Serving and supporting domestic and sexual violence survivors

Photo by Sue Suchyta. First Step associate director Theresa Bizoe points out features of a children's waiting area adjacent to adult counseling services at a First Step shelter. First Step provides comprehensive services and support for survivors of domestic and sexual violence. For more information, go to firststep-mi.org. For help, call its toll-free, 24-hour help line at 888-453-5900.

Photo by Sue Suchyta. First Step associate director Theresa Bizoe points out features of a children’s waiting area adjacent to adult counseling services at a First Step shelter. First Step provides comprehensive services and support for survivors of domestic and sexual violence. For more information, go to firststep-mi.org. For help, call its toll-free, 24-hour help line at 888-453-5900.

By SUE SUCHYTA
Times-Herald Newspapers

Violence survivor Kodi said the services and support of First Step brought her out of the dark and helped her see the light again.

First Step provides comprehensive help for survivors of domestic and sexual violence in western and Downriver Wayne County. For help or information, call 888-453-5900, or go to firststep-mi.org.

“First Step is not your average counseling program,” said Kodi (not her real name) of Trenton. “It’s very different. They are more involved with you. A lot of counselors (elsewhere) push you to take their advice even if you are not ready to apply it. Mine gives me the advice, and gives me time to process it and apply it. After a few sessions I stopped having flashbacks.”

Kodi said all victims and survivors need to decide on their own to seek help.

“I spent a really long time in denial, and I spent a really long time avoiding my feelings,” Kodi said. “Then I went to First Step, and I was like, ‘Why didn’t I just do this (before)?’”

Jane (not her real name) of Dearborn said the counselors at First Step made her feel OK about the decisions she was making.

“They understood exactly what I needed when I needed it,” Jane said. “They knew not to push. Even just the resources that they provide you with, whether it is someone to listen to you, or ‘My kid needed diapers,’ there are all these different things that they have. I was really surprised that there was such a place, and such a community. The whole thing was just so unconditional.”

She said the help at First Step is provided without judgment or pressure, and makes a client feel comfortable enough to talk about their situation.

“They validate you, but they don’t push you or pressure you,” Jane said. “I think that is really necessary when you are deciding to leave a situation. That was just really comforting.”

Jane said if First Step couldn’t supply a resource, personnel would get a client in touch with someone who could help them.

She said the First Step advocate she met through the court system after an incident was “a nice mix of tender and tough.”

“She offered me support with no pressure,” Jane said. “She had experience with that. Even if you have family and friends around you, they don’t necessarily have experience with domestic violence.”

First Step started gaining experience helping survivors of domestic and sexual violence in 1975, in a small farmhouse, with a grant from the city of Westland. A few years later it established its first shelter.

CEO Amy Youngquist said First Step currently helps more than 6,500 people a year in western Wayne County and Downriver, and has advocates in police stations in Dearborn, Lincoln Park, Taylor, Inkster, Westland and Canton Township, and at the 33rd District Court in Woodhaven and 34th District Court in Romulus.

It uses a 24-hour interpreter service, with translators available in 150 different languages.

In Dearborn, First Step works closely with Arab-American organizations that help them form relationships. Youngquist said about 5 percent of the women in their shelters every year are Arab-American.

“There are unique dynamics with that community as far as abuse goes that we are learning more about for about 20 years, since we have been in the Dearborn Police Department,” Youngquist said. “There are Arab-Americans everywhere in Wayne County, not just Dearborn. The respondents have gone through a lot of training around cultural issues. We are very dedicated to helping that population.”

She said immigration status is sometimes threatened in controlling and violent relationships.

“He won’t allow her to get a green card,” Youngquist said, “or help her extend her visa, or will revoke the papers, or destroy her birth certificate, or do things that prevent her from becoming a citizen.”

Youngquist said they help people do a danger assessment. Areas of concern would be if the perpetrators have access to weapons, they have made suicide attempts, they have threatened to kill the victims or the children, or hurt family pets, or they have been abusive in other relationships.

“There are all these red flags we are trained to look for,” Youngquist said. “We can ask the right questions to help assess the situation.”

She said counselors don’t tell women what to do, or that they have to leave a relationship.

“We do express concern for their safety, and try to give them advice on the path to safety,” Youngquist said. “But we know that leaving is also very dangerous, because any time there is a domestic violence homicide, many times it is after she has left the relationship.”

She said they help people make a very detailed plan on how to escape a violent relationship.

“We wait until he’s at work, pack a bag, pack your important papers, or come with the shirt on your back – whatever you need to do.”

Youngquist said outside groups can best help First Step by doing fundraisers for them, because they only have one part-time staff member to do development and fundraising activities. Other staff members who are funded by grants can only do direct service, not fundraising.

First Step associate director Theresa Bizoe encourages civic groups, businesses, and religious organizations to host fundraisers for First Step, since the help First Step gives to survivors of violence does not come free.

If it wasn’t for (fundraisers), we wouldn’t be able to keep our doors open,” Bizoe said.

First Step’s website has the most current donation needs. Financial donations are most appreciated, though, since they can cover unexpected building repairs or emergency situations.

Bizoe wishes others realized that if they are not part of the domestic and sexual violence solution, they are part of the problem.

“If in your mind you think it is a family issue, and I am going to look the other way, and I am not going to do anything about it, it’s never going to change,” Bizoe said.

“We have got to really work hard to help people not to be bystanders, and to learn how to intervene in safe, respectful ways, so that if they do witness violence in their family, in their school, in their community, in their neighborhood, that they will know (what to do).”