No More Playing Opossum: Domestic Violence Awareness Month

October 19, 2015

Guest Blog by by Heather L. Hanline, MS, LCPC, Dove Center Executive Director, Nonprofit Member of Maryland Nonprofits 

Each month, Maryland Nonprofits selects a nonprofit member to help raise awareness with a guest blog. Thank you to Dove Center for donating their time to share today’s blog. Learn more about Dove Center here.

Curled up in bed, Patty and her little girl, Lily, read Dr. Suess. They enjoy the temporary peace and quiet, knowing that it is a fleeting moment. Suddenly, the front door opens. Lily whispers, “play opossum”, and curls up in a ball, pretending to be asleep. Patty does the same, praying her husband will be too tired, or too drunk to start something tonight. They have learned that if they “play opossum”, they may avoid a night of screaming, pushing, fighting, cursing, fear, terror, etc. Both shift immediately to a state of hyper-vigilance, hearts pounding, legs shaking, heads spinning, blood pressure rising, wondering what will happen next. On a “good night”, he passes by the room, grunts and mutters a few profanities, and proceeds to his bed and passes out. On a bad night, he drags Patty out of the bed, throws her down the hallway, and spends  hours screaming at her about how everything is her fault, how stupid and ugly she is, and how she can’t do anything right. Meanwhile, Lily lays shaking in her bed, absorbing and internalizing everything that she hears, becoming unconsciously programmed to relive the same life when she becomes an adult. As she gets older, she becomes the protector, and will learn to sleep so lightly that she can jump out of bed and intervene in a fight before she even realizes she is awake. Patty and Lily will carry the effects of this trauma for years to come, and possibly forever. It will shape the rest of their lives.   

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, a time to acknowledge that all individuals have the right to be safe within their own homes, but tragically, for many, home is a place of violence and fear. The emotional scars left in the aftermath of domestic violence are often permanent. The impact of domestic violence on society is devastating. Nearly every social problem can be traced back to it.  

October is also a time to recognize and applaud the many professionals and volunteers who are working on the front lines in domestic violence programs across the nation. These programs often operate on shoe string budgets, providing services free of charge. We are working tirelessly so that victims and their children no longer have to “play opossum” to survive. We strive everyday to be a source of safety and healing, to break the cycle of abuse, and to change the course of each family’s history. 

The Dove Center began as a grassroots effort by a group of individuals who recognized the need for victim services over 24 years ago. A small office initially focused on information dissemination and hotline. It became evident that there was a critical need to expand services. In the next 10 years, massive public awareness, growth, planning, and fundraising led to the construction of a new facility, housing shelter, counseling and administrative offices. It stands today as a permanent symbol of safety and healing for victims in Garrett County and surrounding areas.  

An average of 500 victims per year receive services, including shelter, hotline, counseling, outreach, advocacy, and accompaniment. Only five percent or less are duplicate clients (clients who returned for the same reason, in the same year), illustrating the success of our programs. The program has gained accolades that have attracted individuals from the surrounding area, and other states, to come to our agency for services. Exhaustive community outreach and education efforts continue to create awareness and intolerance of domestic violence and sexual assault, as well as awareness of our vital services.    

The Dove Center seeks to overcome the barriers to accessing services in a rural area, and continuously strives to improve and expand services. Some achievements unique to the Dove Center include:  1.) Cats and dogs of shelter victims are now housed on-site, with a grant from the RedRover Foundation;  2.) Two counselors provide services in our local schools on a daily basis;  3.) Two counselors are becoming Certified Addictions Counselors, to provide substance abuse and victimization counseling concurrently; and,  4.) A strong partnership exists with the local Community College. A counselor is on site frequently, offering counseling, information and referral, and prevention activities.   

Our victim services are offered free of charge. If a dollar value were placed on these services, it would likely be 25 times our actual annual budget.  

Without programs like ours, “playing opossum” can become a way of life for these children…who become adults…who have children…who learn to “play opossum”…who become adults…who have children…etc. We seek to make the picture look more like this:  A child learns to “play opossum”…it happens often…parent finds information about the local program…there are a few hotline calls… trust is gained… an appointment is made…she/he no longer feels alone…we are here, 24/7…safety planning… she/he leaves, safely…through shelter and counseling, she/he finds a safe place, a job, independence, self-esteem, courage….and finally…no more “playing opossum”. The child grows up learning that violence is not a way of life…the cycle is broken.   


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