Carmen Pitre runs the world's most comprehensive facility dedicated to victims of domestic abuse. She gives hope to the hopeless, seeing in them many of the same struggles that defined her early life.
Carmen Pitre came to Milwaukee over 32 years ago looking for help. It was the day after Christmas 1984, and the 22-year-old was so terrified she would relapse back into alcoholism that she’d uprooted herself from warmer southern climes and retreated to an unfamiliar city. Earlier that year, she buried a cousin – in truth, closer to a brother – after he was killed in a drunk driving wreck.
His death cast a frightening spotlight on her own life, forcing her to acknowledge the alcohol dependency she developed growing up in Cut Off, La., an unincorporated community 90 minutes outside New Orleans. That fall she entered a local rehab program as she finished work on an English degree from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Four nights a week she attended therapy after classes. Her drinking stopped, and she completed the program within weeks of her college graduation that fall. Any joy she felt was short-lived, however, when her alcohol counselor gave her his brutal assessment of her future.
“‘One of three things is going to happen, Carmen,’” he said at graduation. “‘You’re going to relapse, you’re going to kill yourself, or you’re going to call me and tell me you’ll do whatever I tell you to do.’ … I was like, what kind of graduation speech is that?” Pitre says.
Pitre chose door number three, which turned out to be a trip to a treatment center in Milwaukee. Despite, or perhaps because of, its reputation as a world-class drinking city, Milwaukee boasted one of the country’s best rehab programs at DePaul Rehabilitation Hospital, and her counselor wanted her to sign up for the program. Engulfed by profound depression, she scrounged up enough money for a one-way ticket to Wisconsin.
Her arrival did little to buoy her spirits. “There was a blizzard. It snowed 13 inches. I got off the plane and thought, ‘I am utterly lost,’” says Pitre. “I went to my first meeting that night and thought to myself, ‘I’m going to die here.’”
She was, in a way, right. She’d never leave this place. But instead of languishing, she’s thrived, building a career based on helping women and families out of violent and chaotic relationships, and giving them a boost to turn their lives around.
Now 53, Pitre heads up the newly created Sojourner Family Peace Center. Fully operational as of early 2016, the center is being praised as the most comprehensive cooperative model in the world. Offering a traditional shelter to victims fleeing abusive households, the center also houses both police and prosecutors assigned to domestic violence crimes, as well as medical and wellness services from Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin and other private-sector partners.
A single mother of a 15-year-old daughter, Pitre has a natural, low-key warmth, a toothy grin and a pensive listening posture – earmarks of a leadership style that’s proven very effective. Her attentiveness and acceptance hint at the unusual level of collaboration she’s been able to forge, while hiding a ferocious determination to finish whatever she starts.
“Carmen Pitre is a transformational leader. She is quiet. She is soft-spoken. But she is as tenacious and determined and visionary as any nonprofit leader I’ve met anywhere in the country in the last 30 years,” says Casey Gwinn, president of Alliance for Hope International, a leading national group dedicated to eradicating family violence. “She is the driving force behind what’s happened in Milwaukee with the Family Peace Center.”
The 72,000-square-foot facility at West Walnut and North Sixth streets is currently considered the largest of its kind in the world. But it’s not the size that interests Pitre. Rather, it’s the center’s ability to provide adequate shelter and resources for everyone who needs it.
“It’s my job to support our staff and our clients and to be a visionary and a leader around the culture. Milwaukee doesn’t need one more beautiful building. If people don’t feel loved and healing when they walk in here, we’ve missed the mark,” she says.
Anyone – and that includes men – in need of a way out of a dangerous living situation can be helped at the center, either through prearranged admittance or by walking in off the street. Outwardly, a fortress of heavy gates and impenetrable access points, the facility softens inside the walls, assuming a hospital-like atmosphere steeped in healing, confidence and compassion.
Before the new center opened, Sojourner averaged around 9,500 clients every year. The new building is equipped with 56 beds for victims, which Pitre says have been about 90 percent full since opening. Without leaving the building, clients can file a police report, discuss their situation with law enforcement and be examined by medical staff. Milwaukee Public Schools in on the premises to teach displaced children. In the unfortunate event that someone should need a funeral as a result of family violence, the center can help out there as well with emergency funds.
“The center from our standpoint is designed to identify all of the needs in the family at the time they are calling law enforcement for help, because we know that in many cases, not only is there the existence of a violent relationship, or certainly an act of violence, but often times there are several other co-occurring difficulties within a family,” says Milwaukee County Chief Deputy District Attorney Kent Lovern. “The goal of the center is to help victims of crimes, victims of violent situations, come to us and tell us what their needs are as well so that we can respond to them at the same time we’re responding to the actual criminal act itself.”
To prepare for the creation of the center, Pitre and some others went to San Diego to view a similar facility which served as the model. Alliance for Hope International’s Gwinn was there to meet her, and says she took the idea and ran with it.
“Carmen’s taken our dreams in San Diego, and just put them on steroids,” Gwinn says. “It’s the only facility of its kind in the country. She is doing what we’ve been calling for.”
Pitre is the daughter of an itinerant sex worker; her mother was just 16 years old when she gave birth to Carmen in 1962. Four years later, she was gone. Though Pitre’s parents had wed, it was a violent and destructive marriage. Pitre doesn’t remember any abuse first-hand, but as she got older, she gained wind of the horror stories. “He used to hit her so hard that the house would shake,” she says. “She left with the idea that she would come back for me.”
That day never came.