Meet ‘Sara.’ It’s not her real name, but this is what she described happened to her last spring. “He was leaning into me, red-faced with anger, yelling at the top of his lungs. I was petrified. It wasn’t the first time this happened, but something about that night felt different. I’ve never been so scared. So, I took just a few belongings, and I fled.”
Her experience was not unusual, but her timing was. As stay-at-home orders went into effect throughout the United States in 2020, it left many domestic violence victims trapped with their abusers. It became the pandemic within the pandemic. But here’s what was puzzling to domestic violence experts: Although reports of abuse were increasing across the nation, calls to violence hotlines decreased as victims felt they could not safely connect with needed services (many of which were closed).
Sara was aware of that. She had heard about Mid-Shore Council on Family Violence (MSCFV, but commonly referred to as Mid-Shore) in Easton from a friend. She didn’t even call but ran to them anyway, hoping they could protect her. Someone happened to be in the office that day, and they let her in.
Mid-Shore was precisely the place where victims, like Sara, could typically find refuge. Created in the 1980s, it serves the counties of Kent, Queen Anne’s, Caroline, Dorchester, and Talbot offering a 24-hour hotline, counseling, advocacy, and legal services. Of course, as it had for everyone, the pandemic presented new problems to the organization that they hadn’t experienced before. This included finding ways to get protective orders for their clients.
Once courts started to reopen in June 2020, the number of hotline calls and clients increased significantly. Most notably, Mid-Shore received the highest number of calls they had ever had in a single month since the program’s beginning.
Mid-Shore’s Executive Director Jeanne Yeager is unphased. After 25 years on the job and being a survivor herself, she and her staff knew they would do whatever needed to be done—and more—to safeguard those who came to them.
“It’s a unique and successful model that we’re implementing,” says Yeager, “Probably the only one in the State where we see getting to safety as the beginning of the journey. We’ve evolved over time to move from not just aiding victims in crisis to now helping them with their journey all the way to self-sufficiency.”
Sara: “They assigned me a psychologist, who I met with, virtually, once a week. They assigned me a social worker to answer all questions and who accompanied me to my attorney. They helped me find an attorney, and they helped me with having the attorney fees reduced.”
A considerable part of the expansion that Mid-Shore has seen over its years as a service organization is its panel of attorneys. Since economic independence is a critical factor in violence prevention, their lawyers now assist not only in protective orders and divorces but also represent the victim in financial debt, bankruptcy, landlord/tenant matters, consumer issues, etc.
In Sara’s case, this help was invaluable. Sara is a successful freelance designer who, throughout her 20 years of marriage, never knew how much money she had. “Mid-Shore made me feel validated,” she said, “because there were names for all the things I had gone through. I didn’t know there were different types of abuse. I didn’t know that what I had gone through was verbal abuse. I didn’t know there was such a thing as financial abuse.”
As Sara realized, and many people are not aware, the absence of physical violence does not mean the abuser is any less dangerous, nor that the victim is any less trapped. Emotional and psychological abuse often is just as extreme as physical violence. According to the CDC, an estimated 10 million people, primarily women, are affected every year. (Although Yeager added that 5% of clients seen at Mid-Shore are male victims.)
Nationwide, numerous programs support victims of domestic abuse. But there are some unique aspects to the counties that Mid-Shore covers. “We’ve become an expert and a leader in working, not just with domestic violence victims, but specifically rural domestic violence victims,” says Yeager. “Their challenges, their barriers are unique and different in some ways, from those experiencing abuse in urban settings. For example, we don’t have a transportation system. So, you can’t say ‘jump on the A-line to come to our office or go to court.’ Instead, we have a transportation person who picks them up to get them to court, to a shelter, or appointments. We have to help facilitate them accessing services rather than giving them a ‘here’s where you go’ kind of a referral.”
There is another quality exclusive to rural areas—familiarity. Yeager explains: “There’s a lot of great things about being socially connected, but when you’re a victim of abuse, those social networks can also be a barrier. For example, your abuser went to high school with the local sheriff. Or you don’t want to go into the courtroom because the cousin of the abuser is the Clerk of Court. Or your sister-in-law is employed at the hospital.”
To provide confidentiality in situations such as these, Mid-Shore works with local community partners to provide special accommodations. These may include housing their clients in a different county, providing a private entrance to the courthouse, or even having their case heard at Court in another county.
These are just some ways that the organization wants to make sure they’ve thought through all possibilities that would prevent a victim from seeking them out. They also make it easy to reach them. Besides a 24-hour hotline, Mid-Shore’s website has immediate online chat access to an advocate and information on how and where to get help.
“Mid-Shore is action-oriented,” says Yeager. “We’re providing housing, food, legal support, and you can also meet with our therapist (we have a bilingual therapist if needed). We’re helping you with the basic stuff that you’re going through because you can’t be successful if you don’t have a safe place to live for you and your family.” And that family may also include pets. “70% of our clients have pets, and they won’t leave unless they can bring them as well. And so, we have a pet sheltering program. We’ve partnered with the Banfield Foundation and the American Kennel Club. We can place clients at hotels that are pet friendly.”
The partnerships Mid-Shore have been able to make within the community have also led to significant decisions and innovations. Working with Washington College’s GIS (geographic information systems), Mid-Shore took part in crime mapping to identify domestic violence incidents reported in each of the five counties. Their finding led them to open up an office in Dorchester County that has been extremely busy.
The GIS technology has even gone further, creating a resource and housing dashboard. Says Yeager: “Our case managers, at a glance, can see what housing is available for, say, $600 a month, that’s pet friendly, that includes no security deposit, that has internet capabilities. You put that into a search engine, and it links right to the website. The whole notion of applying technology to victims services work has been amazing.”
Yeager admits the work she and her staff do is hard, but the rewards are immense, especially knowing they’re responsible for saving people’s lives. “It’s been an incredible personal and professional experience, not just for me, for the entire staff. The people who work here come to this because of their love of others. Everybody is from the Shore; it’s a beautiful place to live, but we also get the realities.”
The reality is that, despite all of the resources available to them, a lot of victims return to their abusers. “A victim leaves five to eight times before they actually leave, “says Yeager. “If they leave, it doesn’t always mean they’re ready to go. Sometimes, they’re testing the waters; they’re seeing if they can trust us. We don’t see leaving as success; that’s not our gauge. It’s leaving and shifting from being a victim to being a survivor; that’s the success. And that’s the hard work. And that takes a long time.”
Looking back now, Sara remembers the fear. “I had the courage to go when my fear of staying was bigger than my fear of leaving.” But it wasn’t easy. “I had to be willing to give up everything–my home with a beautiful view of the water, my beautiful belongings, and all that stuff because when you get down to it, it’s just stuff. I have a whole different outlook on what the priorities are in my life.”
Sara was granted a divorce at the beginning of this year. She’s still living on the Eastern Shore. She’s lost some friends and gained others but has learned a lot from her experience. “I understood that I was living with a mentally unstable person for a very long time,” she says. I didn’t recognize the signs and tried to hide them from the world. I kept praying that I could fix him if I was nice enough, if I was kind enough, if I did enough. What I realized was that you can’t fix people. The people at Mid-Shore helped me in so many ways. Every woman knows a woman who will need this service, and they need to know it exists. As women, we need to protect each other, and I pray that I can do for someone what they did for me.”
If you need help call 1800-927-4673 or go to: https://mscfv.org/. There will always be someone there to speak to you.
Val Cavalheri is a recent transplant to the Eastern Shore, having lived in Northern Virginia for the past 20 years. She’s been a writer, editor and professional photographer for various publications, including the Washington Post.