Safe harbor for abused Islanders

JULIE LANE PHOTO | Barbara Olton makes her plea to Shelter Islanders to support The Retreat, serving domestic violence victims here.

A first-time visitor to Shelter Island might well conclude from a first impression that here is a place of peace, free from violence and distress.

But many know first hand that behind the pretty facade lurks another reality. For a tiny Island with about 2,400 year-round residents, there’s a an ugly underbelly of domestic abuse cases that in the past three years has been on the rise.

Police Chief Jim Read reports a steady number of cases — 40 in 2012, 38 in 2011 and 37 in 2010. And those are just the ones that escalate to the point where police are called, he said. Those reporting the problems are either victims, neighbors, or, in some cases, hospital officials who treat serious injuries and conclude that they’re the result of beatings or other mistreatment.

Hospital workers, police officers and social workers see the results of domestic abuse, and the government, via The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has tracked the issue, releasing the startling statistic that one in four American women have experienced domestic violence in her lifetime. Victims of abuse include all races and socioeconomic status

Because there has been relatively little publicity about Island victims of abuse, some may have concluded that the problem is fading away here.

“Absolutely not — there’s not been a decline,” said Barbara Olton, a Hay Beach resident and president of the East Hampton-based The Retreat, an organization serving victims and counseling abusers in communities throughout the area.

The Shelter Island-based “Support Our Shelter” works to raise both awareness of the problem and money to help sustain The Retreat’s programs. It’s particularly focused on bringing in funds to provide transitional housing for victims of abuse, who are currently sheltered in rooms at the organization’s office building. But victims who have come forward often need longer-term transitional housing while they re-establish their lives, sometimes getting vocational training and jobs to support themselves and their children.

If Ms. Olton had her way, abusers would be the ones forced to leave the house so victims and children could have less disruption in their lives. But that would require extremely rigid attention to security, she said.

“We give moral support to women — and most often, victims are women — who are at their lowest point,” Ms. Olton said.

Police, who respond to domestic abuse calls, will often try to call and check on situations a couple of weeks after an incident, but have no resources for ongoing counseling and assistance, Chief Read said.

“We rely on The Retreat, really,” he said. Police officers also refer victims to other social service organizations for the long-term help they may need, he said. And it will surprise no one on the Island that a major resource for helping children who come from abusive homes is Mary Kanarvogel, known to all as “Nurse Mary,” Shelter Island School’s medical resource.

The school also turns to The Retreat for help in teaching children at a young age that “hands aren’t for hitting” and that there are healthy ways to deal with anger and frustration. It’s important to reach these children early because most abusers came from homes where abuse thrived, Ms. Olton said.

Ms. Olton noted that while The Retreat doesn’t have long-term residential facilities yet, there are a number of Islanders who have opened their homes to help neighbors who needed to escape an abusive situation.

One of the more frightening realities staff members of The Retreat experience is that it generally takes a woman seven attempts to try to leave an abuser. On the eighth attempt, “she’ll either leave or die,” Ms. Olton said.

Funding is a challenge for The Retreat meeting a budget of more than $3 million annually. The organization is seeking contributions of items that can be sold in its thrift shops or used to help furnish new living quarters for victims who find housing away from their original homes. While as many domestic abuse victims come from wealthy families as from poor ones, their access to money has often been tightly controlled and they don’t necessarily have the resources for a new start.

As with many organizations that have depended on government and grant funding through the economic downturn, opportunities for money have been increasingly tight while the need for services has grown steadily, Ms. Olton said. The government sequester of funds, which has cut money across the board, coupled with more groups competing for private foundation grants, has made it difficult to maintain The Retreat’s services.

Toward that end, The Retreat is hosting a golf outing at the Shelter Island County Club at Goat Hill on Saturday, September 28. The $125 registration fee will cover the cost of 18 holes of golf, a free cart and breakfast and lunch at the Club’s Fresh restaurant.

“The Island has a moral obligation to help support The Retreat,” Ms. Olton said. The headquarters may be in a house in East Hampton, she added, but that’s actually a plus for Islanders because it’s safer for victims and provides more anonymity.

If you are in an abusive situation and need help, you can reach The Retreat at 329-4398. If you want to join Save Our Shelter, call Ms. Olton at 749-2303.

“Domestic violence is a silent thing and yet there is an undercurrent,” she said.