Pictured: From left - Domestic Violence (DV) survivor Shakila Zareen; DV frontline and case worker at Hiatus House, Canada, Eva Kratochvil; and Former Safe Haven Foundation Executive Director Cassandra Richardson at the World Conference for Women’s Shelters in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

Cassandra Richardson has been working with Safe Haven – St. Maarten’s only shelter dedicated to helping victims of Domestic Violence (DV) – over the past three years. That chapter has now come to a close. Richardson, the Executive Director, bade farewell to the institution this month, but is still looking forward to making a difference in the realm of DV – an unexpected passion for the social worker who initially set out to work with children.

While her exact path hasn’t been set in stone, she envisions working in a capacity whereby her focus is assisting in healthy and non-violent relationship building. Of course, she intends to spread education and awareness as part of her work. Meeting with the Prosecutor next week to see how she can help tackle the community issue of DV is the first task on the list after her leave of Safe Haven Foundation.

Richardson recently returned from Kaohsiung, Taiwan, where she was invited to execute a workshop at the World Conference for Women’s Shelters along with former colleagues at the Hiatus House in Windsor, Ontario, Canada.

The same group of colleagues, who she has kept in touch with over the years, was her original mentors when it came to specialising in DV. The double Master’s graduate (one being in social work) had had clinical experience, worked in counselling and therapy, and created programmes for women, youth, and the mentally ill. Helping refugees and immigrants to settle into their new Canadian homes had been her forte, and working with children and teens her favourite part of the job.

Years ago, she had no idea that DV and Intimate Partner Abuse (IPA) would become the central aspect of her career. “The plan had been to do social work in general; I love working with kids and teens, it gives me energy. Of course, I do work indirectly with kids now, but I never thought I would be working with domestic violence and child abuse,” she said in an interview with The Weekender.

Her Canadian colleagues provided a crash course into homing in on the troubling world of DV, where certain dynamics are unique, requiring different tools and approaches than other areas of counselling and therapy.

After being away for 20 years, Richardson felt it was time to come home to St. Maarten and be with the family, especially her aging mother. The opportunity to do social work at Safe Haven came along, and she took it. Unfortunately, the sought-after time together was cut short. Her mother, Patricia Richardson, was diagnosed with cancer soon after the move, and passed away almost a year-to-date later.

Over the past few years, Richardson, along with her colleagues, has dealt with frustrating or dangerous situations that often need months or even years to properly work through. Working with victims of this form of violence has opened her eyes to the gaps that exist when it comes to combatting DV on a community level, and what needs to be fixed in order to properly remedy the situation and break the cycle.

“It never ceases to amaze me as I remain inspired when I experience humanity work her magic of true love to heal and give hope to someone in need or going through a difficult situation. These past almost three years brought many of these moments. And they have also brought challenges, learning and enlightenment about the procedures of our societal systems and organisational structures, which assure me that we can strive to do better,” she wrote in a parting message on Safe Haven’s social media page.

“DV is a problem of significant proportions that has long-lasting negative effects for society as a whole. Our community must start efforts to make real sustainable changes, not changes that are circumstantial and momentary.”

Central to what she’s come to see is that DV “needs to be intercepted with education and awareness,” and this is a driving force in moving forward in her career. As with anywhere in the world, resources run thin. “If we [the country] say we don’t have a pot of money to take care of them, if we can’t afford it financially, then you’d better start investing education-wise. Invest. Education is powerful; it makes a difference and really needs to be shared.”

True to this theme, counselling services, both in groups and in individual sessions, are available to those who find themselves in an abusive relationship – key to providing real help. She urges clients to keep in mind that “the sum of your life is not victimhood. That is just a chapter, maybe even a page or a paragraph. Each of us has agency. We should exercise using it.”

Different types of counselling are developed for different clients, for example, according to age group. “I have activities for kids as young as three years old,” she said. In responding to a question on what she thinks of rehabilitation for abusers, Richardson indicated that it would be something she would also like to do more about in the future.

The latest awareness campaign, aimed at teens and carried out at St. Dominic High School, focused on analysing healthy and unhealthy relationships. She had the youngsters take a deeper look at factors that can be hard to talk about, such as manipulation, denial, control, stigma, support systems, co-dependency, identity, gender roles, and how the abusers’ actions are sometimes validated by other people, or even by the victims themselves.

Richardson asserts that DV affects the whole community, whether people see it that way or not, and should be treated as a public health concern, considering all the physical and mental health aspects connected to it. However, all players need to be on the same page, and that includes promoting awareness and even training to key players that have high chances of dealing with victims (or aggressors), so that they are equipped with the right tools.

Bringing awareness of the difficult and pervasive topic to the community at large, and filling in the gaps that she’s learned about while working with DV victims, is Richardson’s aim in moving forward.

The Weekender will be publishing a series of articles related to DV based on an interview with her, starting this month, Domestic Violence Awareness Month in St. Maarten.

Safe Haven is a confidential, non-profit organisation that offers free shelter, counselling and supportive services to women and their minor aged children who are the victims of domestic violence. If you or someone you know needs help, call Safe Haven at +1 721 523-6400, or send a message via Facebook (Safe Haven Foundation SXM).