Avalon works to break the cycle of abuse

Contact Reporterhbridges@vagazette.com

That night, something felt different.

She had been in the relationship for four years, and the abuse started after about a year. It started slowly, she said, with verbal jabs. He apologized, she forgave. They broke up, they got back together. She knew she had to leave for good, but she didn't know when.

Until that night.

"He just kept coming at me," she said. "I (had) never been so scared ... an inner feeling of your life is in jeopardy. This is not good. He's going to hurt me. He's going to hurt my kid."

She fled the apartment with her young child. He followed, relentless, until she found a neighbor in a nearby car and put her child in the car for protection.

She stayed at her mom's house for three days, calling various shelters. None had openings. She called Avalon Center on the suggestion of a friend, and there was space.

"They got me settled, and got me into the shelter. And I felt at peace," Jane Smith said.

Jane Smith is not her real name, but she agreed to share her story on the condition of anonymity. Avalon's services are highly confidential, and the agency never discloses client information, in accordance with state law.

What started in 1978, among a group of local women who formed a task force on the issue of violence against women, has become the regional state-funded and state-accredited agency for domestic violence and sexual assault.

Today, Avalon Center serves approximately 600 men, women and children each year in Greater Williamsburg, Poquoson, New Kent, West Point and Charles City.

That number continues to increase.

In the six months beginning with July 2015, Avalon saw more clients than it had in the previous year, said development director Priscilla Caldwell.

"We don't think that's necessarily because the rate is increasing, but the awareness is increasing," executive director Teresa Christin said. "We've had a lot of national attention on domestic violence and sexual assault, and I believe it has had the affect of increasing awareness — that there are advocates out there, there's places where you can go and somewhere to turn when you're in this situation."

Smith and her child stayed in Avalon's emergency shelter for a month, moving to the agency's transitional housing for a few more months. She's now moved out, and has worked at her current job for 10 months.

Her life is changed.

Today, Smith can say to others going through the same things she did, "It might take you some time, but just remember, there's always somebody you can talk to, and you can always get out."

"I always say there's a way out, and there are resources out there," she said. "Make them feel they're not alone, and that they don't have to stay in their situation."

Empowerment

Avalon, then the Williamsburg Task Force on Battered Women, launched its first service in 1980: a helpline answered by volunteers in a local church basement.

The helpline remains the cornerstone of the organization, answered 24 hours a day, 365 days a year — Christin said Avalon answers nearly 2,000 helpline calls yearly.

But 36 years later, Avalon's services encompass much more, and they remain free. The organization is accredited as both a domestic violence shelter and sexual assault center by the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance.

A five-acre campus includes a 20-bed emergency shelter and six transitional apartments that can house up to 30 survivors of domestic and sexual assault. One apartment houses survivors of human trafficking.

While there, clients need not worry about safety, shelter, clothing and food. An on-site counseling center, recently renovated by community donors, provides counseling for both adults and children, as well as life-skills education on everything from nutrition to parenting to careers.

"Everything geared towards helping them be self-sufficient," Christin said. "Empowering them to make their own choices in life."

Avalon works with clients to find jobs and housing, providing transportation to and from the campus. Upon leaving campus, counseling and case management continue as along as clients need. A separate outreach center serves those who may not need housing, with individual or group counseling and legal advocacy. The agency also provides advocacy and hospital accompaniment to victims of sexual assault.

"There's a cycle of abuse that happens," Christin said. "In all parts of that cycle, we are trying to interfere."

Awareness

According to statewide reports from VAdata, managed by the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, the state's 62 sexual and domestic violence agencies provided counseling and advocacy services to 7,320 survivors of sexual violence and 21,634 survivors of domestic violence in 2015.

Williamsburg, James City County and York-Poquoson police have received 980 reports of domestic assault and 179 reports of sexual assault from January 2015 through last week, according to data collected by those departments.

"We know there are many more instances than those that are treated or reported," Caldwell said.

Of course, Avalon's ultimate goal would be putting an end to domestic violence and sexual assault. Realistically, that violence will always exist, Christin said.

"What you can do is work to create an aware community — people that are aware enough to tell someone when something happens, or if you were living in fear that you would know where to call, you would know who to call, you would know what do do," she said.

"To the extent that you create that awareness and the tools are there, you can reduce (violence) drastically."

Community

The effects of violence are widespread.

Christin recounted the story of a woman who was raped and, while recovering from the attack, couldn't work for some weeks. Without those paychecks, she likely would've become homeless had Avalon not provided financial assistance.

From the victim to the landlord, "It has a multiplier effect," she said. "We want to help the victims. We want people to understand that all of the community is a victim of this."

And the community does make Avalon's work possible, from the more than 300 volunteers each year to daily in-kind donations. More than half of Avalon's funding comes from federal, state and local government, Christin said. The rest comes from churches, civic groups, businesses, foundations, charitable organizations, individuals.

"This organization came out of the community," said Caldwell, of the women who founded Avalon years ago. "And the community has helped Avalon expand and change to meet the needs of our community over these decades, and it's still doing so."

In 2015, James City County received a three-year grant from the Justice Department's Office on Violence Against Women to launch the county's Alliance on Violence Against Women, intended as a "coordinated community response to violence against women," Amy Jacobson said.

Jacobson is assistant director at Colonial Community Corrections, the county's probation and pretrial office and one of partners of the alliance. Others partners include Avalon, James City County Police, Williamsburg-James City County Commonwealth's Attorney Office, the College of William and Mary, military advocates and others.

"We need to communicate with each other and have a common purpose and a common language, and that's really what the effort is all about," Jacobson said.

One result of the alliance is the Legality Assessment Protocol, a collaboration between James City County Police and Avalon. In responding to domestic incidents, the protocol requires an officer to assess the victim through 11 questions. The officer will then initiate a call to Avalon if the victim is determined to be high risk.

"It wouldn't be an alliance if it wasn't for our partnership with Avalon," Jacobson said.

"As police and probation, we deal with the perpetrators. We don't interact with the victims," she said. "(Avalon has) done an excellent job in the community providing safety plans and a safe environment for women to go."

Strength

With funding from the Victims of Crime Act, Avalon will soon launch a new Youth Services component to include new hires, and likely a new space, in service of children who are primary and secondary victims of crime. The program plans to include a visitation and exchange center.

Again, Christin said, the idea is to interfere with the cycle of abuse, this time starting at a young age.

The youth component, and a planned senior outreach component, stem from Avalon's strategic plan for the next three years.

"We have figured out where Avalon has services, and where we might improve them," Christin said. "We've defined where we aren't, where we have not gone yet. And we're figuring out ways to do that, so that the Williamsburg area will have full comprehensive services available within the next three years."

A little more than a year has passed since the night Smith feared for her life. A little more than a year since she picked up the phone to call Avalon. A little more than a year since her life changed.

She sometimes struggles to put that change into words, but she feels it.

"Stronger. I'm stronger," she said. "I can still make my mistakes, but now I'm looking towards a brighter future and not getting into the same patterns that I have been."

"The whole thing is mind, body, spirit," she said. "(It) lifted me out of the darkness and into the light."

Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342.

How to get help

Avalon's 24-hour helpline is 757-258-5051. For more information, call 757-258-5022 or visit avaloncenter.org.

For more information about the JCC Alliance on Violence Against Women, visit jamescitycountyva.gov/2721/Alliance-on-Violence-Against-Women. The website also includes webisodes, tools and apps, research and other resources.

More resources are available from the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Action Alliance website at vsdvalliance.org.

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