A Hart for others

Published 12:39 pm Saturday, May 20, 2006

By By ANDY HAMILTON / Niles Daily Star
NILES - This job is not for everyone.
Being a supporter, counselor and life-line for abuse victims and their children on a daily basis is a position most people would balk at.
Yet, since August of 2005, Deborah Hart has been doing just that as the legal advocate for Safe Shelter, Inc. of Benton Harbor.
Safe Shelter is a non-profit organization associated with the National and Michigan Coalitions Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. It was founded in 1976 as a support network for survivors of abuse.
Hart said there used to be a location in Niles, but the facility was closed because Safe Shelter could not afford repairing the south county building and still support the main office.
Among the services offered by Safe Shelter are a crisis hotline, crisis intervention and counseling. Services also extend to provide support in the legal end of abuse. That is the reason Safe Shelter has provided the grant-funded position in the Niles court system for more than 10 years.
This is where Hart comes in. Her background includes a bachelors of psychology and a minor in criminal justice from the University of Northern Florida.
She is employed by Safe Shelter, yet most of her job requires her to be at the Berrien County Fifth District Courthouse in Niles. She works exclusively with domestic violence or sexual assault victims.
She is a guide to abused women - and occasionally, men - who need assistance as victims or witnesses in court, with personal protection orders and with other legal affairs.
The process starts with Hart evaluating the overall situation of the assault victim. If a victim does not feel comfortable talking at the South County Building, Hart said she will meet them at another location, just as long as it is a safe, public place the alleged abuser would not show up to.
A victim needs to develop a safety plan to use in case the alleged abuser returns to the home, Hart said. Plus, Safe Shelter will also provide a victim with a free cell phone that only calls 911.
Hart must also make sure the victim has a safe place to live and transportation to and from a place of employment. Safe Shelter is available “for as long as you need help,” Hart said.
The average stay at the shelter is around 30 days, but Hart said victims are welcome to remain as long as necessary. If there is not enough room at the Benton Harbor facility, Safe Shelter attempts to contact other homes that may be able to accept victims, doing their best to avoid sending someone out of the county to preserve a job and their child's education, Hart said.
Also, any legal paperwork, such as a personal protection order, must be completed and filed with the courts.
But, Hart emphasizes a large part of the process is encouraging victims to begin making decisions for themselves. This is often a difficult transition considering many of those who have been abused are accustomed to being told what to do.
Even so, Hart said many victims are frightened at being involved with the court system. She said she has come across victims who had to call 911 in order to avoid being seriously abused or killed, but still wish to remain in the same relationship after the fact.
Though some of the same patterns are often repeated, Hart said each individual has their own unique situation.
For as long as they need the help.
The Safe Shelter toll-free, 24-hour confidential crisis hotline for victims of abuse is 1-888-983-4275.