The Women's Center has been empowering victims of domestic violence through a variety of programs since 1978. Providing a 24-hour intake to emergency shelter for individuals experiencing domestic violence including women, along with their children and pets, and men. In addition to physical safety, the shelter provides personal advocacy, information and referral, support groups, and community education. The Alex and Brandon Child Safety Center provides safe visits and exchanges for children.
The Mid-Minnesota Women's Center wouldn't be here without Louise Seliski.
Louise grew up in poverty in Minneapolis and knew, even while in seventh grade, that she wanted to become a social worker. She had a passion for helping others. After graduating with a degree in Social Work, the founder and first Executive Director of The Women’s Center and the Alex and Brandon Child Safety Center spent about a year working in Morrison County before accepting a social worker position in Crow Wing County, a job she held for more than four years, before returning to graduate school. She then spent the next two years at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, earning her Master’s degree in Social Work. She chose her own field placement for her degree, a six-month project that would seem daunting for anyone: start a battered women’s shelter.
A friend, Marlene Travis, had started Sexual Assault Services, a non-profit organization in Crow Wing County, and recruited Seliski to write a grant to develop a battered women’s center. Battered women were calling Sexual Assault Services, not because they had been sexually assaulted, but there was nowhere else they could turn. The need for a battered women’s shelter in Brainerd was tremendous.
In 1978, Louise Seliski wrote a grant through the Minnesota Department of Corrections to develop four battered women’s shelters in the state. Only two existed in the Twin Cities area at that point. The Legislature provided funding (the fourth one was built elsewhere) & the Mid-Minnesota Women’s Center became the fifth battered women’s shelter in the state to open and Seliski was selected as executive director, although at that time she wasn't getting paid.
That first shelter, which opened to its first family in August of 1978, was a large old home at 13th and Oak streets in southeast Brainerd. While the shelter was supposed to house six women and children, Seliski said often they had as many as 25 people staying there. Louise would say, “I’d rather have a woman sleep on the floor than get herself killed.” In 1995, a new shelter was built in southeast Brainerd, which houses about 20 women and children at a time. It serves easily over 130 women and about 100 children a year, as well as offering other programming to help these families get back on their feet. The shelter operates 24 hours, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
Sadly, Seliski has seen too many women and children who were later killed by domestic violence after leaving the safety of the shelter. She said eight women and two children — Alex and Brandon, for whom the child safety center is named — have been murdered during the shelter’s existence.
On March 30, 1988, Lillian McDermott, 45, was shot by her abusive husband in her own home, becoming the first murder victim who had sought help from the shelter. She had obtained an order for protection and stayed at the shelter until a judge ordered them back to their rural Crow Wing County home. Seliski said McDermott got a dog and rearranged the furniture, making it harder for her husband to shoot her through a window. No one knew he had purchased a gun until he broke into the home, hid in a closet and shot her when she returned from work. Her body was left in the home to be discovered by her two youngest school-aged sons.
“It was devastating,” Louise said of McDermott’s death. “I always knew this could happen in this line of work but when it happened I was not prepared in any way. Lillian did everything she could have done.”
Seliski said if she had known McDermott’s husband had bought a gun, she would have told McDermott and her youngest of five children to immediately move back into the shelter. Seliski was on the Department of Public Safety’s Minnesota Crime Victims Council at the time, and tried to get lawmakers to pass a bill that would require victims who have orders for protection against someone to be notified if that person buys a gun. She said unfortunately such a bill would have been difficult to enforce.
When a battered woman returned to her home from the shelter to find out if her husband had carried out his threat by slowly beating her cat to death with a baseball bat, Louise said the shelter then began accepting the family’s pets as well. Louise said the Humane Society told her that her shelter was one of the first in the country to also house animals. Quite often pets are also abused in the home and it's not unusual for a battered woman to choose to stay in that situation because she did not want to leave a family pet behind.
When 5-year-old Alex and 4-year-old Brandon Frank, who lived with their mother in Brainerd, were murdered by their father in July of 1996, their deaths devastated Louise and those who knew them from the shelter. Louise and other supporters raised about $450,000 to build the Alex and Brandon Child Safety Center, a place for court-ordered, supervised visitations and safe exchanges of children between custodial and non-custodial parents. Seliski said the boys’ mother, Angie Plantenberg, had asked for supervised visits for the boys but a Stearns County judge turned it down.
Louise believes Alex and Brandon would be alive today if they would have had supervised visits.
The child safety center opened in Brainerd in 2000 and typically facilitates about 1,200 supervised child visits per year. Louise said retiring in 2011 was a hard decision to make but it was time. There were many difficult times during her 33 years of working with battered women and children, but she said there were many rewards, too. “The reason I can do it is because of the women and children I’ve worked with who are leading better lives,” said Seliski. “I always believe in the goodness in people. The greatest thing I would like to see is the shelter shut down because we don’t need it anymore.”
Those whose lives were changed because of the shelter include Kathy Northburg, a woman’s advocate at the shelter. She and her children stayed at the shelter in 1985. She started working at the shelter as relief staff in 1988 and was hired on full time in 1989. Northburg left for a few years to go to college — something Seliski encouraged her to do — and returned to work at the shelter in 2007. “Louise is the type of boss who challenges one to reach beyond what you think you’re capable of,” said Northburg. “She’s an awesome mentor. This place saved my life. If I had stayed with my ex-husband a day longer, he would have killed me and my children.”
If you'd like to tour our facility and meet the staff, give us a call. We would love to show you around.
(excerpts of this page were from: http://brainerddispatch.com/news/2011-04-15/battered-women%E2%80%99s-greatest-advocate-retire-after-33-years)