Neil’s Column: The Hard Stuff

Let's be known as a city that won't tolerate domestic abuse
Neil’s Column: The Hard Stuff
Neil Heinen

By: Neil Heinen
Madison Magazine

I‘ve always been interested in how cities define themselves. Some elements of a city’s identity seem more serendipitous than others—historical impact, geography, the presence of a particular industry, the designation of a land grant university. But there are also cities that have been proactive in creating an image, consciously choosing an issue or vision as a civic priority.

I remember being in Baltimore in the mid ’90s and being struck by the Baltimore Reads literacy campaign that was promoted throughout the city from bus stops to billboards. It seemed bold and progressive, a big challenge with a potentially big payoff. These campaigns are essentially proclamations of shared values, statements along the lines of, “This is who we are and this is what we stand for.” Some seem to reflect leadership, either elected or hired, at the local government or business or nonprofit level. Some suggest more grassroots effort with more volunteerism than money.

Madison, or more accurately, Dane County, has an opportunity to make such a defining statement by supporting a historic campaign to build a new shelter for DAIS, Domestic Abuse Intervention Services. After thirty-five years of providing high-quality services in a low-quality, crowded facility at a location that was always kept as secret as possible, DAIS is engaging the community in a $7 million capital campaign to build a new facility with more than twice the beds and room for programming and services. It’s at 2102 Fordem Ave., and there’s nothing secret about it.

The practical need for the facility is unquestioned. The current twenty-five-bed shelter is the smallest per capita of any county in Wisconsin. And, no, sadly, it’s not because Dane County has fewer incidences of domestic abuse. There is a constant waitlist for a bed, to the point where admission is granted based on the likelihood of imminent death. Half the beds are filled by children. There are two bathrooms. No, Dane County’s lone shelter is what it is due to the nature of the work and the prevailing thinking about victim safety inhibited doing it better. Until now. Thanks in part to DAIS executive director Shannon Barry, a more aggressive board and cast of supporters, and a county-wide law enforcement sector that has long been among the nation’s leaders in addressing domestic violence, by 2014 Dane County will have a new, fifty-six-bed facility, with more square feet for programming and services, more rooms, more bathrooms, more space.

I say that with certainty because this is Madison, and some person or group of people will believe in this project and this cause and make sure it gets done. Loren and Boo Mortenson are the honorary campaign co-chairs; Holly Crèmer Berkenstadt is the campaign chair. Enough said. What I’m really interested in is how the broader community will respond. Will we see the same kind of response we see to hunger, homelessness and clothing drives? This is a very generous community and we are justifiably proud of our ability to provide for our needier citizens. And when it comes to the arts, recreation, community centers, learning and research, we have no shortage of willing, generous donors.

But domestic abuse, like mental illness, is a tougher sell. They’re a little harder to look at. A little harder to talk about. Here’s my dream: in addition to all the other good stuff (and I love all the other good stuff), that Madison be known everywhere in the country as the city that provides the best, safest and most comprehensive shelter and services for victims of domestic abuse, and the most progressive policing and law enforcement because we, citizens of Madison, reject the silence and the stigma and the crime of battering women and we are committed to ending it. I think people might want to live in a place like that. If you feel the same way contact Jan Loiselle at and help get this shelter built.

Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine.

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