encouraged community members to donate their clothes to other charities through which the shelter’s clients receive vouchers.

Recently the Lighthouse received a boost from Justin Crago, a Weirton boy who collected more than 1,000 cleaning supplies, enough for about 200 New Life baskets distributed to women leaving the shelter for new homes.

Bernardi said the Lighthouse has aided women in obtaining safe, affordable housing with assistance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and earlier this year teamed with the Mary H. Weir Public Library to hold a job skills class.

Such efforts are aimed at helping victims of domestic violence to become independent.

Bernardi said students at the Bella Capella Academy in Pittsburgh have done free makeovers for clients, giving them a new look she said helps to build their confidence.

She said domestic violence relies on victims’ feeling dependent on their abusers, and she and others with the Lighthouse work to change that.

Bernardi added through talks to various groups, she also is working to educate the public they can help by being a sympathetic ear and referring the victim to those who can help further.

In addition to the crisis hotline, staff with C.H.A.N.G.E. Inc.’s domestic violence programs can be reached at (304) 797-7733.

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