Understanding the Abuse

Published 10:57 pm Saturday, June 27, 2009

Susan (not her real name) is about to graduate from college and has dreams of pursuing an advanced degree some day. She is about to get her own apartment.

“I’ve never lived on my own before,” she said. “I went from being a teenager to living with him (her soon-to-be ex-husband) to my in-laws.”

If these sound like every-day events to most people, they are milestones to Susan. Less than a year ago, she left two decades of abuse at the hands of a man who said he loved her but was anything but loving. After being told for years she would never amount to anything, especially without him, Susan is proving her abuser wrong.

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In spite of what she’s been through, Susan is no longer a domestic abuse victim; she is a survivor and glad of it.

Life has changed and she is ready to meet the world with a new sense of purpose.

And she has a message to other women who are in abusive relationships: Get out. Life away from the abuser is well worth living.

How big is this problem?

“In the United States 3 to 4 million women are abused (each year),” Lawrence County Domestic Violence Task Force Director Elaine Payne said. “That’s a lot. It’s amazing to me.”

Payne has a point: In 2008, Ohio law enforcement agencies racked up more than 58,000 domestic violence calls, according to information from the Ohio Attorney General’s Office.

In Lawrence County, sheriff’s deputies responded to 300 domestic violence calls last year.

But less than half way through 2009, deputies have already handled 201 calls. If the volume of domestics continues on pace, the number of domestic violence calls in Lawrence County will have risen by one-third when the year ends.

And Lawrence County Sheriff Jeff Lawless said the last two months of the year tend to rack up more such calls than other months. Why?

“Around the holidays, it comes back to the economy,” Lawless said. “Being able to provide gifts for Christmas and the pressures of finances can make things worse. Plus, around the holidays people tend to spend more time together.”

The economy seems to be, at least in part, a major cause for the increased numbers of domestic violence calls.

According to a study by the Ohio Domestic Violence Network, the worst economy in decades has led to a sharp spike in the number of domestic violence victims seeking help and the increase comes as funding for shelters and other crisis programs is being cut across the state.

While some may think of domestic abuse as just a hit or a slap, sometimes it can be fatal.

Since 2003, there have been eight deaths attributed to domestic violence in Lawrence County — two were murder/suicides: That of Marcel and Katherine Linthicum in 2007 and that of Lana and Robert Holbrook in 2005.

Domestic violence awareness advocates are adamant that attitudes must change if domestic violence is to be abated.

“The physical, verbal, emotional and sexual abuse is unacceptable treatment of a human being,” said Debra Wright, public relations and outreach coordinator for Safe Harbor in Ashland, Ky. “It’s not okay under any circumstances.”

Who are the abusers?

Susan’s husband, John, was a professional man, well-educated and well-respected. He provided a house and cars to drive.

“He came from a good home,” she said. And his family didn’t believe he could do the things Susan accused him of.

Payne said the abuser can be “the person you least suspect. They can be a pastor, a teacher. It can be surprising.”

And contrary to the idea that abusers are mean men who are constantly violent, many are publicly polite and personable.

Susan said her abuser “treated me in public like a queen. He was a good actor.”

But when the doors closed, the real John was waiting and the treatment was not quite so royal. Experts contend this is common.

“It’s the one who’s charming the pants off the public and then goes home and does it,” Lawrence County Domestic Violence Shelter Intake Coordinator Angela Bacon explained.

Wright agreed and likened the abuser as someone with two sides: the side everyone else sees and the side that rears its head with the victim when no one is watching.

Bacon said abusers tend to target women with low self-esteem. They also tend to target women with children in the thinking that if she takes good care of her kids, she will take good care of him — no matter how badly he might treat her.

While abusers don’t wear sandwich boards, there are some red flags experts say women can look for when they begin a relationship.

One red flag is control. Abusers may seem like the take-charge-kind-of-guy at first, but that desire to be in the driver’s seat is the first step in controlling the victim’s behavior. A controlled victim is easier to abuse.

“If it starts out that he’s telling you what to wear or who to talk to, those are signs you’ve got to watch out,” Payne said. “It will get worse.”

Wright said there are some other red flags people can look for when getting to know a prospective partner: How do they relate to their family and friends? How do they treat pets? What is his tolerance level for anxiety? How does he relate to other people? Is he jealous? Envious? Does he or she want to cut you off from family and friends?

Susan’s story

Susan’s journey through the travails of domestic abuse began with a whirlwind romantic adventure from a man who seemed to know what he wanted from the beginning.

“He asked me to marry him on the third date,” she said.

Domestic abuse experts say it is not uncommon for abusers to sweep eventual victims off their feet before the woman has had a chance to truly get to know him — and see the dark side lurking just beneath that Romeo mask.

John isolated Susan from her family — abusers often try to eliminate the very people who would be first to express alarm at the worsening situation — but forced her to take care of his parents and grandparents when they were ill.

In the course of their marriage, he broke her nose, choked her and once so terrified her she spent a night sleeping in an open field to stay away from him. He monitored her telephone calls. He accused her of having affairs, something she said she never did.

“The last thing I was looking for was another man,” Susan said ruefully.

And there were mind games.

Once Susan had no family she could lean on John used it to his advantage. One of his games was to tell her to pack her few belongings in trash bags and get out of the house, walking, to wherever she could find to go, knowing she had no place to go.

Each time, she recalled, “I felt like a stray dog, not like a human being, like an animal.”

At one point Susan and John lived with his parents while he looked for work. And while he was looking, he put her to work, whether she was physically able or not.

“We had this three-and-a-half acre garden,” she recalled. “We were supposed to grow vegetables to sell so we could make some money.”

But John’s field of dreams turned into a patch of hell for his wife.

When she developed gall bladder problems he forced her to work anyway, telling her all her complaints were bogus. When she began throwing up because of her illness, she was forced to sleep outside so as not to dirty her mother-in-law’s house.

“There was once I was throwing up and he just looked at me and said, ‘why aren’t you in that damn garden?’” Susan recalled. “Then he gave me 10 minutes to get out of the house.”

She had left many times before but always returned because she had no place else to go.

But that last time she left, he took her and her belongings and dumped them on the street in front of Our Lady of Bellefonte Hospital in Russell, Ky. He said he was finished with her. He had no idea how true that statement was.

“I walked in and passed out,” Susan recalled. “The next thing I remember is the surgical guy standing over me saying, ‘you’re getting your gall bladder out tomorrow.’”

She was eventually connected to Safe Harbor through employees at Pathways, a social service agency in Ashland, Ky.

If 26 years seems a long time to live in an abusive marriage, Susan said it was all she knew: Her parents’ marriage has been fraught with abuse.

“I thought it was the norm,” she said.

And she had another reason to stay: Her son.

“I kept thinking, ‘If I leave him, my son won’t have a father,’” she recalled.

Wright said she had heard this before from many women who fear that by protecting themselves from abuse, they will somehow ruin their child’s life.

“They think that by staying, they’re helping their children,” Wright said.

Victims: Not just women

While the vast majority of victims are women, men are sometimes the victims and not the abusers. Thus far this month, Lawrence County sheriff’s deputies have handled 10 complaints filed by men.

“We’ve had male victims in here before,” Bacon said. “And they have had kids with them. They’ve had to get C.P.O.s against their girlfriends. Abuse can go in any direction. No one is exempt. We had a grandfather who had to get a protection order against his grandson.”

Abused men, Payne said, often were raised to believe men don’t hit women, so when the abusive woman strikes him, he doesn’t hit back.

Wright said men are not brought to the Ashland shelter but are housed at area hotels. She said while she knows it occurs, men are less likely to talk about their victimization than women.

Teens and violence

A marriage license — or lack of it — does not protect against or inhibit abuse.

Many teenagers report abuse at the hands of dating partners. Payne can remember the time she walked into a local high school and saw a teen-aged girl pinned up against the wall by a teen-aged boy. She intervened.

The boy didn’t much like her interference, she said, but she hopes the girl got the message: This behavior is not okay.

Why does it happen?

Payne said abuse is about control — control of every aspect of the victim’s life: what she wears, what she does, who she associates with. Bacon recalled one victim who came to their shelter who was allowed only 15 minutes to shop for the entire family. She was expected to buy all the food the family would need, with children in tow, within her husband’s 15-minute time frame or risk wrath and abuse.

The control usually extends to the pocketbook. The abuser is in control of finances, doling out cash and material possessions as he sees fit. The tight-fistedness keeps the victim on a short leash.

“People ask, ‘why don’t they run?’ and the reason is, they don’t have the money,” Payne said. “A lot of times, by not being in that situation, we wonder, ‘why would they take it?’ It’s because they are afraid they can’t make it on their own. They are completely browbeat.”

Wright said some women reason that they can put up with the abuse because the man provides a good home, pays the bills and the abuse doesn’t happen every day.

“Most of the time when they come in here they have nothing, no money, no change of clothes, nothing,” Bacon said.

Fear is another factor. Abusers often back up their punches, their kicks and their slaps with threats of something worse.

“He just completely rules her and most of the time she is afraid he will harm her, harm the children, if she leaves,” Payne said.

Children sometimes become punching bags too. Other times they become unwitting weapons.

“By the time the kids are old enough to protect mom, they’re often too afraid of him,” Bacon said. “Or he convinces them she deserved it.”

Fear and control not only keep a woman in an abusive situation, these factors can bring her back even if she does summon enough courage to leave.

To the old question, “why does she keep going back?” experts said fear and control are big reasons why. Bacon said it typically takes a woman 9 to 10 tries before she finally breaks free from her abuser.

Booze and the abuser

One myth about domestic violence is that it is the direct result of substance abuse. Experts say that is not true.

“Alcohol enhances abuse but it is not the cause,” Payne said.

Wright said statistics show substance abuse is a problem in approximately only half of all domestic violence cases.

Divorce can be deadly

Once the victim walks out the door, it might be assumed she (or he) will walk into the arms of safety and never know the fear of their abuser ever again. But domestic violence advocates agree separation can be the catalyst for violence.

“The most dangerous time is when she is leaving because he is losing control,” Bacon said. “Some of them (abusers) say, ‘If you leave me I will kill you’ and they make no bones about it.”

Wright agreed. “There are some women who are literally running for their lives.

Help for the helpless

The Lawrence County Domestic Violence Task Force has a 24-hour-a-day hotline: 532-7111. The task force staff offers a safe place to stay not only for the victim but his or her children. The task force also offers court advocacy, crisis intervention and referrals to other social service agencies so the abused woman can learn to survive on her own. Education? Help with rent? Child care? Job placement? DVTF staffers have answers to these questions.

“You don’t have to just stay and take it,” Bacon said. “There is help.”

Payne said many people she encounters do not know Lawrence County has a domestic violence shelter. It operates on state funds and a 25 percent local match.

The shelter operates on a small budget. Volunteers and donations are welcome. Payne said she is glad some area corporations such as Duke, Dow and Wal-Mart donate to the shelter.

What can you do?

For those family and friends who see signs of abuse and want to help, experts said expressing concern, carefully, is a necessity.

“You can’t force people to get help but you can be a friend,” Wright said.

Payne said if there are warning signs, family and friends should talk to the victim alone, if possible, and ask her if she needs help.

Bacon said those who are concerned about the victim should be willing to help her get out of her situation by giving her some place to stay or transportation to the domestic violence shelter.

“You’ve got to make sure she’s safe if she takes the advice to leave,” Bacon said.

Changing things

“The only hope we have to break the cycle of violence is to educate our children,” Wright said.

The staff at both the Ironton and Ashland shelters do just that. They speak not only to youth groups and school assemblies but to just about anyone who will listen.

“We’re going into school and teaching hands are not for hitting, with younger children, and then talking about anti-bullying, with middle schoolers and then with teens we talk about dating,” Wright said. “We have classes with boys and girls and we’ve heard some stories.”

Tiffany Ware, legal advocate at Safe Harbor, said she would like to see more done in this area to confront and re-educate the abuser.

In both states, some abusers are sent to anger management classes and some are also put in substance abuse programs.

But experts contend domestic violence is not about abuse, it’s about control and some do not have a drinking or drug problem.

She said in some metropolitan areas, abusers are sent to intervention programs. She said Pathways attempted to start such a program a few years ago and it was largely misunderstood.