MOST and WISE

Youth members of the MOST: Men of Strength, and WISE: Women Inspiring Strength and Empowerment groups were present to bring awareness to their causes at the 2016 Domestic Violence Awareness Month kickoff in downtown Mansfield. 

MANSFIELD — In the aftermath of an act of domestic violence, often those left behind want an answer -- an explanation for an unthinkable tragedy.

The case of 22-year-old Gaberien Clevenger's death in early February was no exception.

Richland County Domestic Relations Court Magistrate Sharon May denied a protection order to Clevenger less than a week before Clevenger's estranged husband led law enforcement to her body, discovered in a wooded area near Mansfield. May was terminated just 10 days later. 

It seemed like a small justice, a way to right a terrible wrong. And yet, there is no guarantee that if the magistrate had granted a protection order Clevenger's life would have been saved.

"Unfortunately even if the system does everything right, we may still have the same outcome. And that's the heartbreaking part of this," said Jill Donnenwirth, director of community-based services at The Domestic Violence Shelter in Richland County.

Realistically, Donnenwirth knows that domestic violence will likely never be completely eradicated. Instead, she's involved in a number of programs at the Domestic Violence Shelter aimed at reducing the problem by starting education at a young age.

Two such programs begin with middle school-aged children, with the hopes of making the cycle of violence smaller and smaller. Housed at the IMAC school, the programs are MOST - Men of Strength and WISE - Women Inspiring Strength and Empowerment, both co-led by Donnenwirth, Herb Ross and client advocate Tasha Harris.

The goal of both programs is similar - teaching young people self-respect and self-worth, providing positive role models, and learning the signs of both healthy and unhealthy relationships.

"We come in to change that thinking of what's normal for them; even though it's unhealthy, that's normal for them," Harris said. "And it's going to take strength for them to break away from that because they're only with us for so long, and then they go right back to that normal, unhealthy environment that they have."

According to loveisrespect.org, an organization dedicated to empowering young people to prevent and end abusive relationships, nearly 1.5 million high school students nationwide experience physical abuse from a dating partner in a single year.

Violent behavior often begins between the ages of 12 and 18, and the severity of intimate partner violence is often greater in cases where the pattern of abuse was established in adolescence.

"When it comes to dating violence or domestic violence, it's about power and control," Donnenwirth said. "People want to say it's mental illness or it's drugs and alcohol, and that's part of it, but it's an excuse. It's not a cause.

"We have had abusers who have come from homes where there is no violence, that it's a so-called normal household," she continued. "So I think it starts with that person. I think it's something within their makeup. They want power and control." 

Girls and young women between the ages of 16 and 24 experience the highest rate of intimate partner violence, almost triple the national average. The MOST program aims to promote an understanding of the ways in which traditional masculinity contributes to sexual assault. 

"We try to instill in them what they need to be strong and courageous, and then they'll be the example for other males around them and be a positive influence," Harris said.

A similar program in Milwaukee, WI, strives to teach the same values, as reported by the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service. The "Coaching Boys into Men" program gives coaches the tools and curriculum to facilitate conversations with their teams about healthy relationships, boundaries, aggression, communication, consent and equality.

Shana Kidd, violence prevention coordinator at the city of Milwaukee's Office of Violence Prevention, said she felt young men especially were lacking the knowledge, information and modeling of what it means to be in healthy, respectful relationships.

"Coaching Boys into Men" was started in 2000 by the national nonprofit and advocacy organization Futures Without Violence. Since then, the program has been implemented across the country and has been proven to work. 

In 2012, a study completed by the Center for Disease Control found that athletes who participated in "Coaching Boys into Men" were significantly less likely to perpetrate abuse, and significantly more likely to positively intervene when witnessing instances of abusive or disrespectful behaviors among peers.

“Young people can get different ideas of what it means to be a man,” said Milwaukee basketball coach Jerome Gray. “They think it’s all about being the tough guy. It’s not always about strength and toughness. It’s about accepting, sacrificing, supporting and working together.”

In 2019, the Domestic Violence Shelter in Richland County housed 193 women, 4 men and 82 children. In January 2020 alone, the shelter housed 15 women and 1 man. But Donnenwirth was quick to note the statistics don't tell the whole story.

"I wish it was as simple as men are the problem - men aren't the problem, unhealthy people are the problem," she said.

Ending the cycle of violence isn't a simple problem, either. After 23 years working at the Domestic Violence Shelter, Donnenwirth now helps the children of abuse victims she saw when she first started at the shelter. 

"They're going to have to be the ones who put it out there to change that thinking and get away from those normal, unhealthy ideas and behaviors," Harris said. 

"We only have so much time with them; once they're out of our presence they go back to that. You can see the force pulling the other way."

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