KANSAS CITY, Kan. - A few years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for women to call Kansas City-area shelters three or four times before leaving an abusive relationship.
Nor was it unusual for them to lay plans before leaving: Do we have a place to go? Where will the kids go to school? Do I have enough in savings? Will we be safe?
That’s not the case so much anymore, said Sharon Katz, executive director of SAFEHOME Inc., the largest of Kansas City’s six women’s shelters.
More women are calling in the middle of the night, frantic, desperate for their lives, she said.
The shelter fielded 3,560 hotline calls last year – up 9 percent from 2009. Friends of Yates Inc., another shelter in the area, saw a 15 percent increase in calls during the same period, according to Shirley Wickliffe, the shelter’s transitional housing director.
Though she can only speculate about the reasons why there are more calls for help, Katz said she thinks it is due to the economy. Women, both wealthy and poor, may put off calling for help until the direst moments because they have been hoping the economy will improve and ease their household situation or that they’ll have a way to make it on their own.
“They wait too long and then they’re calling us in terribly dangerous situations,” she said.
About 105 people had broken bones from domestic violence incidents in 2009, according to an annual Kansas Bureau of Investigation report. That’s the most reported in the past four years.
Johnson County District Attorney Stephen Howe said the level of violence in domestic cases has sharply increased in the past year. Other area domestic violence prosecutors and shelter spokesmen say the same.
“We’ve seen some really egregious cases,” Howe said. “Broken bones in the face, severe swelling. It’s to a different level than a lot of us feel that we’ve seen in the past.”
Katz isn’t in the practice of sending women away. SAFEHOME will take any woman and her family if there’s room, though space is increasingly difficult to find.
Incidents and arrests related to domestic violence throughout Kansas have been on the rise since the KBI began collecting reports from local law enforcement in 2004. Most say the increases are tied to the weak economy, with couples experiencing higher stress, fewer options and more time spent together.
In 2009, the latest year for the KBI report, police departments reported nearly 24,000 incidents of domestic violence and made more than 13,600 arrests related to the crime – up 36 percent and 34 percent, respectively, since 2004.
The trend has held true for the Kansas City area, though some cities in Johnson and Wyandotte counties aren’t showing as much of an increase as other areas of the state, with some even reporting a decline.
Overland Park, for example, reported 1,118 domestic violence incidents in 2010, 72 fewer than in 2009, said Matt Bregel, public information officer with the city’s police department.
But those numbers don’t mean the Kansas City area as a whole isn’t seeing the same if not more of an increase than other places.
SAFEHOME has capacity for 45 people. The average number of people in the shelter at any one time was 38 in 2008 and 43 in 2009. Last year, however, the average was 48 and even higher toward the end of the year, Katz said. At one point, SAFEHOME housed 57 women. The shelter’s counseling service has a two-month backlog.
And Friends of Yates was at capacity 95 percent of the time during 2010, Wickliffe said.
Shelter activity is up but that doesn’t automatically correspond to more work for police.
“SAFEHOME has indicated that they have had an increase in the numbers of people calling into their shelter, but we haven’t seen that same spike in reports being filed with us,” Howe of the D.A.’s Office said. “So there’s a disconnect there. People are going to shelters and asking for help but are not reporting that to the police.”
Police officers say it’s not for lack of responding to calls. And arrests on domestic violence calls are mandatory in Kansas, providing there’s probable cause such as bloody noses, welts or other evidence of a struggle, Bregel said.
“You can’t prevent domestic violence because of extra patrol or putting more officers in a certain area of a city,” he said.
Distrust of the system
The mandatory arrest law takes some pressure off the victim because the abuser’s arrest wasn’t anything the victim could have prevented, Katz said. But domestic violence cases don’t go as smoothly once they’re in the legal system, partly because victims often recant after the accused abuser is arrested.
In the past year, there has been an upward trend in the number of victims denying harm, Eaton said. Of her 30 active cases from last year, 14 have uncooperative victims.
Area attorneys, including Eaton and Howe, tend to pursue cases regardless, more so if they feel the situation is dangerous and there’s enough evidence to prosecute. Evidence, such as recorded statements from the victim and taped threats from an incarcerated abuser, must be convincing enough to discount a victim who takes the stand and denies everything. But even that can be overcome.
“I think people, when they think of a domestic violence case, they really imagine the victim not being cooperative,” Eaton said.
What she can’t get past sometimes, she said, are the perceptions some people carry, and she’s heard them all: It’s a family matter, not something to be handled in criminal court. The man is the head of the household; he can do what he wants. Women sometimes deserve being hit.
She said she does what she can to prevent people with those attitudes from serving on juries.
Feeding, clothing, housing, counseling, educating – everything the shelters offer people are free to the victims thanks to donations and grants.
SAFEHOME relies on state funding for about 39 percent of its operating costs, Katz said, and with state budget cuts and foundation support slipping, the agency’s ability to continue to take care of Kansas City victims could suffer.
She said the shelter faces some cuts from the state – about 5.5 percent by her count – but any more than that and she’ll have to reduce an already strapped staff. And that will mean fewer women will get the help they need.
“If we have to cut back in terms of the number of victims we can help, I believe people will get killed, because that’s what we’re trying to do,” she said. “We’re preventing murders.”