By Eleanor Goldberg
Olliette Murry-Drobot was subjected to domestic abuse before she was even born.
When Murry-Drobot’s mother was pregnant, she endured more frequent beatings from her partner. The violence intensified to the point that Murry-Drobot’s mom didn’t feel her daughter move for days at a time.
Murry-Drobot survived, and witnessed her father terrorize her mother throughout her early childhood, she told HuffPost. Now, she has committed her life to protecting and empowering victims of domestic violence and ensuring that the children, who often suffer long-lasting consequences, also get the support they need.
Murry-Drobot is the executive director of the Memphis-based Family Safety Center, a nonprofit that essentially serves as a one-stop haven for survivors of domestic abuse. Clients get access to a range of resources that help them safely escape their partners and build a new life. That includes gaining access to housing, counseling, emergency shelters and support navigating the civil and criminal justice systems.
In Memphis and Shelby County, the areas the Family Safety Center serves, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men will experience domestic violence at some point in their lives, according to Memphis CBS affiliate WREG. Nationally, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 7 men experience intimate partner violence, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Multifaceted programs like the Family Safety Center’s have proven results, according to a number of studies. One study conducted by Dr. Kathryn Howell, a psychologist at the University of Memphis, found that clients’ levels of hope increased significantly after working with the Family Safety Center.
A crucial element of the nonprofit’s work is giving the children of abuse survivors a safe and comforting outlet. For example, the center organizes a summer getaway called Camp Hope, part of a network of camps in the U.S. that supports children exposed to domestic violence and other trauma. The free weeklong experience provides 25 kids with therapy, outdoor adventures and craft projects.
Such programs are especially critical in preventing the cycle of violence from continuing. One-third of children exposed to family violence will grow up to become abusers themselves. And one-third will become victims, according to the Family Safety Center.
Children who are exposed to domestic violence also face a number of other risks. They’re susceptible to developing anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and drug and alcohol abuse issues, according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
Murry-Drobot experienced some of these issues firsthand.
“You grow up looking at the world as a scary place,” Murry-Drobot said, “not feeling like you can have trusting relationships, because the person who loves you can do terrible things to you.”
Murry-Drobot has vivid childhood memories of her father drinking and then proceeding to hurt her mom. She and her mom and younger sister would often temporarily escape in the middle of the night, sometimes to their grandmother’s home. Murry-Drobot was 7 when the three of them fled for the final time. But their problems didn’t stop there.
They lived in public housing and struggled financially. Murry-Drobot’s mom had to trek a long distance to her low-wage job, and most of their money went toward car and gas payments. Murry-Drobot nearly failed the second grade. She often didn’t have enough to eat and the family moved around a lot. She was shy and unsure of herself until college, she told HuffPost.
While domestic violence can affect people in any income bracket, low-income women are particularly vulnerable because their poverty makes escaping that much more challenging. When they consider leaving their relationship, they will often think about the financial tradeoffs and how they’ll feed their children without their partner’s support, for example.
About 75 percent of victims earn less than $20,000 a year, according to Murry-Drobot. She’s seen high levels of impoverished African-American women suffering from domestic abuse.
Even when someone has experienced severe abuse, it’s common for Murry-Drobot and her staff to meet with them several times before the person feels ready to leave their partner and accept the Family Safety Center’s help.
Such was the case with one of the organization’s very first clients. She was a mother of two in her 20s who had been with her husband for 11 years. He was emotionally abusive and had threatened to set her on fire. She worked minimum wage jobs, didn’t have a high school diploma, and initially wasn’t receptive to what the Family Safety Center told her.
She went back to husband, but the organization didn’t give up on her. They continued to reach out and express their concerns that she was in “grave danger,” Murry-Drobot said.
She eventually left her husband and got involved with the Family Safety Center. She earned her GED, bachelor’s degree and now works as an advocate for the organization, supporting other survivors.
Offering a holistic approach and addressing survivors’ various needs is what Murry-Drobot feels gives her clients the best chance at succeeding.
“It’s not enough for us to provide housing and support for 60 days,” Murry-Drobot said. “We have to figure out where she’s going to be in six months or a year. We don’t have the possibility of her feeling like she has to go back to her abuser, or getting involved with another abuser.”