Sherri is a survivor of domestic abuse from her first marriage, 40 years ago. Today she is CEO of AVDA (Aid to
Victims of Domestic Abuse), which this month launches its Coaching Boys into Men program, aimed at teaching
student athletes about healthy relationships. Her son is a Victim Advocate at the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.
As a woman, as a parent, and as someone who works tirelessly to put an end to domestic abuse, she embodies the brilliant power of the human spirit.
By Sara G. Stephens
HFM: What can you share with us about your personal domestic abuse survival story?
SK: I am very fortunate to have survived domestic violence as a young adult in my first marriage, almost losing my life twice to my then husband. Had there been agencies such as AVDA in existence at that time, I may not have endured what I did for four long years. I was fortunate, though, to escape the relationship safely, and soon thereafter move far away where I had several years to heal emotionally and regain my sense of safety. I can say that in one way I am grateful for the experience, as it led me to a life path and career that I have found to be incredibly rewarding, helping others to end the domestic violence in their lives.
HFM: You have over 30 years experience in domestic abuse, spending much of that time in specialized work with domestic abusers. As someone passionate about this problem, why did you choose to direct your focus on the abusers, rather than the victims?
SK: Good question. I began my work with victims of abuse at a fledgling shelter in Castle Rock, Colorado, in 1985, and I found it extremely difficult to “leave my work at the office,” worrying about the welfare of our clients and their children often after having taken a middle-of-the-night crisis call. Within a year, I had moved to Texas, and was volunteering at a local shelter when they asked me to consider coming on staff to open a “batterers group,” which I’d never heard of. I was very green, but excited about the opportunity to address the issue at its source–the abuser. I found it rewarding and an important service in providing a more comprehensive approach to ending abuse, because if we don’t hold the abusers accountable and help them to change, they will continue to create victims.
HFM: How did you end up working with AVDA?
SK: Once I began working with abusers at a shelter in Brazoria County, I began to read and learn about the PIVOT Program at AVDA–a nationally acclaimed battering intervention program, and it became my goal to someday work for AVDA. I began many years ago as a counseling intern at AVDA and could not be more proud than to serve this amazing organization as its CEO.
HFM: Tell us about AVDA.
SK: AVDA is a unique non-profit serving the Greater Houston Area, providing free legal representation and advocacy for victims of domestic abuse, psychoeducational counseling for batterers to end abuse and foster accountability, and community education and prevention for youth and others.
HFM: What frustrates you most about the state of domestic abuse today?
SK: Attitudes that foster abuse continue, and while there are tremendous resources in the Houston area, victims often don’t know those resources exist or know how to find them. Also, AVDA and its partners have concerns that funding, which supports legal aid or social services, may be in jeopardy. It’s also critical that individuals in the community recognize that it is our responsibility to speak up and to intervene when we suspect abuse is occurring—and to help save lives. As they say, “silence is the voice of complicity.” Also of major concern is that most people are uninformed about the tremendous impact on children of witnessing domestic abuse. Being exposed to domestic abuse actually impacts the brain development of young children and can result in long-term damage, as well as greatly increasing the risk that they will find themselves in abusive relationships as adults.
HFM: This August AVDA will kick off its Coaching Boys into Men (CBIM) program to train coaches how to mentor male student athletes in the prevention of violence, especially toward women and girls. What is it about today’s culture that makes it so urgent to talk to students about this type of violence?
SK: It has always been an urgent need, but was never made a priority. I’m pleased that more and more, there are opportunities for us to talk about the issue and to have an impact at an early age. While I do believe we have made great progress in recent decades, we continue to struggle with valuing characteristics such as power and control, rather than valuing respect and responsibility. One in four women are victims of domestic abuse, and until that statistic changes for the better, we owe it to the women and girls in our lives to fight for their safety and right to be free from abuse.
HFM: Is the idea to teach student athletes about healthy relationships to deter them from such violence in their current relationships with girlfriends, or in the relationships they will have with women later in life?
SK: Very much both. Attitudes, beliefs and values are developed at an early age, and the sooner they can be impacted in a positive way, the greater chance we have at fostering healthy relationships, which will help to end intimate partner violence.
HFM: The program is designed to trickle down from the athletes to eventually impact the entire school culture. How and why does this work?
SK: Athletes are often looked at a leaders and “heroes” in their schools. It is simply a part of our culture that they are looked up to–just as professional athletes are–and have a tremendous influence–good or bad. They can be powerful voices for change as allies against abuse.
HFM: I read a quote from a former high school coach Mike Berg: “If we’re only teaching them how to play the sport, then we’re failing them–big time.” What else is a coach in a position to teach players, and why does the responsibility fall on coaches to teach those lessons?
SK: Coaches are some of the most influential people in the lives of our youth. They are a valuable resource in shaping the behaviors and core beliefs of our youth, and as allies in this work, they can have a tremendous impact. Coaches have the eyes and ears of their athletes throughout the school year, and by simply taking a few minutes each week to talk about character, respect and responsibility, they can make a great impact in a young person’s life.
HFM: Where do parents fit into the picture?
SK: It is seldom that anyone has a greater influence on a child than his or her parent—good or bad. It is important that parents take time to model, discuss, and encourage healthy relationships, and ones in which boys and girls are treated equally and with respect. In the end, moms and dads are the most impactful coaches.
HFM: What advice do you have for parents who would like to reinforce the messages conveyed in this program in their own kids?
SK: The teaching of healthy relationships begins at home, and there is no greater influence on a young person than the adults in their lives. We are the coaches in our children’s lives; we teach them how to interact in a relationship. It is important to model behavior that is healthy, respectful, and does not tolerate abuse–physical, emotional, verbal, sexual–either from themselves or from others.
HFM: What advice do you have for mothers who suffer from domestic abuse?
SK: AVDA wants all who have experienced domestic abuse to know that there are many in the community who are here to help them. And that even though they may not have been hit, slapped, or kicked, they may be victims of abuse simply through the words and looks used to wound them and destroy their self-esteem. No one deserves abuse, and it is critical to know that any abuse your children is exposed to is extremely damaging. Protect your children, protect yourself. Reach out for help. Call AVDA, and we will help you find the help you need.
HFM: What advice do you have for girls who have experienced violence from a boyfriend?
SK: First, let’s be clear that it is not always girls…that boys can experience violence as well. But due to sheer size, force and socialization, there may be more fear invoked for a girl than a boy when violence is involved. Our advice would be to never accept it; to never think that it is your fault; and to never think you deserve it. Violence is always the choice of the abuser, and everyone deserves to be in a relationship that is respectful and feels safe. Talk to a counselor, talk to a friend, or consider calling a hotline or AVDA for advice.
HFM: What advice do you have for boys or men who have been an abuser? Is this a problem they can change in themselves?
SK: AVDA absolutely believes in the ability to change. Abuse is a choice, and the choice to refrain from abuse is a choice as well. Abuse is typically about the need for power and control over another—and believing one has the right to have that control. If you find that you’re hurting others through your words or actions, reach out for help. Battering intervention programs such as AVDA’s can help you identify and stop abusive behaviors, leading you to happier, healthier relationships. Remember: it’s always a choice.
HFM: I’m sure in your work you have been privy to many desperate and sobering situations. Can you share with us a story with a happy ending?
SK: At AVDA, we are fortunate to have so many happy outcomes. One in particular is Crystal, a young woman who came to us after years of abuse, on crutches from surgery from having broken her ankle while trying to escape her abuser. AVDA helped her fight for the custody of her infant daughter, gain a divorce and child support, and even help to pay for her college tuition so that she could go to school and help secure a better future for her daughter and herself. She not only is a thriving survivor of domestic violence, she has become a spokesperson for AVDA to help others seek a better life.
Tell Me More!
Houston-area coaches of middle and high school, college, and select male teams are invited to attend free CBIM training, which counts toward school district professional development hours, from noon to 4 pm on Thursday, August 10, 2017, at Cristo Rey Jesuit College Preparatory School. Registration is required by contacting Nicole Jones-Franklin at NicoleF@avda-tx.org or 713.715.6921.