Herald JournalHerald Journal, April 7, 2003

'It's always been near and dear to his heart'

By Julie Yurek

For 30 years, Myron Oftedahl's cousin was a victim of domestic violence.

When she finally got up the courage to leave him and file for divorce, her ex-husband kidnapped her, Oftedahl said.

They were missing for two weeks, but were finally caught while trying to cross the border into Mexico, he said.

The ex-husband received 15 years in prison, but can come up for parole in 12 years, he said.

"Him getting out has to be at the back of her mind," he said.

"She lived in the same community as her parents and aunts and uncles, and if they saw her on the street, they couldn't say hello or even smile because word would get back to him and they didn't want to put her in danger," Oftedahl said.

So for Oftedahl, helping victims of domestic violence "has always been near and dear to his heart," said his wife, Sonja Johnson.

The Lester Prairie couple have volunteered at McLeod County Alliance for Victims of Domestic Violence (MAVDV) organization in Hutchinson for more than two years since they signed up that the McLeod County Fair, she said.

Though MAVDV is located in Hutchinson, it serves the entire county, said MAVDV Director Anna Slyter.

The couple have become known for their ability to help victims move (their belongings) from the abusive home to a safehouse, shelter, or other location.

"We have a big trailer that we use," Johnson said.

"We usually come into the picture after the victim has been gone from the home for awhile already," Oftedahl said.

"Though one time we moved a victim and the police had to be there the entire time for protection," he said.

For Johnson, volunteering and the experience with Oftedahl's cousin really opened her eyes to domestic violence, she said.

"I've always been aware of people in abusive relationships, but more victims have come forward to talk to me, and it has more intense meaning now," she said. "All these stories became much more real."

The duo have not dealt with many Winsted or Lester Prairie residents, Oftedahl said. "I think MAVDV uses volunteers from different communities than the victims. We've helped victims in mostly Glencoe and Hutchinson so far," he said.

"Some victims may not want to have someone they know, know about their situation. Others are relieved that they know someone who they can finally talk to," Johnson said.

MAVDV has received quite a few calls from Winsted and Lester Prairie, Slyter said.

The couple, who have been married for 20 years, are not new to helping others.

While living across the county border in Carver County, they were foster parents from 1985 to 1990.

Domestic violence awareness contributed to them becoming foster parents, Johnson said.

"We called around, asking where we could help and it was suggested that we do foster care. I don't know if the county had anything like the MAVDV," she said.

Besides helping move victims, Johnson also takes those without transportation to appointments, she said.

The pair also volunteer at the MAVDV's booth at the McLeod County Fair.

Other volunteers help out at the office by answering phones, typing, child care during support group time, and often speaking at events. The couple has been asked to speak, but Johnson isn't quite ready for that yet, she said.

"Sonja and Myron are great people. They are modeling a healthy relationship to victims on how a relationship can be," Slyter said. There are a few couples besides Oftedahl and Johnson that volunteer.

"We also have some male volunteers who are just as dedicated as female volunteers," Slyter said. "We don't hate men, we hate the abuse."

Men can be victims of domestic abuse too. The couple acknowledged that though women are usually victims of domestic violence, men can be also.

Men have used the services of MAVDV, Slyter said.

Once a month volunteers can attend training at the MAVDV where they learn about safe houses, other agencies that it works with, Social Services, and new laws, Slyter said.

There are currently about 30 volunteers at MAVDV, she said.

"We are always looking for more volunteers, even if it's just an hour a person has to give," Slyter said.

"MAVDV helps victims obtain decision-making skills," Johnson said. "The victim will look to the advocate, which is either a staff member or volunteer, for an answer and the advocate gives the question back to the victim for them to answer."

It also provides victims with information they'll need for housing, getting a job, and paying bills, Johnson said. "An advocate will even go to court with a victim if she or he asks."

At the mention of court, Johnson and Oftedahl have their opinions about the McLeod County court system.

"The abuser always seems to get let off or the charges are reduced," Oftedahl said.

"The county doesn't have a good track record prosecuting abusers and it doesn't support the victim," Johnson said.

Slyter wouldn't comment on the court system, but she acknowledged that all the agencies involved in stopping domestic violence have to work together, she said. "I think everyone is doing their best."

Slyter commented on the help of local police departments. "(Chief) Bob (Carlson) and (Chief) Mike (Henrich) have been really great in working with us," she said.

Inspirational

The victims that do decide to leave and start a new life are "inspirational," she said.

"Watching these women thrive is neat to see. They have this strength about them," she said.

Those that don't leave their abuser shouldn't be seen as stupid or weak, Slyter said. "These are strong people; they have to plan for things such as an escape route to another room or ways to avoid the abuser, that other people don't have to."

"We should be putting the blame on the abuse, not the victim. It's not her duty to leave, it's his duty to stop abusing," Slyter said. "We need to start shifting the responsibility onto the abuse to change."

Domestic violence is a not a loss of temper, Slyter said. "It's about controlling the victim."

Call for help

MAVDV has a 24-hour crisis number (320) 234-7933 or 800-934-0851.

Calls received after hours are answered at the shelter in Willmar, Slyter said.

"If a victim needs to be picked up and taken to a safe house, either a staff member or a volunteer will be there," Slyter said. "I've gotten calls at 3 a.m. and everyone knows they may get called, but that's what we are there for."

The police may also call the crisis line if they get called to a home and the victim wishes to leave. The advocate from MAVDV will set up a safe location with the police to pick the victim up, Slyter said.

There are four safe houses in the county and shelters are located in Willmar, St. Cloud, and Mankato, she said. Children are welcome in both the safe houses and shelters, she said.

MAVDV

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the program.

MAVDV offers three programs to victims: the community advocacy program, which offers safe houses and shelter; the bilingual community advocacy, which is for non-English speaking victims, and the criminal justice intervention, which is with the court system and law enforcement handing out packets of information at each domestic violence call it receives, Slyter said.

A support group also meets once a week at MAVDV.

"There is serious stuff going on ­ burns and broken bones," she said.

"The mental and emotional abuse is harder to recover from than the physical," she said.

"Charming" is the red flag word, Slyter said. "Many victims describe their abuser as 'charming.'"

"One out of four women are abused sometime in their lives," she said.

MAVDV offers victims options and informs them of their rights, Slyter said.

Budget cuts

Like many organizations, MAVDV is affected by state budget cuts, Slyter said.

"We'll be OK next year, but 2005 really worries me," she said.

MAVDV applies for grants and funding, but Slyter is hoping to start and endowment funds for the organization, which would allow it to keep running without as much help from the government, she said. "It's one of my goals to get it started."

Besides Slyter, there are three full-time employees and two part-time employees that work in the office.

MAVDV's biggest fundraiser is the Bowl-a-thon that is conducted each February at Pla-Mor Lanes in Glencoe.

Slyter didn't have the exact amount the organization made, it was more than last year, she said.

Another fundraiser is a quilt raffle located at MAVDV's booth at the county fair, she said. "People can buy a ticket and get information at the same time, without worry of someone seeing them get brochures."


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