More than 30 years after opening, Tearmann House is well-known as a refuge for women fleeing violence but more often than not those women arrive with children and that’s where child and youth counselor Stephanie Duggan steps in.
Her office and play area has child-sized furniture, toys and games but when she knows a family is coming to Tearmann House, she meets them at the door.
“Women may be brought to us by police or a friend or they may arrive on their own in a taxi. Once they are inside and the door closes behind them, most break down in tears and that’s when the children come to me. I just tell them Mom needs to talk to an adult right now and we’re going to go play.”
Depending on the age of the children, that may be enough for the moment but if not, Duggan talks her way to a level of comfort.
“My job is to assure the children they are now in a safe place. Some may want to talk right away but for many that comes later.”
While other staff members help the mothers navigate their avenues of assistance and work on their plans, Duggan listens carefully to the children and engages them in play, art or other activities.
“For children violence is definitely a form of trauma. They hear what goes on in the next room, particularly when families are living in tight quarters. By the time they come to us they are fearful and they are stressed.”
They need time to adjust to their new surroundings and to process what is happening.
“We could be out in the yard playing basketball when a child is ready to talk about their feelings.”
Whatever the timing, when an opportunity for discussion arises, Duggan frames the conversation in terms of safety.
“I teach every child how to dial 911. We role play and talk about when you might need to call 911, what you might say and what happens when you make the call.”
The reality is these children will only be at Tearmann House for a short time.
“Then they move on, either to a new situation or back to the situation they came from. It is not our job to make decisions for the family but it is my job to teach children to think in terms of their own safety.”
Duggan hopes children learn to communicate better while at Tearmann House and she has a variety of ways for following up with them, depending on their ages and circumstances.
“We have kids we see at school when it is possible to work that out but we also have older kids who come back to us on their own. We may spend an hour baking cookies and we’ll talk about how things are going.”
Duggan has seen a lot in her 30 years with Tearmann House. Some days the drive home after work is not long enough to clear her head.
“I tell myself I have to be in a good frame of mind by the time I get home. I may have to drive around a while to get there but I usually manage it.”
Duggan, who grew up in a large and nurturing extended family, was an early childhood education student at Nova Scotia Teachers College when she first came to Tearmann House. She was hired through a summer employment grant to develop programming for children. She came back to work on the project for a second summer and when a position was created, she applied.
“I suppose I was young and still in that bubble where you think everything is possible but I was sure I wanted to work with children. It has its challenges but I love it. Program development suits me creatively because every child is different.”
She has seen changes in the language around family violence, changes in programs and changes in the women who come to Tearmann House.
“Today we see older women we’d not have seen in our early years. These are women who for financial and other reasons once had a very hard time to leave a bad situation. They may have daughters or younger family members who are encouraging them to stop putting up with what is going on.” Duggan believes a better awareness of the supports available in the community has made a difference for all women.
“We’re also seeing women younger than might have come 20 or 25 years ago. They have grown up knowing that Tearmann House exists. Maybe they have heard about us at home or in school and they have access to social media where we have lots of information posted. They come earlier for help.”
Duggan believes a few specific changes in the justice system have helped women and children.
“A police officer who suspects abuse has a duty to report and that has opened doors for women who may have feared laying a charge themselves. Additionally, peace bonds are much more in use today than during the early days of Tearmann House.”
She has seen women with children leave Tearmann House with high hopes but later return.
“Often they arrive feeling ashamed to be back but that is not how we look at it. We’re very happy to see them if they still need a safe place to bring their children.”
Duggan has also seen Tearmann House grow from a shelter to being an integral part of community support for people fleeing family violence.
“We work hand in hand with many other agencies and not-for-profit groups. We’ve got wonderfully supportive relationships with New Leaf, the Pictou County Women’s (Resource and Sexual Assault) Centre and Kids First Resource Centre, just for starters. We’re all underfunded and vying for the same dollars but we have no trouble working together.”
With a small staff at Tearmann House, Duggan often drops her counselor role to pitch in where needed by running for groceries, shoveling snow or covering the phone.
“Sure, I counsel kids but modeling behavior is a big part of the job. I remember a night when one of our women had cooked supper and I thanked her for the meal. She’d never been thanked for making a meal before. You can be sure kids see me and other staff say thank you when things are done for us.”
Among Friends: Rosalie MacEachern is a Stellarton resident and freelance writer who seeks out people who work behind the scenes on hobbies or jobs that they love the most. If you have someone you think she should profile in an upcoming article, she can be reached at email@example.com.