No Place for Blind Woman at Womencare


By: Carey Roberts

All Desiree Carpenter wanted was a chance to succeed. As a young woman Ms. Carpenter (not her real name) had been subjected to repeated physical and sexual assaults, losing her eyesight during one attack. Her assailant did hard time, but now he was back on the streets and vowing to track her down.

Her only hope was to flee to another state, assume a new identity, and start over. Washington was the best place to begin anew, since the state had passed tough anti-stalking laws. So she packed her bags and hopped on the train with her two children in tow, bound for Bellingham, a couple hours north of Seattle.

Being blind, she had come into a laptop computer with a screen reader that converts text to the spoken word. That’s how Desiree and I exchanged information for this article.

Arriving at the Bellingham train station, she expectantly called the Womencare Shelter, a group that bills itself as a “feminist organization working to end violence against women:” www.womencareshelter.org .

Desiree was told to go to the local MacDonald’s to be interviewed by an intake worker. There she was scrutinized to make sure “I was acceptable,” as Desiree later recounted. The staffer told Ms. Carpenter to detail her rape experiences while her children sat quietly and listened.

Admitted to the shelter, the staff removed her daughter’s electronic homeschooling program, saying African-Americans spend too much time with rap videos. Desiree’s television was padlocked and she was informed she could only watch TV on weekends.

Like all residents, Desiree was assigned housekeeping chores. It’s not that the tasks were menial, but asking a blind woman to clean toilets and sort broken glass seems a little cold-hearted. When the new resident questioned her duties, the staff urged her to become more “empowered.”

The staff forbade the woman from making safety accommodations on the shelter’s flat-top stove. So Desiree and her young children ate micro-waved meals and peanut butter sandwiches for the rest of their stay.

When residents wanted to re-enter the facility, they typed in a security code. Desiree asked to have the keypad marked with Braille dots, leading her to be ridiculed as being disruptive and manipulative.

At one point a resident confided to her, “The staff here acts worse than an abuser.”

The shelter did help Desiree to secure the all-important name change. Of course that entailed losing all her educational credentials, job references, credit cards, and so forth. That was the sacrifice she knew she would have to make.

Over the next two weeks things went from bad to worse, especially after Ms. Carpenter complained about the videotape that lectured residents why organized religion was “oppressive” to women.

In desperation, Desiree contacted the Bellingham Adult Protective Services, pleading they dispatch a disability aide so she could cook her own meals.

But the Womencare director ordered “Nyet,” claiming that would compromise the shelter’s secret location. Then the shelter staff began to suspect she was planning to file a complaint with the Washington Human Rights Council – of course that was forbidden by shelter rules.

So that evening the director barged into Desiree’s room and issued an ultimatum: “Either you drop your civil rights complaint or you’re out of here!”

When Desiree tearfully said she had only requested someone to assist with the necessities of life, the staff interpreted her claim of innocence to be further proof of guilt. That was reason enough to summon the police.

Within minutes a female officer dashed into the shelter, gun drawn, pulled the startled children out of bed, and ordered them out. The officer explained that even though Desiree had not violated any rules, the shelter was “exiting” her because she was unhappy with their services.

Then came the crushing blow – the shelter director blurted out Desiree Carpenter’s previous name. The officer hastily entered both names, linked by a single report, into the National Crime Information Center database.

In that moment, all the labors of the past month were undone, all her hopes of a life free of fear were dashed!

The staff then ransacked Desiree’s room, stuffing her possessions, food, and legal documents into a black trash bag. Mother, son, and daughter were sent packing into the rainy night.

During her one-month nightmare at Womencare, Ms. Carpenter suffered too many indignities to recount in a single column – more details can be seen at www.ejfi.org/DV/dv-54.htm .

In the end, Desiree’s daughter said she would rather die than ever again trust an abuse shelter.

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