Karen* first came to the Lummi Victims of Crime (LVOC) domestic violence shelter in 2006 to be safe from her boyfriend. He apologized, she returned to him, and that cycle was repeated three times. Karen had her boyfriend’s child, and because she was using drugs, the child was placed in foster care, which eventually became a permanent placement. The fourth time she fled to the shelter, she was pregnant again, and her child was born at the shelter. This baby too was placed in foster care when she continued to use drugs, but ultimately she underwent a 30-day treatment to become sober, and, in the safety of the LVOC shelter, she was given her baby back. Eventually, Karen found other housing for herself and the child, and her child is now 7 years old, in school, and thriving. She still thanks LVOC for being there for her, but her LVOC advocate always reminds her that she was the one who did the work to get what she wanted.
LVOC is a tribal grantee of the Family and Youth Services Bureau's Family Violence Prevention and Services Program. For more than 25 years, it has been helping adults and young people affected by domestic violence, sexual assault, elder abuse, and other types of violence. The staff of 14 not only operates the shelter, but also offers crisis counseling, on-scene advocacy for domestic violence and sexual violence survivors, support groups, safety planning and referral, legal advocacy, traditional healing and therapy referrals, and community education.
“The normalization of domestic violence and sexual assault” is the biggest challenge LVOC faces in serving domestic and sexual violence survivors in the Lummi Nation and Washington State’s Whatcom County, says director Nikki Finkbonner. This program sometimes finds three generations of women from the same family in its shelter. While offering many kinds of assistance to individual women, LVOC is also working hard to make it clear that violence must not be a part of the Lummi Nation’s culture. Says Finkbonner, “We are here to give our people hope!”
In 2014, the LVOC domestic violence shelter expanded from 16 to 32 beds, but it still has to turn people away. Survivors and their children can stay as long as they need to, and families can stay together. Tribal Council dollars provide essential support to sustain this domestic and sexual assault program to help the Lummi people break the cycle of generational trauma.
Believing in the value of collaboration, Finkbonner serves on the board of the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, working to create social intolerance for domestic violence. She also participates in the Women Spirit Coalition, supporting 29 tribes working to stop violence against Native women.
To promote nonviolence in families, tribal youth have made and displayed signs all over the community. “Hands are not for hitting,” one reads. “Cousins are not for practice.” “Never let anyone control you!”
All LVOC services are trauma-informed, which is critically important considering that most of LVOC’s clients are survivors of incest who have suffered severe trauma. Many initially do not realize they have been in a domestic violence relationship, but Finkbonner says, “We give them the tools and try to get them to buy into it—walk with them, not look down on them.” Staff treat women with the utmost respect so that they feel like they are in control of the healing process. LVOC also works with two therapists who specialize in domestic violence and sexual assault treatment.
One therapist suggested that each sexual assault survivor write down one thing she would like to say to her abuser. Gathered in a collective letter “to our fathers, our grandfathers, our uncles, our brothers and our cousins, and our non-Native offenders,” these thoughts made an incredibly powerful statement. A few examples reflect the awareness and healing that took place:
- When you forced yourselves upon us, we thought it was normal, but you took away our boundaries and our voices and left us with rage and fear that still haunts us all these years later.
- We are putting you on notice. We are healing ourselves. We are taking back our power and our voices. We are giving up the alcohol and drugs we have used to forget our pain.
- We are growing stronger and healthier.
- We are learning to love ourselves and walking with our heads held up high.
*Name changed to protect confidentiality