The young mother was always the problem.
If something wasn’t clean in her family’s home, it was her fault. If dinner didn’t meet exacting standards, her fault. If she was caught writing, her husband would delete the entry. However, he suggested his wife complete a self-help program that included a book on cognitive behavior therapy.
“I started evaluating how I was thinking of myself,” said the woman, who is not named for her protection. “I stopped looking at myself as the problem. I started to realize that he was the problem.”
She is one of many battered and abused women who have found their way to the Women’s Healing and Empowerment Network, a nonprofit, donation-driven program in Spokane that helps women and children caught in a cycle of abuse.
Mable Dunbar, who holds a Ph.D. in philosophy specializing in family mediation, operates the program in three donated Spokane homes. It caters to helping abused women and their children by providing counseling, group therapy and a safe environment.
“We try to help one woman at a time,” Dunbar said. “If one woman is healed and she is able to pass on healthy traits to her children, then we can help impact the next generation.”
The organization has been in existence for three years, operating on private donations. But like nonprofits that receive public funding, the Women’s Healing and Empowerment Network is struggling in the current economy.
Dunbar said her program differs from other domestic violence services in the length and breadth of treatment she provides.
Most domestic violence victims have publicly funded services that provide anywhere from two weeks to a month in a shelter. “They will keep her safe. But for me, keeping her safe is not enough,” Dunbar said. “We try to help her understand the mentality that keeps her in that abusive relationship. If she understands that, then the cycle is broken.”
The Women’s Healing and Empowerment Network provides intensive inpatient counseling for anywhere from a couple months up to a year or longer, Dunbar said.
“It brings me joy to see a woman who is so destroyed but in a few weeks you see a light in her eyes. Pretty soon, she wants to go to school, help others and to raise her children,” Dunbar said. “This is hard work, but when you see these women make it, it’s very rewarding.”
December busiest month
Dunbar, 58, came to Spokane in 2001 after doing similar work in Michigan. Her husband, Colin Dunbar, is a pastor at West Central Multi Cultural SDA Church at 1201 W. Spofford Ave.
Because her counseling is Christian-based, her program does not qualify for government funding. That was by design.
“We don’t take any kind of funding that restricts our religious activism,” she said.
Religion becomes part of the solution, but Dunbar acknowledges that it sometimes was part of the problem. “Sometimes, (abused women) believe it’s their religious duty to stay in an abusive relationship,” she said. “If religion perpetuates abuse, then we need to show them … that religion does not condone abuse.”
Dunbar said women of any religious faith are welcome, but noted that “we are Christian. If Muslim women came, they wouldn’t find it comfortable.”
Trish McFarland, executive director of the YWCA of Spokane, echoed the need for domestic violence services. She said her organization’s confidential safe shelter for domestic violence victims has 40 beds, funded through public and private sources, and it’s full.
“We are getting ready because December is traditionally the busiest month of the year for us,” McFarland said. “It’s a time of high stress. We think the holidays should be perfect but they are not always perfect.”
She said the YWCA provides many of the same services as the Women’s Healing and Empowerment Network, but it is not Christian-based.
McFarland had favorable things to say of Dunbar’s program, concurring with the assessment that the community needs all the help it can get.
“The whole point here is to keep women alive. In the last 13 years, 38 women have died from domestic violence in this county,” McFarland said. “People don’t realize how critical this is.”
Dunbar’s program serves up to 30 women and children a year on a shoestring budget. She often doesn’t get a paycheck and her employees work on small stipends, she said.
She hopes to establish a retail shop where battered women can get needed work experience and a chance to repair or build the credit history necessary to find housing, but like all of the organization’s activities, it will depend on the generosity of donors to get it started.
Like McFarland, Dunbar doesn’t believe there can be too many such services. “We are not trying to compete with anyone or any other services,” Dunbar said. “We need them all.”
Psychology of abuse
Dunbar’s program focuses on the psychology of abuse.
“An abuser is attracted to someone he can control and manipulate. One of the things we do is try to show them that this is not normal or a healthy relationship,” Dunbar said. “The more they are empowered, the more they make their own choices. Sometimes they don’t realize there is another kind of life.”
As a result, women who are abused as children often seek out abusive relationship, because it feels normal to them, she said.
“We try to take a woman back to her childhood and find the message that conditioned her to stay in abusive relationships,” Dunbar said. “Our emphasis is not so much on keeping them safe – we do that – but also they are heard and empowered so they don’t go back into those relationships.”
The young mother said she was raised by her grandparents, who abused her physically and emotionally. They arranged a marriage with a man twice her age.
“I was very against it at the start. But my grandmother pushed. She made sure we spent time together. I knew he had a temper. I knew I didn’t like that. But I saw it as a way to get away from my grandparents,” she said.
The husband moved her abroad and they had two young daughters. The problems persisted.
“He could be so sweet and a good father. Maybe I was painting him out worse than he is. Every time he promised it was the last time, but it happened over and over again,” she said.
Then she saw the husband purposely drop one of the girls into the bathtub. “I realized this was dangerous for them, too. I started looking for resources online.”
Her journey ended in Spokane with Dunbar.
“I feel better than I have my entire life,” the woman said after more than four months of therapy. “I am finally in control and making my own decisions.”
‘It’s OK to have pain’
The women, who are referred to as “clients,” are allowed to leave the homes on weekends and they are allowed to continue their relationships.
“Sometimes, the women go back and change the abuser. The majority of abusers were victims, too, so they need help,” Dunbar said. “If they go back to their abusers, we support them. We don’t try to make the decision for them. We let them know the danger dynamics. But we would re-victimize her if we tell her what she can or cannot do.”
Another client, who wanted to be referred to as “Jay,” is a pastor who came to help Dunbar with the program and ended up as a client.
Jay’s father wanted to teach her “the harshness of life” so she could “deal with it,” she said.
“In the guise of religion, he crippled my desire to be an individual,” Jay said. “Before his death, we reconciled. I thought by burying it deeper that I had dealt with it. But this program has given me the space, the room and support to do this, all in the context of faith.”
As a woman of faith, Jay said she knows many people in church communities are reluctant to say, “ ‘I once was broken.’ But it’s OK to have pain. That’s what makes us human.”