New nonprofit aims to help Black domestic violence survivors

Christel Deskins

Escaping an abusive relationship with three young children during a pandemic wasn’t easy. New nonprofit aims to help Black domestic violence survivors A victim of domestic violence metaphorically signals stop in the offices of The Empowered Survivor on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020, in Houston. The Empowered Survivor is helping the […]

Escaping an abusive relationship with three young children during a pandemic wasn’t easy.

It took months to find a way out for a 27-year-old Acres Homes mother, who is actively fleeing violence and asked to remain anonymous for her safety. She said she didn’t know where to go when her boyfriend’s violent and erratic behavior suddenly escalated.


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“I was thinking maybe I’d stay with my mom, but she’s an alcoholic,” the woman said. “And I didn’t have money to go anywhere else.”

Then came a lifeline. The woman, who had recently lost her job due to COVID-19, learned about Empowered Survivor, a program that would provide her with emergency shelter in a hotel, funds for household necessities and a long-term plan to find permanent housing as well as financial independence.

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Carvana Cloud, former bureau chief of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office Special Victims Bureau, created the nonprofit as a way to end violence against women in underserved communities. The focus of the organization is to bring direct aid to Black women and people of color in the northeast Houston neighborhood.

“I grew up in a household where domestic violence was present,” said Cloud. “I have lived that hell and I don’t want other people to have to live it.”

Black women have typically accounted for more than half of the women killed by domestic violence for several years in Harris County, according to the Texas Council on Family Violence. The county has the highest numbers of such deaths in Texas.

Most of those killings occurred in the Acres Homes area, said Gloria Terry, CEO of the statewide nonprofit council, which keeps a database of intimate partner femicides in Texas.

Studying disparities in violence

Acres Homes is a microcosm of many of the circumstances that put Black women at greater risk of suffering violence in America, Cloud said.

The neighborhood has become more susceptible to increasing rates of domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic, advocates say. The same populations most vulnerable to the impacts of Hurricane Harvey in 2017 are continuing to see long-term increases in violence, which has been compounded by the stressors brought on by the novel coronavirus.

Survivors of natural disasters are more than twice as likely to experience physical and emotional abuse, according to a 2017 study published by the Clinical Social Work Journal. And the phenomenon is especially true for women and people of color, a 2016 study on women’s mental health and intimate partner violence after disasters shows.

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“Stressors related to Harvey on top of unhealthy relationships escalated the frequency and intensity of violence,” said Terry. “All the same dynamics are present now with COVID. Oftentimes, communities of color are also having intersectional issues like poverty. It’s one layer on top of another.”

During the pandemic, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office responded to 1,128 reports of family violence assaults and aggravated family violence assaults in March through June, a 19 percent increase compared to those months last year.

The work Empowered Survivor is doing now is being studied by the Texas Council on Family Violence. The council will soon release a public report on the research, which will inform the policies and work of more than 100 advocacy groups partnered with the council.

The research will be available to other organizations studying racial disparities in responses to domestic violence and prevention efforts.

“We want to learn how we can facilitate access and safety to a population disproportionately affected by all of these environmental and societal complexities,” Terry said.

Culturally relevant approaches

Traditional approaches to preventing domestic violence have failed to be inclusive of Black communities because Black women weren’t at the table when the advocacy movement began, Cloud said.

“I’ve decided to bring my own chair to the table,” she said. “If we truly want to decrease the domestic violence homicide rate in the Black community, we must develop culturally-relevant services.”

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Many Black survivors have experienced a lack of cultural understanding and isolation at domestic violence shelters, according to a 2005 study by the National Council on Family Relations. Fear of law enforcement and distrust in the legal process have also been identified as barriers for Black women, other studies show.

Empowered Survivor doesn’t wait for victims to seek help, said Cloud, it meets them where they are.

Advocates have taken a grassroots approach by contacting community leaders such as pastors and neighborhood association presidents to relay information to survivors. The resources are also advertised at voter registration drives, in local beauty shops, community centers and dollar stores, among other locations survivors may frequent in the Acres Homes area.

Cloud also partnered with other existing nonprofits, such as Pure Justice, a nonprofit focused on criminal justice reform, to find clients.

Once word got out, demand for services increased rapidly. The Texas Council on Family Violence doubled the initial funding it had granted to the project to meet the need for assistance.

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The project began with 35 participants and has grown to more than 300, Cloud said. Of those, 71 percent identified as Black and 83 identified as women, according to the organization.

The program offers survivors transitional housing, wellness and forensic exams, help getting protective orders, assistance with divorce procedures, custody case work, job training and financial counseling, among other services.

“My personal goal is to keep doing this work until Harris County is no longer number one on the domestic violence homicide list,” said Cloud. “I want women to stop dying.”

Healing generational trauma

The stalking and abuse the 27-year-old Acres Homes mother suffered a few months ago wasn’t her first trauma. Her first was childhood sexual abuse by a family member at age 4 or 5, she said.

Years of more trauma were layered on, with other physically abusive partners, she said.

She’s adapted to learn to survive over the years, but now, with help from advocates, she said she’s learning to thrive and build a better future for her family.

“My self esteem was so damaged from being beat down as a child,” she said. “Now, I have to build myself back up mentally. And I’m doing this while I’m raising my own babies and making sure they don’t end up in the same situation I’m in.”

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