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Elder abuse victims get help

Chris Dorst
Anita Britton sits outside her apartment at the Shanklin Center, which the Charleston YWCA uses to provide housing for senior citizens who have been abused and homeless. "When I came to the program, the staff was really good," she said.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Debby Weinstein remembers the day Goldie showed up at the YWCA's Sojourner's Shelter on Charleston's East End.

Goldie, who had been a homemaker and who had managed a farm with her husband in another state, was homeless and destitute, another woman in need of the shelter's protection.

Goldie was 89 years old, the victim of a gambling addict -- her only son -- who sold her home, drained her assets and pawned her wedding ring after the death of her husband before purchasing a one-way bus ticket for her to Charleston.

"When he took her wedding ring and sold that, she was trying to figure out an escape plan. She couldn't believe the nightmare she was living in," Weinstein said. "She was not allowed to have phone privileges; he had no phone in the house. She was not allowed to leave the house without him, ever. It was horrible."

Goldie's 83-year-old sister lived St. Albans, but Goldie had not been in touch with her in the two years she had been held captive by her son. After one day with her sister, the landlord appeared to warn them Goldie had three days to vacate the single-occupant apartment, and with no money, Goldie was taken to Sojourner's -- in the back of a police car.

"We took steps so that Goldie could be her own guardian again, manage her own money and cut her son off from that, and she did," Weinstein said. "She celebrated her 90th birthday in our homeless shelter. What's wrong with that picture? Absolutely everything."

According to Weinstein, executive director of the Charleston YWCA, Goldie was a wake-up call for the organization.

"I started noticing a trend in the late '90s and early 2000s, in both our homeless shelter and our battered women's shelter; we were seeing more and more seniors who were experiencing abuse and exploitation and ending up at our homeless shelter and our domestic violence shelter," she said.

Weinstein and others realized a need for a shelter dedicated to victims of elder abuse, and in December 2004, the Shanklin Center welcomed its first resident. The center, which consists of eight apartments, provides housing for disabled seniors who have been victims of elder abuse and have experienced homelessness as a result.

The center is the first of its kind in the state, but PK Khoury, director of communications for the YWCA, said the problem of elder abuse is more widespread than many people realize.

"While Goldie's story is unique, it's also typical of the victims who come to us; they've lost their resources, they've lost their way, they've lost their self-respect, they've lost their independence, and we give that back," Khoury said.

Saturday is World Elder Abuse Prevention and Awareness Day. According to the YWCA, 90 percent of elder abuse victims suffer at the hands of their children or close relatives. Of those who are abused, roughly 1 in 14 cases are reported.

One of those victims, Anita Britton, has lived at the Shanklin Center for three years. Britton, a lifelong resident of Kanawha County, said she was abused by both of her former husbands and, eventually, her daughter, before coming to the center.

"When I came to the program, the staff was really good," Britton said. "They talk to you, that sort of thing. If you have any problems, they'll talk to you."

Britton has since found a home and friends at the center. When one of those friends passed away two months ago, Britton and the other women were afraid of losing another friend -- a cat named Angel, which Britton has since adopted.

"We had a policy for years of no animals, and we got a call from a psychiatrist one day who said, 'I have a woman I think is in desperate need of your program,'" Weinstein said. "'She has a cat, and it's the only thing that keeps joy in her life.' Her children had abused her; it was a terrible story. But she said this woman would live on the street before she would leave her cat."

Shanklin's residents are self-sufficient; they often cook and clean for themselves, and a few of them work in other YWCA facilities. The housing is permanent, and the women are allowed to keep gardens, have cats, hold parties and even have karaoke nights, Khoury said.

"One of our case managers came to me one day and said, 'I heard music blaring out there and thought someone was cutting through with a boombox.' She said she went to check it out and it was Elvis, and in one of the apartments the ladies had set up snacks and were just listening to Elvis," Weinstein said. "She said she laughed so hard."

The center is subsidized housing partially funded through the department of Housing and Urban Development, and only one-third of residents' income goes to funding the Shanklin Center. To supplement its expenses, the YWCA created 2nd Seating, a gently-used furniture store on Elizabeth Street where donated household items are sold to benefit the center and its residents. Many of the residents also work at 2nd Seating, and Weinstein said the community has embraced the store and its mission.

"It's been a real blessing to the Shanklin Center, because all the money we raise at the store help to underwrite the cost of the center," she said. "We have at that store everything you would have at your own home. Furniture, lamps, bureaus, kitchen wear, wall art. The community has been very generous with us."

According to the Administration on Aging, elderly people throughout the U.S. lose an estimated $2.6 billion annually because of elder financial abuse and exploitation. Victims are often verbally and physically abused and threatened, and according to Khoury, many times elder victimization can go unnoticed in a community, which is why Saturday's observance is important for bringing light to the problem.

"If someone is a senior, and they disappear, find out what happened to them," Weinstein said. "Make sure they're OK, because this goes on under our noses, and it's frightening."

The YWCA of Charleston was established in 1912, and its programs, facilities and services impact more than 10,000 people each year. Its shelters and programs provide housing and security for battered and homeless children and adults.

For information on the YWCA, the Shanklin Center or other programs, visit www.ywcacharleston.org.

Reach Lydia Nuzum at lydia.nuzum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5100.


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