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Safe Harbor

i4 Business Orlando

Harbor House of Central Florida is working to prevent and eliminate domestic abuse by providing critical life-saving services to survivors, implementing and advancing best practices, and educating and engaging the community in a united front.

By Jack Roth

i4 Business OrlandoThe numbers are sobering: One in four women will experience domestic abuse at some point in their lives and have to cope with it, as will one in five men.

As an innovative organization that guides the way for safer communities by developing, deploying and modeling best practices to eradicate domestic abuse in Central Florida, Harbor House is making a positive impact on lives in the region. The only certified domestic violence center in Orange County, Harbor House offers an emergency hotline and a shelter, but also a lot more, with a court program, advocates, attorneys and outreach offices scattered across the county.

“When it comes to domestic violence, people’s needs are different,” said Michelle Sperzel, Harbor House CEO. “It’s not just adult women who need our help; we have a kennel and child care in our emergency shelter, so when someone comes here, they can come with their entire family, including their pets. We serve men, too, because domestic violence touches everybody.”

The gateway into Harbor House is its emergency hotline, which is manned by skilled advocates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Many victims will call and ask questions, including: Is this domestic violence? Is this sexual assault? What’s going on in my life right now with this relationship? Am I safe? By speaking with victims and asking the right questions, advocates can determine the best course of action.


Once a survivor takes back control of her life from her abuser, the violence tends to escalate, and not just for the survivor, but for her children and the people trying to help her because the abuser knows everything about the victim — where she works, where she works out, who her parents and friends are, etc. This is why domestic violence emergency shelters exist.

“Abusers look at their victims as property,” explained Sperzel. “Often, they’re not even focused on the kids; they’re focused on the intimate partner who left them and getting her back. Unfortunately, the collateral damage comes when children see the abuse.”

Harbor House offers a safe, temporary place for victims and their children so they can get emergency injunctions, acquire the knowledge they need to make their next move, or simply stay in a quiet environment to recover from injuries, whether physical or emotional. This short circuits the abuse, but a big part of breaking the cycle of abuse for good is education.

“We don’t tell people what to do; we try and make them more aware, give them options and provide them with access to different resources.”

– Michelle Sperzel

“When someone in our outreach program is trying to figure out what to do, our role is to listen, provide information and offer up a safety plan,” said Sperzel. “We talk to them about what’s happening in the relationship. Are there guns in the house? Has the person threatened to kill you? Has the person ever kicked, punched or strangled you? We ask a lot of questions to wrap our heads around how lethal the situation may be, and then have a conversation regarding what we can do to help them be safe. We don’t tell people what to do; we try and make them more aware, give them options and provide them with access to different resources.”

According to Sperzel, domestic violence is about power and control. The abuser might be someone who does not have any control in his professional life but wants to be the king of the kingdom when he comes home. It can be someone who, as a child, witnessed violence in the home and grows up to be an abuser, just as a girl who witnesses violence in the home is more likely to become a victim.

“It’s a learned behavior,” asserted Sperzel. “When we’re talking about breaking the cycle, we’re also talking about breaking the generational cycle. When we’re working with kids who have experienced trauma, we give them different choices in how they can deal with situations they’re reacting to. Can we teach them perseverance? Can we help them with different types of conflict resolution? It’s about choices, because abuse is a choice.”

With 63 full- and part-time staff, including case managers, administrators, court advocates, outreach advocates, economic justice advocates, economic empowerment advocates and child protection investigator advocates who all go through extensive core competency training, Harbor House works with the Florida Department of Children and Families, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, and various local groups and businesses to educate and inform about, and ultimately prevent, domestic violence.

It has to go both ways,” concluded Sperzel. “We need the intervention piece at the emergency shelter, but we definitely need the prevention piece so that we’re able to reduce the number of people who ever need an emergency shelter.”

For more information, please visit www.harborhousefl.com.

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About the author

Jack Roth

A veteran journalist and author, Jack Roth is managing editor of i4 Business magazine. Jack has been writing about Central Florida business, technology and economic development for more than 20 years.

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