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Issue Date:  January 25, 2008

-- Photos by James Visser

A 4-year-old-girl plays with a toy train in a playroom at Lydia's House in St. Louis.
Women's shelter offers safety -- and time

St. Louis

The idea for Lydia’s House was born in the oldest sort of sanctuary: a house church, where an ecumenical group met to celebrate their common beliefs. They didn’t come under cover of darkness and hide their bread and candles, as the early Christians did. But they did want to live their faith with courage. After meeting week after week and searching their hearts, four of the women decided they would try to help women who had been abused.

One of the founders was an ordained United Church of Christ minister, and two were studying at a United Church of Christ seminary. Then there was Dawn Stringfield, who was working on the Tomahawk weapon control system for McDonnell-Douglas.

“I have a checkered past,” she said lightly. “Twenty years in business and technology, barge lines and Fortune 500 companies. The journey was circuitous.”

Now executive director of Lydia’s House, she feels like she has come full circle. “There had always been a draw for me to children or women in situations where somebody has taken power over them,” she said. “I’ve tried to go back and get in touch with why, and I really haven’t been able to tap into it. I had an incredibly loving family. But I was making a speech on rape and child abuse in a public speaking class when I was 16.”

Lydia's House Executive Director Dawn Stringfield sits with a mother and her child, one of the more than 50 children safely housed in the shelter at any one time. The facility has the capacity for 70 children and 35 women.

When she and her colleagues researched the St. Louis community, they found that there were hotlines that would help a woman make a safety plan, and there were shelters to keep her safe for 90 days -- and then there was nothing. “There’s no way that someone who’s been abused can turn her life around in 90 days,” Stringfield said. “It’s one thing for bumps and bruises to heal, another when you’ve been beaten down every day and told you are stupid. Maybe the abuser never allowed her to work, or racked up a lot of debt; maybe there were long-term health problems. Yet all that many shelters can do is say goodbye at the end of those 90 days.

“Some women try to shelter-shop,” she continued wryly. “Others move in with family or friends, and that’s not safe, because their abuser knows where [the woman is]. The worst options are they return to their abuser or wind up on the streets.”

Bent on providing longer-term safe housing and emotional support for women who had been abused, the four women went house-hunting in 1995. They had about $700 in the bank when they came upon a two-family flat. “The gentleman selling the property recommended a banker who might give us a loan,” Stringfield recalled.

“Purely on a vision of what this program could accomplish, he gave that first $50,000 loan. And he subsequently put up drywall and painted our building and served on our board,” she said.

In 12 years, Lydia’s House has grown from two apartments to 35, its budget from $207,000 to $1.1 million. Nearly one-third of its funding comes from individuals; the rest from government, special events and organizations. “In the beginning, it was a challenge because of the need to keep our visibility under the radar screen for the security of our residents,” Stringfield said. “As we found a way to increase publicity about the organization while maintaining confidentiality, we’ve been more successful. For the most part, we can’t show a face or a place to our funders; many will never see or meet the people whose lives they’ve helped change.”

The only program of its kind in St. Louis, the largest in Missouri and one of the largest in the nation, Lydia’s House is unusual in that it’s a standalone facility, not an outgrowth of an emergency shelter. Referrals must come from emergency domestic violence shelters; while most come from the five shelters in the St. Louis area, shelters in other states sometimes refer clients who need the extra safety of moving far from home.

Lydia’s House can welcome 35 women and up to 70 children, and they can stay as long as two years. The sites are in the southern part of St. Louis, close to public transportation, grocery stores, schools and daycare facilities. One site is an apartment building, so women see each other in the stairwell or doing laundry. The other site has multiple buildings and a community center.

“We originally thought we’d keep adding two-family flats,” Stringfield said, “but community was so important. Moms would help each other by babysitting. ... And the kids connected. Kids who’d been living on eggshells, watching their moms being hurt, were finally meeting other kids and talking about stuff they couldn’t talk about at school, stuff it wasn’t safe to talk about anywhere else.”

Women who have been longer at Lydia’s House help teach the newcomers, too. “Somebody comes into a support group thinking she has to accomplish everything now,” Stringfield said. “Somebody who’s been at Lydia’s House for nine months can say to her, ‘OK, breathe. Take it one day at a time, one step at a time.’ It’s one thing for a trained social worker to say, ‘You can do this.’ It’s another for somebody who’s been through what you’ve been through to say, ‘You will make it, your kids are gonna struggle and say they still love Daddy, but you will make it.’ ”

As executive director, Stringfield directs fundraising, development, finances, strategic development, outreach, programming, community education and public relations; networks and shares resources with other organizations; works with the board to lead Lydia’s House forward; and makes sure it meets legal obligations and remains accountable to the public. There are 14 full-time and two part-time staff members. Stringfield’s cofounders have moved on: One is a pastor in St. Louis and keeps her church active supporting Lydia’s House; another is a chaplain and writer who helped with some grant writing and may lead a writing circle with the residents; a third is retired and praying for Lydia’s House daily.

About 25 percent of the women coming to Lydia’s House are immigrants, like “Rosa” (see related story), or refugees from Africa. When Lydia’s House holds ecumenical spiritual gatherings, the participants are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Wiccan, name it. “They talk about how their beliefs gave them the courage to leave,” Stringfield said, “and they also ask, ‘Why did God allow this to happen?’ or say, ‘I don’t know if God can accept me now, because I’m divorcing my husband.’ We invite them to see, ‘Yes, many of our faith traditions say that marriage is a covenant, but he broke the covenant when he abused you.’ ”

Stringfield’s own faith journey made the same circle her work life traveled. She swallowed childhood yearnings for Catholicism’s sacramental beauty to please a staunchly Southern Baptist father, then worshiped in various communities -- Disciples of Christ, United Church of Christ and Presbyterian in turn. Several years ago, without being Catholic, she became an associate -- a committed lay affiliate -- of the Religious of the Sacred Heart, a women’s order founded with a mission of empowering women through education. She still had a few struggles with Catholicism -- women’s limited role in the religion, and restrictions on who can receive the Eucharist -- but when she asked a priest, “Should I really be doing this?” he reminded her, “This is what the church says, but the church also says, ‘Trust the Holy Spirit to guide you.’ Can you live with that tension?” Last Easter, she became a Catholic at St. Louis University’s Jesuit-run parish. And her work at Lydia’s House felt more like a ministry than ever.

On the Lydia’s House Web site, women can find detailed escape plans and safety suggestions -- everything from hiding Internet usage to gathering all financial documents. “A lot of times it doesn’t happen that well, though,” Stringfield said. “People will escape with nothing -- no data, no records.” A woman may have a narrow window of safety in which to call a shelter and get a swift response: “Do whatever you can. The taxi will be there in 15 minutes.” Stringfield said, “For many abusers, the mindset is ‘If I can’t have her, nobody can’ -- and, worse, ‘She doesn’t deserve to live.’ ”

One woman’s husband had money and means, and he tracked her to Missouri, to St. Louis, to Lydia’s House. As soon as they realized he had found her, the staff got her on a plane. “But the reality is, he’ll just do it again,” Stringfield said grimly. “He has the determination, and he has the resources. At this point we have no idea whether she’s alive or dead, whether he’s tracked her down or she’s still on the run.” They haven’t called? “When someone leaves, we let her know that the door is open for her to be in touch with us, but we let the initiative be hers. We can never know when a message left innocuously on a woman’s cell phone may be found by her abuser and put her life at jeopardy.”

Some women don’t keep running; they go back. The conventional wisdom is that they miss their abuser or can’t handle life alone. “Nina” (see related story) has a different theory. And for another Lydia’s House client, the pull was nothing more than familiarity. The woman had watched her dad abuse her mom -- and then abuse her, physically and sexually. She married a nice guy, and the relationship was very typical and normal. So she left.

“She said, ‘I didn’t know what to do -- it didn’t feel comfortable. I had this sense that something wasn’t right,’ ” Stringfield recalled. She got into an abusive relationship instead -- that felt familiar -- and left that abuser only to find another one.

“About six months into our program, she was interested in dating somebody, so she talked to her advocate and said, ‘I need a Dating 101. I need to know how to do this differently.’ ”

Six years after leaving Lydia’s House, that woman is married, and the relationship is healthy and loving, Stringfield reported. She’s working, and she volunteers for the Lydia’s House speakers bureau. It’s a happier resolution than the client who was at Lydia’s House for nine months, left to return to her husband, then came back to Lydia’s House again.

“She was one I thought was putting her life together,” Stringfield said. “She was even starting a business while she was at Lydia’s House. But she believed his promises. She was from a fundamentalist church, and the pastor was really encouraging both of them to work on the relationship. ”

Stringfield is sure the pastor had no idea what was really going on. “You don’t necessarily know the wife is wearing sunglasses to church because she has a black eye. Abusers will hit women below the base of the neck and above the tops of the thighs, because those are the places nobody ever sees. And so often, abusers appear to be the upstanding citizens -- people in ministry, sports, the military; people who are used to having power over others.” Their debasement can become almost addictive, bringing a woman’s self-esteem so low she begins to believe she deserves the abuse.

Then there are the misguided “helpers” who urge an abused woman to forgive no matter what. “For a woman who’s been abused, forgiveness is not accepting what happened,” Stringfield said. “It’s releasing herself from that power, being able to not condone. So often the abuser will try to come back and say, ‘Please forgive me,’ yet he is not taking responsibility for his actions.”

And the women who say, “But I love him”?

“Well, they do. They love what was good about that person. It’s not like women go out on a first date with a guy, everything clicks and then they get out to the car and he slams her into the door and breaks her rib. It’s like any relationship: It’s loving and romantic, and the sense of ‘I want to spend all my time with you’ is what draws her into isolation. Then it’s ‘You’re getting kind of fat’ or ‘Boy, that was stupid,’ and the mental and verbal abuse begins. It’s all about building up to that place of an abuser’s power and control over another person and using intimidation, whether it’s the threat of violence or actual physical violence. It’s a vicious cycle that gets progressively worse. And breaking free from that cycle is another reason 90 days in a shelter is not enough time.”

Jeannette Cooperman is a St. Louis writer.


I’m from Peru. I met an American guy, a chemist, when he was traveling on business, and he came to my country many times. My family loved him. He was very romantic, very protective, nice even to my son. I was working as a professor at a university. He told me everything would be the same here: I would work, and he would help me adjust to the culture.

The first two months [in the United States] it was really nice, really good. Then he started controlling everything. I didn’t have a penny, and I couldn’t make any decisions. He always reminded me that this was his home, not mine, and his country, not mine, and the rules were made for Americans, not immigrants. I couldn’t call my family, because he didn’t want me to speak Spanish in his house. When I started trying to talk back to him, he started beating me. Then I found out I was pregnant.

He always told me, “You are no one in this country, no one will believe you. I will say you are crazy.” He took me to a mental hospital once -- I thought the doctor wanted to check on the baby -- and told them I wanted to kill him. But they could find nothing wrong, so they released me.

The security Lydia’s House gave us was wonderful. My ex-husband called many places to find me, but they were very strong about that. Every time I went to court, somebody from Lydia’s House was with me. I got my master’s degree -- they kept telling me I could do it. I lost weight and I got my degree and I don’t cry all the time anymore. The immigration officer told me, “You have done more than most Americans do.” Then I did cry.


When they gave me an application to Lydia’s House, they said it could transform my life -- and somebody would be there if I needed help. I needed to learn practically from the ground up how to see normality, how to see life. I was pretty damaged. My husband didn’t have healthy opinions about life. So … you learn everything new. You have an advocate; she’s holding your hand through everything. And you don’t get cut off when you leave -- that’s a fear I had, but there’s always somebody who picks up the phone and gets you through situations. I found work. I started learning -- this was a pretty big process -- to stand up for myself.

Now I’m saving to buy a house, and working on getting a little business started. It’s really scary and really hard; there are situations where you are angry even against anybody who wants to help you. It’s the rejection you feel all the time that is the hardest. I think that is why people go back: “I’m not so bad! Give me another chance, I can do exactly what you want. Just love me.”

You have to learn that you don’t need to prove to anybody that you are good enough to be loved.


National Catholic Reporter, January 25, 2008

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