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As Domestic Violence Rises In Johnson County, Its Only Shelter Hustles To Meet Demand

Luke X. Martin
Desiree Long of Safehome says Johnson County's only domestic violence shelter fielded more than 5,300 calls last year, 15% more than the year before.

Domestic violence in Kansas is on the rise.

According to the Kansas Bureau of Investigations, homicides related to domestic violence doubled in Kansas in 2017 (the most recent year for which statistics are available). Johnson County saw a 20-year high in cases that had deadly outcomes in 2017, yet the largest county in the state has just one domestic violence shelter.

“In 2018 we turned away 2,500 people,” says Desiree Long, director of grants, quality assurance and housing at Safehome. That's a 29% increase from 2017.

Safehome serves approximately 8,000 people annually, providing advocacy, shelter and counseling free of charge for victims and their children. When the shelter can't physically accommodate victims, its staff works closely with other organizations in the metro area to provide alternate resources.

“Sometimes it's hard and sometimes they have to end up going far away to find somewhere safe,” Long says.

Each victim presents a unique set of circumstances for which Safehome creates an individually tailored safety plan.

The most dangerous time for victims is when they are trying to leave their abusers, according to Megan Ahsens, assistant district attorney for Johnson County.

“That is when the violence can turn deadly,” Ahsens says.

Through Safehome’s lethality program, the shelter is able to use any means necessary to keep a victim safe.

“If there is indication that there is serious imminent harm, then we can take those people in and even put them on a couch,” Long says.

Credit Luke X. Martin / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Assistant District Attorney Megan Ahsens is the founder of the Johnson County Family Justice Center Foundation. The center is designed to allow survivors to receive services from professionals of various agencies under one roof.

Not all of the 38 domestic-violence related homicides in Kansas in 2017 were at the hands of an intimate partner, which is what many people think of when they hear about domestic violence, says Ahsens. Domestic violence also includes familial abuse, threats and sexual violence.

“These are preventable, and with proper law enforcement training and proper education of the community, we can start really combating it,” Ahsens says.

In the meantime, Ahsens is working to do more for victims of abuse. Her office has recently started the Johnson County Family Justice Center Foundation, modeled after the 170 others currently operating around the country.

Ahsens describes it as a “one stop shop” for services victims need following abusive situations. Victims would have access to childcare services while they are attending court, as well as access to forensic exams and interviews with detectives, among other resources.

“It reduces a lot of barriers and a lot of different places that victims have to go to,” Ahsens says.

Long and Ahsrens agree that a victim has to take the first steps in getting help by calling police or Safehome's 24-hour-a-day hotline.

Taking an abuser through the court system doesn't only protect the victim, Ahsens says. It also helps keep others safe.

“If you get to put a stake in a monster and put them out so they don't get to hurt anybody else again," Ahsens says, "that's immensely satisfying.”

For more information call Safehome at 913-262-2868 or visit KCPD.org. For the National Domestic Violence Hotline call 1-800-799-7233.

Desiree Long and Megan Ahsens spoke with Steve Kraske on a recent episode of KCUR's Up to Date. Listen to the entire conversation here.

Elizabeth Ruiz is an intern for KCUR's Up to Date. Contact her at elizabeth@kcur.org.