A Place of Our Own

(WOMENSENEWS)–Faith Stinson never heard the screams.

When she opened her bedroom door, she found her 6-year-old son trembling and sobbing in the hallway. Her boyfriend had berated the boy, then locked him outside her room. Stinson, who is nearly deaf but who was not wearing hearing aids at the time, didn’t hear the barrage of insults or her son wailing and pounding on her door.

"My ex tormented my son, made scenes in public and stalked me while I was at work," says Stinson, a Seattle writer whose name has been changed to protect her privacy and safety. "Through it all, he took advantage of his hearing and my inability to catch everything others said."

One night in September, Stinson’s ex raped her. Shortly afterward, she and her son moved to A Place of Our Own, a new program that is run by the Seattle nonprofit Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Service and that houses deaf women and their children as they transition from leaving their batterers to living independently.

"A Place of Our Own is the first of its kind in the United States, and probably in the world," says Marilyn Smith, the facility’s director, who is deaf herself and who helped found Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services in 1986 after a local deaf woman was murdered by her husband. "Deaf victims deserve a housing program that is designed specifically for them and where they are among other deaf victims in an environment that is deaf-friendly."

Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services is helping to launch replication projects in 15 communities across the nation in Austin, Texas; Columbus, Ohio; Denver; Des Moines, Iowa; Detroit; Honolulu; Minneapolis, Minn.; Philadelphia; Rochester, N.Y.; Salt Lake City; Tampa, Fla.; Washington, D.C; in the states of Wisconsin and Vermont; and in the San Francisco Bay Area. It also has 28 other communities on its waiting list.

"This program fills a critically important niche," says Nancy J. Bloch, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf, based in Silver Spring, Md. "It serves as an exemplary model for others across the nation to emulate."

Universal Violence Rates

Deaf and hearing women experience domestic violence at roughly the same rate, with 1 in every 4 women affected during her lifetime. Women–whether gay or straight–are the victims in 85 percent of cases, according to the Washington-based National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

For both deaf and hearing women, the cycle of violence is the same: an eruption, a period of making up and restoring calm, the buildup of tension, then the next explosion. The pattern can be difficult to break because it becomes the norm, and also because of extenuating factors: children, money, housing and the stubborn hope that the situation might change.

But for the hard of hearing, who number 28 million in the United States, there are added complications.

"Victims may be unable to convey the truth to police or social service providers who don’t speak sign language," says Smith, who was raped as a college student but whose attacker was not arrested because police could not understand her signing. "The abuser may even act as translator and repeatedly insist that nothing is wrong."

Emergency response teams that rely on 911 calls are not always designed to communicate with the deaf, and cell phones can only be used by the hearing.

If the abuser can hear, he may more readily find higher-paying work than his victim. Like Stinson’s ex, he may be the breadwinner and homeowner in the relationship. Finding housing without the abuser can be daunting. Hard-of-hearing people seeking rental apartments face discrimination in 50 percent of cases, according to a 2005 governmental study.

"These are barriers to self determination that don’t exist in the broader environment," says Cathy Hoog, an advocate specialist at A Place of Our Own.

Text Telephones and Interpreters

Over the past two decades, Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services has trained emergency personnel to identify deaf domestic violence victims and has put text telephones on Seattle’s streets and American Sign Language interpreters in its police precincts.

It has created support groups, educational workshops and housing referral services for deaf victims. It has provided community education to 22,000 deaf and hearing people in addition to the thousands of deaf citizens it has served through the national deaf domestic violence hotline it helped create.

In August it launched A Place of Our Own, which is designed to accommodate 19 deaf women and their children. Costing $8.6 million to build and created with support from foundations, individuals, the city of Seattle, King County and the state of Washington, the facility has a projected annual operating budget of $1.5 million. The program recently received a $350,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, and will use this money, appropriated through the Violence Against Women Act, to hire three more employees and bring its total staff to 19.

Currently managed by the YWCA of Seattle’s King and Snohomish counties, the program expects to operate autonomously in three years.

Each of the facility’s apartments includes TTYs–teletypewriters that enable the deaf to use the telephone–and lighting systems that signal children’s cries, doorbells, fire alarms and telephone rings.

Open Sightlines and Communal Design

The 32,256-square-foot, four-story building offers open sightlines so clients and staff can sign and lip read while in different rooms. Communal areas such as the dining room, study and garden are designed to promote interaction and build community among residents.

Staff members are fluent in American Sign Language and either have experience working with the deaf or are deaf themselves. Working with clients one-on-one and in groups, they provide therapy, parenting classes, child care, job skills training, and legal and medical advocacy.

"All of this makes this a safe place for deaf victims, and makes them less tempted to go back to their abusers," says Rob Roth, a member of the program’s steering committee and the former director of San Francisco’s Deaf Counseling, Advocacy and Referral Agency.

The facility accepts clients who earn 30 percent of Seattle’s median income–setting its income limit at $18,700 for one mother and a single child–and charges clients less than 30 percent of their income in rent. Residents and their children may stay for up to two years.

So far the facility has only four residents, but administrators expect to be at full capacity by December.

Clients already have success stories to share. There is the boy who no longer slaps his mother to get her attention, as his father did. There is the progress made by Faith Stinson and her son, who are launching a new life together.

"I’m undergoing counseling to work through the changes that have affected both of us," says Stinson. "This is a place where both of us can feel secure and safe."

Molly M. Ginty is a freelance writer based in New York City.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at [email protected].

This series is supported by a special grant from Mary Kay Inc.

For more information:

"Dangerous Trends, Innovative Responses":

Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation, Domestic Violence Resources:

Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services, A Place of Our Own:

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To see a photo feature about the Seattle facility by Tim Matsui/WpN: