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Domestic Violence Coalition Asks State to Help Shelters Get 24/7 Staffing
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The state’s shelters for domestic violence victims are safest when their location can remain private. I arrived at one of the shelters accompanied by Sandy Koorejian, the Executive Director of Domestic Violence Services of Greater New Haven.

We park off a busy street in the city near a three-family home with yellow siding.

To passers-by, the home looks like any other residence on the street. Its appearance helps maintain the shelter’s confidentiality.

There are a lot of rules to keep the residents safe. Koorejian says one of them is no one uses the front door. Instead we walk down the driveway to a metal fence that leads to the back entrance where a large camera observes our arrival.

"You know we try to keep a low profile but obviously the neighbors, people on the street know us. And we think that they sort of look out for us."

Inside, the hallway opens up to a large kitchen and a family room where a mother and her children play and watch television.

The staff office is adjacent to the kitchen. It’s a small, cramped room but the staff makes do with desks and filing cabinets that line the four walls.

Kim Ross is the Shelter Manager. She introduces me to three other staff who make up the daytime shift.

Ross says besides working full time between 8 a.m and 7 p.m, the staff also shares on-call duty.

"We work a lot of hours, that’s true. You know, Amy last week worked a thirteen hour day. I’ve been here twelve hours because of the needs of the women that are in this program now there are so many with their medical issues, it stretches staff. It does."

The shelter can house up to fifteen women and their children. But what happens when staff leaves for the night?

Lisa Holden, Executive Director of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence, says to protect the residents, the shelters are locked down.

"There is easy 9-1-1 access in case they're in trouble or someone is trying to break-in. We open it back up in the morning. It's not ideal. We have had fires occur where there was no staff there to help shelter residents. We've had a baby die of SIDS while in shelter. We'd rather have a staff person there who would be awake and able to pay attention to the safety of women in shelter and their children."

In the entire state of Connecticut, there are three shelters that have been able to stay open around the clock, including Interval House in Hartford.

"We always felt that that was a high priority for our shelter programs is to be staffed around the clock just because of safety reasons."

Cecile Enrico is Executive Director of Interval House. She says federal and state money for each shelter is allocated by the Department of Social Services using a formula based on shelter size. Interval House is the largest shelter in the state so it gets more federal and state aid than a small or medium shelter.

But Enrico says despite this, money to operate the facility is always tight.

"We’re taking money for other areas that we may want to fund. We’re seeing that twenty-four hours is more important."

Last year, Interval House helped more than five thousand people through a number of domestic violence services that included temporary emergency housing, hotline support, and court services.

Karen is one of the people Interval House helped in the last year. She's living on her own now but she only wants to use her first name because she’s still in hiding from her abusive boyfriend. This May marks one year since she fled with her two children.

Karen says the decision to leave an abusive home is difficult enough. She doubts she would have stayed at Interval House if staff wasn't there at all hours of the day.

"5 o’clock in the morning who are you going to talk to? If there’s nobody there for staff, you can just pack your bags and go back. And I think I would have done that if the resource wasn’t there."

The Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence has been lobbying for an additional one million dollars from the state to begin implementing 24/7 staffing at all of the shelters. The request is half of what the shelters say they truly need for the plan.

In 2007, the shelters received a total of three million dollars from federal and state governments according to the Department of Social Services.

State Representative Denise Merrill says the one million dollar allocation was in the Democrat’s budget proposal. But late Friday, Merrill and House Speaker Jim Amann released a statement saying lawmakers are not likely to amend the 2009 budget considering news that the state surplus has dramatically decreased.

This doesn’t bode well for the Coalition’s request for 24/7 staff funding. And the shelters know that with or without the extra money, there are still plenty of domestic violence victims to help.

To make do, the shelters will continue to rely upon other resources that complement government funding primarily through in kind donations and fundraisers.

But in a down economy, those funds can also be hard to get.