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Creating a safe space

Arizona’s largest domestic violence shelter approaches 30-year anniversary

Posted 9/21/21

The National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached by phone, text or online chat. Call 1-800-799-SAFE or 1-800-799-7233. You can also text “START” to 88788 or visit thehotline.org. …

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Creating a safe space

Arizona’s largest domestic violence shelter approaches 30-year anniversary

Posted

New Life Center opened its doors nearly 30 years ago in what was then an unused dormitory and a few storage rooms in The Wigwam.

The center has since become Arizona’s largest domestic violence shelter, and a haven for women, children and men who have experienced domestic violence, sexual violence and human trafficking.

Since its doors first opened on Oct. 7, 1991, New Life Center has served thousands of victims of abuse, but it wasn’t an easy road for early shelter champions in the West Valley.

The women’s group, Soroptimist International of Estrella, struggled for years to convince West Valley leadership that such a facility was even necessary.

Finally, Litchfield City Council approved the shelter in a 6-1 vote. The lone ‘nay’ was from Councilman Jerry Overton, who said at the time he had received calls from parents against opening a domestic violence shelter, according to an article in the West Valley View dated June, 1991.

“It spoke to the time that we were in,” said Myriah Mhoon, CEO of New Life Center. “Twenty, 30 years ago, we did not talk about domestic violence, intimate partner violence, sexual violence as well as family violence in the way that we are able to today,” she said.

When the shelter was being considered, then-executive director Nanci Harris told city leadership that 14,000 women and children annually had been turned away from shelters due to lack of space.

At the time, “there was a lot of need to educate that domestic violence was happening...in our backyards, within our community,” Mhoon said.

When the shelter first opened in The Wigwam, it had space for just 32 women and children. In the past three decades, the shelter has opened its own campus, increasing capacity to 104 beds. New Life also has widened its outreach to include all victims of abuse, regardless of gender or orientation, Mhoon said.

Domestic violence and deaths spiked during pandemic

Data collected nationally shows the need for facilities like New Life have increased during the past year-and-a-half, as the political and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic have fueled greater instances of household violence as well as human trafficking.

“The numbers we’re seeing in Arizona are unfortunately some of the same numbers we’re seeing nationally,” Mhoon said.

The pandemic has only added fuel to the fire.

When lock-downs began at the start of the pandemic in 2020, Mhoon said she and her staff began noticing a disturbing trend.

While incidents of domestic violence and deaths were on the rise, beds at New Life Center would sit empty for days or even weeks.

“New Life Center is almost always at capacity,” Mhoon said. “It was a heartbreaking moment” when she and her team realized victims were likely trapped at home with their abusers, unable to reach help.

Victims also may have believed shelters were closed, Mhoon said. Though the possibility of another round of lockdowns remains remote, she said that whatever happens, New Life Center will remain open.

“We never closed down during the pandemic, and we will not close down,” Mhoon said.

Not just “a women’s issue”

Studies show domestic violence doesn’t just impact women and children. While an average of one in three women experience domestic violence in their lifetime, men are not immune to victimization, Mhoon said.

One in four men will experience intimate partner violence at some time in their lives, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

“Domestic violence is not a women’s issue,” Mhoon said, “ it is a community issue.”

Leaving a violent situation can be complicated, and there are many reasons victims do not immediately seek help, Mhoon said. She spoke of New Life Center’s long history as a pioneer in the shelter movement.

In the 1990s and 2000s, domestic violence shelters often would turn away boys as young as 12. For many women fleeing violence at home, leaving their sons behind was not an option. New Life Center became one of the first domestic violence shelters to allow teen boys. Today, all domestic violence shelters in Arizona do the same.

“That was a huge barrier that we were creating within a system of not allowing, or being open to accepting, how the family presents themselves,” Mhoon said.

Pets can also be an impediment for victims seeking help.

Research shows abusers often will threaten to harm their victim’s pets to exert control and prevent them from leaving the situation, according to the ASPCA. Pets are not allowed in many shelters, but New Life Center leadership has begun allowing pets on campus.

“We all consider our furry friends part of the family, and we do know that animals experience trauma and violence sometimes in those unsafe situations,” Mhoon said.

Case management has been extended to four-legged family members to ensure they have veterinary care and resources they need, Mhoon said.

Regardless of what clients have been through, New Life uses a “trauma-informed approach” to help them heal and break the cycle of abuse, with the understanding that trauma presents itself differently in everyone, Mhoon said.

It’s not shelter staff’s place to judge, she said, but “to hold an unbiased space and provide resources so that (clients) can empower themselves.”

Center staff also recognize the role family and community play in the healing process. In abusive situations, whole families often are admitted to the campus. About 70% of shelter clients are children accompanied by a “safe adult.”

“We bring in the whole family when support is needed,” Mhoon said, adding New Life offers each family its own casita.

While the exact location is confidential and the facility is locked, clients are able to access their communities, she said.

As the economic aspect of the pandemic has exacerbated incidents of violence, there is more societal awareness of these issues than when the shelter first opened, Mhoon said.

The goal now is to make sure people know they can seek help, and to assist victims in breaking the cycle of violence for good.

“We want to make New Life Center’s services known to everyone so that they know that they can reach out 24/7 if they are in crisis,” Mhoon said.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached by phone, text or online chat. Call 1-800-799-SAFE or 1-800-799-7233. You can also text “START” to 88788 or visit thehotline.org. Help is available in both English and Spanish.

Madeline Ackley can be reached at mackley@iniusa.org or found on Twitter @Mkayackley.

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