A WINNING BATTLE.
FLORENCE - The last thing Joe Lunak remembers is throwing punches at a blackberry bush on a dark, drunken night in Mapleton in 2002.
But what changed Lunak's life is the fight he started next - with his wife of 20 years. This he was too blacked out to recall, Lunak says, though pieces of the brutal beating creep back to him as his years of regret stretch on.
Initially, it was only the sight of her that stuck in his mind - blood gushing from a wound in her head, screaming for help in the front yard of their Florence home. He remembers realizing he needed to take her to the hospital, even though he was the one who'd caused this. Then, the police, beating on his front door, cuffs at the ready.
This is how Joe Lunak learned he was a wife-beater - from a police report he read in his jail cell.
"They said I had beat the hell out of my wife," he said.
It's also what forced the 49-year-old carpenter to take a new look at himself. His revelation came only after months of work, under the watchful eye of a program that is widely hailed as a model for dealing with domestic violence in small communities.
Lunak's resulting arrest and assault conviction led to mandatory meetings at a batterers intervention group, sponsored by Florence's Siuslaw Outreach Services. SOS is an integral part of a network in western Lane County that aims to deal with domestic violence in a more sophisticated, coordinated, determined way, so that no victim or batterer can easily slip through the cracks.
A Florence reserve police officer, Tony Bour, whose salary is funded by a federal grant, doubles as an advocate at the center and serves as the point person for every domestic violence call the city fields. This way, the system not only assigns its most capable expert to those cases, but assures that batterers or victims who've been through the system during Bour's tenure will be remembered, at least by Bour.
His role as an advocate makes Bour an additional link, helping victims obtain restraining orders against their abusers and following their cases to completion.
The court system in Florence also plays a critical role, if only because judges are determined not to let domestic violence cases be dismissed as "domestic disputes," as they did decades ago when officers, courts and the laws that guide them sometimes offered only an ineffectual shrug - symptoms of a society that often considered breaking up a fight an invasion of privacy.
But the most important piece of Florence's efforts to deal with domestic violence is at the outreach center itself, which has grown over the years from a tiny women's shelter borrowing space in a basement to a full-fledged network, offering support for victims and batterers alike to change their lives.
Something about the way Florence deals with domestic violence is working. Granted, it's a small town. But the facts don't lie: In Lane County, police responded to 11 domestic violence-related homicides in a six-month period ending in early 2004. None of those happened west of Mapleton. The last domestic violence-related homicide in western Lane County was in September 1998, when a Mapleton man shot his girlfriend and then killed himself.
The center's domestic violence calls and visits have plummeted from more than 7,000 in 1999 to 3,200 last year. That's unusual because awareness about domestic violence has grown during that time, which would logically lead to more reports. Florence's elderly population - the average age here is 55 - probably contributes to the low number, says Executive Director Ethel Bassett, but it also means such crimes likely go unreported, partly because domestic violence involving the elderly is often at the hands of their own children.
But the numbers also reflect a low recidivism rate, says Florence Municipal Judge Richard Brissenden, whose tireless focus on domestic violence is considered a large part of the solution.
"Offhand, I can't think of anybody who has come through the system twice," said Brissenden, who handles the city's domestic violence cases. "The Siuslaw center is a well-run organization, the police department in Florence is particularly committed to combating domestic violence, and the relationship set up between the police and the Siuslaw center is somewhat unique - especially for a small, rural area. Siuslaw is hooked into the situation right from the get-go."
Siuslaw Outreach Services started in 1986 as the Siuslaw Area Women's Center, borrowing space in a tiny storage room at Lane Community College. A small group of volunteers worked to meet the needs of women who had become disenfranchised, one way or another. At the time, resources were scarce. The center, the only agency of its kind in western Lane County, hosted a weekly support group for women.
Agency grows to meet needs
The founders reached out to women solely by word of mouth. Two years later, the center got a new space, in the basement of the Siuslaw Pioneer Museum, took out an ad in the phone book and offered emergency shelter for the first time.
In the 1990s, it expanded, thanks to a grant, and inherited a 24-hour crisis line from the local chapter of Soroptimists. It moved its offices to another, larger location and added parenting classes, peer counseling, help with housing and utility bills, even laundry and showers to an array of other services.
The agency also joined forces with Eugene-based Womenspace, which serves all of Lane County. The Siuslaw Area Women's Center borrowed enough money to buy a building, secured a grant to fund a community liaison from the police department and opened a safe house, donated by the city of Florence, to be used as a domestic violence shelter.
In 2001, the agency changed its name to Siuslaw Outreach Services and expanded its services to include a batterers intervention program. Now, its staff includes three full-time and two part-time domestic violence advocates. Their work is buoyed by a dedicated network of 35 volunteers and an annual budget of $500,000.
The crisis line serves 150 to 200 people a month, and Bassett estimates that the center aids as many as 40 people per day. It furnishes the local biweekly newspaper with domestic violence statistics to help raise awareness of the issue.
"It's an agency trying to provide for a variety of needs in a little isolated place without a lot of help from anyone else," Bassett said. "Most other agencies don't provide the variety of services we do. Where other agencies might refer you out for services, if somebody comes here, it's a one-stop shop."
Darlene Golden also reached out for help from SOS. The 39-year-old mother of two grew up in El Paso, Texas, before moving to Oregon during high school. In 2000, she married a man in Grand Junction, Colo. Before long, the relationship soured, and Golden was battling a methamphetamine problem and suicidal tendencies. She packed up her two sons this summer and moved to Florence, where her mother lives. A Colorado safe house connected Golden with SOS.
The center is helping Golden with the money to get an apartment, and she talks with advocates regularly about her own issues and attends support groups, to cope with life as a single mother and remain free of drugs. She has been clean and sober since October 2003.
"It's knowing they're there if I need the help," Golden said. "I have a place to go that's safe. They may be strangers, but they care."
Police advocate position is key
Three years after joining the Florence police department, Tony Bour was asked by police Chief Lynn Lamm if he'd be interested in a position funded by a Violence Against Women Act grant, as an officer and domestic violence advocate at SOS. Bour would be the first male officer to hold the job.
It's unusual for men to work as advocates, said Bassett - because conventional wisdom would imply that female victims of violence wouldn't want anything to do with a man.
But Bour has proved that it can work, she said. His gentle demeanor is effective with victims and his status as a officer means batterers are less likely to trifle with him.
The Florence police "got a chance to see our group wasn't just radical feminists," says Bassett. "Once a person has an order, it gets enforced. The police take it seriously."
With batterers, Bour makes sure they know he won't forget them.
"You have to let them know they're accountable for their actions," he said. "And their actions aren't acceptable."
Bour has studied the different kinds of batterers, and he understands the complex nature of an abusive relationship.
But the biggest benefit of this position is continuity, Lamm says. If a domestic violence call goes out, Bour is paged. And he typically sees the case to completion.
"He becomes familiar with the kinds of questions he should be asking and the clues he should be looking for," Judge Brissenden said. "He becomes a more skilled domestic violence investigator. It's also advantageous that the victim is provided information right there on the scene as to the assistance he or she has available. That's a really crucial, critical time - right there at the scene. The next day, the next week, things change."
Court system plays a vital role
County Justice of the Peace Cindy Cable and Brissenden say domestic violence is a priority in their courtrooms. Brissenden, who sits on Lane County's Domestic Violence Council, says these cases are among the most serious he handles.
"I don't consider when I assign them to a probation officer that it's the end of the court's role. I consider it to be a situation of dual supervision. I believe consequences are very important," Brissenden said. "If there's a violation of probation or a no-contact order, they need to be brought back to court lickety-split and have the situation corrected. I make sure domestic violence defendants know up front that I'm watching and will enforce this order. I think it's been effective."
Joe Lunak can attest to this because the system has not let him slip. He remembers his first day in court with Brissenden.
"I was going to deny what I had done," Lunak said. "He leaned over the counter, and said 'You're in here because you're a wife-beater.' I was wrung to the core."
But Lunak's life has changed, he says. So have the lives of many a victim and the culture of domestic violence - at least in this small community.
Winston Ross can be reached at (541) 902-9030 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Darlene Golden received help from Siuslaw Outreach Services after moving to Florence with her two sons, who include Levi, 4. Golden had left a bad relationship in Colorado. "I have a place to go that's safe," Golden says. "They may be strangers, but they care." Kevin Clark / The Register-Guard "It was a tragedy," Joe Lunak, 49, says of his attack on his former wife. Lunak says a batterer intervention program and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings have changed him. "It turned my life around. I have a life now that I never dreamed of."