YWCA's Fawn Reed

Fawn Reed is the new Legal Services director at the YWCA.

HANNAH POTES, Gazette Staff

Legal services are now provided by the YWCA for the women living in its shelter, the only dedicated domestic violence shelter in Billings. 

Since 2005, Billings has never had a year with fewer than 491 incidents of domestic violence and never more than 20 beds for the women and families. The number of domestic attacks reached as high as 655 in 2013.

The organization helps victims of domestic attacks, like the one inflicted by Aaron Leo Ludwig. Ludwig was given a five year suspended sentence after attacking the same woman three separate times, according to court documents. The two have a child together.

In January, the YWCA expanded its free services with Legal Service Coordinator Fawn Reed. YWCA Director of Programs Erin Lambert pushed for a grant to fund the position.

Reed will help women navigate the complex world of civil litigation. Orders of protection, parenting plans and divorce filings are some of the typical casework Reed sees.

"Orders of protection can help women get back to work and leave the shelter without the fear their abuser will be somewhere waiting to harass them," Reed said.

For example, one recent victim got an order of protection to keep her safe from 36-year-old Donald Jarvis Brumfield, who choked the woman only a few hours after she bailed him out of jail, according to court records.

Reed can help women to understand their employment rights, including helping them get time off work while they transition out of a violent home. When women leave the Gateway House shelter, Reed can still help them with landlord-tenant issues and make sure they understand their rights as a renter.

“I don’t mind if they have all their kids, tearing up my office,” Reed said. Her office is just across the street from where the women are sheltered. 

Women living in Gateway House already have access to counseling, child care and preschool education and a case manager to help them plan for their life after Gateway.

Now, case managers can work in conjunction with Reed and the women don't need to worry about trying to apply for a lawyer through Montana Legal Services. 

"They have a major logjam," Lambert said. 

The women also get the support of the staff at the YWCA, an invaluable resource for them. 

"Having a team of people, having that many people say I believe you," Lambert said. "It helps them to trust."

Court records detail an attack by William Louis Bartlett, 38, who assaulted the same woman twice in six months and was sentenced on his fourth conviction for partner or family member assault in April. 

YWCA CEO Merry Lee Olson said abusive partners threaten their victims with the loss of their children, with economic loss and with the simple fear that they can't make it without their violent partner. 

"A women believed it was OK to be drugged or raped by her husband because she was his wife," Olson said. 

The majority of the women who use the YWCA services are impoverished and over 50 percent of the population are Native American. These are not women who typically call the police, Lambert said. Some are women who just took and opportunity to run. Others might want to report their violent partners, but fear law enforcement.

"A woman might have a warrant out for something like, driving without insurance," Reed said. "I can call the police and say, OK, what needs to happen to get this taken care of?"

Still, Reed won't pressure women to report their abusers. The women who come to Gateway House often never report their abuse, and while Lambert said the YWCA hopes to support more women who report their husbands, the YWCA is not there to tell the women how to live their lives.

The shelter has some requirements for check-in and making sure those who live there don't leave for extended periods. But it isn't jail and it isn't a group home. Women can leave to visit relatives and are not required to participate in counseling.

"They have the right to self-determination," Olson said. "The women make their own choices."

At most, women can spend about 12 weeks at the shelter. But this is temporary housing and women leaving violent homes often need more. Many of these women do not have a rental history, do not have credit and their job history is not consistent. 

The YWCA tried to get funding from the state in 2015 through a tax credit, but was not selected. The Montana Board of Housing is again reviewing the Gateway Vista project for Low Income Housing Tax Credit funding for 2017.

Gateway Vista would get women further along the path of getting a job, finding a house and moving through their legal entanglements. The longer they stay somewhere safe, the better the chance they won't return to their abuser, Lambert said. 

The YWCA is now in the process of raising the $4.5 million develop the Gateway Vista apartments, after the program donated its own land to the project. 

The YWCA is still waiting to hear back on a grant that would fund paralegals to help Reed.