INSIDE OUR WALLS

"Every woman who has come to My Friend's House has gotten better because of her contact with our services even if she stayed in a difficult situation."

That is the opinion of Susan Hanna, who has spent more than 30 years helping local women and their children as a counselor and advocate at My Friend's House and is now preparing to retire.

When Susan started her career as a child and youth worker, she said she didn't think she would last five years but she persisted because "I have seen so many women do amazing things regardless of their challenges."

Susan provided support as a court advocate for women preparing to navigate the legal system, which can take considerable energy and time. She cites the example of one client who started her legal challenge when her marriage broke down when she was pregnant and today that child is seven years old and the matter is still before the courts.

About 80% of the women at My Friend's House do enter into the court system, either to divorce a partner or deal with custody issues. Over the years, the key constant in the circumstances of the women Susan worked with was the desire of the abusers to control their behaviour. The methods of abuse have expanded to cyber bullying and legal bullying in the courts but the issues of control remain the same.

"Abused women minimize the impact of abuse because it becomes their norm. They need help to see their circumstances clearly and see what options lie ahead for them," Susan said. "We provide education, action and support for women, many of whom come to us through referrals from the community and medical professionals."

Group counseling is one of the many services Susan offered. At these group meetings, women set the agenda for their discussions but the most common questions they address are: Why does he do this? Why did I put up with it? and Why am I so depressed or angry?

Susan traveled to meet clients as the woman's ability to seek help was often impacted by lack of day care or transportation. "The hardest thing for women to do is to ask for help, no matter what level of income or education they have.

"Education is the first step for most women towards a better life once they realize that they do not have to put up with their situation. I remind them that 34 women a year in Ontario are killed by their partners. It is a real risk and there are steps they can take to change their lives and those of their children."

A resource that Susan Hanna promotes widely is "Helping Her Get Free: a Guide for Families and Friends of Abused Women" by Susan Brewster. The book describes how friends and relatives can help by being "an anchor" to provide a connection to a woman in need. "An anchor's connection with an abused woman reminds her of her strength and fortifies her sense of herself. She is reminded, through her dialogue with you of her own depths, her own compromised safety and her own neglected core."

My Friend's House will continue to provide counseling and advocacy for women after Susan Hanna retires in December, leaving behind a strong legacy of support for women in need.

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