Immigrant Stories: 30 years assisting victims of domestic abuse and violence
Intro: Julie Olson has been assisting victims of domestic abuse and violence for 30 years. Twenty-six of those years have been as the executive director of the Advocate Safehouse program.
Olson: My ancestors came from Luxembourg and settled in northern Minnesota. My grandfather was born in July of 1891. That same year, typhoid fever hit his family, and the first sibling died in December. In the next four months, eight family members died, including his mother. His father died when he was 8, but not from typhoid. His story parallels what’s going on today, somewhat.
Gallacher: I bet you’ve thought about him a few times during this pandemic.
Olson: Yes, but what was strange was that the typhoid only affected his family. When the family got sick, everyone in town treated them like they were lepers. No one wanted anything to do with them.
But one thing that was positive of all this was that the community realized they needed a real doctor. Prior to that, they just had a horse doctor.
Gallacher: I imagine being orphaned at 8 changed the trajectory of your grandfather’s life.
Olson: Yes, he was left in the care of his older brother. In those days, the farm went to the oldest male sibling or child. So my grandfather didn’t have access to the farm as an inheritance. He became a jack of all trades and a master of none.
Gallacher: How was it for you growing up?
Olson: I grew up in Detroit Lakes, a small town about the size of Glenwood. I’m the youngest of 10.
Gallacher: Well, you’ve spent nearly 30 years of your life assisting people who have been victimized by domestic abuse or violence. How did your early life influence that decision?
Olson: Well, when I think back, there wasn’t any violence in our family except for the pounding we kids did on each other.
Gallacher: We had a lot of that in my house.
Olson: But I remember feeling, as a child, that girls were treated differently than boys. Sometimes things weren’t fair, and that just riled me. That’s where I started becoming who I am.
I am a survivor of a sexual assault in my freshman year of college. I think if we were to sit down with a group of women that felt comfortable telling their stories, I would say at least a quarter to a half of the women would say they had been victimized at some level. Things haven’t changed much since I was a young woman, and that is unfortunate.
Gallacher: Women experience a range of abuses that can ultimately lead to violence. Can you talk about the coercive and abusive steps towards what is ultimately violence?
Olson: Most of the coercive controlling behavior is done by men. Eighty-five percent of the time, in these relationships, the victim is a woman. The abuse is subtle and usually starts slowly with comments like “Are you wearing that?” “You look heavier, are you gaining weight?” Over time the comments cut deeper and become more frequent.
Gallacher: I heard a woman describe how her boyfriend described her cancer scars as beautiful in the beginning of their relationship and, overtime, he began telling her she needed plastic surgery.
Olson: Yes, it’s all part of the perpetrator plan to gain power and control by eroding the victim’s self-image and self-confidence. I’ve seen very strong, competent women in this type of relationship not be able to decide what or how to do anything. Overtime, they begin questioning everything about themselves.
It often starts with isolation, and COVID-19 has been horrible in that regard, because victims have been stuck in the home with their abusers
Gallacher: No relief.
Olson: No relief. Cellphones, emails and bank accounts are monitored. Power is asserted, “I’m the man of the house. What I say goes. I’m right. You’re wrong.” Threats are made “I’m going to hurt your family. I’m going to hurt your children, hurt your pets, hurt the things that you love.”
Gallacher: People often wonder why the victim stays in that type of relationship.
Olson: Well, financial abuse is part of the isolation. It takes money to run. Right now, a two-bedroom apartment for rent in Glenwood is going to cost between $1,500 and $2,000. The victim will need first and last month’s rent and a damage deposit.
Gallacher: So women without access to finances are pretty much trapped.
Olson: That’s what we see. One of the new programs we have is the Housing First Program. We’re able to help with housing for a period of time — not forever and not long term — but we are often able to help with the deposit and a couple of months rent.
A few years ago, a woman and her small child came to us. We worked with her in the Safehouse. We were able to help her get into an apartment, but eventually she went back. That’s not uncommon. In fact, on average, victims go back to their abusers seven to eight times. The most dangerous time for a domestic violence victim is when she is in the act of leaving the relationship. The abuser realizes he is losing his power over the victim so he says, “If I can’t have you, no one’s having you.”
Gallacher: So if the coercive methods fail, the perpetrator may resort to the ultimate.
Olson: Certainly not all victims who leave are going to be killed. But victims know how lethal the situation is. Anyway, part of the reason this woman went back was for her child. It’s really hard in this valley to make it if you don’t have a well-paying job, because you have to pay for child care, and you’re looking for rent. There’s just a lot of factors.
She was there for maybe two years. Then she called us because things had gotten worse. She had waited to call because she thought we would judge her as a failure. Anyway, now she is thriving and so is her child.
Gallacher: A lot of folks think that this abuse and violence is restricted to poor people. Can you speak to that assumption.
Olson: We tend to see people from the middle and working class. People with more money can hide the problem. They take a vacation, they go to a therapist, they hire an attorney. But that doesn’t mean that domestic abuse and violence isn’t occurring. It’s just not as visible.
Gallacher: I think the Me Too movement has helped us see women of privilege, actresses and businesswomen who have talked about being entrapped and being subjected to the coercion that you’ve talked about — restricting their finances, putting them down, stopping them from seeing friends, scaring them, threatening to reveal private things about them and on and on.
Olson: We live in a very verbally abusive society right now. We feel free to call each other names. We put each other down. We see it on Facebook, social media. We see it politically. It’s just out there. My sense is, if you are exhibiting unhealthy behaviors in other parts of your life, chances are those behaviors are going to be in your intimate life as well.
Gallacher: How do you help a person move from survivor to thriver?
Olson: Well, I think part of it is acknowledging and listening to them and affirming their story because it might be the first time that they’ve ever really told anyone.
We have a 24-hour helpline (970-945-4439 and 970-285-0209) that is staffed by either volunteers or staff. If you call, you are able to talk with someone. You don’t even have to give us your name.
Each person who calls is different, and so our advocacy for them has to fit their needs. Some people are more able to do a lot on their own, and some are not because of the trauma that they’ve lived through.
Gallacher: You have been doing this work for 30 years. What has sustained you?
Olson: I think what has kept me going, is that I have relationships outside of my husband. I think it’s really important not to base your whole life on one relationship. I have relationships with my family members, siblings. I have girlfriends. I love them. We call ourselves Wonder Women. We go out, we walk, we hike and snowshoe. We have fun together.
And I think it’s really important to have challenges at work. Without those challenges I would be totally bored. For example, one of the things we have been working on for the last five years is DEI: diversity, equity and inclusivity.
We have been assessing our programs and policies and asking ourselves and our clients, “Are we being inclusive? Is it equitable?” Personally, I’m working on Julie because it is much easier for me to keep my older white woman lenses on at all times.
I try to challenge myself to take those lenses off and put some other lens on. Sometimes that’s really hard, but it’s really important. It’s not only important for me as a person but our organization. I feel really blessed to be part of an organization that is open to working on those issues versus saying, “They’re hard, so we don’t want to deal with it.”
Gallacher: That’s the essence of white privilege. We don’t want to and we don’t have to.
Olson: That’s right.
Gallacher: But it’s liberating, like you say, to put a different lens on and see the world from a different perspective, because it makes you richer.
Olson: It does, and it also makes you ask, “What else can we be doing that would make it better for others?” Twenty-six years ago, if we were doing what we were doing then, now, I would be very disappointed. I would hope that our organization has evolved. I’d like to think we have. There are things that we do now that we would never have thought about doing back then.
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