The war on domestic violence


Kara Willingham

According to a survey by the Commonwealth Fund, nearly 1/3 of American women report being physically or sexually abused by the man in their life at some point.

Crystal, 22, (her name has been changed, as have all the names of victims interviewed for this story) has experienced domestic violence first-hand. She and her 2-year-old son Josh are now living in an emergency shelter since she ran away from her abusive husband.

“[He would say] You’re fat, you’re a waste of time and money and I did nothing,” she said. “I would just go away and he would make fun of me saying ‘go cry me a river'”

She knew him in high school but Crystal was not prepared for the person her husband turned out to be.

She said that it started after she became pregnant. He would constantly call her hurtful names and tried to control her every move.

“Sometimes I would stick up for myself,” she said. “It turned into something so big it became easier to just take it”Unable to drive, Crystal and Josh were confined to the family’s home. The situation got worse when her husband became physically abusive.

“[My son] would hit me because he saw his dad do it,” Crystal said. “I was scared because I am undocumented, and he would tell me that he’d have me deported because I have no rights.”

The national domestic violence hotline operator informed her that everyone has the right to safety whether they are documented or not.

Women are fighting back against their abusers and leaving them behind. Organizations such as Laura’s House make it possible for any woman to get herself and her children out of an unhealthy situation quickly and safely.

Laura’s House was founded in 1994 by a mother whose daughter was domestically abused and murdered.

“It is really sad that it takes someone dying for folks to realize the problem,” said Nadia Islam, director of programs at Laura’s House. “But sometimes that is what it takes.”

(Organizers asked that the exact location not be released for security purposes).

In Orange County only one out of seven cases are reported, according to figures, but organizations like Laura’s house feel that by creating a safe place and educating women about their rights they provide a safe haven.

“Domestic violence is under-reported,” Islam, also an associate faculty member in the department of women and gender studies at Saddleback, said. “Not all abuse is physical, but it does not have to be physical to be brutal”

Islam has been working for Laura’s House since August 2006. Prior to that she worked for other shelters. She has her master’s degree in social work from Columbia and has been working with women who have experienced violence since her college years. Entering the field was not a conscious decision but compassion led her to her work, she said.

“Domestic violence is the most egregious human rights violation,” she said. “I knew that I wanted to work to change women’s lives and this is a concrete way to do it.”

During her years in the field Islam has learned one of the main reasons for domestic violence.

“Abuse is not about poverty or unemployment. It is an issue of power and control,” Islam said. “When one partner abuses another it’s about ensuring that they have that power and control in the relationship. It’s not about blowing off steam or having too much to drink.”

Women in need of help can enter the program at anytime.

First, they are put into a safe hotel room under a false name. After that, they are assigned to a room in the shelter which is just like a house. Children attend neighborhood schools, and women attend classes and support groups such as the personal empowerment program.

A common stay in a shelter is around 45 days. During that time women meet with case managers and legal advisors to make sure they know their rights. Laura’s House also offers a life skills program for women to learn about finances, health and reproductive health.

Despite efforts of shelters such as Laura’s House, many men, woman and children are unaware of the extreme violence happening in their community.

“Domestic violence appears to be increasing across the globe,” Islam said. “More likely, advocates around the globe have succeeded in increasing our collective awareness of this social problem.”

As for opening community eyes to the harsh truth about domestic violence, Laura’s House visits local high schools with their HEART (healthy emotions and attitudes in relationships for teens program). The 45-minute workshop often touches a few students. Some may be doing the abusing. Others may be abused.

“I feel that most domestic violence is kept a secret for many reasons,” said Marissa Presley, prevention education specialist. “Some victims are fearful or ashamed to disclose family secrets and many women are afraid of what the community will think of her if her marriage falls apart.”

It is Presley’s job to let women know that they have choices.

“In some cases the women have vowed to stay married ’till parted by death,” she said. “I have known victims who are married to very wealthy abusers and have too much to lose if they tell.”

Women in abusive relationships fear that leaving a relationship will lead to more abuse.

“Sometimes women are followed or we have abusive partners come to our location,”Islam said. “We don’t have a sign out front for this reason.”

In other cases abusive partners have come into Laura’s House pretending to be victims. The facility is equipped with cameras and other security devices to keep clients safe.

Although the opportunities to change lives are offered at Laura’s House, some women leave the shelter and return to an abusive partner. The reasons vary and many times they return because their child misses their father.

“If a woman finishes her stay at the shelter and needs another place to go we try to work with them,” said Raefaela Montoya, shelter manager. “We find them a long term shelter.”

Human Options INC., a long term shelter has a year long program that houses women who need extended protection.

Shelter managers and workers try not to let the victims and their choices get them down, although they do fear for the safety of the women and children they have worked with.

Once a woman gets involved in an intimate relationship she often has trouble leaving. Denial is common in these situations as well as feelings of self-blame. Crystal said she was unprepared and shocked to find out that her high school friend turned out to be a monster.

“I never in a million years thought that I would be in this position,” Crystal said. “I knew him before, he was my friend and he was so nice in the beginning.I don’t know what happened.”

Islam said that although a woman may not be as physically strong as a man, she can use her knowledge as a strength in knowing how to fight him in court.

Right now Crystal’s only goal is to support her son because her husband has hired a lawyer with the intent to win custody of their son.

“I just feel really helpless,” she said. “It was big shock that he got a lawyer and denied every allegation. He even made up things. But I have evidence against him.”

She warns other women going through similar situations to document anything that happens.

“If he hits you take pictures of yourself,” she said. “Call the police, make sure you have that evidence to prove he did whatever you are claiming he did. Even if you have that evidence [men] still have rights.”

Many of the women in the program have experienced horrific struggles but they have been able to help each other in giving legal and relational advice. The counselors and case workers take each case seriously and do what they can to get her through her crisis.

“If nothing else women leave here with greater knowledge about their rights and resources that exist to help them should they choose to leave the same partner or another abusive relationship,” Islam said.

Those who are interested in volunteering with Laura’s House must go through a 40 hour training process to work with women and children. Volunteers may also work at the thrift store called Laura’s House of Treasures. Everything in the store is donated.

“Graduates from our program receive vouchers to the store so that they can get what they need to rebuild their lives,” Islam said. “The money [made from the publics purchases] funnels back to us.”

Islam and co-workers are working on finding a group of students who are passionate about these issues. These students will speak publicly about domestic violence and bring information to the community.

“Saddleback students could have a tremendous impact in this community,” Islam said.”It would be really powerful.”

Crystal is living proof that despite an abusive situtaion women can prevail.

“There is help out there and if you can find it, stick to it,” Crystal said. “If you have the decision to go, don’t go back just because you talk to him, follow through and do not feel sorry for him because he is not feeling sorry for you.”

She also warns women getting into a serious relationship to be cautious.

“Take your time,” Crystal said. “Don’t go into it so quickly, don’t rush things. Take the time to get to know someone.”

Shelter Information(Location of facility is confidential.)Phone number 866-498-1511.

The emergency shelter houses women and children fleeing from an abuser. A 24-hour crisis hot line has a trained counselor to offer victims assistance. A victim can stay up to 45 days with her children. While in the program a victim must participate in many individual and group counseling sessions. The victim meets with a case manager who assists in formulating goals and provides referrals to many agencies that will make a transition easier.

“I wish that when I was growing up my mother had a place like Laura’s House to escape to and feel safe.”-Marissa PresleyPrevention Education Specialist

Abusive signs to look for

Threats of violence Breaking or striking things Physical force towards you or others Verbal abuseJealousyPossessiveness and lack of trust Name calling and put-downsUnrealistic expectations of you Blaming you for problemsUse of force in sexCruelty to children and/or animals

Statistics on abuse

-A woman is beaten every seven seconds.-30 percent of women seeking treatment in hospital emergency rooms are victims of domestic violence.-42 percent of female homicides are the result of domestic violence.In Orange County, 36% of domestic violence emergency 911 calls are made by children.

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