MACHIAS, Maine — A few years ago in rural Washington County, deep down a secluded road off U.S. Route 1, a family was in crisis as an abusive husband isolated his wife from both friends and family.
First the husband took the car to work each day, leaving the woman alone with several small children and no transportation.
Then he took the phone.
Then he took her clothes.
It was only when a sister, disbelieving the husband’s claims that his wife didn’t want anything to do with her, went to the home and rescued the underwear-clad woman that the cycle of abuse was broken.
This is not an out-of-the-ordinary scenario in Washington County, Marjorie Withers of the Community Caring Collaborative told a group gathered Monday at the University of Maine at Machias for a summit on domestic violence.
Although Washington County is the geographical equivalent in size to Delaware and Rhode Island combined, it has only the population of Bangor — about 35,000 people, Withers said. To that population, 320 babies are born a year and one third of them are affected by domestic violence, she said.
“This legacy of violence changes their brains,” she said. “They will be more prone to violence, anger and addiction. If we are going to change the outcomes for Washington County babies, we must stop the cycle of violence.”
Finding the best and most effective ways to help those victims was the topic of Monday’s retreat, Beyond Awareness, led by a global expert in solutions, Wynona Ward. More than 30 people representing several Washington County social service agencies attended the event.
Ward is an attorney and founder of Vermont’s Have Justice-Will Travel program, which she calls “a new solution to an old problem.” She has been feted across the country, was named a CNN Hero of the Year, and has received honors and awards for her work.
“She has changed 10,000 women’s lives,” Withers said.
Ward’s Have Justice-Will Travel program brings free legal services to women and children in rural Vermont, where she has been able to successfully prevent 90 percent of her clients returning to abusive situations when the national average is 45 percent.
Attendees Monday learned that Ward herself is a survivor of domestic violence, having been physically and sexually abused by her father from age 3 to 11.
“I also watched my mother beaten and choked by my father, never knowing if she was going to wake up after she was unconscious,” Ward said.
But it was when her own brother repeated the family pattern of abuse on another family member’s child that Ward was sparked to go back to school, get her law degree, and five years ago, establish a program that provides concrete solutions and steps to domestic violence recovery.
“I believe we will not stop street violence or school violence, until we stop the generational cycle of abuse at home,” Ward said. Ward’s program provides all services free. The services are funded through governmental and corporate grants, donations and fellowships.
The services include free legal representation, in-home consultations, transportation to and from court hearings, and the support of a life skills and mentoring group. Ward said she has had to get pretty creative, recently convincing a foundation that makes grants for rent payments to buy a victim new tires for her car. Ward espouses a holistic approach to domestic violence. “These victims need support to move on,” she said.
Have Justice-Will Travel can provide help with public assistance applications, budget counseling, housing referrals, GED preparation, and referrals for food and fuel assistance and transportation. “Once women leave [an abusive situation] they continue to need help or they often feel forced to go back,” she said.
“Battering is the national leading cause of injury among women ages 15 to 44,” Ward said.
In Maine, according to Stephen McCausland of the Department of Public Safety, nine of the 24 homicides in 2010 were domestic violence related. So far this year, there have been 20 homicides, he said, with nine being the result of domestic violence.
Ward urged those social service providers at the forum to work hard for community awareness. “Domestic violence is no longer an acceptable way of life and must end,” she said.
Ward’s visit to UMM was sponsored by the college, a campus fraternity that focuses on human rights, Next Step and Community Caring Collaborative. UMM Psychology professor Meghan Duff said that although no one in the county is currently engaged in a project similar to Have Justice-Will Travel, she hopes that Ward’s energy will be contagious.
“Who knows?” Duff said. “Maybe someone right here in this room will show the way.”