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Freedom Ranch shelter opens its doors

Matt Zalaznick

While job support and counseling have long been available in Eagle County to battered women and children trying to escape abusive relationships, sheltering them for more than a few nights has been a problem.

But the county has now opened Freedom Ranch, a shelter where women trying to make a new start can stay long-term.

“I think people are more willing to ask for help if they know there’s help available,” says Kim Andree, community affairs officer with the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office. “If they believe they can’t find safe housing, they’re not as likely to ask for help. They’re more fearful they’re going to cause more violence than not.”

A few nights in a hotel may rescue a woman from immediate danger, but it is not enough time for an abused woman to make decisions about their future, says Megan Park, a director of Freedom Ranch.

“Until now, we’ve been dependent on donations from hotels and lodges and a lot of area hotels have been generous,” Park says. “We’ve been hard-put to safehouse people during past ski seasons when we have more people to serve and there aren’t as many rooms available.

“When people need longer-term services, we’ve had to put them outside the county,” she adds.

Women were already waiting to move in when the shelter opened earlier this month, Park says.

“That’s not surprising,” Park says.

There has been a steep increase this year in the number of woman seeking help. Through the first six months of 2002, 120 women contacted the county’s Advocate Program, compared to 79 through June of last year, Park says.

During the same time period, domestic violence prosecutions in the Eagle County Courts have dropped by 12 – from 98 in 2001 to 86 this year, Authorities believe women are calling the advocates rather than the police.

In 2001, 9,426 women were turned away from shelter services in Colorado because the shelters were full. The Resource Center housed 32 women and 15 children through donated hotel rooms due to lack of space that year.

“It’s kind a like Alcatraz – what’s the sense of escaping when you know there’s a sea full of things you have to fight through before you can be safe,” Andree says. “We’re hoping this shelter allows people a good safe haven, time for there to be a positive resolution a relationship that isn’t working.”

Freedom Ranch is operated by the Advocate Program of the Eagle County Resource Center. The shelter received extensive support from the Eagle County Board of County Commissioners, who allocated space for the facility.

“Unfortunately, it is a necessary part of our community to provide shelter to abused spouses and children,” says Commissioner Mike Gallagher, a former Minturn police chief. “(Domestic violence) is without barriers, it’s regardless of income, race, culture. I’ve been a cop too long to pretend it doesn’t happen.”

The location of Freedom Ranch is not being revealed to protect future tenants, but Eagle County sheriff’s deputies have already visited the shelter to familiarize themselves with how the facility works, Park says.

Abused women seek help at various stages of crisis, she says.

“Some have been making a plan to get away, and this has been the last straw,” she says. “Others come in immediate crisis and haven’t planned anything.”

Before Freedom Ranch opened, the Resource Center and Advocate Programs could put women up for two to three nights at a local hotel. Women will be able to stay at Freedom Ranch for up to 45 days – even longer in certain circumstances – Park says.

Staying at the shelter, women and their children will have more direct, longer term access to counselors, job support and other services to help them get back on their feet, Park says.

“At the shelter, we can help women develop job skills, parenting skills, self-esteem,” she says. “That’s what we haven’t been able to offer consistently to women who’ve only had one or two nights in the system.”

There are conflicted feelings that often prevent women from leaving their abusers, Park says,

“A woman feels like she’s crazy, like no one will believe her story, she’s embarrassed, she tells herself it’s not as bad as it seems,” Park says. “Leaving is sometimes the most dangerous time for a woman. We can help her make a plan to get away safely. We have people on call 24/7.”

But domestic violence and the others problems it causes –child abuse, restraining order violations, divorce – are likely to become more of a problem as the county’s population increases, Andree says.

That means more women will be calling for help, she adds.

“As we grow, it becomes increasingly higher on our list of needs in our community to educate people about,” Andree says. “It’s not just domestic violence, it’s everything that comes thereafter. It’s a total family problem.”

Anyone with questions about domestic violence or who feels they have been a victim of domestic violence can call the Eagle County Resource Center at 949-7097. The after-hours crisis hotline is 949-7086.

Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at mzalaznick@vaildaily.com.


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