Michelle and Mom

Michelle Robinson-Ritter and her mother, Margaret Barale Robinson.

Forty years ago, a small group of forward-thinking women came together with a single vision – to find a way to reach battered women throughout the commonwealth and offer them a lifeline to safety.

That lifeline became the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the first statewide domestic violence coalition. Since 1976, PCADV’s member programs have grown from nine to 60, and Domestic Violence Services of Southwestern Pennsylvania is proud to be one of them.

The member programs of PCADV offer a wide range of community-based services to victims of domestic violence and their children. Services range from providing temporary shelter to facilitating community support groups; offering a 24-hour hotline; providing assistance with filing protection-from-abuse petitions; advocating for victims in the criminal-justice system; and providing meaningful programming to children in shelters. All these services, and many more, have saved many lives. Since 1976, the PCADV statewide network of programs has reached over 2.5 million victims.

As local domestic violence programs, DVSSP included, provide free and confidential services and offer awareness and prevention programs, PCADV administers the state contract for domestic violence services, sets program standards, and distributes state and federal funding to the programs. The partnership between PCADV and the network of domestic violence programs throughout Pennsylvania is a partnership we all need.

I am not new to my program. For over 30 years, I have been blessed to work on developing and growing our organization from one staff member – me – in the Washington County domestic violence shelter, to a satellite counseling center in Greene County, and a second shelter in Fayette County. Domestic Violence Services of Southwestern Pennsylvania has seen many changes over the past three decades: The service area grew from one to three counties; staff increased from one to 36; and the 1985 annual budget of $15,000 climbed to over $1.8 million for the upcoming fiscal year. While our development and growth has been slow and deliberate, it was not accomplished in a vacuum. The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence provided technical assistance and support through the entire journey.

I only wish the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence had existed when I was a child growing up in Washington County. My mom was a sweet woman from a big family. My aunts, uncles, and cousins were good people, and fun to be around, and I liked to be around them as much as possible. Why? Because my father was a monster.

If there was one thing I could count on, it was that mom would have a black eye sometime during any weekend. When I was very young, I would frequently hear my father tell my mom that she was a worthless wife, a worthless mother and a worthless person. I wondered why, because mom was anything but worthless to her children. She tried her best to make our lives happy; it just wasn’t possible if my father was around.

When he would leave for several days at a time, which he did often, it was peaceful. He controlled all the money, so we didn’t always have enough to eat, but mom made sure we ate. We seldom asked friends to visit. We couldn’t. We could never be sure what kind of mood our father would be in. We didn’t want anyone to see what he did or hear what he said. We were all embarrassed about the beatings and almost constant verbal abuse. Mom didn’t want any of her family to know what was happening, and there was nothing she could do to stop it. Mom’s real peace came only when my father died 25 years ago. She lived 22 happy years before she died, and for that, I am thankful.

If PCADV existed when I was a child, there would have been a local hotline for mom to call. School programs would have helped us cope. Mom could have taken us to a safe shelter. We could find peace.

I guess it’s fairly obvious why I got into this line of work. I don’t want any family to go through what my family endured. I celebrate 40 years of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence coordinating resources for victims of domestic violence and their children. Pennsylvania needs the PCADV to help ensure that services for victims of domestic violence continue, and continue with adequate funding.

Michelle Robinson-Ritter is the executive director of Domestic Violence Services of Southwestern Pennsylvania.

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