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Victims return to help domestic violence shelter

Stephanie Young was one of the first women to live at Haven House, a domestic violence shelter serving Erie County.

More than 30 years later, she strutted her stuff in an impeccable white suit, working the runway Sunday at a fashion show to benefit the shelter.

About 350 people filled the Hearthstone Manor in Depew to support both the cause and the show’s models – many of whom are survivors of domestic violence themselves.

Katey Joyce, the shelter’s director, has seen sweeping changes in her more than 25 years at Haven House.

“There is less victim blaming now. Before, it was the victim’s problem, the new awareness is that blaming the victim is not part of the equation,” Joyce said.

High-profile local cases of domestic abuse – such as the 2009 beheading of Aasiya Zubair by her husband and the videotaped abuse of Susan Still by her husband, which was featured on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” in both 2007 and 2011 – have forced the issue into the spotlight.

“It shows the community that domestic violence without any intervention can become lethal,” Joyce said. “And it’s a tragedy that’s completely preventable.”

Though Haven House and shelters like it around the country have no shortage of people seeking help, there is a greater willingness for survivors to reach out, for community members to step in and greater awareness that help is available.

“It’s no longer acceptable to keep hidden or quiet.” Joyce said. “It’s not just a family problem, it’s one of our leading social problems.”

The Family Justice Center of Erie County has been a particular boon. The one-stop center houses 13 agencies that work together for victims of domestic violence and their children.

While volunteer “grandmothers” watch children in a play area at the center, women can seek help from legal professionals, counselors and medical staff and will find assistance with everything from documenting injuries, coming up with a safety plan and filing an order of protection to finding a safe place to live, such as Haven House.

Police are more likely to take reports of domestic abuse seriously, Joyce said, and the criminal justice system has become more equitable to survivors of domestic violence overall.

There has been a decrease in domestic violence-related homicides, improved legislation to protect victims, increased awareness in the community and shifting attitudes in general, Joyce said.

The Violence Against Women Act of 1994, which was just reauthorized by President Obama, has been particularly helpful, Joyce said. The act sets federal mandates that protect abuse victims and funds the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women.

Joyce worked in the field before that legislation was enacted and said society is much better served with the act in force. It assures the crimes of domestic violence are taken seriously in a uniform way throughout the country, rather than changing from one state to another.

“It’s the government saying, ‘We want safe communities in every state,’ ” Joyce said.