The statistics are overwhelming: On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. During one year, this equates to more than 10 million women and men. One in three women and one in four men have been victims of physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime. Intimate partner violence accounts for 15% of all violent crime. And on a typical day, there are more than 20,000 phone calls placed to domestic violence hotlines nationwide. (www.ncadv.org/learn/statistics) For Lehigh Valley residents who desperately need safety and support, their only place to call is Turning Point.
Turning Point of Lehigh Valley began in 1977 by a group of volunteers who knew, through word of mouth, that there were women in the area who needed an outlet. They set up a tag-team hotline out of their own houses and dubbed themselves Mayday (as in the emergency distress signal). The following year, it was incorporated as an official nonprofit organization and became known as Turning Point. Their mission: To eliminate domestic violence in the Lehigh Valley through empowerment, education and engagement. 37 years later, though the need is great and the importance even greater, it is still the only resource that offers a helping hand and a safe place to sleep to those in Northampton and Lehigh County.
“I think when most people think of Turning Point, they think ‘shelter,’ but the organization does so much more than that,” explained Sharon Vidmar McCarthy, Development & Public Relations Director for Turning Point. “For me, that’s a primary message that, yes, the shelter is so critical and such an important part of what we do, but we do a lot on the prevention side and that’s good for people to know.”
Turning Point is a member of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence (PCADV: www.pcadv.org). There are currently 75 domestic violence assistance programs across the state and 43 domestic shelters. Turning Point’s shelter (located in an undisclosed location for safety purposes) is meant for short-term emergency stays only. It has 29 beds available for women and children, plus seven cribs, creating a capacity number of 37, all of which are currently filled as of press time.
“I think it’s important to note that we also provide services for men. If a man is in an unsafe situation, we have arrangements with nearby hotels to take them in. Safety is our primary concern. Statistics show that more women need the help, but men do too,” said McCarthy. “We also provide services for the LGBT community as well and we have begun to expand on that. Transgender individuals may come to us. The thing about domestic violence is that it knows no race, creed, social economics, or sexual orientation. It’s truly across the board. There is violence in all relationships and our staff is fully trained in how to best support everyone.”
The model Turning Point follows for its staff is called “trauma informed,” which McCarthy says is just a way to say that they try to keep all kinds of abuse—physical, sexual, financial, emotional, spiritual—in the forefront of their minds and recognize that an abused person could be suffering in a variety of ways.
The backgrounds of those who come to Turning Point are vastly different, but their experience with Turning Point is pretty similar. And it all starts with that first phone call, that decision that today’s the day to seek help.
“The most dangerous point in an abusive relationship is the day the woman decides to leave,” said McCarthy. “The abuser feels threatened, and that results in injuries. Or maybe the woman is followed. But it’s important for them to know that they have somewhere to go and they should get themselves out of that environment as quickly as possible.”
Turning Point has a 24/7 hotline (610-437-3369), which is answered by professionals trained to assess the situation. If a caller feels they are in danger, or in an unsafe situation, or is just starting to consider leaving, that number is available to them to call any time day or night. If necessary, the operator may tell the caller to hang up and dial 911 instead. Or they will tell them to come to the shelter immediately. Those who come don’t even need to pack a bag; everything they need will be supplied for them—they just need to get there.
There is a thorough screening process upon arrival. If medical attention is required, Turning Point works closely with a nearby St. Luke’s Hospital to ensure that medical care is available. The day after their arrival, they are assigned a caseworker and a counselor. They go through a series of questions to determine what should be the next move.
“In some situations, they might decide to go stay with family. Maybe they’re waiting to hear if they got a job, maybe they want to leave the area but can’t, or they feel compelled to go back to him,” said McCarthy. “On average, it takes seven attempts for someone to leave their abuser for good, and there are a multitude of reasons why that we’ve all researched.”
If the abused decides to stay in the shelter, they have 30 days, but McCarthy said there are exceptions to that when need be. During that time, they become members of the shelter family. They’re allowed to leave, to see their kids after school, to go shopping, but they also chip in to the operation.
“You’re not here to sleep all day,” laughed McCarthy. “Everyone gets assignments. You’re not a prisoner here, but you do help out. It’s considered to be a place where everyone pitches in to keep it a safe and peaceful environment.”
There’s even a curfew to ensure safety, so if you don’t come back, they know that something may have happened and will look into it.
“Safety is paramount to everything,” said McCarthy said. “And confidentiality is very strict here; everything is protected and anonymous. The security of our clients depends upon it.”
Everything received upon arrival is theirs to keep to act as a starter kit if they do decide to leave; towel, pillow, blanket, toiletries, etc. Counselors work with the women and children, there are staff members who will accompany them to court as moral support, and Turning Point works with local law enforcement as well.
“We’re training local police departments to know what to look for when they answer a domestic violence call,” explained McCarthy. “If a woman answers ‘yes’ to a certain number of questions, they’re supposed to contact us. It’s called the Lethality Assessment Program (LAP). Often times, the gut response is, ‘oh, everything’s fine’ when the cops show up and the neighbors are peeking out their windows.”
Even with all they provide, McCarthy admits that sometimes it’s still not enough: “We can’t tell her what to do and sometimes it doesn’t always work. With all of today’s technology, there’s no way to completely cut yourself off from someone if you’re not determined to do so. It has to be her choice. Our job is to simply empower her to make that choice, one way or the other. But to me, the question shouldn’t be, ‘Well, why doesn’t she just leave?’ but, ‘Why does our society permit the abuse to continue?’”
To combat that, Turning Point also participates in community outreach programs for prevention education and medical advocacy, which includes visiting schools to stress the long-term ramifications of bullying to kids.
“Even teen dating violence has escalated over the years,” she said. “With social media and cell phone stalking and sexting—there’s so much going on that we have to really explain to them the boundaries of healthy versus unhealthy relationships and how to know if what you may be experiencing could be considered abuse.”
October is Domestic Violence Awareness month, but it competes heavily for publicity with breast cancer awareness. Their signature events are “Champagne & Chocolate” held annually in May which raised $22,000 this year and a candlelight vigil in October.
All of their efforts have an indelible impact on those who require them. “We’ve had people tell us that we saved their lives and it always gives me goosebumps,” said McCarthy. “The most important thing we tell people is that they need to have the courage to help, to be advocates and ambassadors for awareness. Be on the lookout for friends and family members in trouble. We want to get those people into a safe place, so they can be strong and live a healthy life. Turning Point is that place for them.”
To learn more about Turning Point and how you can help their efforts, visit www.turningpointlv.org. If you or someone who know is in immediate danger of violence, please call 911 or Turning Point’s 24/7 hotline at 610-437-3369. Turning Point also has Rural Advocates who offer counseling/advocacy services in the Easton, Bath-Nazareth, and Slate Belt areas. Those needing services may call for meeting times/places. Call 610-437-3369, 24 hours a day or toll-free at 877-438-4957.