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For abuse victims, help is a phone call away

Their stories, bound by a single, terrible thread, kept coming.

A woman and two friends shot dead by her estranged husband on a Saturday morning in a quiet Carrollwood neighborhood.

Another who never made it to a court hearing for an injunction meant to protect her from her ex-boyfriend, found strangled in her West Tampa home.

A mother and her two small children, murdered on Mother's Day in their mobile home in Lutz — and later, detectives say, a confession from her live-in boyfriend.

To most of us, they were headlines that played out over the last two months. To some who work daily in domestic violence, they may seem like something more, even a grim sign of the times.

Advocates will tell you they don't have hard numbers, just a feel for it. Calls to their hotlines are up. The level of brutality they hear about — the rapes and threats and beatings — seems worse.

Maybe it's too simple to blame the economy, or the way the world feels right now, but some things seem elemental. People are dealing with foreclosures and gas and food prices and paycheck-to-paycheck choices that surely ratchet up frustration and anger, at least in some quarters.

And always, victims of spouse abuse have stayed because they had no money to go.

"We have a perfect storm," says Joanne Olvera Lighter, president of the Spring domestic violence shelter in Tampa.

The 102-bed Spring was emergency shelter to more than 1,000 people last year, more than half of them children. Usually, the place is 60 to 70 percent full. But since late April, it has been near or at capacity — though they would want me to say very quickly that there is always room, always help at the end of the phone line.

Lighter, who runs a shelter in a county with a domestic violence rate second only to that of Miami-Dade County, has the most fitting analogy I've ever heard about who the victims really are.

Spouse abuse is as indiscriminate as cancer, she says, its victims poor and not. More than once at a fancy fundraiser or luncheon, a well-heeled attendee has whispered in her ear about help she once got when she needed it.

"The old adage, why do we hurt the ones we love?" Lighter says. "Well, they're the ones in the room."

We can even blame the heat. Linda Osmundson, executive director of the CASA shelter in St. Petersburg, says summer brings a jump. It's hot, and kids are home. Parents, too, particularly if they can't find work.

"The climate is so ripe that anybody who's inclined to be abusive has more excuses," she says.

So they try to move roadblocks that keep people from getting help. The Spring has a K-12 school. Advocates know some people will not leave their pets — not for a hurricane, and not for an abuser who would use something you love as leverage or worse. Shelters on both sides of the bay have pet foster families or animal shelters willing to temporarily take them in until the owners are back on their feet.

So here's the word they want out there to fight headlines no one wants to see: Help is there.

The Spring: (813) 247-SAFE

CASA: (727) 895-4912

Florida's domestic violence hotline: 800-500-1119

For abuse victims, help is a phone call away 07/10/08 [Last modified: Friday, July 11, 2008 8:28pm]
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