ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The holiday season typically means crowded airports, packed planes and congested roads as far-flung family members flock together to celebrate at home.
For those who experience abuse from a spouse or another family member, the togetherness can mean a respite but their tension increases as they wait for the pattern to begin again once the holidays are over, said Lynn Gentry, executive director of the Domestic Violence Resource Center in Albuquerque, which serves victims statewide.
“We typically see an increase after New Year’s Eve. That’s because everything has built up and families have gone back home and now there’s that explosion of anger,” Gentry said.
Haven House Executive Director Cosmina Hays has seen the spectrum up close; from emotional manipulation, to women who’ve been shot and beaten and children who’ve been sexually abused. Haven House is the center that provides shelter and support services for domestic violence victims in Sandoval County.
“The people who come here are very scared and they are very traumatized,” Hays said.
Many times, clients are referred to Haven House by hospitals, police or doctors. Some contact the center after hearing a public presentation by a Haven House staffer.
That was the story of Miriam Louder, who uses an assumed name to protect herself and children.
Louder had been married for several years when, in the middle of yet another shouting argument, her husband’s hands were suddenly clenched round her throat and she couldn’t breathe.
The warning signs had been there. When he was angry, her husband would smash objects, hit animals and other people, but until that night she had not been the target.
That first time, her husband apologized profusely and she never considered calling the police.
“To me, what happened in the household remains in the family,” Louder said.
The choking experience was the beginning of a yearslong nightmare that included being locked out of her home at night, being kicked out of the family car and left on the roadside miles from home.
Despite the escalation, she was afraid to call the police, worried her husband would retaliate with allegations and her children would be taken away.
The lifeline that helped her finally escape appeared at a mother’s group meeting. The featured speaker handed out calendars with information about Haven House.
“I just had this weird feeling inside me that I needed to keep that to reference,” Louder said.
When her home situation deteriorated, Louder contacted Haven House for help. She was put in touch with a support group of other women who shared similar experiences of domestic violence. She was also assigned a personal advocate who helped her analyze alternatives.
“They realize that it needs to be your own choice to leave,” Louder said. Haven House advocates support clients who decide to stay in their homes, she said. They also help those who choose to leave plan an exit strategy.
Louder’s decision to leave came when her husband struck her while they were driving in the family car, with the children present.
“It was like ‘now you’ve messed with my kids,’ and some mother bear came out,” Louder said, “I basically just realized that if I didn’t leave then this was what I’d have to put up with for the rest of my life.”
For safety, she kept her decision from friends and family, telling only her contacts at Haven House. She packed one suitcase for herself and the young ones, took the money she had saved and fled to a hotel.
Even then she began to feel unsafe after her car was broken into. She moved in with a friend for a while, but one night a weapon was left on the front doorstep.
“At that point I realized I needed some place that offers 24-hour surveillance,” she said.
Haven House was her refuge. Hays said the center can provide secure shelter for 32 to 35 women and children.
Funding from state and federal grants, private donations and local communities enables Haven House to offer therapy for adults and children and life skills training such as résumé writing, budgeting, financial literacy and preparing for job interviews. They help clients get financial assistance, such as food stamps, and provide legal advocates who can accompany women to court hearings.
“Clients can feel intimidated when they have to face their abuser in court,” Hays said.
Louder and her children lived in studio apartment-like accommodations at Haven House for several weeks. She made friends with other clients who shared their experiences and the daily chores such as making meals.
To her children, it was like staying in a special hotel; they loved the playground, Louder said.
“It felt good to be here. It felt like home in a sense. They really make their facility feel like home,” Louder said.
Haven House helped her find classes to update her professional skills after spending several years as a stay-at-home mother. Encouragement from Haven House staff also helped her pursue a degree and secure a job.