When Rose Bak moved to Portland more than two decades ago to work as a case manager for the city’s housing authority she was surprised to learn that no one in her office could help her find shelter for a woman who wanted to flee her abusive husband.
“Now, that story is incomprehensible over 20 years later,” said Bak, director of the Multnomah County Domestic and Sexual Violence Coordination Office. “(Today), every person that would be at the housing authority or any social service agency would have basic knowledge of the domestic violence system.”
Bak used the story to illustrate how far Multnomah County has come in developing and coordinating programs and services to combat domestic violence in the community.
Still, she said, there is a long way to go.
“This morning, I get up and get an email that says as of yesterday we’ve had Oregon’s 27th, 28th and 29th deaths from domestic violence,” Bak said, referring to a case in which a Beaverton father killed his two children and then himself days after police officers responded to a domestic incident at the family’s home.
Bak spoke before the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners Thursday to raise awareness about domestic violence and sexual assault and to update commissioners on her office’s efforts. She was joined by county partners Patricia Rojas, executive director of El Programa Catòlico and Martha Strawn-Morris, director of the Gateway Center for Domestic Violence.
Following the presentation, commissioners adopted a proclamation declaring October 2016 as National Domestic Violence Awareness Month in Multnomah County.
Nationwide, one in four women and one in 10 men are affected by serious domestic violence in their lifetimes. One in 15 children will witness domestic violence, exposing them to feelings of terror, isolation, guilt, helplessness and grief and putting them at greater risk for criminal behavior and substance abuse.
Meanwhile, Oregon has one of the nation's highest rates of domestic and sexual violence against women. More than half of the state’s female population -- about one million women and girls -- have experienced some form of sexual or domestic violence, according to the “Count Her In” report from the Women’s Foundation of Oregon.
Multnomah County is working to reduce those numbers through crisis response, prevention, education, systems coordination and cultural responsiveness.
A team of eight in the county’s Domestic and Sexual Violence Coordination Office provides a continuum of trauma-informed and culturally-responsive services to survivors of domestic and sexual violence and other community members. The office’s prevention and intervention strategies are used by the county, the city of Portland and community agencies to promote individual community and societal level change.
The office, which operates within the Department of County Human Services Youth and Family Division, works with 14 agencies, including nine culturally specific organizations.
It funds programs that provide ongoing connection with advocates, survivor support groups, economic empowerment programs, credit remediation assistance, housing, legal services and other supportive services.
Included in this work, for instance, is the Domestic Violence Enhanced Response Team, or DVERT, Bak told the board.
DVERT, a collaboration between the county, law enforcement agencies, the Department of Human Services and two partner agencies, provides enhanced response to domestic violence victims who are at high risk of lethality. The advocates join police officers on calls to ensure that officers have a basic understanding of domestic violence services and are able mitigate the danger facing domestic violence victims.
In one recent example of the program in action, police last month engaged in an hours-long standoff with an armed man who had barricaded himself inside a Portland home. The person he had intended to harm, however, wasn’t home after having been moved to a protected location as part of the DVERT program, Bak said.
“The program, we feel quite confident, saved this person’s life,” Bak said.
Another popular program is the mobile outreach done in homeless communities and with culturally-specific populations.
In the coming months, the Domestic and Sexual Violence Office plans to expand its outreach to the LGBT community, increase economic empowerment for survivors of domestic violence and collaborate with other services systems.
The latter is a critical element of the strategy going forward, in part, because domestic violence is a significant contributing factor to homelessness and housing instability, key issues facing Multnomah County. Access to emergency shelter and safe, stable housing are critical for the nearly four in ten women who experience domestic violence and will become homeless as a result.
“...People don’t just come to us with one issue or one part of themselves, they come with their whole person,” DCHS Director Liesl Wendt said. “(We have to think about) how we as a department and as a county can best serve people in a most holistic way.”
Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury praised the office’s work to reduce domestic violence.
“I am just so pleased. ...Decades worth of work have been done,” Kafoury said. “It’s such an important area. Obviously these are some of our most vulnerable community members and the fact that we so quickly moved so far is just tremendous.”