Kathryn Coumans and M. Carolyn Thomas

Recorded December 10, 2010 Archived December 10, 2010 40:46 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: MBX007497


Kathryn Coumanis (73) talks with friend and colleage Carolyn Thomas (68) about their work to establish domestic violence shelters in Alabama and early resistance in the 1970s.

Subject Log / Time Code

Kathryn started establishing shelters for battered women when there weren’t yet any in Alabama, and only a few in the USA. At the time, there were few resources for women experiencing domestic violence.
Carolyn became committed to domestic violence when she found photos of women who had been killed, when there were hundreds of documented pleas for help.
At the time, women who did their work were called “family wreckers” and “men haters.”
Kathryn remembers when her daughter’s best friend, who worked at her shelter, was killed as a result of domestic violence.
They talk about their work advocating for resources and legislature in support of women.
They are hopeful that domestic violence is now out of the closet.


  • Kathryn Coumans
  • M. Carolyn Thomas

Partnership Type



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00:03 I'm Carolyn Thomas. I'm 68 years old. This is December 10th this year 2010 in Montgomery Alabama here to reminisce and have a good time with a real good friend Catherine. Come on is a relationship is we started helped start the battered women's movement in Alabama in the mid-seventies and early seventies. She's more of an old-timer than I am. So I let her introduce herself. That's true cuz I'm Catherine commantis and I'm 73 and this is December 10th 2010 and I'm visiting Montgomery Alabama to have this conversation with my good friend. Dr. Carolyn Thomas.

00:55 Not in my new one old-timer in that you are older. I meant you'd been working in The Battered Women's boo, but Love Actually, I thought you were younger, but I know I'd like to start off if we could and and Askew Catherine. I have you got started in this movement. Well, you know Carolyn it was purely accidental back in 1978. I was working for the Alabama Department of Human Resources in

01:30 Social work. I was actually at that point with the State offices in administrator and I oversaw welfare offices around the state, but I was on my way to Montgomery for a meeting one morning and listening to the radio. I heard dr. Joyce Brothers talking and she was talking about battered women shelters in in England and I had never heard the term battered women knew nothing about shelters and it was an epiphany for me. It was like a light bulb and I thought oh crap, why didn't I think of that? Why don't we have something like this and you know, once I heard her discussing it and then I had to think back to my life as a social worker for the last eight years in the women that I had encountered for whom we are

02:30 But no Services whatsoever. I can clearly recall that if a woman said one woman said to me, you know, my husband is getting out of prison next week. And he said he's going to kill me when he gets out and I said in my most professional voice and unprofessional way. Well honey, we can take the children and do something for them. But basically you're on your own and you know, I've regretted that all of my life and once I heard doctor Brothers, I knew I had to do something.

03:04 Concrete to help women

03:07 And so that's how I actually got started in the movement. I went home and I called every agency I knew to find out what they were doing for battered women and unfortunately, it was nothing.

03:23 And so from that point on I tried to organize some people to come together and see what we could do as a community. Most of them said it was sent within the policies and procedures of their agencies. That was so restricted. And so I went to my group which is a group of Greek American women a Civic organization message. No girls we've got to do something. Why don't we raise money and help someone's daughter shelter. Well, we we did that but nobody wanted to start a shelter and so we actually started the shelter. We found our board in 1978. We had $26 in the bank.

04:11 And I we put together policies and procedures we visited actually there was one shelter in Jacksonville Florida that I had found out about and so we went down Zaire visited them. They gave us everything they had in terms of forms policy manuals board manual. So, you know, the whole works everything they had and they were Grassroots like us they started with nothing and you know, it's been a work-in-progress for the last 31 years, but that's how we started. So we came back home. We couldn't even found a real realtor who would show us property. Everybody thought we were crazy and so one Saturday morning, we got in the car and rode around mobile. We had to find something that was owned business cuz we weren't welcome in any residential areas and we found a little house that was in the middle.

05:11 Little business area and we rented it and we open our shelter March 19th 1979. And that was the first one in Alabama and V one in the country.

05:27 That's how I got started. Well, I didn't know it was just a v in the country notice when you got started. There was a reluctance not only from you but from the community when I got started it was a very unpopular issue and they call those of us who were interested in helping women who were beaten every night my can think of I didn't even know the meanings of some of them right, but I was head of the Counseling Center at Alabama State University.

06:03 And somebody from the lighthouse which was a counseling Community Counseling Center here called and asked me why wouldn't I help start something and I refused and then one day somebody from Montgomery area mental health call me on a Saturday and it was a setup cuz they knew I would do anything to help a student. They said they had a student writing a paper about battered women and what I come up there on a Saturday and help so, of course I did but that mental health worker had pictures of bodies of three women.

06:43 They've been tortured and beaten. I think it's saying that hit me the worst was not the physical torture. But the emotional cruelty that they must have suffered and what really got me started was the fact that this mental health worker and the student had worked on this project for some time and they had verified over a hundred please for help from each of those three women and nobody had helped them. Now that was from emergency rooms the police Mental Health social work department counseling centers private counselors, and those will be verified leggings, please for help and the fact that nobody would help them. It's what really was the dynamite anime that got me started.

07:37 I found out about y'all Penelope and the people and got some help and knowing how to start something. I said first you have to build community support. So I wrote a proposal for community service Grant from Alabama State University and they gave us I can remember three or five or $7,000 and that's when I had that work first Workshop that that all of you from mobile and people from all over the state came attended. I was able to find people who were interested and if you remember there were over a hundred I think a hundred eighty or something people there. That's when you brought that lawyer from New York that spoke and chief McKinnon was his name and he had been given the women's award two men or something by the National Organization for Women, but the person I brought who

08:37 Really helpful was the director of that shelter that y'all had visited in Florida and

08:45 I can't remember the name of it right now. You come to me. I remember it very clearly. It was at every other week wonderful and they would have helpful. They were the only ones who were I can remember not it, you know, the least support that I got was from within my own Professional Organization. Social workers just didn't they recognize they wouldn't recognize this essay giving Professional Services. They they kept wanted to think we were do good if you know and people kept referring to us as a bunch of do-gooders in we were more than that. We had a mission to assist people for home. No service has existed.

09:31 Chucky something you both seem to agree that you were getting very little support from your from your

09:38 From your professional networks was that at the time was it surprising to you? I'm how did you feel about that? I was so surprised. You know when I was in the process of putting together the plan for the shelter. I invited my mentor and social work to lunch to discuss it with her and and ask her her opinions and she looked me squarely in the eye and says, you know darling you're probably committing professional suicide here and I thought well gosh, that's not that's not the answer. I was expecting.

10:16 Because women's issues were not popular than even though we were in the middle of the women's movement women's issues were discounted at the greater society. And you know, one thing that worked for us in Mobile is that we had no hidden agenda. We were a bunch of middle-class mothers and wives Greeks, you know, who they could not accuse of having a hidden agenda. We had one agenda and that was to start a shelter for battered women in their children. Nothing else here. I didn't call us do-gooders. They called us man haters and family record.

11:05 And identify with what Catherine said about the professional suicide there came a point where I was really afraid. I was just beginning. My profession is the counselor educator and I was criticized a lot and I became frightened and and very worried about my profession and something happened that made me go for no matter what like Damn the Torpedoes Full Speed Ahead. We had that works and then that kind of organized it also brought to light some politics, but we we transcended those pretty well.

11:48 I believe there was competition between the child abuse boards and The Battered Women's boards. They were two different kinds of people and they had to be different agendas. So that had to be worked out but a year later, I wrote another proposal for a public service Grant and we had another one at that was that was the workshop where people attended and where Katherine and Linda Golf and them really explained about the necessity of this Coalition against domestic violence. And that's when it started. I wish we formed it then after mitosis, right and in the college and represents all night teen shelters in it in Alabama. And what the Coalition did was take control of our own lives. We set we wrote the policies and procedures we wrote the standards by which the shelter's had to function.

12:48 They had to comply with the standards and those standards were later adopted by the legislature so that any shelter that doesn't conform and doesn't comply with the same just can't get state or federal funding so it gave us a lot of credibility and a lot in that, you know, we were able to get legislative and political support. Then another thing that helped us in the beginning was Ceda. The Ceda program was in operation, which was a federally funded program for employment. And so when the mayor of noble her that I was starting a shelter

13:29 Hate saw that is an opportunity to use see the money to employ more people. So he called and said, you know, we've gotten all this seat of money in the federal government has listed programs for women as a top priority and he said would you like to apply for the city of Grant and I said, I'd love to but I don't have a clue how to write a grant and he said not to worry. I'm going to send my grant writer over which he did and saw the grant writer sat down with me. And in those days, I think a grant may have been two pages. It wasn't as complicated as it is today, but he sat down with me and wrote the first grant for I think it was 126000 which is funded us for two years.

14:22 Well until Sita ended abruptly and we almost had to shut our doors but that paid for all of our employees would it didn't pay for work food and the necessities of the women so we were constantly out begging, you know for the things that we did pay the rent and it paid utilities and it paid the salaries but anything that the clients needed were not covered. So I was always begging for food and toilet paper and things like that starred in a similar way with with a grant

15:03 Wait, we got one through lethal the law enforcement prevention Association. I think it's calm. Only Association in this town that really started tobacco. And I really credit them with a lot of Courage. Was it Montgomery Junior Women's Club and Terry by and Susan Davis will president president elect and and they got Susan's husband who was head of Alabama leave to get on board and we got our first grant and that was for the house for the shelter for $250,000 and that was real thing.

15:42 I want to say one more thing about starting to Alabama Coalition against domestic violence because Katherine and I were happy we strongly disagree about how it got started. She tells people I started it. I didn't I was the first president she knew about the Coalition in the importance with getting legislature in and things like that. She and and Linda Goff who was her side chick is the time in an atlas metals and some others Prater Roberts and Mary Saga piano legislature and and at that second Workshop here that we started they were we were organizing. Well, we've been meeting a good while and I had to excuse myself to go to the restroom. And when I returned they had elected me is President. That's true that I was the first coordinator a president or whatever we called ourselves in I think president. That was a 19

16:43 But I'm not really the one that started it even when after they elected me president. It was Katherine and her group that help me know what to do. If so just agree it was as if she disagrees with that but it it any right. I'd like to ask if you have a question that's important to you that you would like to ask about the car. Well, I have to say that I was going to mention how we got our first date money. Do you remember that? You know the first law in Alabama to support women's issues domestic violence specifically was the marriage license act and we had heard about that from California that they had passed a law that that there was a certain percentage of money from every marriage license that was designated to

17:43 Two shelters, so that sounded great to us. So we got a copy of their law and Mary's I could be who was in the legislature and Freda Roberts who was the revenue commissioner in Mobile Alabama for a county and a few of us was sat down. Actually we were in Montgomery at the the restaurant that all the legislators legislators rent until they threw us out one night riding putting the finishing touches on this piece of legislation, and then we it was submitted and I can recall that it had not gotten on the calendar and if it didn't get to the top of the calendar

18:36 After we had written by the next day that it would die. And so I called my friend who is the welfare director in Washington County in her best friend's husband with speaker of the house. And so I called her and I said, could you please call your friend and ask her husband if he could get this piece of legislation to the top of the calendar so that it can be passed this legislative session and we don't have to wait and somehow miraculously the next morning. We were at the top of the counter the legislation passed because although it was not exactly a text Bill. It wasn't coming out of anyone's Pockets or the state's Pockets. It was coming out of the pockets of people who were purchasing marriage licenses so that for every marriage license that was sold in the state. We got five.

19:36 Dollars and it was the on a per-capita basis. So it went back to the county in which they lived. So that was the first state funding that we got and we're now and I fourth-year trying to amend that so that we can also get money off a divorce fees so that every time a divorce is granted we get a percentage and that hasn't passed yet. But hopefully this next legislative session it well one thing you didn't mention though what that first $5 marriage license test. It was nothing written into the wall that gave any of the I think it was at the probate judges elected didn't give them any kind of food I get for hunting licenses. So they refuse to collect it. So even though there was a law they refused to collect it. So the next year or so they had to go back to the legislature pass it again and add some money for them and then it went up to $10.

20:35 So only then did it really start.

20:40 Providing money then the next problem we had was who was going to receive the money and social Department of Social Work didn't want to and lot of people didn't and the people who finally jumped in to receive. It was the district attorney attorney's Anaheim State Association and they still was once they receive it and Portion it out portion Auto Parts. How do you say it to the different areas where there's a shelter one shelter may have five counties other one may have ate but right is right at that time. We represented five counties. And so we got the money for all five counties because we serve them. Well, I have to tell you we learned all the way through and I'm sure we've made a lot of mistakes. But all of us kept on going in there were a lot of people involved in that it was a difficult difficult road to travel but it was worth it in.

21:40 We're having not as much trouble with the divorced person. That's more political because again, it's not going to cost anyone money, but the people getting a divorce so it should pass soon. And that was our first real money that we could depend on now. We're in the state general fund budget, but that is always in the area of constant debate in control. And the thing I like about marriage license is that it's per capita, which means that because we're Elijah County we get the money for everyone in Mobile County and the general fund money is divided equally among the shelter's which means that I shall said that only has three or four clients and it gets as much as we do when we have 52, you know, if that makes it a little hard for us, but we understand

22:40 And that it's hard to raise money in smaller counties to

22:52 To take him for granted is so important in part of communities was so I was met with so much resistance before. Is there a moment that stands out in your mind when you met with a lot of community resistance against your work one thing that I have to say is the most resistant people were Law Enforcement Officers. I can remember going to meetings and conferences where you discuss domestic violence and they get up and walk out because they just couldn't wrap their minds around it. They understand now, I think they get it. They understand that we're the only resource that they have they would go in response to these domestic violence issues and they really had nothing to offer the victim or the perpetrator.

23:49 They get it now that we're partners with them. I may as his always had always said at the time that we were another branch of law enforcement and one way that we really got their support and cooperation was we made the chief of police are on board president. Now, there's not much I can do when their boss is president of the board of the shelter. And so we tried to do a lot of political maneuvering from within to get that kind of support.

24:22 Surprising to that law enforcement wasn't more supportive.

24:27 We had a lot of resistance to but you asked for one moment. There was a time when they gave our sociation domestic abuse shelter board of directors of the volunteer award for that year and the mayor of that time I got up to give us the Lord and he told about a woman's joke a very cruel one about his own wife, and I should never forget that.

24:57 But one question, I would like to ask that kind of jumps from some of the nuts and bolts Katherine you and I have still at it. I'm doing groups for mothers of sexually abused children. I do still do hotline training for the battered women shelter. You're still involved in the ways you do so many people have ridden off into the sunset and unfortunately so many of our friends and colleagues have or deceased and I hope we remember them, but why are you still at it?

25:33 Because it's been really has been my whole my mission in life. It's it's been something that I passionately believe in. I have seen the differences that we've made and lives of others. My daughter has now taken over as the Director of Penelope house and she's a trained social worker. But her passion is even greater than mine. When when we started Penelope how she was about 12 years old, I guess and she was the first babysitter when we had the women's support group at night. She and her friend Ashley babysat and one and I knew Ashley with from a troubled family in one night Ashley called and said she couldn't come to babysit.

26:24 And so toni-ann went on and babysit on her own while later that night about midnight. I got a call and I was told that Ashley was dead. It should have been shot to death by her stepfather. She and her mother had left the home and gone to live in an apartment and he found them and he went and broke in broke. The door down had a gun and was drunk. I actually was holding a gun that of her mother's he shot Ashley and shouted through the head killed her instantly. That was my daughter's best friend and she's never forgotten that Inside the Fire still Burns and her and she's so passionate about her work. She never forgets hash Alicia visits her grave every year, but she gets it she knows what it's about and she knows that it can happen to anyone at any level of society and

27:24 It can hit very close to home.

27:29 He was 16.

27:32 She died.

27:36 Your daughter and her and you're her friend go through that. I went through it two degrees for Ashley is that and she was like a daughter to me and I prayed for her as I would any of any child of my own. I sat through the trial, you know, it was heart-wrenching and I still grieve Ashley but I feel like we are honoring her memory through the work that we do and we don't take it lightly. We totally believe in what we do.

28:13 I've kept down because one of my philosophies when we started this.

28:18 What's the have a place where somebody could call a battered woman could call all that battery for that man?

28:26 And and be treated as if they were calling home of supportive home. I had that philosophy because of my introduction with the people who had made the bodies of the three women who had made over a hundred please the help from agencies. I didn't want to be a place that didn't respond with their hearts as well as with their resources.

28:55 And what I keep up.

28:57 You know a lot of younger people from other Generations, they they may not remember they may not have read books like scream quietly other neighbors will hear does this bow include wife-beating and and I hear every now and then about someone calling the shelter or calling the Family Violence Center and and they don't get a very warm response and that happens in to me that means that people are becoming calloused again and and they have forgotten that philosophy or never had it and that that somebody who remembers needs to keep on with training and stuff like that.

29:47 And that's one reason I've kept telling us to try to to carry that that philosophy in that caring attitude. I've had two students in the last 2 years.

30:02 Oh and I call the shelter and I had a good response but they broke their appointments. And anyway, they died and we've all mourned about it, but it's still there. I still see resistance in attitudes that

30:19 Just throw non-responsive and and we have to keep reminding people of it these people they need help and resources and they need a different kind of response. Then they would that they would get from some somebody Gypsies and also it's a crime, you know, we've worked hard to go from a shelter with great, you know, three Hots and a cot to giving many many services to getting what I think that one of the best things we've done is the push with legislation to make sure to continue to push for criminal law enforcement and for legislation weight. We just had the reauthorization of the Family Violence prevention act which will be through 2015 which gives some funding to show

31:19 We've got to continue to push for that for recognition that domestic violence is a is a crime and that the criminals need to be held accountable. I remember one of the first things we did after we hit the shelter was we started and you know, this was learn as you go we started a support group for perpetrators. Well, it didn't take long to find out the perpetrators don't need support. They need to be held accountable and they need intervention. And so we we we did hire some men and sent them to want to I think state of Washington with a hat Duluth Minnesota for training that wonderful training for perpetrator intervention, and we got them started intervening good programs, and then they went out on their own and then Penelope house.

32:19 Sound of the business of perpetrator intervention, but I think accountability of the perks is very important in that something that we need to continue to push for the large we have lost but they're not strongly enforced and we need to continue to push for that.

32:42 What's your dream? You know my dream is that?

32:49 People can stop calling me the queen of Gimme More cuz we're always begging for money. I would like solid funding that's appropriate what you know, one of the my pet peeves is when I say that coaches make 6 million dollars a year and I don't have we don't have enough money to feed our women and properly provide for their needs and the children that we have to beg people to help us buy uniforms for the children and to make sure that they can go to school properly. It just seems that there's an imbalance here that needs correction.

33:30 But it's just not fair. And it's I would like to see shelter staff pay the salaries they deserve which lay down and they shall to clients have everything. They need to start over. You know, we have a week. We do have a program with housing transitional housing, but it's not well funded and we can't give half of what we should we have a prevention Ed program where we go into school, but no but you know, the government doesn't like to fund prevention, they'll find intervention but not prevention and so we've lost any time. We had a grant for prevention whenever they cut back. That's the first place I cut back and if it weren't for a great men's organization called a HEPA they give us a grand every year for our prevent.

34:30 Add program and that's the only way we've been able to keep it going.

34:35 So my dream is money-related but in a slightly different way when we started we had license social workers in the shelter. We had highly qualified Kim and and because funding is mostly by Grant. Do you know your your most valuable person and all these programmes is generally your grant writer now it's not your staff. Well, I trained counselors. I can't even let my students do practican internships in the shelter anymore because there's not a licensed counselor or social worker or degreed cancel social worker working there. They have a workers who just don't have those qualifications of the turnover is very great and out of shelter programs, but

35:26 You know Mom I dream of having a place where you can you can go and it's like going to a supportive home. It's hard to do when you have people who just don't have the Education and Training to carry on those programs. They become programs to me that are in name. Only a matter of all of our people at least the supervisory staff. We all of them are licensed social workers are we have to phd-level but you know how I get those they're retired from other agencies and then we can bring them in and they work for Summits less. But that way we were able to get students placed at Penelope has because we had the people who are there who can provide proper supervision leadership and we have to it's just money.

36:26 You know it yours you keep talking about money for food and then resources my thing is talkin about money for trying people. For instance. I think better than women in our transition play sexodus where they can stay 3 years. They need very intensive academic and career counseling. I'm doing a little of it myself but it's not enough to question you when you talk about your dream. Now, it almost sounds related to the first moment when you kind of decided that you wanted to start this work the first time you saw the records for these women who would ask for help. Does it feel related still to you? Because I think I'm so glad that so many women are getting help in that that a community. I have toads have changed somewhat but sometimes I feel like we go one step forward and two steps backwards people forget.

37:27 The trying to get in the program. So yeah, I still get that same food very often. I was I'm always excited when when somebody gets a real good response and and they will work out of their problem or even save their relationship, but then I'm always disappointed when when I respond below par and uncaring and based on stereotypes and you know some Physicians

38:03 What's a question you have?

38:10 At what I did have.

38:17 I also I was wondering.

38:22 When you were also talking about

38:26 Finding out about those women for the first time what was going through your mind you were new in your career. You renew your a new counselor, right? What how how did you react to that to start you on this pack? My first response was realizing the psychological torture. They had every time I hear something. I think I've heard worse. I might not get as upset about physical pain and things down but something like I had a student a couple of years ago who was working so hard to get through school if she couldn't see very well and I husband wasn't supportive. He was abusive or right there in final exam week. He took her glasses and smashed them on the floor. Now, I know he didn't beat her right now, so he didn't have she didn't have scars.

39:17 But just look what that did to Spirit and a heart and all those hours of hard work. It's that kind of thing. I respond to I know the physical stuff is bad but the psychological and emotional hurt just cause it just really gets to me and that is openly discussed as I can. Remember the child that was a lady in my church whose husband beat her all the time and and nobody would talk. They said we're not supposed to talk about that. Now we talk and and we should continue to talk and continue to make sure that the public is aware that this is still going on women are still dying everyday and that way I work is not done not even halfway.

40:12 Okay. Well Carolyn, this is been great really has to reminisce with you there very few people that have walked down this path with me where so many of you know, Emily Norton died last year. So it's good that we don't you dare this information and I still don't know what I was talking about.