Family abuse shelters in rural towns working with fewer resources to serve influx of survivors

Calls for help have spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic, staff getting creative to help

ATASCOSA COUNTY - – Packed shelters, hotlines ringing off the hook, and pleas for help. It’s the reality for a family violence shelter in Atascosa County.

In a small rural town with less space and fewer resources, the pandemic has created a new set of challenges.

Still, a dedicated team of advocates is making it work.

“I had been married going on three years and I was very reluctant to admit I was in an abusive relationship. It had not turned physical until this last situation, where I came here. Two of those instances I was cut with a knife on my neck and one of those instances while I was pregnant,” said a survivor who is not being identified for her safety.

This survivor did everything right by understanding her worsening circumstances and forming a safety plan before leaving.

“Leaving definitely is the most dangerous part of it. I called my case manager and I said, ‘Hey you got to get me out of here.’ I had to come somewhere I knew he wouldn’t find me,” she said.

She ended up in the Safer Path Family Violence Shelter in Atascosa County.

KSAT got to visit last year when the shelter opened, though the organization has been providing crisis services for 28 years.

They offer the same services as larger shelters, but at a scaled level.

“Safety planning, divorce, protective orders, whatever it is that they needed. They’re going to be there to hold your hand in court through the whole legal process, if you need support modifying your child custody agreements, or if you want to get counseling,” said Executive Director Rhonda Williamson.

Williamson said the pandemic created enormous obstacles for the small organization.

“With COVID restrictions, that means we can house eight families or eight individuals. But we do have 22 beds in these eight bedrooms,” she said.

Every single room is full and there’s a waitlist to stay there.

When COVID-19 hit, the shelter was busy at a normal, sustainable level. Then, stay home orders kept victims at home with their abusers.

“What’s really scary for our staff is that the hotline quit ringing,” Williamson said.

Then, like shelters across the country, the orders lifted and people flooded the hotlines and shelters.

Williamson said she consistently partners with other small rural shelters in Seguin, Boerne, even Corpus Christi, mainly because it’s often unsafe for survivors in small towns to shelter in their own community.

“It’s a whole different animal,” she said. “We’ve had clients that have said, ‘I would have asked for help earlier if I would have known this was going to be confidential.’ Because your neighbor and your best friend and your sister, everything is two or three degrees separation in a community of this size but we work really hard at maintaining good professional boundaries, respecting client confidentiality and know you are safe to come and tell your story to us and we are going to work with you and make sure that systems work the way they’re supposed to work.”

However now, lack of space makes those partnerships with other shelters more important than ever.

“If there are no stay home orders in place, we anticipate this to be our new normal,” Williamson said.

So Williamson and her team are working harder and getting creative so survivors know there’s help, no matter where they live.

“We’re going to incorporate chat for our hotline, so that if you’re stuck at home with your abuser who can hear you on the phone, which is what we rely on, that they can chat with somebody discreetly,” Williamson explained.

She said every survivor’s case is unique.

“You’re the expert on keeping yourself safe. And if you know it’s not safe to leave, let’s work together to make a safety plan for you that does keep you safe,” Williamson said.

“Nobody’s going to fight harder for you than you and your life and your children,” said the survivor who’s been staying at the Safer Path shelter. “I just thank God I was blessed enough and fortunate enough to be accepted in such a program like this.”

The pandemic has forced Williamson to cancel the organization’s two biggest fundraisers this year.

So once again, she’s getting creative and holding a raffle online.

“There’s some great prizes, there’s a $2500, $1500, and $1000 Visa gift cards. Raffle tickets are very inexpensive, it’s a $25 entrance fee, offering big prizes including $2,500 and $1,500 Visa gift cards,” Williamson said.

To find out how to donate, head to the Safer Path FVS fundraising website.

For information on the Safer Path Family Violence Shelter and it’s services, head to the main page.

If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, head to KSAT’s Domestic Violence Resource Page.


About the Authors

Courtney Friedman anchors KSAT’s weekend evening shows and reports during the week. Her ongoing Loving in Fear series confronts Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She joined KSAT in 2014 and is proud to call the SA and South Texas community home. She came to San Antonio from KYTX CBS 19 in Tyler, where she also anchored & reported.

Before starting at KSAT in August 2011, Ken was a news photographer at KENS. Before that he was a news photographer at KVDA TV in San Antonio. Ken graduated from San Antonio College with an associate's degree in Radio, TV and Film. Ken has won a Sun Coast Emmy and four Lone Star Emmys. Ken has been in the TV industry since 1994.

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