When a Dalton Gardens woman decided in April that she and her 3-year-old son could no longer endure her failing marriage, she sat down with pen and paper at her kitchen table and evaluated her options for escape.
She could discuss a peaceful resolution with her husband, but that would come only at the risk of another escalating argument, another potential altercation, or worse.
She could wait until he left in June for a six-week stint on the Minot natural gas fields, though that would mean two months of escalating arguments, altercations or worse.
The third option was to quickly, quietly remove herself and her son from the abusive relationship with the help of an organized, committed team of supportive advocates.
“I didn’t know how to leave,” the woman said. “I didn’t know what options were out there. I thought I was just supposed to be with him until one of us killed the other. It would have happened in front of my son. I just know it in my heart.”
With her nearest family in the Portland area and unable to provide day-to-day assistance, she took what local advocates say is one of the hardest steps forward: She sought help and found Safe Passage, a Coeur d’Alene center that provides shelter, services and support for victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence.
“I wish I would have reached out earlier,” she said. “They were so helpful to me and my family. My life — and my kiddo’s life — it’s night and day.”
Founded in 2014 and formerly known as the North Idaho Violence Prevention Center, Safe Passage and its small staff and collection of volunteers do more than ship survivors like this woman, who says she still fears for her life, out of harm’s way. The nonprofit also helps with medical needs, safe beds, counseling, housing referrals, even temporary cellphones for 911 communication. For Chauntelle Lieske, executive director of Safe Passage the past two years, these resources — as critical as they may seem to a survivor in need — aren’t as important as its most challenging service.
“I think the most important resource we provide is education,” Lieske said. “Not just family education or legal education or even just education that we’re here for you. There’s just a myth out there we only provide resources. Really, we’re trying to educate a whole community about the lack of understanding around domestic violence and sexual abuse. It’s a hidden thing in our community. It’s still one of those things no one wants to talk about. People think, ‘No, it couldn’t happen, not here. It doesn’t happen here.’ But it does. It happens every day.”
The arithmetic is startling: Domestic violence and sexual abuse happens far more than once a day in this area. More than 1,100 survivors have drawn on Safe Passage resources so far this year, a number on pace to match 2014’s roughly 1,400 survivors, up from 750 in 2017.
That’s the bad news.
The good news, Lieske said, is that the rise in people seeking help in the Coeur d’Alene area doesn’t represent an increase in violence. It represents more people willing to speak up.
“A lot of times, survivors say, ‘But I love him,’ or, ‘He’s going to stop,’” Lieske said. “The reality is, people don’t realize they have choices in these situations, or many times they’re afraid, and with good reason. Exiting violent relationships is the most dangerous moment for survivors. For the perpetrator, the relationship is all about control, and when they see they’re losing that control, they’ll often act out in any way they can to keep it. This is why the safety planning we provide is one of the most important things we can do.”
That growing number represents only a fraction of the state’s domestic violence epidemic. According to the Women’s and Children’s Alliance out of Boise, 17 Idaho residents were killed in domestic violence-related incidents in 2017. Every 15 hours and 24 minutes, someone in Idaho is raped.
Those numbers represent reported crimes. Lieske said one of the biggest obstacles survivors face is a quiet stigma that keeps families from finding help. She said she was oddly encouraged by the rising willingness to speak out.
“We here at Safe Passage really try to openly talk about domestic and sexual violence,” she said. “There isn’t one reason why domestic violence happens. It really depends; every situation and every person is unique. It’s hard sometimes, but I have to remember how brave these people are for deciding to come forward.”
Lieske said her own story helped her carve out a place at Safe Passage. She became a survivor advocate in Spokane due in large part to her own experience witnessing firsthand the damage domestic violence caused in her family. But out of heartache and hardship, she added that she found inspiration in the darkest of places.
“The other reason I love doing this is the grit,” she said. “Our survivors have so much grit. This thing they bring themselves to do is so amazing to watch. Our survivors are so powerful. It’s just incredible to watch. They’re incredible. The resiliency within survivors: That’s what keeps me coming back.”
The increase in victims seeking out help — while providing hope to Lieske, her staff and her 16 volunteers — creates an alarming problem for Safe Passage: their own resources. The steadily increasing numbers of those looking for assistance has put a strain on funds and donated items. Although beds and personal items like toiletries, dish soap and paper towels often run scarce, Lieske said the organization always has an open door to survivors.
“Our motto is, ‘We’re often at capacity, but we’ll always make room,” she said. “We’ll always have room for somebody looking to keep themselves and their children safe.”
Still, Safe Passage is always in need of donations. Wednesday night’s annual fundraiser at Seasons in Coeur d’Alene, dubbed “A Martini Affair,” brought a crowd of donors willing to contribute. For some, like Don “Pepper” Smock and his wife, Midge, Safe Passage’s mission is far more personal than a tax-deductible contribution.
“For me, it’s simple, really,” Smock said. “I was raised in downtown Coeur d’Alene on a dirt street by a single mother. In the 1950s, Coeur d’Alene was not the city you see today. It was a Wild West kind of town back then. These programs today, all of [them are geared toward] women’s violence prevention. But there was no such thing back then. There were no programs like this to protect my mother. As a small child, I only saw my biological father once: He came to my house to beat up my mother.”
That trauma, Smock said, encouraged him to commit himself to helping other families in need, rather than fall into the cycle of violence Lieske contends is far too entrapping for children in abusive households. Today, as managing broker for Windermere in Coeur d’Alene, he and Midge believe not only in charity but also in getting involved. Last year, the Smocks continued their annual tradition of donating $10,000 during A Martini Affair.
Wednesday, they upped their donation to $25,000.
“We had a good year,” Smock said, “but this isn’t about us. This is about hoping others can step forward and help. As a 2-year-old, there wasn’t anything I could do about [domestic violence]. But now? Maybe you can’t stop somebody from hurting his family that first time. But maybe you can help open doors for people in really challenging situations, so they can get the help they need. That’s why this is such important work Safe Passage is doing for our community.”
Lieske said philanthropy like the Smocks’ inspires hope in Safe Passage’s future.
“It’s amazing what Pepper and Midge do for us,” Lieske said. “The support they provide every year is ... I don’t have words to describe it. It’s that kind of leadership in our community that is so inspiring. I can’t thank them enough. I can’t thank all our donors enough.”
She added that while financial contributions are always appreciated, the community can give back in any number of ways.?“Of course, we appreciate any amount of money someone can give,” she said. “But for people who can’t give money, we’re always taking non-perishables, toiletries, blankets, teddy bears, whatever we can use. Every survivor is different, and every situation is unique, so we can always use those resources. But the most important commodity the community can provide is time. We need volunteers. Volunteers are crucial to our mission. We need advocates to help our survivors. Even if your talents don’t necessarily line up with what we need in a particular moment, we need people with a passion for survivors, a passion to help.”
Lieske urges you to email her at email@example.com to donate time, talent or treasure. For victims in need, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 208-664-9303. All inquiries are confidential.
While she values any donation, Lieske’s biggest wish, however, might just be a megaphone.
“We need to get the word out to people that we’re here,” she said. “We’re here for our community. We’re here for you. We want you to know that what’s happening to you isn’t your fault, and we’re here to help.”