Taking state post: Lark Johnson leaving Haven House|[11/6/06]

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 6, 2006

Lark Johnson has worked for the safety of domestic-violence victims in Vicksburg for 15 years. Now she’s taking that experience statewide in a new job.

Johnson, director of Haven House Family Shelter since 1991, is to start a new job next week as a victim advocate/training coordinator with Attorney General Jim Hood’s office.

Its new director, beginning today, is Scottie Kiihnl, a seven-year employee of the shelter who has been its second-in-command.

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Haven House was established in 1985 to provide a place where women and children could get away from abuse. It was part of a response to the fact that women often can’t escape abusive relationships because they and their children have no place to go.

People who seek Haven House’s help generally learn about it from the court system or law-enforcement agencies, Johnson said. It’s through the leaders of those systems that the work Johnson will do may be able to have its broadest effect.

&#8220I’m going to be traveling the state with Heather Wagner, who’s the director of (the Attorney General’s Office’s) domestic-violence unit,” Johnson said. &#8220She and I are challenged with trying to gather information from the counties as to what is working and what is not with protective orders, and to see if we can’t strengthen those laws and better utilize protective orders for the betterment of the victims.

&#8220So we will be leading and training the judges, the prosecutors, private attorneys and all law-enforcement officers across the state.”

In addition to helping train administrators of that system, Johnson will also be able to participate in it as an advocate for victims.

&#8220That means that I can go to court, meet with any victims in the state who want just that extra support going to court or a listening ear,” Johnson said. &#8220My background is in social work so I will be able to provide that good listening ear.”

Wagner said Johnson’s &#8220skills, capabilities and dedication seemed to be a perfect match” for the job.

&#8220With her extensive experience in the field and her unique vision for improving victim safety, we can anticipate that the position will grow and expand beyond what was originally contemplated,” Wagner said of Johnson’s new job. &#8220And domestic-violence victims in Mississippi will be the beneficiaries.”

Johnson said she is leaving Haven House in good hands with Kiihnl as the new director.

&#8220With Lark’s leadership Haven House has built a very strong program,” Kiihnl said, adding that that work will continue and that the staff of Haven House &#8220looks forward to working with Lark in her new capacity.”

Asked to list a few of her most-prominent memories from her time as director, Johnson said some are happy and some are sad.

&#8220The families that I have taken caroling during Christmas, the Halloween carnivals and the simple pleasures of a woman having her first birthday cake at age 35,” Johnson said.

&#8220We’ve had a mother die in childbirth and had two children here who were precious that we were able to facilitate getting back to their aunt and uncle. And the death was due to an aneurysm that burst that had been a result of domestic violence. Her husband had hit her in the head.”

Under Johnson’s leadership Haven House has opened a second story to extend the amount of time a woman can stay for financial stabilization to up to a year, expanded from six employees to 13 and begun offering more counseling to victims who don’t need to move into the shelter. Haven House is able to accommodate 22 people in its shelter and it also serves about five people a month who do not move into the shelter, Johnson said.

The shelter provides those who move into it food, transportation, clothing and any other necessary referrals for a minimum of 30 days, Johnson said.

Helping victims who are mothers care for their children is a major responsibility Haven House staff meets, Johnson said.

&#8220The major challenge is for us to make sure that they blend in and that they don’t have any feelings of standing out and being different,” Johnson said of school-age children of families that seek Haven House’s help. &#8220Because they already felt different when they were at home.”

Haven House is the third shelter of its kind to have been established in the state. It serves the nine-county Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol district that includes Vicksburg and Jackson and operates on a budget of about $632,000 a year. Among its funding sources are the state government and the United Way of West Central Mississippi. State law requires at least one such shelter in each highway-patrol district and three exist now, Johnson said.

The shelter weathered a funding crisis in 1998, closing its doors before an anonymous donor gave $25,000 to cover a budget shortfall.

Haven House’s location is undisclosed but its staff picks up donations on request.

&#8220We always need school uniforms,” Johnson said when asked about the shelter’s current needs. &#8220Right now we need coats for adults and children. (Rain) ponchos – things that are simple. We need perishable items, meat. Some of our grant sources have cut back and are trying to spread the money across the state trying to help those on the Gulf Coast. And so we’re in the process of looking for meat, bread and eggs, money to be able to purchase those things. It’s not that anyone’s going hungry but that is the area that has been cut back the most.

&#8220When people move out we help them re-establish themselves with the pots, pans, everything. So we can use just about anything.”