Before the Care Lodge Domestic Violence Shelter opened in Meridian in May 1981, victims of domestic violence only had a hotline to call.
Now, 40 years later, the non-profit serves about a thousand people annually.
But Care Lodge's mission isn't about numbers, said Abby Miller, its executive director.
“We don’t measure our success based on how many clients we serve, but the impact we are making,” Miller said. “We believe in the worth and the dignity of humans. We feel like they need a safe place to go, so we provide them with inclusive and effective programs, so we can stop the cycle of violence."
Since making its presence known, Care Lodge has made its mission to serve and assist victims of domestic violence in East Mississippi. In addition to serving Lauderdale County, the non-profit serves Noxubee, Kemper, Neshoba, Newton, Scott, Winston, Clarke and Leake counties.
So far in 2021, the agency has assisted 216 individuals and 110 families.
The agency has only had three executive directors in its 40 year history. Its first director was Winki Allen, who was succeeded by Leslie Payne, who retired in 2019 after serving for 26 years. Miller, who worked at Care Lodge as a counselor and shelter director, became the executive director after Payne retired.
The agency went from offering a limited number of services to a wide array of support on assistance. It currently offers protection orders, a 24/7 helpline, 24/7 emergency shelter, access to victim advocates, court advocacy, counseling, residential and transitional housing.
Before Care Lodge was established, domestic abuse calls were handled through The Mental Health Association in Lauderdale County, which was not equipped to handle those types of calls, Payne recalled.
With a growing awareness of domestic violence statewide, a group came together to form Care Lodge with a $5,000 donation from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
Care Lodge was the second domestic violence shelter to open in Mississippi after the Gulf Coast Center for Nonviolence, Miller said. In the early years, with an annual budget of only $350,000, Care Lodge was limited in the services it could provide.
That changed with the passage of two federal laws, the Violence against Women Act in 1994 and the Victims of Crime Assistance Act. Those laws allowed Care Lodge and other domestic violence agencies to seek additional funding to expand their services, according to Payne.
The role of law enforcement
When Lauderdale County Sheriff Billy Sollie started as a patrol officer with The Meridian Police Department in the 1970's, domestic violence was not always treated as a serious crime.
“Oftentimes, officers would leave a scene having told both parties they needed to just work it out,” he said.
Officers now have more resources and training to deal with domestic violence situations, Sollie said. That approach allows victims to speak up when they need help.
“I truly believe that more victims are raising their hand now," he said. “I also believe law enforcement is better trained and is able to pick up the small clues when they arrive at a call."
Meridian Police Department Detective Bryan Withers, who has been in law enforcement since 1998, said that when police receive a domestic violence call, at least two officers respond.
Victims are given a victim's rights form and list of resources from officers on the scene or from his office. The form has to be given to a victim within 48 hours, he said.
Meridian police officers also assist domestic violence victims in surrounding counties who need an escort to a safe location in Meridian, he said.
With four decades of service, Payne attributes Care Lodge's success to community support.
“People have had experiences with domestic violence, so they support Care Lodge," she said.
Miller emphasized that Care Lodge's work is far from over.
“We still have a lot of work to do," she said. “Our mission is to end abuse in our community. Hopefully, one day the abuse will end, and our work will be done.”