Blind Woman Encounters Discrimination In Bellingham, Washington, Shelter

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This story has been slightly edited to correct minor errors resulting from the woman's disabilities. Her story has also been partially reordered and headings added for better readability.

Story received January 3, 2008

Prologue

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I am an almost totally blind and mobility-impaired single mother of two children. I was given the number of a shelter in Bellingham, Washington, by a case manager at the center where I was getting counseling to cope with being raped and stalked by a man who is a family associate. He was also targeting my child and trying to lure her using his teenage son.

I had relocated twice in one year due to this man, who was a care provider, but repeatedly raped me. He pled to physical assault and I have a permanent order of protection against him that he was continually violating.

I had found an apartment, gotten settled, and was actively enforcing the protective order and working with police to report all violations.

Only when the man threatened to run me and my kids over with his truck after getting my new phone number and address did we have to flee again. The police helped us go to temporary shelter until we got on the train and left for Washington state.


 

Nightmare in Bellingham

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We traveled by train 3 days to get to the shelter in Bellingham, Washington. I had disclosed my disability and explained that I was fully capable of providing for myself and my children with some small non-permanent modifications. They agreed when we spoke by phone and I identified myself as Hispanic. Apparently they had never had any contact with a black Hispanic person before. When the woman asked for my description to find me at the bus station and my daughter told her I was dark skinned the entire atmosphere changed.

1. They forced me to pay out of pocket for a motel in order for a staff member to meet me and make sure "I was acceptable" for the shelter.

2. The shelter worker then took me to a local McDonalds and forced me to discuss the rapes and other abuse in the children's area of the restaurant, and in front of my children, to verify I was really abused. Apparently the referral from another agency, the recent police report, and the permanent order of protection was not enough.

3. When I got to the shelter they placed a padlock on the TV and stated I could only watch it on Friday through Sunday, and only videos they picked out. No news or weather.

4. The took the portable DVD player my daughter used for homeschooling, stating that they had problems with black residents watching rap videos and this is why everyone lost TV.

5. They refused to modify chores, forcing me to clean the public restroom although they knew I could not see the difference between urine and water and would have to clean the menstrual pads and blood of other residents and feces left on the toilet without the benefit of sight.

6. They refused to allow me to mark the stove with removable raised dots forcing my children and I to eat TV dinners the entire stay and my daughter to use the microwave for me.

7. They used a multikey black-on-black keypad to enter the shelter and told me I was lazy and manipulative and disrupting the personal phone calls of shelter staff when I asked to be let in the facility or have the pad marked with braille.

8. The staff member who took my child's DVD homeschool curricula away got in my face and screamed, making fun of my disability. Then she shut the computer off when she saw my daughter helping me type a grievance about her behavior and the refusal of the shelter to provide reasonable accommodation.

9. I was refused the right to use cabs or handicap public transit, and forced to try to walk the streets with bags of frozen microwave food through the dimly-lit residential area of the shelter.

10. My children's case worker for social services and my sister called Adult Protective Services (APS) after hearing me being verbally abused by a staff member. They referred me to Whatcom County Civil Rights and assigned a caseworker to advocate for me and my kids when my grievance was minimized, ignored, and the shelter staff member allowed to retaliate.

11. I was successfully admitted to a transitional housing program and went to my church to get help with the security deposit. While I was out speaking with the priest and social services office the civil rights department called and left a message for me. The shelter staff heard it on the answering machine.

12. When I returned to the shelter that night the director of the shelter and the legal advocate, who was supposed to be there to help women, came into my room. They told me allowing adult protective services to assist me was endangering the other residents and asked me to lie to the female APS caseworker about the lack of accommodation and location of the shelter. The county funds the shelter so the APS worker already knew where it was. They told me participating in the investigation was violating confidentiality about staff member identification and told me to lie to the investigator, refuse to cooperate with her, or I would be kicked out. I asked to use the phone to call the APS worker and they refused to allow me to leave my room. The phone had already been taken off my desk in my room.

13. They told me if I did not drop the civil rights complaint and lie to APS I would be denied help with my security deposit, they would make sure I did not get my transitional housing, and they would make sure I got no travel money from my church to travel to another city with an accessible shelter. They had already called the church and told them not to help me. They also required us to put where we are going on the sign out sheet to account for our time.

14. The director of the shelter told me she had a friend who was a police officer and she would reveal my sealed name-change information (granted to me and my kids by the court to keep us safe from this violent pedophile with a 20-year history of violence, and who was kicked out of the Navy for attacking a fellow male cadet.), and have me and another resident, who was also confronting them about their threats and verbal abuse, arrested for trespassing if I would not tell APS and Civil Rights that I was "happy" with the shelter.

15. When I continually asked to call my APS caseworker one of the other residents called the police from her room phone and brought the phone to me in my room. I then learned that the director had already called her friend, the police officer, and told them I was using aliases (although they were in court when the judge reviewed all the evidence including a letter from the Social Security administration confirming the man was stalking me through using my records from SSI for the Blind and having female family members call the customer service 800 number pretending to be me), they heard the judge question me about having my hair pulled out by the root, my eye socket smashed, my finger broken by this man and him smashing into a public bus shelter and hurling glass at me and my daughter causing a permanent scar on her face. They told the police that I was using aliases but not that the court had granted us a sealed name change!

16. The police officer came in with her hand on her gun, pulled my kids out of their beds, in the middle of a Washington downpour at 9 PM at night. When I asked for a supervisor she told me to wait out in the rain in the gutter on the side of the street when I pointed out there was no sidewalk. She allowed the shelter workers to keep my insulin, my food, money orders bought to order new birth records with the sealed name and, worst of all, my blind cane.

17. The officer said although I had not violated any shelter rules, had no write ups, posed no danger to myself or other clients, and my children were in bed, the shelter was exiting me because I was "unhappy" with their services and they did not want to be sued!

18. They ransacked my room and put my things into big black trash bags while my kids stood there crying. The shelter workers then said if I continued to ask for a police sergeant they would not even help me with a motel.

19. They knew they are the only shelter in Bellingham city limits and that a few hours in a motel would leave me nowhere to go. They refused to allow me to call the APS case worker so she could come to the motel and help me learn safely how to navigate the property. They were placing me in a motel on a busy highway with no access to safely cross for food and no way to get my daughter to school (remember they forced her into public school and took her homeschool materials to keep us from watching rap videos).

20. After spending several days in the motel with no insulin, no antibiotics for the infection I got in my hand when I cut it while being forced to sort open sharp tin cans and glass for recycling. That was my chore in the shelter and they said refusing it was refusing to empower myself and live on my own! They made me walk to urgent care and pay for the visit and my own medication to treat the cut and infection. I was forced to return to an area where the abuser had found me before and my new and old name would be cross referenced. Although the police apologized, once they entered the new and old names into NCIC to run me for warrants, the names are forever cross referenced, they offered to give me a letter if I wanted to pay for another court hearing — and somehow get my kids to understand why their names had to be changed again. My son was two and already having trouble with the change — his father is not violent and had consented to the name change to keep his child safe while he was deployed with the military.

21. I filed state civil rights complaint and they used their confidentiality policy to avoid answering any questions about their conduct. They told the state I ate while I was there although it was peanut butter sandwiches and microwave food and said I had no right to ask them to allow blind services to mark the flat top, LCD panel stoves so I could cook and stick to my diabetic diet. They said they returned my money orders in the bottom of a trash bag of rotting food they collected out of the refrigerator and brought to the hotel with my insulin, which also rotted and melted on to the money orders. The motel manager said the food started to smell and he threw it out. He said they did not tell him the things in the bag were perishable. I lost over $90 when the bag was thrown away with my money orders in the bottom.

22. The shelter director, made good on her threat to keep me from getting housing and called the transitional housing program and they told me in order to preserve their relationship with the sister agency I could not have my apartment. They knew we needed a safe, secure facility to stop the stalking but told civil rights that I could have just applied for student housing on campus. All involved knew that the sealed name change meant I was losing my entire academic and job history and I would have to begin my education again at the local community college which has no housing.

23. When I returned to my home state, which does not have the sealed name change, and tried to get food stamps for my kids, the legal advocate from the shelter refused to explain the procedure to my caseworker and my kids were denied help until I won on appeal 1.5 years later. We were forced to live on $330 social security for a year while this was on appeal. They thought I had made the procedure up and the court could not release any information specific to my case because it was sealed for my safety and that of my kids.

My daughter told me she would rather die at the hands of her husband than ever trust a shelter to help her.

Because of their refusal to accommodate my disability, and their anger at me for standing up for myself, they took my daughters only chance to be safe away. They cross referenced our information knowing it would allow him to continue stalking us. This man had attempted to force himself on my 13-year-old daughter by finding her on a kid's chess web site after I escaped him.

The shelter workers were in court when I presented the evidence for a name change to the judge. The judge stated he rarely sees cases with a predator as dangerous the man who raped me. My rapist's violence is not limited to women. He has charges against him for assaulting and threatening police officers and other men going back years before he targeted, stalked, and raped me.

Homeless

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Due to my inability to get food stamps and welfare to help pay rent, we were left homeless for months and I endured an unnecessary fraud investigation. The social services investigators revealed the new names to my family, placing them in danger because he can tell when they know something and won't tell him. They had not been trained on the new Violence Against Women Act regulations or the sealed name change and the shelter staff repeatedly refused my written requests for my case notes and the forms we used to begin the procedure even after their legal advocate told me this was the way for us to be safe and went to court with me.

The civil rights investigator said his hands were tied, and although the discrimination was clear to him, the shelter would not tell him how to reach the other resident who called police to get me help or any other information. They would not even let a female investigator visit the site to see if it was accessible and why the accommodation was needed. He dismissed the case for lack of evidence and told me to go back into shelter and get my name changed again or I would probably end up dead. He said the police told him if they had any idea why my name was changed they would never have put it in the database and they confirmed I have absolutely no criminal record and they were not told I was blind until the other resident called the police herself.

The police confirmed that if the sergeant had not demanded shelter workers help us with a motel, they were not even going to do that. They also tried to get the police to make my daughter take things out of the trash bags and throw them out because they only allow residents to take two trash bags when they are being "exited" without having to pay for them!

The shelter denied to police that I was referred by another agency that informed them I had successfully completed their program despite my disabilities. The sergeant stated that he called and my caseworker confirmed that I had been referred by her through a national directory of shelters, and that she allowed me to use the phone in her office to make the long distance call for the intake in her office. The shelter monitors outgoing long distance calls for budget reasons. My case worker confirmed that I had found an apartment, gotten settled and was actively enforcing the protective order and working with police to report all violations.

Only when the man threatened to run me and my kids over with his truck after getting my new phone number and address did we have to flee again. She explained that the police helped us go to temporary shelter until we got on the train and left for Washington state. She also confirmed that I had no criminal background as they require fingerprinted state-police checks to get into the transitional housing program there. My former case worker confirmed providing good references for me and going to great lengths to explain my disability and how the former program had accommodated me during my stay to the shelter staff before I ever got to Bellingham, Washington.

Additional comments about the Bellingham shelter

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Our family is dual faith Catholic and Muslim and they also asked me if I would mind that some of their staff was gay. I was shocked. As long as they do their job it is none of my business what they do in their homes and bedrooms. I was disappointed and offended. They then launched into a lecture about how they knew that due to my strong religious beliefs, and that I cover my hair, some of the staff may be uncomfortable with me.

At a support group they showed a film about how religious groups such as Catholics and Muslims perpetuate violence against women. Another Latin American woman stormed out and they gave her a write up. I stayed and wrote a grievance referring to their mission statement, which says they are not supposed to discriminate. They told me I was in denial. I later discovered that a Latina advocate quit in protest because of their discrimination against wives of migrant workers in the area.

Many women of color had been found at the local homeless shelter when the Bellingham shelter worker, who was concerned I would watch rap videos all day, put them out. These women were hanging out at the library and approached me and my APS worker when they heard us talking. One of the staff members had also called the APS line to make another abuse report and to report the intimidation and the staff asking me to lie to APS so my worker had independent confirmation of what is going on in this "house" where they imprison and revictimize people who need help.

Shelter staff would often joke in support group about men who called them and several of us reminded them that no one deserves to be abused regardless of gender. They seemed more focused on their own political agenda than on helping people get safe.

They are the only shelter in the area and when they were asked to provide one reference from a woman of color or disabled woman that they had successfully helped to settle in the area they could not. They had logged hundreds of minority admissions in their funding requests but were never even asked about how the situations were resolved. This is so important especially when there is such a large Native American, Latin American and growing black populations as people leave Seattle for a lower cost of living. They had me fill out special paperwork to document they had admitted me as a disabled person to get more funding but would not let me put $2 raised dots on things so I could cook and let myself into the building, even at my own expense!


 

Epilogue

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I contacted domestic violence initiatives for women in Colorado, a program for abused women with disabilities, and they told me they hear stories like mine daily. Shelters are now using police to abuse disabled women the same way abusive partners do and that women are being forced to return to dangerous situations because shelters do not want to comply with the ADA. They confirmed that they offer free consultation services and would have had someone fly out if necessary to make the shelter and my new apartment accessible. They told me that all the shelters in the US are aware of their services and that their agency is listed with the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the nationwide director shelters use to communicate with one another and transfer clients to different states.

I went to the Washington Coalition Against Domestic Violence and spoke with their disabilities coordinator. All he offered was for us to give up our current housing and risk coming back to Washington with no secured shelter and that they would help us to redo the sealed name change. He used the same list of numbers my first counselor when she referred me to the shelter in Bellingham!

I was truly disappointed but asked to be put on the agenda for their next national conference in order to share my experience. I faxed them the police report and it clearly stated that they were "exiting" me for no other reasons than I had contacted the county civil rights department and APS was assigned to help because my sister called them. Shelter workers felt I was not "happy" at the shelter because I asked to mark the stove and the key entry pad and to be allowed to use handicap transit. They could not explain to the sergeant on scene why my happiness was such an issue that my kids had to be pulled out of bed at night during a rainstorm or why they did not tell Adult Protective Services when they called in to check on me that they would be "exiting" me that night so APS could provide orientation to a reasonably accessible motel and possible funding so we would have food.

DV Initiatives for women with disabilities was wonderful. Sometimes they just listened and helped me to use the appropriate language and word my grievance properly. The shelter in Bellingham gets federal and state funding and is considered a public accommodation similar to a motel. They were required by law to be accessible before I ever arrived and certainly should not have held the sealed name change as some sort of leverage.

Thank you for publishing anonymously and also, feel free to use my name when speaking with advocates. [The EJF will only release her name after contacting her and receiving her express permission in every instance.]

 

Watch your thoughts, they become words.

Watch your words, they become actions.

Watch your actions, they become habits.

Watch your habits, they become character.

Watch your character, they become destiny.

From my wise and wonderful sister and friend

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| EJF Home | Find Help | Join the EJF | Comments? | Get EJF newsletter | Newsletters |

| Domestic Violence Book | DV Site Map | Data tables | DV bibliography | DV index |

 

| Chapter 6 — Shelters For Battered Women |

| Next —Tales From The Dark Side of Abused Women's Shelters by Carey Roberts |

| Back — Shelters Of Ill Repute by Terri Lynn Tersak |


 

This site is supported and maintained by the Equal Justice Foundation.

Added January 8, 2008

Last modified 5/18/15