Story last updated at 12:12 PM on Thursday, October 22, 2009

Haven House: Breaking the cycle of family violence

Helping Homer and neighboring communities

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer

October marks not only Domestic Violence Awareness month, but the 29-year anniversary of when about 30 people, including nurses, doctors, counselors, police, district attorneys and judges came together in October 1980 to start South Peninsula Women's Services. Homer had a network of unofficial safe houses where victims of domestic violence could escape to, but no official shelter, counseling or crisis-response system.

"This was something where there was an identifiable issue where people came together to work with it," said Carol Swartz, the first SPWS director. "I was just the facilitator."


Photo by Michael Armstrong

Staff from South Peninsula Haven House pose in the Child Advocacy Center room. From left to right, back row, are Trish Case, Jessica Lawmaster, Tess Dally and Mercedes Harness. In front are Dan Lush, Peg Coleman and Carolyn Norton. The flag behind them has the Italian word for "peace."

SPWS became a nonprofit corporation in January 1981. Now known as South Peninsula Haven House, it has come a long way from a one-person operation. Swartz, now director of Kachemak Bay Campus, was the first director of SPWS back when she also served as a clinician for Community Mental Health, now The Center.

"I had two drawers," Swartz said. "I had one drawer in my desk that was Community Mental Health and one drawer that was Women's Services."

Women's Services began as part of a state and national movement to raise awareness of domestic violence and sexual assault and provide support for victims. SPWS worked with the hospital to set up a sexual assault and domestic violence crisis line. It trained advocates to help victims. It set up a formal safe home network. SPWS began educating men, women and especially children about how to resolve disputes nonviolently. Eventually SPWS created a shelter for women and children at its offices on Lake Street.

In 2005, Women's Services changed its name to Haven House to reflect that domestic violence affects the entire family. Although women are most often victims of domestic violence, men sometimes are victims too. Haven House sets up shelter for male victims of domestic violence through safe homes or hotels.

The name change also acknowledges that domestic violence affects children, too - and that children are victims of sexual assault and abuse. Haven House recently started the Kenai Peninsula Child Advocacy Centers in Homer and Kenai, a child-friendly space for victims. Police and Haven House counselors can do forensic interviews outside of sterile, official environments like police stations or hospitals. The centers also offer child and family counseling.

"We know if it's happened to the child, it's happened to the family," Haven House director Peg Coleman said of how effects of child abuse spread through the family.

Through its 24-hour crisis line, Haven House advocates can respond immediately to anyone who has been sexually assaulted or who is a victim of domestic violence. Advocates work with Sexual Assault Response Team nurses and police during the medical and criminal investigation - and afterward.

"The advocate is there for that wrap-around support and there are ongoing services when needed," Coleman said.

Working under a grant to provide counseling services to the Alaska Native communities of Port Graham, Nanwalek and Seldovia, rural advocate Mercedes Harness helps those villages deal with family and domestic violence issues.

"What are their cultural needs or wants?" Coleman said. "If there's no way for (victims) to get away from the village, how do we support them?"

Rural Russian advocate Yulia Kern offers a similar service to the Russian Old Believer communities. Fluent in Russian and familiar with Old Believers in Russia, Kern translates for Old Believers who don't speak English and does outreach to them.

"We have a context for a better understanding of the Old Believer community," Coleman said. "We're very eager to see that grow."

Haven House also runs the Domestic Violence Intervention Program for men convicted of domestic-violence related crimes and ordered by the courts to get counseling.

"We address it from the issue of 'you've already been convicted; now we address it from creating healthy relationships,'" Coleman said.

That's the main mission of Haven House, and one that goes back to its roots: educating people about violence - whether a domestic or sexual assault - and teaching children and adults how to resolve differences peacefully.

"I think back then our goal was to break that generational cycle (of violence) in Homer," Swartz said. "I wanted to make a difference family by family, child by child."

Swartz said in her years working with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, she was humbled by them.

"The strongest people in the world I know are the women who go through these experiences," she said.

"All the people who work in domestic violence in the state and the country, they are the unsung heroines and heroes," Swartz added.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at