Forty years ago, a group of 20 people, most of them women, gathered in a meeting room at Faith Lutheran Church in Roseburg. They were there because they wanted to help battered women.
It was a time when grassroots organizations for abused women were just beginning to pop up around the country. Eugene had recently opened a shelter, but Roseburg didn’t have one.
Alixe Dancer, one of the founders of Battered Persons’ Advocacy, said people didn’t say the words “battered” or “wife beater” back then. If abuse happened, it was usually behind closed doors and thought of as nobody else’s business.
But this group of volunteers thought it was time for that to change. Once they’d decided to do it, things came together pretty quickly. Womenspace, the Eugene shelter, sent down volunteers to teach their Douglas County sisters how to answer crisis calls from battered women. Faith Lutheran gave the group office space. Douglas Community Hospital offered a switchboard service. The volunteers sold raffle tickets at local stores to raise money. And finally some organization — Dancer’s long forgotten the name — gave the group $800.
It was a start.
Today, BPA boasts two shelters, transitional housing, a $1 million annual budget and 16 paid staff members, all of whom are trained advocates. It’s about to celebrate its 40th anniversary in October, and organizers are reaching out to those who’ve worked and volunteered there as well as those who’ve been helped by BPA. They want to learn more about the organization’s history.
In the beginning, BPA somewhat resembled an underground railroad. Here’s how it worked: The call for help would go to the hospital. Then the hospital would signal the beeper of an on-call volunteer. The volunteer would call the switchboard, get the woman’s number and then call her back. If she wanted out, a volunteer would go pick her and her children up and take her to a safe home, which were just four or five homes where volunteers lived with their own families.
For Dancer, who was living on a farm with several other women, being on call meant staying the night in a trailer that held the only phone on the property. She remembers her first call with an abuse victim. The woman spoke in a high-pitched, frightened voice. Dancer responded in a loud and confident one.
“I stood up and said, ‘Hello, this the Battered Persons’ Advocacy. Can I help you?’” Dancer said.
Sometimes, Dancer said, the women just wanted to talk. Sometimes they needed to leave right away. Sometimes the husband was passed out drunk, and the wife didn’t want to be there when he woke up, she said.
“The situations have not changed. I’m sure the stories are the same,” she said.
And some of those stories were truly horrifying — like the case of a surgeon who broke his wife’s jaw and then performed the operation to fix it.
Only women were allowed to be volunteers in the beginning. The organization was built on a feminist model.
“The idea was very much about empowering women, helping women to feel power in their own right,” Dancer said. They felt if women were empowered, they wouldn’t want to return to their abusive husbands.
Today, the “persons” in Battered Persons’ Advocacy indicates the modern awareness that not all victims of intimate partner violence or sexual assault are women. Nineteen percent of the 1,281 survivors BPA served in the past year were men.
But most of the battered are still women, and most of them are wives. Eighty-one percent of the survivors BPA served in the past year were women. Seventy-two percent of them reported being abused by their spouses.
BPA was fortunate to have an early ally in Roseburg police officer Lou Boler, who attended that first organizational meeting and later joined the board. During his tenure with the police department, Boler served several years as a detective and investigated crimes against women and children.
In the 1970s, Boler had been frustrated by the difficulties police faced when responding to domestic violence situations. Back then, the officer was forced to ask the woman who’d been beaten if she wanted to make a citizens’ arrest. If she wanted the case prosecuted, she’d also have to swear out a complaint before a judge against her abuser. He’d soon be out on bail, and naturally most of the victims were too terrified to sign anything, Boler said. So the cases weren’t prosecuted, and police would wind up at the same home over and over again.
Boler was all for doing something about it, and he said other Roseburg police officers felt the same way.
At about the same time BPA was organizing, Oregon became the first state in the country to pass a mandatory arrest law. Now, if police have probable cause to believe there’s been an assault, they must arrest the perpetrator. That made things a lot easier, Boler said.
Boler said what BPA volunteers were able to do after that law passed was go in while the husband was locked up and talk to the victims about their options. Most of the volunteers were survivors, so they could counsel people and support them in a meaningful way, he said. If they needed a place to go, they could give them that too. It was hard for many of the women to leave without that help. They often had no money and no job.
In addition to helping individual victims, BPA has educated the community, and helped change the culture, Boler said.
“As a man, I don’t hear people joking about somebody hitting their wife anymore. That was a common thing,” he said.
It’s hard to measure exactly how many people were not abused because of the program, he said, through prevention and education, “but I think it’s made a big difference.”
The BPA’s first paid staff member, Pauline Martel, moved to Roseburg from California in 1981. The organization was advertising for an office manager, and she was hired. Six months later she was promoted to program director. Martel had a degree in sociology with a social work option and had worked in a hospital, so she had seen the effects of abuse. But she learned a lot more about domestic violence after joining BPA.
She loved working with the volunteers.
“To see all these women who were so committed to helping women be safe. It was just such an amazing experience,” she said.
Martel remembers community support for battered women was a lot lower in the 1980s than it is today.
She remembered when her son, who was 11 at the time, wrote to the Bazooka bubble gum company to protest a domestic violence joke he found printed on the wrapper of a piece of gum.
“I can’t remember the exact words, but it was something like, ‘Joe Johnson has won over 365 fights, 364 with his wife,’” she said. Her son had heard enough about domestic violence to find that very unfunny. He signed his letter “a former Bazooka bubble gum user.” Martel sent a copy of the letter, with an introduction she penned, to The News-Review.
A few days after the letter was published, she received an irate phone call from a man who swore, yelled and said people like her “making mountains out of molehills” were the problem with the whole country.
That might not have been the majority view, she said, but it was consistent with what a lot of local people said back then.
“Women deserved what they got. A man’s home is his castle. All those trite phrases were how people looked at it,” she said.
Even today, she often hears people ask why an abuse survivor doesn’t leave. She likes to turn that question on its head.
“My response is why didn’t he stop hitting her?” she said. “Why didn’t that abuser stop abusing? That’s the question.”
Martel worked for four years at BPA, but has remained involved as a volunteer. She’s amazed how it has grown.
“I just have to say my heart is full all the time with joy when I look at how far we’ve come,” she said.
One of the services BPA provides is legal advocacy. Martel was there when that advocacy was new. She remembers one judge who presided over domestic violence cases and didn’t seem to feel restraining orders were necessary.
“So I started showing up with briefcase in hand looking quite professional, and then we had volunteers and we all came and we sat in the courtroom,” she said.
Within a few weeks, the number of restraining orders increased dramatically.
“That’s advocacy,” she said. “To see how that little kernel has grown into a field of wheat, you know for me that is just exciting.”
In the past year, BPA advocates have helped file 648 protective orders.
They also answered 5,804 crisis calls, performed 2,103 crisis interventions and gave emergency shelter to 134 survivors during that year. The numbers have remained fairly constant since at least the 1990s. Records aren’t available from the years before that.
Scratch the surface of those statistics and what you’ll find is a mixture of trauma and hope. Three years ago, one of the people who sought the BPA’s help was Melinda Green — which isn’t her real name. A mother of three with a fourth on the way, Green is currently in a happy relationship, about to take a new job at a local hospital, and has taken some strides toward completing her education in human services.
In August 2015, her life was a nightmare. She was seven months pregnant with her third child, homeless, with no place to go. She had escaped an abusive relationship with her children’s father in Reno. He raped her in front of her son; he went to jail repeatedly for attacking her; he threatened to kill her. One time he kicked their then-4-year-old son in the face while he was attempting to kick Green.
“He was really crazy. It was intense. It was bad,” she said.
After she left him though, she was homeless and pregnant with two small children. She stayed in a tent in her father’s front yard for a while, but he was emotionally abusive. He locked them out of the house. He’d follow Green around, open her mail and yell at her a lot in front of the kids. It was stressful.
She asked her caseworker from the Department of Human Services to call around for shelter space in Oregon. BPA had a spot.
With their help, she got not only a place to stay but help with her pregnancy and the birth of her second daughter. She received bags of Christmas gifts from Mercy Medical Center and BPA, blankets and toys and dishes and furniture. She received a tree from the Festival of Trees.
It was the most amazing Christmas ever.
Green received help for her older children’s emotional and behavioral issues, too. Her son acted out, and her older daughter was so afraid of people she’d cry if anyone came near. When her short stay at the shelter was up, she moved to transitional housing and then moved out into her new boyfriend’s house. All along the way, BPA advocates were there to help.
Once she gets her degree, she’d like to be an advocate like those who helped her when she needed them.
“I know what it feels like to help others because I’ve been through it. I really want to give back,” she said.
BPA Director Melanie Prummer said BPA today has the same mission and the same dedication to helping survivors that it did 40 years ago.
Prummer grew up in Australia and followed a boyfriend to America about 20 years ago. She arrived with two suitcases and $100 in her pocket. She left the guy long ago, but she’d found home.
Before joining Battered Persons’ Advocacy, Prummer had been a counselor for abused children and program director for the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Umpqua Valley.
Prummer comes from a happy home and said the love she’s experienced in her own life motivates her to help abuse survivors.
“I have a great family. I want that for other people,” she said.
She helms an organization that has grown from grassroots to a professional organization with trained advocates who specialize in providing the services survivors of violence need, from legal advocacy, to shelter to sexual assault response.
Prummer said preparing for BPA’s 40th has given her the chance to meet Dancer and others who were there before her.
“I feel really proud to know that there are strong, courageous women out there that are willing to put their own personal safety on the line as well as their own financial resources and have such deep compassion for others. I feel grateful for them and I feel really honored that I’ve actually been able to meet them,” she said.
Prummer was just a year old when BPA was created. It’s hard to imagine where BPA might be in another 40 years. But one thing she knows is she doesn’t feel alone in the work she does.
“You know that there were all these people before you that were doing this work, and there will be all these people after us that do this work,” she said.
Prummer would like to hear from people who’ve been part of BPA’s history. To share what you know, call 541-957-0288.