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Government, Politics & Issues

County ordinance on women's shelter passes but with heated debate

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 18, 2012 - A St. Louis County Councilwoman sharply criticized advocates of an ordinance stipulating that abused women couldn't be turned away from shelters because of residency, saying that people pushing the change were engaging in "bullying, intimidation and shame."

For weeks, advocates for abused women have been speaking out during the council's public forum about a need for an ordinance in response to reports that the Kathy J. Weinman Center turned away women who were not St. Louis County residents.

The St. Louis region has four shelters for battered women: Weinman, Women's Safe House and St. Martha's Hall in St. Louis, and Bridgeway Women's Center in St. Charles. Together the four have 141 beds.

An ordinance was introduced in early January stating that "any shelter for abused women and their children operated by St. Louis County shall not restrict entry into their shelter based on residency." It passed the council on Tuesday by a 4-2 margin, with Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, and Councilwoman Kathleen Burkett, D-Overland, voting against it.

Before Burkett, right, voted "no," she delivered a lengthy speech chastising individuals pushing for the measure. Many of those advocates were present.

Burkett said she had been in an abusive marriage in which her former husband had "used bullying, intimidation, harassment and shame" to force her to submit to his demands.

"Sometimes I would give in to get him out of my face and off my back," Burkett said. "Other times I would stand up for myself and then I'd probably get the crap beaten out of me. I left that abusive relationship many, many years ago and I have tried to make my life successful by being able to think and speak up for myself. I might also add that I had the support and help of a loving family and positive support groups.

"But I still know bullying, intimidation and shame when I see it," she added.

Burkett went on to say that the ordinance's advocates came to the council "with picket signs" claiming "St. Louis County was turning women away from the shelter." She said she called that type of action "bullying, intimidation and shame."

"You came and spoke to this council and the county executive as if we were little children and needed your direction to make things right," Burkett said. "I still think that's bullying and intimidation. This council made a decision to let the Justice and Health Committee -- chaired by council member Erby -- hold a public meeting to hear your concerns and see about making changes in the policy of running the shelter. But you could not wait and let the system do its work."

Burkett said the ordinance "means absolutely nothing" because "residency has never been an issue."

"I could vote 'yes' to get you off my back and out of my face," Burkett said. "But I've come too far in my life to be bullied, intimidated and shamed again. I vote 'no.' "

After the meeting, a number of the ordinance's proponents expressed outrage over Burkett's comments. Lisa Jones, an employee of the St. Louis County prosecutor's office, called Burkett's remarks "embarrassing.

"She just called every single member of the domestic violence community a liar," Jones said. "This is not political. This is personal to these people. And what you just saw in there was a demonstration of politics at its worst. And it's disgusting."

Michelle Schiller-Baker, executive director of St. Martha's Hall, said Burkett's comments didn't come as a complete shock. She noted that both Burkett and Erby abstained last week when the council initially passed the ordinance.

But Schiller-Baker disputed Burkett's claims that enacting an ordinance "means absolutely nothing."

"Any time you put something into an ordinance or a law or a state statute, it means it has to be abided," Schiller-Baker said. "It's in cement."

In an interview with reporters after the council meeting, Burkett said she "didn't like the way that we were approached as a council, as an administration."

"Particularly when we had a committee set up ... to look into this," Burkett said. "And yes, there have been some problems at Kathy J. Weinman. Not residency problems, but just problems. There has been a lack of good leadership over there. And so, those things have been corrected. They're in the process of taking care of these things. This is unnecessary."

Burkett added she "never saw one affidavit" or was "given one ounce of proof that anyone was turned away because they were not a resident of St. Louis County."

Burkett went onto say that "I personally felt humiliated and shamed by the way they handled it. I've lived through this myself and that's why I thought I had a right to speak up the way that I did."

The ordinance still has to be signed by St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley. The Democratic chief executive was not present at Tuesday's meeting.

Jason Rosenbaum, a freelance journalist in St. Louis, covers local and state government and politics. 

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