The Columns

Changing Perspectives: Laura Penney ’16 Changing Perspectives, Shephed Intern at House of Ruth, Baltimore, MD

— by on December 14th, 2015

Laura Penney '16

“During my time at House of Ruth, I saw firsthand the positive impact the organization has on domestic violence victims.”

As a poverty minor at Washington and Lee, I like to think of myself as open-minded and well-informed about the needs and experiences of low-income individuals. In the past two years, I have engaged in countless discussions in and out of the classroom about all of the things poor persons are not. They are not selfish. They are not stupid. They are not lazy. I came into this summer believing that I knew just about everything there is to know about impoverished persons. It was not until I began my internship that I began to consider something to which I had previously given little thought: What the poor are. They are frustrated. They are rational. They are resilient. And, like any other human, they are imperfect, and they are doing the best they can given their circumstances.

This summer, I worked at the House of Ruth domestic violence legal clinic in Baltimore, Maryland. I spoke with dozens of victims of intimate partner violence, each with her own heart-breaking story. It was incredibly challenging to speak with these men and women about the trauma they had suffered at the hands of people they trusted, whether it be their partner, their spouse, or the parent of their children. From the woman who was sexually assaulted on a nearly daily basis by her husband, to the man whose ex-girlfriend stalked and threatened to kill him, I learned from each of the clients I spoke with. They reacted to their circumstances with varying degrees of shock, embarrassment, fear and anger, but what stood out most was their bravery and their determination to break away from dangerously unhealthy relationships. Every day, I went home from work completely exhausted and usually preoccupied with worry for the clients who seemed to be in particular danger. Given the high level of stress that working with domestic violence victims induced in me, I can only imagine what they must feel. After all, for me this was merely an eight-week educational experience; for them, it is an unrelenting reality.

As the weeks went on, I began to realize that domestic violence and poverty are deeply intertwined. Both operate in cycles that are difficult to escape; the majority of people born into poverty in the United States remain poor as adults, and individuals who grow up exposed to domestic violence have an elevated risk of becoming victims or perpetrators of domestic violence. Furthermore, domestic violence and poverty often coexist and exacerbate each other. Imagine, for example, a man who works long hours at a dangerous construction job that barely pays enough to cover rent for his family’s moldy two-bedroom apartment, while his wife stays home with their four children. The man returns from a stressful day at work to find that his wife has not prepared dinner. She attempts to explain that she has not had time to cook because she has been caring for their sick son, but her husband does not hear her over the sound of his own yelling. After telling the children to leave the kitchen, the man begins beating his wife. For what seems like the thousandth time, the woman contemplates leaving him, but although she fears her husband, she also fears what would happen to her and her children without him. Where would they go? How could they afford to get by? She has little education and no work experience, and even if she did find a job, she would have to pay somebody to watch the children. Furthermore, what if her husband came after her? Reluctantly, she decides to stay, desperately hoping her husband will change. The woman’s seemingly irrational choice may be the most practical for the immediate well-being of herself and her children.

Breaking away from domestic violence is far from simple. Success is never guaranteed, there is rarely a single-step way out, and the consequences for attempting to move forward may be severe. This is why House of Ruth, along with other programs that assist victims of domestic violence in protecting and supporting themselves and their families, are so essential. If the woman in this story never leaves her abusive husband, she will never provide for herself, and her children will never see an example of a healthy relationship, which will hinder them academically, socially and emotionally. Although domestic violence is not unique to the poor, it is one of many serious problems that must be mitigated before we can hope to effectively diminish poverty.

During my time at House of Ruth, I saw first-hand the positive impact the organization has on domestic violence victims. For many victims of domestic violence, taking legal action is the first step toward moving on, and the attorneys and legal advocates at House of Ruth thoroughly explain the legal process to clients and make sure they know what to expect in court. They also inform clients about options of which they may not be aware, such as Emergency Family Maintenance, a type of financial assistance that can be required as part of a protective order. Additionally, the staff refers clients to other organizations such as counseling, address-confidentiality services, and child support that assist with emotional and financial recovery from domestic violence. Perhaps most important, the staff at House of Ruth listens to clients without judgment and makes them feel validated. By supporting clients throughout the legal process, House of Ruth empowers them to help themselves, and I believe it would serve as a great model for the formation of similar organizations.