A dangerous spiral

In the Asheville area and across the country, far too many people are living with an abusive spouse. Besides the physical danger to themselves or their children, they’re afraid of ending up homeless and unable to get what limited protections the law provides.

Meanwhile, even as a weak economy increases the demand for services, budget cuts are endangering the few programs providing that critical support.

Despite its own reduced funding, however, Pisgah Legal Services — one of the few nonprofits in the area or even the state that offer a full range of legal assistance on this front — is tackling the issue head-on with an Oct. 22 forum and fundraiser at the Diana Wortham Theatre.

“So many women are afraid; they're in fear for their life,” says one local domestic-violence survivor, an educator who will speak at the forum.

Her alcoholic husband was armed and repeatedly threatened her. And as the situation escalated, “He tried to take my life. He tried to kill me,” she reveals. Having spent all the money from his business while refusing to let her get a job, he left the household broke and his wife wondering how she could escape with her child.

“Honestly, I don't know what I would have done without that legal representation,” she reports. “I wouldn't have been able to navigate the process.” But even with the nonprofit’s help, she emphasizes, stiffer legal penalties for domestic violence and more support for survivors are desperately needed.

“There are so many hurdles; there's so much fear and embarrassment,” she explains. “So many people don't understand. They say, ‘Why don't you leave?’ Well, it's not that easy.”

And the current hard economic times, says the educator, are exacerbating the problem, particularly for the growing numbers of children involved. According to figures from the North Carolina attorney general’s office, violent domestic homicide has risen throughout the recession, and high poverty rates in some of the areas Pisgah Legal serves (17.1 percent in Buncombe County, 19.7 percent in Madison, and 25 percent in Rutherford) don't help. Victims with either no job or a low-paying one face major hurdles in escaping a potentially deadly situation. And now, after 35 years of providing key services to Western North Carolina, the local nonprofit is struggling to keep its domestic-violence program going in the wake of local, state and federal cuts.

Kim Gandy, the keynote speaker for the Oct. 22 event, has worked on the issue nationally for decades.

“Victims of domestic violence are much more likely to live in poverty, and women that live in poverty are much more likely to be victims of domestic violence,” notes Gandy, who is president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Network to End Domestic Violence. “If you don't have the resources to move out on your own, it's a lot more likely you end up a victim, hopefully a survivor.”

Many people, she says, don't think about the “economic abuse” that takes place when abusers take their victims’ money, get them fired from jobs, withhold funds for food, and more. “When you get fired from several jobs, you get a work history that makes it very hard to get employed anywhere else. They can't get health insurance because they can't get the money, or their credit's ruined and they can't pay when they end up in the hospital.”

Pisgah Legal is unusual, says Gandy, in the range of services it provides. Typically, she notes, legal aid “might help you get a protective order, but that doesn't help if you've got no place to live.”

And these days, she emphasizes, more and more “people are furloughed or laid off as the economy's gotten worse.” The federal sequester had already bitten deeply into funding for domestic violence services, and now the government shutdown is delivering yet another blow. “Many programs were already hanging on by their fingernails before the shutdown,” she points out.

In such times, says Gandy, it’s up to local volunteers and donors to provide that missing support for their fellow community members. “There are lots of opportunities for people locally to help out with this.”

Businesses, she continues, can assist in combating economic abuse, helping survivors find services and repair their credit rating.

“As a community, we have to pull together,” the survivor declares, remembering both her own experience and what she sees in her work. “There needs to be awareness, so people do know there's help out there.”

— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at dforbes@mountainx.com.

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