Counselor’s Column–June 2019


Melissa McGraw, Director of Counseling Services at Safe Passage

What is Human Trafficking?

In June several domestic violence staff attended a training on human trafficking in Springfield.  Domestic violence and rape crisis centers are seeing more and more victims of human trafficking entering shelters or seeking counseling services.  And, yes, trafficking is occurring in DeKalb County.

Human trafficking may involve either sex trafficking or labor trafficking.  It includes recruiting, harboring, or obtaining a person by force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of involuntary servitude or the sex trade.  There is an intersection between domestic violence and trafficking in that survivors of trafficking may be trafficked by an intimate partner or family member.  Contrary to popular belief, victims of trafficking are not always immigrants from other countries.  Victims of trafficking may not immediately identify that they are being trafficked.  Advocates and counselors are learning to ask specific questions to help identify if their clients are not only victims of domestic violence or sexual assault but also may be victims of trafficking.

Trafficking survivors often present with significant trauma histories and symptoms as a result of their traumas.  The counseling staff have worked to help these clients identify and process their feelings of shame and betrayal related to being trafficked by someone they thought they trusted and loved.  This may be a long-term process that also involves connection to case management and legal services.

As a result of this training, Safe Passage has staff who are more equipped to identify and meet the unique needs of trafficking survivors.

If you’d like to learn more about trafficking and how to recognize and support survivors OR if you think you may be a victim of trafficking, call us 24/7 at 815-756-5228.



It has been three years since the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

Our staff have been working the last few days to plan a Pride event and it hits home that LGBTQIA+ rights have come so far but have so far to go. Pride events are common. PFLAG and GSA groups are popping up in our schools and communities. We have local therapists and clinics that cater specifically to queer youth. Gay marriage is legal in all 50 states.

And yet, Pulse is a reminder that being able to get married isn’t the end goal.  Pulse is a reminder that having a Pride event in your community isn’t the main goal.  Pulse is a reminder that feeling safe to be out isn’t the main goal.  The main goal is nothing less than complete freedom from oppression for the LGBTQIA+ community.

It is important to remember that many of the victims of the Pulse massacre were Latinx. Racism is just as rampant in our country as homophobia and the oppressions LGBTQIA+ folx experience often intersect. Pride, safety, and community are not just for cis-white-LG and B folks. We have to remember the unique burden racism places on people of color in queer spaces. We have to remember the unique burden transphobia places on trans folks. We have to remember that we’re not free until we are all free.

And we have to remember the role that domestic violence plays in all of this. As a Domestic Violence agency, we have a role to play in addressing mass violence.  Most mass murderers have a history of abusive behavior. When we stand together as a community against domestic violence (in all its manifestations), we stand against massacres like Pulse as well.  We can’t give up. This work is literally life-and-death.

We remember and mourn the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting and we vow to keep working until every queer space is safe.

We’re not safe.


Content Warning: discussion of domestic violence and murder






A DeKalb County man recently returned to the area fleeing California after allegedly shooting another man to death. (Links to local reporting on the crime HERE and HERE). Mark Sypien had a host of criminal convictions in the northern Illinois area, the vast majority of which were convictions on domestic battery and violations of order of protection charges.

This case shows, once again, that domestic violence is a threat to ALL of us. We should care about domestic violence simply because it is a threat to the victims, but if we can’t work up enough national attention for that, can we at least be honest about the very real threat to the general public when abusers are allowed to escape accountability?

Sypien clearly showed that he was unconcerned about breaking the law.  He abused intimate partners.  He violated court orders of protection.  He harassed victims and family members.  And then he moved to California and did the exact same thing.  The man Sypien murdered was the father of one of Sypien’s former partners.  John Moore, age 76, was concerned about Sypien’s violence, had previously obtained a restraining order against Sypien, and had spoken to family members about his concerns that Sypien might continue to harass the family. His concern was, devastatingly, justified.

How did Sypien continue to evade law enforcement for so long?  How was he able to obtain a firearm when he had so clearly demonstrated a inclination toward violence? How can we tolerate a world where so many victims live in fear of an abusive partner returning to harass or harm them?

Abusive individuals who are not held accountable are a risk. Violence, stalking, and controlling behavior cannot be tolerated.  We can’t just look the other way. Shooters in the mass shootings that are becoming all-too-common almost always have one thing in common: a history of domestic violence or misogyny.

If we are serious about ending violence in our community, our nation, and our world, we need to take a hard look at domestic abuse. We need to look at how we are raising our kids to have healthy relationships.  We need to talk about the connections between toxic masculinity and violence. We need to hold abusers accountable and we need to commit to working together until everyone is safe.

Stalking Awareness Month


January is National Stalking Awareness Month.  How many of us would recognize the signs of stalking or feel confident that we’d know what to do?  Do we think of stalking as a “James Bond-style” incident?  A stranger in an unmarked vehicle with secret spy technology watching our every move?  Someone hiding in the bushes?  Peeping Toms?

Stalking may be those things, but it is also, often, found in the context of intimate or former intimate relationships or acquaintanceship.  It’s often our ex partner, our former classmate, a co-worker. It is often someone we know who refuses to acknowledge or abide by our boundaries.  And it can be terrifying.

Below is a story shared with our staff that illustrates the side of stalking that isn’t often talked about but we see all too often (CN: description of stalking and abusive relationship):

I wonder if he ever wonders what happened, the boy who asked me out my freshman year. He was on the football team and lived on my floor in my freshman dorm.  We had calculus together (not quite Rocks for Jocks, but definitely math for people who’ll never use math again). We hung out a few times. We even went out to dinner once at the fancy restaurant in town (literally the only one. God bless small town colleges).

I wonder if he ever thought of me and wondered why he never heard from me again. I wonder if he felt snubbed or ghosted when we stopped hanging out, when I stopped responding to his texts.  I wonder if he noticed that I stopped spending so much time on campus and, in fact, eventually transferred to another school. I wonder if he ever wondered why.

He never saw the other side of what I was experiencing.  He never knew that after an evening of sitting on the quad with him talking about life and school, I’d pull out my phone to see missed call after missed call and too many texts to count asking where I was and why I wasn’t answering my phone. He didn’t know about the unwanted gifts, letters, and messages.  He didn’t know about the surprise visits and the constant pressure to be with someone I didn’t want to be with. He didn’t see the stalking.  For many years, I didn’t either.

I didn’t realize what was going on. A former colleague, a brief romantic partner, a person I tried to push back into friendship when I realized how uncomfortable I was in a dating relationship.  A person who wouldn’t take no for an answer.  There was the constant pressure to be available to him.  To tell him everything about my life and my emotions. The pressure to talk on the phone for hours, even when we had nothing to say to each other and my homework was piling up.  To answer my phone right away and to not be spending time with other guys. The demands to know where I was and what I was doing. There were the unwanted gifts which he made sure to tell me how expensive and difficult they were to find, how thoughtful he was being, as if this somehow meant I owed him something.  There was the time he tracked down my schedule and showed up at my dorm room unexpectedly on a Friday night, knowing I would feel too uncomfortable forcing him to drive the 6 hours back home and would have to let him stay.

As I grew more and more uncomfortable with the situation and more and more aware of how inappropriately he was acting, I tried to distance myself. I gave stronger and stronger signals that his interest was unwanted and would not be tolerated. I cut him out of my life in every way I could.  He continued to contact me through mutual friends and overstepped my boundaries when we worked on the same projects. Even today, when it has been over ten years since I last saw him, I still avoid certain friends, specific locations, and even scents that remind me of those two years in my life. I still worry that I’ll see him at a summer reunion or when I visit old haunts. I wonder if he realizes how much his behavior scared me, how threatening it felt and how much power it felt like he took from me. I wonder if he knows how it affects me to this day.

I never had a stranger parked outside my house.  I didn’t have a stalker following me in the alleys.  I had a colleague who wouldn’t take no for an answer and who wouldn’t respect my boundaries. I had a friend who felt entitled to a relationship and who was determined to build it over my objections. I had my life taken over by someone I thought I could trust. It wouldn’t have been an exciting movie plot, but it felt frightening and violating and it happens more often than we think.

Stalking takes many different forms and can be a sign of an incredibly dangerous situation. If you recognize any patterns of stalking or feel uncomfortable, be sure to reach out for help and support.  Work with a domestic violence agency to create a safety plan.  Make sure trusted friends or family are aware of what is happening. Keep a “stalking log” of everything that happens that makes you feel unsafe and keep screenshots of excessive contact or disturbing messages. Trust your gut.

You’re not alone. If you’ve experienced stalking in the past or you’re currently unsafe, Safe Passage is available 24/7.  Call us at 815-756-5228.



Give the Gift of Hope


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“For so long, I’ve been hurt by other people. For so long, I’ve felt stuck, like there’s no way out. For so long, I didn’t have a voice of my own. Dropping everything and coming to Safe Passage, I found my voice. I found safety. I’m not scared and I learned I’m not alone. I’m happy again!”

– Safe Passage Client 2018

For many of us, the holiday season is a time of warmth, love, and family. We enjoy a season of thankfulness and celebration while looking forward to the new year filled with new beginnings. For many, coming to Safe Passage can be the start of a new beginning. Safe Passage can be the place where they can learn or re-learn what it means to feel safe, whole, and respected. Safe Passage can be the place where they allow themselves to dream again. Safe Passage can be the place where they finally start to feel like survivors.

For over 900 adults and children in 2018, Safe Passage was the beginning of a new life, a life filled with healing, hope, and possibility. Thanks to your support and the support of our generous community, we have been able to provide shelter, counseling, and crisis support for so many brave survivors of violence. As we look toward the next year, our services, unfortunately are more needed that ever. We hope you will consider making a year-end gift to support the life-saving work at Safe Passage and stand together with all of us in our fight to end violence.



It is an important time of the year for reflection.  We know that this has been a difficult year for survivors. There have been high profile cases that have triggered and frustrated survivors.  There have been proposed rollbacks to protections for survivors on college campuses.  There have been murders, mass violence, and abusers who have walked free. We know the heartbreak and the challenges because we live in the midst of them every day.

But today, we want to talk about something else.  We want to focus on what we’re thankful for.  And what we are thankful for, more than anything else, is the fire of survivors.  This year has been difficult, but it has shown us, more than ever, the strength of each and every survivor of violence.

Strength looks different for each person and each circumstance, but we’re thankful this year for all the different types of power we’ve seen.

We’re thankful for the survivors of Dr. Nassar who have continued to speak out with strength and fire.  The sentencing of Larry Nassar was just the beginning and we’re grateful for each and every one of these women who continue to push for a change in our institutions and culture!

We’re thankful for voters in Alaska who voted against retention for Judge Michael Corey who oversaw the case of Justin Schneider and approved a plea deal that saw no jail time after a violent case of sexual assault. This decision by voters sent a strong message that judges must hold abusers accountable for their crimes.

We’re thankful for each survivor who spoke at our annual Domestic Violence Vigil in October and we’re grateful for all the community members who attended in support.  Together, we’re breaking the silence and the stigma around abuse.

We are thankful for survivors.  We’re thankful each time a survivor walks through our door seeking a safer future or even just a safer night.  We’re thankful for each survivor who sits down with one of our counselors and begins to process the trauma they’ve experienced.  We’re thankful for each survivor who raises their voice in anger or celebration.  You matter.  You are strong.  You deserve safety, healing, and hope.

We’re grateful for the chance to do the work we do.  We’re grateful that some day we won’t be needed.  We’re grateful that you are still surviving.

Thank you.

You are the Boss of your Body!


My niece was getting ready for bed one night when I was home visiting my family.  She was just about to head upstairs and crawl into bed when my sister called her back to say goodnight to everyone.  As she made her way around the room, she hugged some of us, gave others high-fives, gave her grandparents goodnight kisses, and even gave one person a “goodnight wave.”  She knew (because my sister had taught her) that she didn’t have to hug someone if she didn’t want to.  She wasn’t being rude or unkind.  She was just doing what felt right to her in that moment.

The holidays are an important time for families to set safe boundaries with their kids.  We know that over 90% of the children who are sexually abused know and trusted the person who abused them.  It’s rarely the scary stranger in a white van, but rather is likely to be a member of the family, a babysitter, a family friend, or another person in a position of trust.  When a child is abused by someone they thought they could trust, disclosure becomes even more difficult, confusing, and frightening. When we teach our children that we’ll respect their boundaries, they learn that they are in charge of their bodies and they feel more empowered to speak up and tell an adult if someone hurts them.

This holiday season, we’d strongly encourage allowing your children to be in charge of their bodies, especially when it comes to greetings and goodbyes.  If Sally doesn’t want to hug Uncle Stu, let her know that it’s okay.  She can just wave instead!  If Peter doesn’t want to give Grandma a kiss on the cheek, a hug or high-five is just fine! When we give our children permission to make these types of choices, we let them know that we’re safe adults.  We let them know they could talk to us if they were ever being hurt.  We let them know that no one, no matter who they are, should touch them without getting permission.

If you’d like help in learning how to talk with your children about sexual abuse or learning more about how to keep kids safe, reach out to our Prevention Team at 815-756-7930, x106.