Since 1976, Domestic Violence Intervention Services has helped a tremendous number of people who have been physically and/or verbally abused. The organization has also helped children who have witnessed domestic violence, and spends time in schools educating students about things like dating and respectful communication. 

DVIS mission is to rebuild lives affected by domestic violence and sexual assault through advocacy, shelter, counseling and education.

In 2018, DVIS provided counseling to 373 victims of rape and sexual assault, 1,176 survivors of domestic violence and 560 perpetrators of domestic violence. They provided advocacy to 482 victims of rape and sexual assault and 8,327 people seeking court advocacy services and protective orders. The nonprofit agency also provided advocacy to 852 victims working with law enforcement and 25,314 individuals with information and crisis line calls.

They provided housing for 496 survivors and children at the emergency shelter in 17,348 nights of shelter.

Of those clients, 76% were female. The most common age range of clients was 30-39 (29%) followed by 20-29 (28%). In terms of race, DVIS clients were comprised of 47% white, 13% black, 8% American Indian and 6% hispanic. Twenty-five percent of those seen do not enter a race.

DVIS provided counseling to 326 children of domestic violence and provided child care for 3,245 children while their parent participated in counseling or legal and court advocacy. 

They also providing temporary housing for 29 dogs and nine cats at their shelter.

According to a 2018 study by the Violence Policy Center, Oklahoma ranked 11th in the country for women murdered by men. 

For more than a decade, Tracey Lyall has served as the chief executive officer of the organization. Before joining DVIS, she served as executive director of The Salvation Army for eight years and has additional experience in domestic violence and housing. 

Lyall spoke with TulsaPeople about what DVIS is doing to help those who are victims and survivors. With October being Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Lyall also discussed how Tulsans can help the organization with their efforts.

First off, let's start with you. You've worked for DVIS since 2007. Twelve years on the job, and it's not an easy one, right?

You know, it's not an easy job, but I don't alone do the heavy lifting. I have just a great team. We're bigger organization than most people think. We have about 110 employees. I'm not on the front lines dealing with survivors of violence and children. You know, that kind of crisis work day in and day out. So I consider that kind of the heavy lifting. I'm really more administrator and fundraiser. 

Well, after 12 years, I mean, I think anybody, if you decided you want to switch paths or do something different with your life, would be like, "OK, that's 12 years of service. That's a long time. We get it." But what keeps you going here?

I think having the responsibility of being the only domestic violence and sexual assault agency in Tulsa County... So I think just knowing that we're here and that we're sheltering and serving counseling thousands of people a year. Those are the kinds of things you can focus on. The horrific outcomes that we see in Tulsa. And unfortunately, we do have some pretty serious outcomes in terms of homicides around domestic violence. But if you focus on that alone, it's not probably going to keep you going on. 

So focusing on what we would can do, and the people we do see, come through our doors and the people that we house and the shelter, but then house permanently in safe housing in the community, and the kids that we counsel who witness violence that could be the next generation.  Hopefully, that's where we're intervening that this violence doesn't move into their generation by helping them address the trauma that they've experienced. So those are the kinds of things that keep me going. Also, the fact that our community continues to financially support DVIS. 

You're dealing with a societal problem that has multiple issues behind it, because you get into the behavioral science aspect like kids who are raised around it. There's a justice system that needs reform. There's poverty. There are a lot of issues there. I mean, it's such a daunting, a massive thing and then we have something like Domestic Violence Awareness Month, which is every October. Typically with these these months, it's often about raising money to do something. But with domestic violence, it's so much more than that. You can't just raise money and make it go away. You can't get into a science lab and come up with a cure. Right? So what is the goal for you with this month? What do you want to achieve?

You know, really, it's the awareness piece of it for us. We are still amazed constantly that there are people in Tulsa who don't know we exist. And we've been here since 1976. Yeah, over forty years. I talk to people all the time I run into who have never heard of us. So the awareness piece is still about letting people know that we're here.

One of the things we heard (in surveying those who didn't know what DVIS is) is that "Well, I know people who are in bad relationships, but they're not being beat by their partner." They thought a person would be like "If I have bruises or know somebody who has bruises, then they can come. Those are the kind of people DVIS serves." 

Well, not the case. I mean, there's the emotional abuse, the sexual harassment, yes, the spiritual abuse, all of that, and fall under our umbrella. And it doesn't have to be severe. You don't have to come to DVIS, just simply call us and we'll talk through some things you can say to somebody who's in an abusive relationship. There's all kinds of resources like that on our website, and then nationally, too. So you know, just the awareness piece. And for me, that actually ties back to homicide, because when we look across the country at the number of people who are killed by their partner, nationally, only 4% of them ever walked through the door and receive services from a domestic violence agency in the year prior to their death. So only 4% of the national domestic violence homicides, so that other 96%. So the important piece of that for me, and in this research was if somebody who's being harmed by their partner can just avail themselves of the services, were greatly going to reduce the risk of them being killed by that partner. So awareness is key, letting people know we're here.

Strangulation is a major issue, especially here in Tulsa. In 2017 there were 494 cases. In 2018 it went up to 700. And that's just those that have been reported. 

Yeah, that's reported. Sergeant Clay Asbill is the guy I would credit with really elevating attention to strangulation in Tulsa, not only with Tulsa Police Department, but the surrounding police departments. This led to them really focusing on it and getting better assistance for people who've been strangled. And oftentimes there's a lot of training that goes with that because now we know choking is trying to cut off somebody's air supply. That can cause them to be killed even weeks later. 

Clay's really taken it upon himself as a kind of a cause for Tulsa. He leads the family violence unit. I think he and his detectives are paying attention. I mean, they're combing through 600 to 800 domestic violence reports. When you have that many reports, and you only have yourself, a corporal and six detectives, I think that you divide those up, I mean, you've got to have some key things to be looking for to decide which cases you're actually going to investigate, then pursue sending evidence over so charges can be filed. So they have a tremendous, a difficult job. 

He's done some work with the DA's office and trying to just raise awareness of that and how in Judges raising awareness of how dangerous it is. So I think paying attention to it more. I don't know that it's occurring more. I just think we're paying attention to it in a different way. One of the things is DVIS has a staff person. His name's Kevin (Robbins). He's our advocate that we've embedded with the family violence unit, where Sgt. Asbill is. As the detectives are looking at reports and see somebody's been choked, or strangled, they're passing off to Kevin, and he is calling the victim asking them if they haven't come in, to come in and talk and be checked out medically. Also take the pictures that they have a forensic nurse at the police department that takes pictures of injuries, they have a special camera that sees injuries at different stages of healing, bruising, etc. 

This leads to more prosecutions. It's up to around 36 a month, which is enough to create a new unit in the DA's office, which is being overseen by Cindy Cunningham, who used to work for DVIS as the director of legal services. How does her transition to that side help, in your opinion?

She's a fireball. I think this is her second stint there. She was a DA years ago, and she's been a public defender in private practice. She's pretty seasoned as an attorney. And we were really lucky to have her here for as long as we did. And that was her second time to work for DVIS in that role. What is most exciting is that she sort of really pitched it to DA Steve Kunzweiler and said, "Let me do this unit." I think she had a good enough of a relationship with Steve, she convinced them that she could run that unit, which I have no doubt we're going to see some good results. 

The national average is around eight to 10 times someone is abused in a relationship before anything changes and they leave the person. Why is that?

There's just so many so many things, so barriers to the barriers, I mean, it's just not wanting to take their kids to a shelter, pull them out of their school, away from their friends, all the things in places that they know, and are comfortable with. And sometimes the abusive person might be the breadwinner. There's oftentimes that power and control dynamic that just threatening the person, "If you leave, I'm going to get custody of the kids, I'm going to kill you, I'm gonna kill your family." Sometimes it's "I'll kill myself." 

All of that, which just instills more fear. You know, it's, again, if they're the breadwinner, they don't have a job, they've been a stay at home mom, or don't have a skill set to go out and get a job. That's more than minimum wage. I mean, in the realities of being able to house and feed your kids and have transportation to and from school and work and all of those things. There are women who've returned to relationships because joint custody was going to be awarded, and not being with their kids on the weekends. That's not their weekend, it was too much to think about. And so I'm going to go back, at least I know where they are. And I'm there. There's some realities of even our court system in terms of how they award custody. We have a court system that feels like kids are better off with both parents, even if there's been violence. So that's a little bit hard for me to understand. But it's sort of reality here.

You touched on it earlier that you're always full in terms of available beds for shelter. I know that that is obviously frustrating and an ongoing issue. But when you're the only shelter of its kind in Tulsa, what happens to those who are strangled and checked out at the hospital and then going to be released? 

There's other domestic violence shelters in Oklahoma. So we have, there's about 28-30 of them in Oklahoma. So you know, our responsibility is to try to find a safe place for someone to go if they want shelter. to offer our shelter if if our shelter has space, of course offer our shelter. But if if we don't refer them to other places like Owasso or Claremore... And we do and we transport in some cases.

There's a listing that goes out every day, to all of our staff here stating where across the state are sort of sister programs that have bed availability. So our staff, every one of our staff get that email every morning. So we know going into the day, and our staff know our shelter is pretty close to full. And we talk or when we're as full as we are, which is a lot. We're listening for things that are severe, severe injury, strangulation and whether or not a person has a safe place to go. We try to use the available resources that we have that are outside of Tulsa to get someone to safety. Now some of those communities are small, too. Besides Oklahoma City and Tulsa the rest of the state's considered rural. You know, those rural communities talk about lack of resources. I mean, they're really hurting for options.

DVIS provides counseling to, on average, one rape or sexual assault victim a day and nearly three survivors of domestic violence a day. The numbers are staggering. And you guys are limited in what you can do. How frustrating is it knowing you can only do so much and help so many people physically? I mean, it's just impossible, you can't help every single person out there at once.

I would say it's frustrating, it's not something I focus a lot on. Because we can only do what we can do, right? So we have to sort of make sure that we aren't expecting more of ourselves. For instance, bed space, we went from a 50-bed shelter to a 91-bed shelter. And we're mostly full, constantly. So now there's some, you know, nuances in there that can change that. But, you know, if we built more beds, I think I just don't think we're ever going to eliminate the need for more.

I think if the system were perfect then we were arresting, prosecuting, rehabilitating offenders who could be rehabilitated and putting those behind bars who are just violent and not going to be able to be rehabilitate. I would hope we might see some movement there and that the need would just sort of decline. 

But on the front end, you've got so many other factors like poverty, other types of trauma, and then the whole idea of just education and prevention, where we talk about healthy relationships with kids, with teens, and how to respect one another. You know, with phones and technology, it's just crazy that the text messages and pictures and just all kinds of things that kids are doing to each other. Two of our employees work in the high schools, middle schools, educating teens about healthy relationships, dating, violence, consent, all of those things. So it really is. It's not like we could just start arresting and prosecuting people and fix the problem. 

Is there anything the average Tulsan can do or anything to try to help DVIS in efforts to prevent domestic violence?

There's lots of things. I mean, just little things in terms of sharing that they know about us on social media, liking us. There's some of those kinds of just things that people can do in terms of helping us raise awareness. We have a few events coming up... Talking about prevention, if your kids go to a school, reach out to your school and ask what they're doing about consent, dating violence, healthy relationships. Bullying kind of falls in there, too. So if you're doing some of those things, in school, that's those are some great ways to help prevent sexual assault and dating violence.

They can become a DVIS volunteer. We use volunteers very heavily on sexual assault. So when someone wants an exam, they no longer have to report to police if they don't want to. But they can still have the exam done.We have advocates that are at the hospital with victims during the exam. So they're just there as a support, we have snacks, water, because I take clothing as evidence, those kinds of things. So we have extra clothing, that's largely after hours and on the weekends is largely volunteer, supported, to go through volunteer training to be an advocate and respond to calls after hours and on the weekends. During the day, Monday through Friday, we have a dedicated staff person that responds to those calls that come in during the day. 

There's adopt a family at Christmas time. We have a pet event in October. It's kind of a fun awareness event about our kennel. We were the first domestic violence shelter in Oklahoma to build a kennel for people to bring dogs and cats. One of the barriers of leaving is they don't want to leave their dog or cat. Usually the person's threatened to kill or harm anything that person cares about. So we we built a new shelter, we added the kennel, and so we're raising money for the kennel. They can bring like something for our kennel, like dog food or cat litter. Leashes or collars or flea and tick medicine. 

We encourage people to give clothing and other items to Goodwill. Because, one, that's what they do. They have good shops. They clean the clothes when they get it. We just don't know have the capacity. They give us vouchers for our clients to shop for free. So it's just that's a great partnership to give her clothes to Goodwill. 

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