BY WENDY M. DODD   |   PHOTOS BY BOB THOMPSON, THOMPSON BRAND IMAGES

Imagine…

every 9 seconds in the US a woman is assaulted or beaten. In Pasco County alone 44% of homicides stem from domestic violence situations according to Domestic Violence Statistics (http://domesticviolencestatistics.org).

If that woman chooses to leave her abusive partner, she is seventy times more likely to be murdered in the first few weeks after leaving (http://dvipiowa.org). One local organization has been a saving grace for many of these victims and has undoubtedly saved countless lives.

Escaping domestic violence or sexual abuse is an unimaginable experience.  In the past, had never been readily available to victims trying to flee that type of situation until Sunrise of Pasco County, Domestic and Sexual Violence Center opened it’s doors.

Sunrise of Pasco County, Domestic and Sexual Violence Center

Founded in 1982, Sunrise began as a grassroots organization spun out of a few women getting together who decided services were needed. The organization’s first director, Candy Slaughter, established Sunrise and offered community education, information, referrals, and provided safe housing for physically abused women and their children. In 1984, Sunrise was able to gain office space and funding through the United Way which permitted the group to hire a part time advocate and start doing more outreach.

In those times, domestic violence was taboo. No one wanted to acknowledge or confront it. Many saw it as a family issue that outsiders should not get involved in. Sunrise began with members within the community opening their homes to individuals fleeing from abusive situations. In 1986 when new CEO, Penny Morrill realized Sunrise was almost doing more harm than good by removing these individuals from their home for a night or two and having no follow-up plan. The only option to these refugees was to return to an environment that would likely become even more violent and volatile.

As the facility grew, there was a realization that the need for services has always been present; domestic violence is nothing new, however, society has become more willing to offer aid to those in need. The agency grew into a shelter, initially with the offices and shelter grouped together inside small cottage like buildings. However, within a few years Sunrise had taken in nearly 25 individuals and they needed more space.

With that, a 24 bed facility was built to house 24 women and children seeking refuge from domestic or sexual violence. With the added space came added services; the agency was able to provide legal advocacy and accompaniment, accounting services and case management.

Once word got out that there was an agency that could help domestic and sexual violence victims, people sought refuge. They had a way out, they wanted to be safe and Sunrise was able to offer that. Once women knew about Sunrise and gathered the courage to leave, they oftentimes left their homes with just the clothes on their backs in the middle of the night. They left with nothing. This meant Sunrise would need to provide them with food and clothing, and so much more. As the community continued to become more aware of the services Sunrise provided, demand continued to grow. In 2013, Sunrise expanded to a 40 bed facility with nearly 47 employees and further expanded program offerings.

Many individuals come to Sunrise with no employment, so a program was developed to help individuals find gainful employment. In addition, women in shelter often need child care and have unreliable or no transportation, making case management a large component of the services.

Additionally, coming from a violent and traumatic home, these individuals have been hurt and damage has been done that needs to be healed. Sunrise developed a program to assist with that healing process.

The agency eventually grew to develop an outreach program designed specifically for individuals who may not be in need of shelter but rather have a need to heal from a past traumatic event. Some individuals may have reached a safe place but are still in need of counseling or a support group. Not all survivors are ready to leave. They may be working toward that decision, but that process can take some time. Sunrise’s counseling programs assist by offering advocacy and support.

Prevalence of Sexual Assault within Domestic Violence

Many, if not all, survivors of domestic violence have at least some component of sexual assault through forced coercion. Sunrise is a dual certified service provider for both domestic violence and sexual assault victims. Although the Sunrise shelter houses women and children, they do offer services for men as well. If a male survivor is in need of assistance, Sunrise will arrange for them to stay at a safe place.

There are other agencies that offer sexual assault services such as therapy for children who have been abused, like Pasco Kids First.  However, Sunrise is the only state certified sexual assault center in Pasco County, certified by the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence (FCASV).

Signs of Abuse

The most commonly thought of sign of abuse is often the physical violence part. It may begin with shoving or slapping, and continually escalate to more severe threats such as punching or choking, which many may not realize is attempted strangulation.

Many non-physical indicators of abuse are often the easiest to “brush under the rug”, so to speak. Abusers begin by using intimidation to weaken their victim as well as constantly putting them down, isolating them from family and friends, and demanding the victim to account for every minute of every day.

Extreme jealousy is very common in abusive relationships. Abusers often demand to know where their victims are going, who they will be with and why they are going at all. When an individual is constantly calling or texting to check whereabouts, or checking a person’s phone, that is considered intimidation. This behavior creates a sense of power for the abuser, which only escalates over time.

These are all indicators of abuse, aside from the physical violence that can happen. The abuse of a pet can be used to intimidate a victim into submission as well; an abuser may use the harming of a pet as an example of the damage they are capable of.

The threat of suicide is another tactic used by abusers to gain a mental hold on a victim, threatening to harm themselves if the victim does not submit to their demands.

Other contributing factors could be unemployment, past mental or substance abuse and control of money. For example, an abuser may give their victim an allowance and force them to account for every dime that is spent each time there is a trip to the grocery store. Oftentimes a victim may see this as endearment, as if their partner cares more, therefore they need to know and control more.

How does it work? Kelly Sinn, CEO of Sunrise explains the process: 

“Many cases begin with a simple phone call to the 24 hour Sunrise Crisis Hotline, 352-521-3120. Each month hundreds of individuals seeking assistance call in and are able to speak with our staff one on one to lay down a plan to get the help they need.

First, each call is assessed for current and near future safety. Throughout the call, the safety of the individual is always one of the main concerns; our staff ensures they are offering every possible option to guarantee the safety of the individual throughout the entire process. Some calls are individuals just looking for someone to listen or possibly looking for a referral to another agency. All calls are confidential, and no one is required to give their name or location.

The hotline is also open to professionals looking to make a referral or to have someone come in to speak with a counselor.

Whether contact is made in person or by telephone, the individual will come in for an intake to give us the opportunity to really look at where they’re coming from and what they’ve experienced. Essentially we want to help them navigate to where they want to be. If they’re starting at point A, we want to get to point B. We will help them figure out each step along the way to get them to where they want to be in life. Every program within the agency is empowerment based, that is our philosophy. Each survivor is the expert of his or her own life, not us, so he or she tells us what they want – not the other way around.

Shelter Requirements

Any individual who is fearful of their current living environment, if it involves domestic violence or sexual abuse, is a victim and is eligible to stay in the shelter. When an individual is enrolled in a shelter program, they are accepted for a minimum of 6 weeks, though it is a voluntary program. Some individuals come in for a night or two, they may just need a respite from the situation they are in and have full intentions of returning home, and that is okay.

As many of us can relate, once your heart is involved it’s very difficult to shut that off. Love doesn’t work like a switch, and it oftentimes takes a victim seven to ten times of leaving an abusive relationship for them to stay away.

Some abusers blame the victim, saying things like, ‘you made me do it.’ When a survivor has been told this over and over, they start to believe it. The survivor starts to think that if they’d only had the dishes done, or had dinner cooked, this explosive episode wouldn’t have happened. After an explosive episode, typically victims experience the ‘honeymoon stage’, with apologies and promises, until the tension begins to build again and the next episode unfolds.

That is a very dark place to be, and the longer a victim stays in this cycle, chances are the situation will become increasingly more volatile and violent.

From Point A to Point B for Survivors

For the most part, individuals will come into the center to have a face-to-face, one-on-one counseling and advocacy session with a staff member. Not everyone wants to jump right into a group therapy session; not everyone is ready for that. Group therapy is always available and is combined with our outreach program participants as well. We have survivors supporting each other from all different walks of abuse. Some are currently living it, some have been long removed and some have just recently left.

Our locations are always confidential, due to the fact that the most dangerous time for a victim is just after they have left the abusive situation. Many domestic violence related homicides or suicide-homicide situations occur once the abuser no longer has power over the victim.

With the use of technology, we also see a lot of cyber stalking. We often suggest our residents remove the batteries from their phones because typically, the abusers have downloaded a tracking app on the phone. We’ve had to leave vehicles at the police station because there was a tracking device on the car. The local law enforcement agency that oversees our jurisdiction is one of our larger supporters. They keep a constant eye on all of our surroundings. When we have someone in shelter that is ‘high lethality,’ meaning someone who’s abuser is stalking them or has done something to really escalate the situation, we will notify the police station. There’s no need to give them specific information, we just inform them of the high lethality situation. They will make it a point to make rounds and include in their report that they have actually seen the shelter property at a certain point in order to keep an eye on everything. Sometimes they will stop in just to say hi or see how things are going. If they see anything that seems off, like a car lingering, they will call and notify staff right away.”

The Shelter

Often times the shelter is at capacity or over, with the number of survivors fluctuating between 35 to over 40. Sunrise predominantly serves east Pasco County, however they do assist any victims that come to them for help and have even provided refuge for those fleeing dangerous situations in other countries.

There is a state hotline that victims can call, 1-888-668-7273, which will direct individuals to an area where they will feel safe.

Intervention Programs: What Sunrise Offers

Sunrise is more publicly known for the shelter, primarily for domestic violence and sexual abuse victims. While in shelter individuals are eligible to receive:

Counseling – Counseling sessions, both individual and group, are offered for adult victims, as well as any children living in the shelter.

Case Management -Coordination of service plans and assistance with navigating the objectives each survivor has set for themselves.

Legal Advocacy – Offers legal services for survivors, such as legal options for protection orders or accompaniment to court proceedings.

Outreach – Adult and child domestic violence counseling services. This also includes our rural program, designed to help serve the outlying community, such as individuals working on migrant farms.

Sexual Assault Program – Used in association with our Outreach Program to provide counseling in east and west Pasco county, as well as forensic accompaniment for survivors to exams and also to help explain the process as they go.

“One thing many do not know is that sexual assault exams can be done in house or at a medical facility or hospital, depending on the severity of the victim’s situation. When a sexual abuse exam is completed it is solely up to the individual to decide whether or not to report the abuse at that time. An exam can be completed as ‘non-reported’ at the individual’s request. Non-reporting cases have the ability to report at any time, when they are ready, and the evidence will be safe and secure at our facility until that time.

Often times sexual assaults are perpetrated by a known individual, a family member or close friend, which deters the victim from reporting the assault right away. We understand that making the decision to report an assault by someone close to you can feel humiliating and degrading, we want to allow the victim time to process at their own pace what has happened, and still receive the help and guidance they need and deserve,” Sinn says.

Licensed Therapist – Assistance for individuals in need of more extensive counseling and therapy.

Domestic Violence and Child Welfare Program – This program works with the Child Welfare System and other agencies within Pasco County to provide expert advice and assistance from a certified domestic violence center to implement resources for the non-offending parent(s). This allows the children to be placed with the non-offending parent instead of being put into the foster system.

Injunction for Protection – Provides attorneys for survivors of domestic violence, dating violence, stalking and repeat sexual violence to assist them though the legal process of filing injunctions for protection. Offering representation in court, filing petitions and also as a support system in court.

InVEST Program – Implemented in 2009 under Attorney General Bill McCullum, designed specifically as a result of 44% of homicides in Pasco County stemming from domestic violence situations. The Pasco County Sheriff’s office has a detective assigned specifically to the InVEST program to work with our advocate to assist the survivor through their recovery. This program is used for our most lethal situations and the assigned detective will ensure the perpetrator is accounted for and is complying with protection orders in place.

Domestic Violence Prevention Programs

A main focus at Sunrise currently is our prevention programs. We’re an agency that would love to work ourselves out of a job.

GreenDot Program – In conjunction with the Department of Health and St. Leo University, Sunrise has placed an active bystander on campus to assist college students in spreading awareness and options for reporting domestic and sexual assaults on campus.

We also work with local schools to create PEACE Clubs, safe groups available to help younger students recognize and avoid potentially dangerous relationships.

Delta Program – Funded by the CDC, Domestic Violence Prevention Enhancements and Leadership Through Alliances, Focusing on Outcomes for Communities United with States (DELTA FOCUS) Since 2008, Sunrise has been collaborating with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence (FCADV) to implement the Primary Prevention with Youth Approach in Pasco County. Sunrise remains one of two sites in the state of Florida operating under this umbrella. The Prevention Team of Sunrise continues to collaborate with local law enforcement, healthcare professionals, and educators to implement best practices for working with Pasco youth to prevent first-time perpetration and first-time victimization of violence.

Solutions Thrift Store – Participants are given vouchers to shop at the store for free while they are staying in the shelter to obtain any items they need. Many individuals are forced to leave with just the clothes on their back, many times those clothes are pajamas. The thrift store allows survivors access to household items and clothing necessary to start their new life.

The proceeds from the store also help offset some of the non-grant funded programs offered at Sunrise. For example, if a survivor is in need of relocation but may need new tires on their vehicle, a gas card for travel, medications, or child care, Sunrise can provide that.

It’s important to remember how much is necessary to provide for each individual at the shelter. From the time you woke up this morning to the time you lay down at night, think of everything you have used, everything you have consumed whether it be food, clothing, cooking, electricity; here at Sunrise we provide that for each survivor.

Kelly Sinn has seen her share of the unimaginable, images most of us only view through our smart phones or TV news channels. After witnessing first-hand the empowering and inspirational impact Sunrise has on the survivors they rescue, Kelly drastically changed the course of her studies to put herself on the front lines of one of our nation’s biggest threats to women.

RM (Resident Magazine): How can the community help support Sunrise?

KS (Kelly Sinn): First and foremost, to know we’re here. We never want an individual to be in need of our services and not know we exist.

Second, in line with other non-profits, any sort of financial contributions that can help support our agency and the programs and services we provide. Donations to support our thrift store are a huge help to the agency, along with individuals or businesses with special skills or trades. If someone needs a tree trimming company or a cleaning business that is willing to donate their time or services – this is a wonderful contribution. Anyone looking to support our agency can contact our administrative offices at any time at 352-521-3358.

Volunteers are always needed at the center as well. The requirements are quite extensive to work with the families in order to remain in line with Florida statutes; we do need to complete 30 hours of core competency training for domestic violence and 30 hours of advocacy core training for sexual assault survivors. However, the rewards of helping survivors, we believe, are well worth the time invested.

Volunteers not looking to work directly with the families are always welcome to assist in the administrative part of our services, gardening, the thrift store and any other needs within our facility.

RM: How did you get involved with Sunrise?

KS: I started at Sunrise in 2002, I was new to Florida and to Pasco County having moved here from Brainerd, Minnesota. Within a few months, a family member working at the agency informed me that Sunrise was looking to hire a new PR and Shelter Advocate. At the time I was offered the job, I had just finished my associates degree with plans to continue with a business degree. I started working at Sunrise answering the hotline and working in the shelter. I was very naive at the time; I didn’t fully understand the issues that come along with violence and abuse.

At one point, Sunrise held a support group for the women in shelter with a counselor. The meetings were held in the living room at the shelter and I was the advocate on duty covering the hotline. When the meeting ended, as the women were leaving I noticed they were all crying, like really bawling as they left. I panicked -thinking something had really gone wrong in the meeting. One of the women came into the office and I asked if she was okay, if there was anything I could do. Her response was, “that was probably one of the most, if not THE most empowering and inspiring groups I have ever been to”. All these people I was so worried about, were actually crying tears of happiness. Tears of inspiration. It was that point that I realized social work and advocacy for sexual and domestic violence survivors had picked me. I didn’t pick this field of work, it chose me. I knew at that moment, I wanted to impact someone else’s life so positively that I could make them cry happy tears.

I changed my degree, immediately transferred to the University of South Florida and from there completed my Bachelors and Masters in social work and obtained my license for clinical social work. Through my years at Sunrise, I began as Shelter Advocate and was then promoted to Women’s Counselor and Supervisor where I conducted those very meetings that evoked such a love of social work.

At Sunrise, not every person has this huge, profound impact, but you know that you have provided them with something. You’ve provided them with a respite or been able to plant some type of seed to help them on their journey to where they want to be in life. So many survivors have come back to let us know how much their time here at Sunrise and the support they received meant to them and had it not been for Sunrise they felt that they may have not survived the situation they were in. To know that I’ve made such a difference in a survivor’s life and to help offer everything Sunrise provides, is very powerful. We save lives. That knowledge validates the decision I made 15 years ago.

From there my passion only grew, for the agency, for the people I worked with and the individuals I worked for leading to my promotion to the Director of the Outreach Services where I was overseeing the counseling services at the agency. Not long after, I was promoted again to Chief Operating Officer where I was able to become more knowledgeable of the administrative side.

In June 2013 Penny Morrill, CEO of Sunrise for 27 years and my mentor, retired and I took over the agency as her replacement. I’m excited that our agency has continued to grow and expand more services. When we expand, we truly look to provide quality services, to strengthen and expand where the need is within the agency. At Sunrise we are a team and we have a great supportive and engaged Board of Directors.

RM: What are you looking for in the future, both personal and with the agency?

KS: Essentially to see the number of individuals entering our shelter decline, to be able to expand and implement our prevention programs to the point we are reaching those in need before these situations can escalate to that point.

To get our name out there, for people in our community to know Sunrise is here. Also for those who support our agency, for them to know they are making a true impact and without them we would absolutely not be able to do it. Without the community’s support, we wouldn’t be able to change lives and save these victims.

Looking to the future, our focus is to maintain the integrity of Sunrise here in Pasco County and strengthen it from within. If we were to look at an expansion it would be a very strategic move. As an agency we wouldn’t look to expand just to be larger, an expansion would be based on the need of our community and also the availability of funding to support that as well.

In my personal life, I couldn’t imagine myself anywhere else. I feel like with my generation, it isn’t really common to stick with an agency for 15 years. After attending graduate school I’ve seen many individuals move from agency to agency, and that just isn’t for me. This is where my heart is, I’m happy here and I have the best staff anyone could ever ask for. Pasco County really is the best; our community support is outstanding and we really are incredibly lucky to be here.

Sexual assault and domestic abuse survivors turn to Sunrise during the most hopeless and darkest moments of their lives, fleeing their homes and often leaving every belonging they’ve ever acquired.