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NIAGARA FALLS – Women in abusive relationships are sometimes cut off from friends and family by their abuser or live in fear of what will happen if they leave. Havens such Passage House in the city give women and their families the options they need.

The Passage Domestic Violence Program, a service of Family and Children’s Service of Niagara since 1989, operates a 15-bed emergency shelter in a confidential location and also offers counseling, both at that location and at other sites, to help women make the transition from abusive relationships.

Karrie Gebhardt, director of the program, said the facility offers help to women of any age from anywhere and is nearly at capacity. The YWCA of Niagara also offers an emergency shelter in Lockport.

Passage House “is for people who are literally fleeing a domestic violence situation,” Gebhardt said. She said a hotline is available 24 hour a day, seven days a week.

“The women who are in there right now are in there for various reasons. Maybe their abuser is in jail right now and they chose this time to flee with their children. It may be a single woman for whom the threat of violence is there,” Gebhardt said.

She said Passage House is not a gymnasium with beds, as many might envision. The facility has individual bedrooms with various decors, just as a regular home might have, with a large family room for a mother who might come in with several children.

“It’s very much like your own home would be,” Gebhardt said. “We provide all the food, and they make their own meals, just like at home. There is a dining room, two living rooms, TV and two full bathrooms.”

Safety is an essential component.

“We let people know that if they even question whether it’s domestic violence, it probably is,” she said.

But Gebhardt said the Passage House staff does not try to convince women what to do, but rather to educate them about red flags in relationships, as well as give them options on courses of action.

She said an outreach program extends the counseling beyond just the women who are living in the shelter.

“We will do home visits, or they can come to our office on Main Street in Niagara Falls. It’s confidential counseling, and it’s meant to be educational,” Gebhardt said. “We will do safety planning. They can learn about domestic violence and learn about red flags.”

She said women often say they realized through this program that they are in an abusive relationship.

In some cases, it is a learned behavior they grew up with, seeing their mother abused by their father. It could be physical or emotional abuse, such as name-calling, or financial abuse.

“Women grow up and think that’s the way it’s going to be,” Gephardt said. “It comes in so many forms. People still think it’s just a black eye or a welt from a slap. More often than not, it’s emotional abuse, the isolation, getting the woman away from people who would provide her with her emotional support.”

Gephardt said shelters such as Passage House provide a refuge when women are isolated and have nowhere to turn. “We meet women where they are at,” she said. “If they are not ready to leave, our job is not to convince them to do so, but to educate them where they are at. Abuse is a pattern of power and control. It can be financial. It can be isolating someone. It can be verbal and physical and sexual. It can be all of those things.”

She added that “a relationship doesn’t start out abusive or with that black eye or being called a name. It starts out pretty good, but over time, the power and control is exerted to make sure that person stays with you.”

Gephardt said Passage House receives about 300 crisis calls a year and can “lend an ear” to family members who may be concerned about a daughter, sister or friend who is being subjected to domestic violence.

Help is available by calling the hotline, 285-6984, or by visiting the Family and Children’s Service website, niagarafamily.org.

email: nfischer@buffnews.com