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Spokane middle school teacher spends spare time as advocate at YWCA domestic violence shelter

Karina Berven works as a relief advocate for YWCA's safe shelter for survivors of domestic violence. Over the last few months not only has their shelter been full, but also their long term housing, which has led them to use hotel rooms to house people in danger. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

For the past seven years, Karina Berven has spent her extra time working as a relief advocate at the YWCA’s shelter for victims of intimate partner violence.

A middle school teacher by day, Berven’s overnight shifts at the shelter are a mix of chatting with the women staying there and answering YWCA’s crisis line, which victims and police can use to be connected to resources, arrange to come into the shelter or talk through options.

But with the COVID-19 pandemic changing most people’s way of life, Berven said the calls she takes on the crisis line are changing.

“The calls themselves have changed, I would say,” Berven said. “Regular ‘I need some advice’ or ‘I need some resources’ – those calls have dropped.

“And then the police calls have increased just so much.”

When police call the crisis line, it’s often because of a traumatic event in which either the victim felt the need to call the police or an outsider, like a neighbor, felt someone needed to intervene, Berven said.

“Having a police officer just totally shifts the tone,” she said.

Victims often don’t have the “breathing room or thinking room” they might normally have if they had been calling for advice or help thinking through their options.

During the pandemic, the YWCA has often had a full shelter and has used hotel rooms for overflow. Victims can text or call the housing advocacy resource line, along with accessing mental health and legal aid services during the pandemic.

YWCA also offers resources for male victims of intimate partner violence.

Despite her teaching demands, Berven works overnight occasionally at the shelter and helps fill in during summer and Christmas breaks.

As a relief advocate, she works when needed to fill in at the shelter for full -time advocates. She started at the shelter at the suggestion of her sisterKelsey Martin, who is now a board member.

“I just really have always had a passion in my heart for social justice issues, especially issues connected to women,” Berven said.

Berven had just moved to Spokane when she began volunteering at the shelter. Her parents would watch her young children when she was away overnight.

She really connected to the YWCA’s mission of “eliminating racism, empowering women.”

“Historically, people of color have just experienced all of these situations more and more intensely with less help,” Berven said.

During her training to become a relief advocate, Berven was shocked at some of the statistics she heard, especially about indigenous women. She described it as “terrifying and scary and sad.”

Although she felt confident in her training, those first shifts years ago were nerve-racking for Berven.

“It’s a lot of pressure,” she said. “I felt like I didn’t want to screw up. People are calling at a really scary moment in their lives, and sometimes it could even be a life-or-death situation, and I wanted to have a cool head to make that call.”

Berven quickly discovered that she could switch into action mode.

“I feel like I go into a mode,” she said. “I do the same thing when I’m teaching.

“It’s just like you sort of flip a switch and you’re not really in your body anymore and you do rely on those trainings that you’ve had.”

Normally, women can bring two bags, a pet and their children to stay at the shelter for 72 hours. Since the pandemic started, the length of each shelter stay is determined on a case-by-case basis.

When women call the crisis line, Berven goes through the criteria they have to meet to stay there.

“We sort of have a flowchart that we go through in our head,” she said.

She also helps them think through options, because entering a system with lots of paperwork can also be traumatic and not the best choice for everyone.

If a victim fits the criteria, Berven helps bring them into the safe house.

“We’re a confidential shelter, so we have to make sure when we’re talking to them that they are in a safe place, where what we tell them is not going to put them in more danger,” she said. “When they get to us, we just try to welcome them as best we can.”

Women are assigned a full -time advocate and provided with legal, housing and counseling options.

“Some people just need a little break. They just need a little bit of breathing room,” Berven said.

During the pandemic, she said many women have had less alone time or their partner isn’t leaving the house, making it harder for victims to make a call or to research their options.

She suggested visiting the YWCA website, which can be quickly exited, to learn about patterns of controlling behavior and about resources available now.

She also reminded women to trust their instincts.

“They are the expert in their own story,” Berven said. “You know your situation and you know what you need to do to get yourself safe.”

Even with the limitations of the pandemic, she said the YWCA will continue to adapt to help victims stay safe and get help if they need it.

“The people who work at the Y are so creative, so flexible, and they want to help so bad that … it doesn’t matter what it would look like, they would be finding ways to help,” said Berven.