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NIAGARA FALLS -- When Nancy Wangler joined Family and Children's Services of Niagara in the late 1980s, domestic violence was an escalating problem for which there were no simple answers.

"We were seeing more cases where women needed a safe (refuge), and it was really difficult finding them a safe place to stay," she said. "We used hotels and different (arrangements), but none were really satisfactory."

With help from the late State Sen. John Daly, Family and Children's Services was given a property within the city against which a tax lien had been placed. Daly was instrumental in getting the lien forgiven, and PASSAGE House was born.

PASSAGE House offered women and their children shelter from the storm of domestic abuse. The program also offers counseling and advocacy services, said Wangler, director of the Niagara PASSAGE House program.

It recently marked its 10th anniversary with a celebratory luncheon.

"I couldn't imagine doing the work we do in domestic violence without having a facility like PASSAGE House available to us," Niagara County District Attorney Matthew Murphy III said. "It's been a cornerstone of all our efforts in domestic violence here in Niagara County.

"You forget that, with all the sophisticated programs we have now, just 10 years ago a shelter for battered women was a priority. It shows how far we've come."

Wangler said that over the past 10 years, PASSAGE House has "provided safety, counseling and advocacy to about 3,000 women and children. The need was very great at the time we opened, and it remains so.

"Even though we've seen the community's awareness of domestic violence and laws providing more protection for women increase, there is still a tremendous need for a safety net such as PASSAGE House," she said.

One domestic violence survivor, who asked to remain anonymous, relayed the tremendous strain women experience when enduring -- and in particular leaving -- an abusive relationship.

"When I left my abuser, it was the hardest thing that I'd ever done," she said. "But coming to PASSAGE House made it a lot easier. The people at PASSAGE House helped me to believe in myself again. They taught me that the abuse was not my fault . . . and now I am in a relationship that is safe and healthy."

Family and Children's Services spokeswoman Eileen McNerney Wagner said that among the services provided to clients of PASSAGE House are programs that restore the courage and self-worth of abuse victims, clearing a path for them to heal and return to a productive role in society.

"It must be so difficult to have to look your friends and family members in the eye and say that my life is not working out, that I have to leave my husband and start a new life," Murphy said. "I don't think that it would be possible without the work of the people at PASSAGE House giving them the courage."

Recognizing the patterns of abuse and realizing that victimization isn't their fault can be some of the most difficult hurdles for victims, McNerney Wagner said.

Another survivor told those gathered to celebrate PASSAGE House's anniversary that she was repeatedly victimized because "I didn't know where to go."

"My abuser threw me over a cliff, and I fell 30 feet down," she said. "Sheila (a PASSAGE House staffer) came to the hospital, and I didn't believe that there was really help to take me away from this relationship.

"But they did."

The woman later returned to her abuser and was choked and stabbed, but again PASSAGE House was there for her.

"They came over, packed me up, and I never looked back," the woman said. "Now I've got a wonderful job. I've bought a home for my daughter and myself, and I'm doing good."

McNerney Wagner said that in recent years incidents of domestic violence have worsened, some to the point of murder. The most dangerous time, she said, is just before or immediately after a woman leaves.

To ensure the safety of incoming women, PASSAGE House staffers help them to develop a safety plan for the time period before, during and after their stay at the shelter.

For those who have made the choice, PASSAGE House offers refuge while they "get their lives back together, find a new apartment and gain their independence," Wangler said.

Family and Children's Services offers a confidential, 24-hour crisis hot line at 285-6984.

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