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SE Iowa domestic violence program marks 40 years of helping survivors

Iowa City shelter also takes pets whose safety would be imperiled if they were left behind

Purple magnetic ribbons are displayed at the Domestic Violence Intervention Program in Iowa City on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019. The support and advocacy program is marking its 40th anniversary this month. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Purple magnetic ribbons are displayed at the Domestic Violence Intervention Program in Iowa City on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019. The support and advocacy program is marking its 40th anniversary this month. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

The Domestic Violence Intervention Program in Iowa City has answered more than 280,000 crisis line calls and provided safe shelter for 420,000 nights to more than 8,850 women, men and children, over the last 40 years.

The organization, in working with community partners, has provided crisis intervention, advocacy, shelter, counseling, support groups, youth programming, education and prevention resources to victims of domestic abuse, their children and family or friends since 1979, said Alta Medea-Peters, director of community engagement.

Medea-Peters said the resiliency of the program is “awe-inspiring” and what encouraged her to become a volunteer. She became a board member and eventually joined the staff 2 1/2 years ago. Her mother volunteered at a domestic violence shelter and she grew up believing everyone should be safe in their home.

The program, which started at the University of Iowa Women’s Resource and Action Center in 1979, has given victims a safe transitional place to heal, and now provides services in eight counties in southeast Iowa — Cedar, Des Moines, Henry, Iowa, Johnson, Lee, Van Buren and Washington.

More than 1,900 people were served this past year, Medea-Peters pointed out. 

The program had a fundraiser Friday to celebrate its 40 anniversary. The staff put together a history wall made up of program files, statistics and newspaper clippings to share the growth of the program over the years during the event.

Medea-Peters said the newer staff members were “shocked” to see how many nights of safe shelter the organization has provided to victims or “survivors,” as they are referred to by Medea-Peters, staff and volunteers.

The Iowa City shelter opened in 1980 with partial funding by the United Way, the city of Iowa City, Johnson County and a community block grant. 

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In 1984, the organization expanded into space previously used for rental income, and then the next year was able to renovate the space for its needs.

In 1986, the program received significant funding from the state and added another staff position to provide group counseling, community outreach and education.

That year, a mandatory arrest law took effect, which changed the community’s perception of domestic abuse, and law enforcement was able to arrest intimate partners who physically assaulted.

The program experienced a “300 percent” increase in requests for service, according to program records.

Officials said at the same time, the program was working with other community organizations to develop a program for male abusers. Efforts to form a coalition of prosecution, law enforcement, and social services agencies, served as a statewide model for comprehensive services to battered women and their children, according to program records.

In 1993, the program moved into a 13-bedroom shelter that could accommodate up to 40 victims, which was only the second one in the state at that time, Medea-Peters said.

In 2010, a transitional housing program in Burlington was established to go beyond what the emergency shelter could provide, according to program history. Many of these victims needed longer-term housing before they could take care of themselves and their families on their own.

The emergency shelter in Iowa City has 40 beds, Medea-Peters said, and it’s full every day. Over the past year, the staff has seen the yearly totals double to 25,000 nights of safety provided at the shelter. The average stay usually is 40 days.

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While are at the shelter, people receive other services and resources they might need to eventually live on their own and stay safe, she said.

“Throughout our 40 years, we also have provided not only safety but dignity to victims/survivors of intimate partner violence,” she added.

Medea-Peters said the program couldn’t meet the need in the eight counties without community partners — including churches, local businesses, other social services agencies and charitable foundations.

The domestic program is only the second one in the state to offer a safe, organized pet program, Medea-Peters said. Cooper’s House was created when a room in the emergency shelter was renovated to make space for large and small pets.

The space has special venting and bathing facilities for the pets to be comfortable while at the shelter, according to the program’s website. The pets have access to a backyard, and a future goal is add outside kennels and dog runs.

Medea-Peters said a barrier for some victims to leave their violent home is that they don’t want to leave their animals, who also could be in danger with an abuser who wants to maintain control and create a fearful environment — in an attempt to hold onto a victim.

If someone is worried for another’s safety in a domestic situation or if someone is needing help themselves, call (800)-373-1043.

Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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