NK center supports violence victims

Suquamish Safe Havens case aide Jennifer Agibinik in one of the Safe Havens visitation rooms. - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Suquamish Safe Havens case aide Jennifer Agibinik in one of the Safe Havens visitation rooms.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

SUQUAMISH – On the Port Madison Reservation a social services center is helping bring domestic violence from the shadows.

In a discreet, single-story building tucked around a corner from the tribal government center, the Safe Havens program offers structure for families in turmoil.

It’s a place where estranged parents visit their children without violating no-contact orders and domestic violence and sexual assault victims find advocates and support groups.

Since opening in 2005, Safe Havens has almost exclusively served tribal members. With funding for many state and federal social programs being cut, Safe Havens is hoping more Kitsap residents will make use of its services.

“We really want to make it known that it’s for everyone in the county, not just the tribe,” said Safe Havens staff member Teresa Swope.

As part of that effort, Safe Havens will host an open house from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dec. 17. Starting in January the center will open on evenings and weekends to make its services available for working parents.

Planning for the Suquamish Safe Havens program began six years ago when the tribe secured a grant from the Office on Violence Against Women, part of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Suquamish Human Services Director Stephen Weaver said the tribe was concerned by the number of domestic violence calls being reported in North Kitsap and nationwide. According to the Office of Violence Against Women, Native American women are more likely to experience domestic violence than women of other ethnic groups and twice as likely to become victims of sexual assault.

The tribe also saw a void in services. The closest visitation center at the time was in Bremerton.

“There were very, very few centers back then,” Weaver said.

The Suquamish Safe Havens program works off a federal grant of about $200,000 and receives funding from the tribe. Three part-time employees manage its services. The center has assisted about 25 families this year, but its staff expects that number to rise steeply after it expands its hours.

Supervised visits are at the core of Safe Havens’ mission.

Often the parents who use Safe Havens are separated because of child abuse, domestic violence or sexual assault, and prohibited from meeting because of a restraining order.

Visits are rigidly structured to protect children and parents. Parents drop off and visit children through different entrances at staggered times to avoid chance meetings.

Visiting parents are ushered into the center through a back door where they check in keys and cell phones. They visit their children in one of two colorfully decorated meeting rooms, usually under the supervision of a Safe Havens staff member.

Safe Havens staff are careful to not take sides with one parent and follow federal rules dictated for supervised visitation.

“We try to remain neutral, that’s the idea of the center, is to not be involved in the situation,” Weaver said. “Sometimes they are angry with us because we have to be so rigid and stick to our guidelines.”

Beyond visitation services, Swope and her colleagues offer support for victims of domestic and sexual violence, linking victims to resources and organizing support groups.

The staff also reaches beyond the center’s walls by contributing articles to the tribal newsletter and organizing lectures on domestic violence issues.

Weaver said that without hard numbers on abuse, it’s hard to know how much effect the Safe Havens program has had in preventing violence. But its staff has seen what it hopes is the beginning of a cultural shift.

“I think we’re seeing more women in the community ... speaking out more,” Weaver said. “It’s never as much as we’d like, but they are.”

Open house

Suquamish Safe Havens provides supervised visitation and advocacy for domestic and sexual violence victims.

It will host an open house from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dec. 17. The Safe Havens building in the tribal government center complex at 18490 Suquamish Way.

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