For 41 years, the Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence (CARDV) has been serving, sheltering, and advocating for survivors of sexual and domestic violence in both Linn and Benton Counties. Over these years, more than 100,000 survivors have connected with CARDV services, which are free and confidential; 46% of those who were sheltered were children of survivors, whom CARDV refers to as “secondary survivors”. [Text Wrapping Break]
In 1984 – just three years after CARDV was founded – one of those secondary survivors was four-year-old Saadia McConville, who had immigrated with her parents from Pakistan to Corvallis. That year, she and her 29-year-old mother (whose identity was asked to be kept anonymous) took refuge in one of CARDV’s confidential shelters from a groundbreaking domestic violence situation: one of the first spousal rape cases to be successfully prosecuted in Benton County, in Oregon, and in the U.S.
During this time, the center served as a vital place of safety, support, and healing for McConville – one which she will be returning to as a keynote speaker for their virtual Safe Families Benefit, with the goal of raising enough funds and community support to ensure the continuation and expansion of CARDV’s services. Set to be livestreamed tomorrow, Oct. 4, at 7:30 a.m., she will share her and her mother’s journey, highlighting CARDV’s importance to the community and the social and cultural transformations it continues to pursue.
Social Narratives, Systemic Failures
McConville, who currently lives in New York, is a writer, former T.V. journalist, and communications strategist with over a decade of advocacy work in global health, immigrant rights, and racial, gender, and economic justice. Both her personal and professional experiences have equipped her to identify the cyclical sources of trauma she and her mother, like other survivors, experienced during and in the aftermath of the violence they faced.
“I think part of the reason that it keeps perpetuating is because there’s a stigma around survivors, when really the stigma should be on the perpetrators,” said McConville. “I feel like I kind of grew up ashamed of what our history was. I knew we had been in a shelter, and I never told people that, because there was this sort of feeling like you’re ‘a certain type of person’ if you end up there. In my work, I do a lot on narratives, and I just think there are a lot of narratives in our society that tell us that it’s some sort of personal failing if that’s where you end up. But that’s obviously the fault of the person who perpetrated the violence.”
McConville experienced more shame and stigma in her adult years when she herself became a survivor of a violent, abusive relationship.
“Looking back on it and seeing the whole picture, I think those cycles were perpetuated, because I ended up in a relationship with somebody who was violent – not to the level that my father was, but I was really ashamed of that, to have that happen to me when I knew what happened to my mom,” she said. “I was ashamed of myself – not of the guy who was doing these horrible things.”
The fault, McConville noted, goes beyond individual perpetrators to societal conditions which not only breed and exacerbate these forms of violence, but also normalize the stigma, blame, and gaslighting survivors often experience. As CARDV Facilities Manager Mary Zelinka, who has been with the center since its inception, writes in her book The Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence: A Local History of a National Movement, “While most agreed that it was absolutely disgraceful to rape or batter, few were willing to accept that the root cause of domestic and sexual violence was sexism. The majority of people believed it was a family problem and encouraged counseling for the offender. Far too many blamed the survivor for the violence.”
These realities became increasingly evident to McConville as she began conducting more research into her mother’s case.
“I’ve been grateful as I’ve explored more about what happened, because I’ve realized that there’s so many systemic failures in our society; we don’t put a lot of value on women or immigrants or mental health. Of course you can raise a great son who respects women, but as he’s existing in a society that still doesn’t respect women, it’s not going to work,” said McConville. “That’s what’s really frustrating to me – I want systemic change. I think it’s so important that organizations like CARDV exist, but I also think it’s indicative of such a larger failure on the part of our society that we allow these things to happen, and that we’ve written these kinds of things off as, ‘This is just what happens; it’s inevitable.’”
Anti-Establishment Histories, Status Quo Realities
Despite being so young, McConville recalls how safe she felt at the shelter, a literal home where she was surrounded by women and other children.
“I remember it sort of feeling exciting, and I think that everybody did try to make it feel like an adventure for me – that they were very conscientious of the fact that, for a child, it’s a really confusing situation,” she said. “I was really glad that there were other kids there; I have vague recollections of playing with them in a kind of playroom that was in the basement. And I always loved getting clothes from there; there were racks in the playroom with clothes of all sizes, and you could just pick whatever you wanted.”
The intentionality behind cultivating such an environment for survivors has its roots, according to Zelinka, in decades of women across the U.S. opening their own homes to survivors – and sometimes also their children – seeking to flee sexual and/or domestic violence, including in Oregon.
“Before we had a shelter, we were just individual women who were housing survivors in their homes,” said CARDV Development Manager Iris Hodge. “What we do now is safety planning, where we help survivors make a plan to safely get away from their abusers. And now, they may stay at one of our shelters, which are actually homes. This keeps the warmth and safety our organization’s founders were going for. But I think we have worked to standardize the experience of the survivor compared to what folks in the ‘70s might have experienced.”
Many of these homes and underground networks evolved into sexual or domestic violence crisis centers, which faced public backlash and suspicion – CARDV included.
“Those early rape crisis centers were acknowledged as being anti-establishment,” writes Zelinka. “This is hardly surprising since the ‘establishment’ hadn’t done anything to support rape survivors. Police officers routinely accused survivors of provoking their attack, and hospitals had no protocols in place for treating them. Rape crisis centers were at odds with most mainstream organizations.”
A prime example, Zelinka noted, was a 2002 Portland Tribune article which reported 36 boxes stuffed with news clippings, surveillance photographs, intelligence reports, and index cards collected between 1965 and the early ‘80s that were found in the garage of a retired Portland police officer. The subject of one of those files was the late LGBTQ+ rights activist Bonnie Tinker, founder of Call to Safety (formerly known as the Portland Women’s Crisis Line) and co-founder of the Portland-based Bradley Angle shelter (the first domestic violence shelter both in Oregon and on the West Coast). The officer’s report suggested that Tinker planned on using the shelter to “hide fugitives”, and that the hotline was “nothing more than an undercover message system.”
“The distrust of CARDV was palpable throughout much of the community – a fact that left at least one board member unperturbed,” writes Zelinka. “As she said, ‘We are working for social change. If we aren’t making somebody mad at us, we’re not doing our job.’ We were challenging the status quo and everything we did was suspect.”
“When I think about this benefit, and when I think about this shelter and how they come from this scrappy history and do so much with so little, it’s amazing and wonderful that they do that,” said McConville. “But then there’s also this bigger picture of, why do we have a society where something like this is still necessary?”
She looks to unjust social, political, and economic systems to understand why, and to bring awareness to how they are endangering survivors at increasingly alarming rates.
“When you look again, this is where you have systems upon systems failing, because people are staying longer in shelters now because of the housing crisis,” she said. “And so what some people really need is, say, money for a down payment on a rental. We need to build more affordable housing so that people can stay in these places. We need jobs to have benefits so that survivors who have children are able to take a day off work and still be able to pay rent when their kids are sick.”
“We know that there’s a lack of affordable housing across the state, and the other thing that happens for survivors is they aren’t prepared to leave,” said Hodge. “They don’t have thousands of dollars just sitting there waiting to pay first and last on a new apartment away from their abusers. And frequently, that can be a reason that survivors may stay with their abusers – that, and having children with them.”
To help address this, Hodge said that CARDV is currently working towards developing transitional housing – with possibly a 6 – 9 month max stay – for survivors so they have more time to find stable, long-term housing.
Such issues, in addition to organized efforts that aim to both support those who are impacted and to identify and abolish the root causes behind these issues, serve as major inspirations for McConville’s current and former advocacy work.
“I think part of the reason why I work now in social justice and economic justice is because, for me, it’s always been this thing where I realize where we would have been without these supports,” said McConville. “We got lucky that we ended up in a town that had this really progressive prosecutor who did take spousal rape seriously, because we definitely could have ended up somewhere that didn’t have a shelter, that didn’t have a D.A. like [Pete Sandrock], and we probably would have ended up dead. I think there’s this really wonderful ethos of people who do want to help each other, but we need more of that – not just in our communities, but in our actual political and economic systems.”
Needed Now More Than Ever
One of McConville’s hopes for this benefit is that more people will recognize what a crucial service CARDV is – not just for survivors, but for the community as a whole.
“I think that these services are needed now more than ever when you look at a lot of the pressure that people are under,” she said. “When you look at the lack of housing, when you look at the spotty economic recovery, when you look at rising prices, all of those things make situations of domestic violence even more stressful, and they make it harder for survivors to get out. So I feel like it’s crucial to have these programs and these folks in place who are doing this work that’s quite literally saving people’s lives.”
Greater visibility of CARDV’s efforts and availability in the community, as well as how they stand out from other social services, is another hope McConville has.
“[CARDV staff] treat people – who don’t have anywhere else to go – with such kindness and compassion, which I think is really lacking when it comes to a lot of our social services,” she said. “I think that’s exactly what people need: they need tenderness and care, and they also need actual tangible help. CARDV gives people both of these things, and also supports them so that they can get justice, which is also such an important part of the healing process.”
McConville believes CARDV does so much for communities in Linn and Benton County, from supporting and keeping people safe from their abusers, to ensuring perpetrators are held accountable, to providing education and leadership opportunities that aim to both prevent and end sexual and domestic violence.
“Having experienced what CARDV offers, I personally can’t think of anything that is a more crucial use of people’s dollars than that,” she said. “I was embarrassed about what had happened for so long, and it’s so critical that we do what we can to try to take away that stigma. I feel really fortunate that these services were there when we really needed them, which was pretty much the most important moment of our lives.”
To register for the Safe Families Benefit and/or learn how to donate, click here. If you miss or are unable to view the livestream, you can catch a recording of the benefit by visiting and/or subscribing to CARDV’s YouTube channel. Mary Zelinka’s book can be picked up at the CARDV Advocacy Center, located on 2208 SW 3rd St., with a suggested $20 donation.