November 19, 2009 at 8:18 a.m.
This shelter stop was the first of what will be many visits to facilities across Minnesota for Franken. She has set a course to see for herself what's working for victims of domestic abuse and what's not working, and bring those insights to her husband in D.C.
"This is a very important subject," she told the women.
She added she really appreciated "your opening up and your honesty" in allowing her to learn firsthand of issues encountered in getting away from an abusive environment.
Seated around the shelter's kitchen table the clients spoke with Mrs. Franken about roadblocks in accessing programs, and of their concerns about certain aspects of a legal system that's supposed to protect victims.
The idea that this issue of domestic violence belongs on the national stage was clear as two residents explained they fled abusive, life threatening situations in Wisconsin and came here to east central Minnesota when they found nothing available for them on the other side of the river.
One woman explained that a pervasive "drug world" in her hometown created a desperate situation for her, and she actually took out an Order For Protection to try to contain an out-of-control woman.
Another shelter resident said the judge on her abuse case had a working relationship with the abuser and the case was so badly handled she filed suit on the judicial standards matter, but still fled.
One woman said sensitivity training for those exposed to abuse reports must be improved. A responding police officer to her incident "belittled" her and ignored her concerns. She told Fran Franken, "This is the guy who is going to enforce an order for protection, and his behavior doesn't make you feel very good."
In another woman's situation the physical abuse was at the hand of a step-father. She'd moved home with her children and her step-father struck her in front of her son. The adult woman found few officials who would lend aid or shelter when the abuser was not a spouse or a boyfriend. "It shouldn't matter who is abusing you," she told Franken.
The Refuge was the first place willing to help, she added.
A director for Lakes Crisis and Resource Center, located more than an hour's drive from where The Refuge shelter is, told Mrs. Franken her region needs to develop a shelter facility. "These people have no chance to change their lives unless we provide it," said Jan Logan.
State agencies will not support addition of shelter space in Minnesota, based on a "moratorium" on shelter beds enacted several years ago, she explained.
The Refuge's Roxy Karelis said, "It's true that on any given day in the state you can probably find a bed, but it might be at a facility that's hours away."
Darlene Coughlin, Rivers of Hope program director, stressed that charitable resources are dwindling and leaving domestic abuse aid programs to rely on private donors is not a suitable answer to what she said is a growing demand.
Not everything Mrs. Franken heard was negative, however.
One woman has a therapist through Five County Mental health (a multi-county public consortium) who she described as, "enormously awesome."
Another woman said her church community has stepped up whenever she needs something-- a ride somewhere or a babysitter. Cambridge Medical Center has been a welcoming partner in providing another shelter resident with her healthcare, but healthcare remains one of the top hurdles for a basically homeless and abused person in these programs.
Franken heard that some programs are well-meaning but don't go far enough, like daycare subsidies for working moms. One woman said she was trying to do the right thing taking a job offering 18 hours a week, just to get her life kick-started again. Then she learned she needed 20 hours to qualify for daycare aid and she said "I felt like I was getting punished for taking the job I could."