At the end of a three-year relationship, Courtney Santana had suffered broken eye sockets, a broken chin and bruised ribs. She had also lost another baby. Her boyfriend had been to jail multiple times for abusing her. Sixteen years later, Santana is the founder and executive director of Survive2Thrive Foundation, a nonprofit in Austin that helps victims of domestic violence who are turned away from shelters.
According to the Texas Council on Family Violence, of the 23,311 victims that sought shelter in 2014, 39 percent were turned away due to lack of space.
Santana said her boyfriend came by her apartment one day in 2000 to try to work out their relationship. She was ready to forgive him again. He walked out of the room to use the bathroom, and Santana picked up his coat to hang it in the closet.
A gun fell out.
She looked at her 8-month-old son on the couch and thought of her 2-year-old daughter in her bedroom.
“And I, like, crept and grabbed both of them and rolled down the street with the lights off,” she said. “I didn’t wanna accelerate because I didn’t want him to hear.”
Santana took her children to SafePlace Austin, a local shelter for victims of domestic abuse. She left behind her house and her boyfriend, breaking the cycle of physical violence that affects one in four women in the United States.
Santana grew up in a musical family, and she had always looked to dancing, acting and singing as catharsis. Santana found herself needing a creative outlet for “the nasty stuff” she was felt during the three months she lived at the shelter.
“I wrote close to 200 songs,” she said. “It was just coming at me. I guess it was a journal, but I was just writing out music.”
It took time and help along the way, but Santana eventually secured a stable life for herself and her children.
“And after that, I just decided I wanted to go back and create hope for the community that I was now a part of,” she said.
She sat on the [board] at SafePlace, often speaking publicly about her personal story of abuse and urging other victims to find refuge in local shelters. But at the end of her speeches, people would approach Santana. They’d tell her that as inspiring as her story was, they were being turned away at the shelters. That’s when she learned about the waitlist problem.
While many victims turn to shelters like Salvation Army, others are forced to return to their violent home. About 75 percent of women who died at the hands of their abuser were killed after they tried to leave or after they’d left the abusive relationship, according to the Center for Disease Control.
When local shelters place domestic violence victims on waitlists, Santana’s nonprofit steps in.
“We’ll get a full picture of what their story looks like,” Santana said. “I’ll find out the demographic information of their abuser, I’ll find out where the abuser is, I’ll find out if they’ve applied for a protective order. Different parts of their story that would be necessary to know to ensure my safety and to ensure their safety.”
By connecting victims to housing, child care, legal aid and career services, victims can begin the healing process, Santana said. She looks back on her own experience and wonders what would have happened if she had been put on a waitlist at SafePlace when she needed it the most.
“That’s my motivating factor,” she said. “What if I had been turned away? Where would we have gone? I didn’t have to sleep on the streets at all. I had a warm bed, my kids and I. As miserable as I was, I wasn’t homeless.”
Santana said one of the challenges of her job is convincing survivors that they have what it takes to overcome the hardships that accompany domestic violence — not only emotional or physical trauma, but more logistical problems like taking their children out of school, changing jobs and relocating.
By now, Santana said she has worked through her PTSD with counseling and only occasionally has flashbacks. But it’s never when she’s working with her clients.
“It’s more frustration when dealing with my clients because I want them to, ‘Come on, let’s do this,’ you know, and if they don’t want it for themselves, I can’t force them to want it,” Santana said. “But it’s coming. In my heart I know it’s coming. So I get patient again, and I keep moving.”