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Battered and Blue

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Illustration by Dav BordeleauAlex Wake. Ellen Gregory Robb. Fred Robinson. Deborah French. The names may be unfamiliar to you, but not to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. And until they became statistics, the only thing these four individuals had in common was their Main Line zip codes.

In 2002, Wake, a freshman at the Baldwin School, was killed with her mother and grandmother in a senseless act of domestic violence in Ardmore. Four years later, Robb was brutally murdered by her husband while wrapping Christmas presents in the kitchen of her Wayne home. A Haverford School student at the time, Robinson was shot by his father in 2008, then witnessed his dad fatally shoot his mother and himself. Robinson survived—but that wasn’t the case for French, a Devon resident strangled to death that same year by her boyfriend while she was house-sitting.

“We get enough calls to recognize that domestic violence is alive and well on the Main Line,” says Janine Kelly, community educator for the Women’s Center of Montgomery County. “We didn’t just drop this office out of the sky.”

Like many local domestic violence programs, the Women’s Center depends on state funding, which hasn’t come easily of late. And yet, when last year’s budget impasse was creating massive cash-flow problems statewide, Pennsylvania’s network of programs still managed to provide services to more than 2,500 victims and their children in a single day. A 24-hour census of all 61 domestic violence programs across the Commonwealth revealed that on Sept. 15 of last year, 1,190 victims were sheltered and 950 hotline calls were answered.

But on that same day, 365 requests for services—including 247 for housing to escape abuse—couldn’t be addressed due to staff and money shortages. Last year, more than 100 domestic violence workers were laid off in Pennsylvania, while programs fielded 3,000 more requests for shelter than in 2008. Meanwhile, legislation to create additional revenue for services via an increase in marriage license and divorce-filing fees stalled in the General Assembly, and funding for services remained flat in the final budget.

Locally in 2009, the Women’s Center received 1,200 referrals from police in 42 of 50 police departments. It served 330 men and 3,500 women out of its six offices. Elsewhere last year, the Domestic Abuse Project of Delaware County offered legal counsel to 3,835 victims; emergency room personnel at Lankenau Hospital saw 99 patients for domestic-violence-related injuries; and the Domestic Violence Center of Chester County served an estimated 3,000 victims.

“Domestic violence is one of the Main Line’s best-kept secrets,” says Terry Moody, the West Chester-based DVCCC’s director of development and communications. “It’s out there. People just don’t want to talk about it.”

This October, however, Moody and others want to make sure it will be talked about—a lot. As part of National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, much time and energy will be devoted to a range of events at the local, state and national levels. One is the second annual “Sweet Sunday” on Oct. 3 at Faunbrook Bed & Breakfast in West Chester, benefiting the DVCCC. And the center itself will offer presentations at local churches.

“Until I started working at DVCCC, I had the same perception that most people do—that domestic violence doesn’t exist to the level that it does,” Moody admits. “But once people knew where I was working, no matter where I went, at least one or two women would come to me and say, ‘I never told you before …’ Women I’d known for 10 years. I had no idea.”
 

Story continued on page 2 …
See page 4 for a list of Domestic Abuse Resources.
 

A second-generation Main Liner, Mary Ann was born in Bryn Mawr and has lived in Chester County since she was 2. Since the age of 33, she’s been a victim of domestic abuse.

“People need to understand that abuse knows no socio-economic boundaries,” says Mary Ann, whose real name has been withheld to protect her identity. “I had a beautiful four-bedroom home and drove a Land Rover. Part of the difficulty you experience when you come from a place like I did is that it’s the only thing others see. When you try to tell people—even your friends—what’s happening to you, they think, ‘Well, you look OK.’”

But abuse comes in all forms. The most apparent—physical and sexual assaults—are part of a larger pattern based on the abuser’s need for power and control. Emotional and economic abuse, coercion, threats, intimidation and isolation are all part of an arsenal—and statistics continue to show that women are by far the most frequent victims. This assumed “control” falsely empowers abusers to think they’re above reproach—from partners, family members, even the law.

“My ex-husband knew exactly what he was doing,” says Mary Ann. “He knew I had a career and worked outside the home. He was very cautious about what injuries he inflicted, so they wouldn’t be visible to anyone but me.”

For Mary Ann, the red flags began popping up soon after she was married—his manipulative behavior, controlling how she dressed, dictating household responsibilities, name-calling, accusing her of sleeping with “everyone.” No matter where she was, he kept tabs on her. Any unanswered phone call was justification for a flare-up.

“What would be normal discussions for most couples were shouting arguments for us,” she says.

Mary Ann’s son was a year old the first time her husband hit her. They’d been married a year and a half. They were driving when he responded to something she’d said with, “Oh, don’t be a bitch.” She was offended that her husband had been so disrespectful in front of their son, even if he couldn’t understand the word. “I was so shocked, all I could think to say was, ‘Shut up, shut up!’” she recalls.

And that’s when it happened: His hand landed hard on her mouth. “I told him, ‘If you ever do that again, I’m leaving—we’re finished,’” she says. “But, to him, it was more like a test run to see what he could get away with.”

He got away with it for 10 more years.

There’s a cycle to domestic violence that enables victims like Mary Ann to rationalize staying. “Outsiders knock them all the time, but they don’t comprehend just how complicated these situations are,” says Katie Kenyon of the Domestic Abuse Project of Delaware County. “As the relationship continues, so does the violence—and as it gets more frequent, so does its intensity. Victims are hurt more seriously every next time it happens.”

By definition, domestic violence is a pattern of behavior in any relationship that is used to gain or maintain power and control over an intimate partner. More specifically, that includes psychological abuse or physical harm—battering, rape, stalking—caused by a family member or intimate partner.

It also applies to other familial relationships under the same roof. In some instances, adult children are abusing an older parent or grandparent. Same-sex relationships and women abusing men also fall into domestic violence, and many cases can escalate to homicide or homicide/suicide. The psychological consequences can include decreased self-esteem, depression, suicidal thoughts or attempts, substance abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder. All are manifestations that only further diminish a victim’s ability to escape the situation.

“Not only do these women feel stupid,” says the Women’s Center’s Janine Kelly, “they believe what their abusers are telling them—and they feel useless.”

Despite the large volume of hotline callers—500 a month in Montgomery County alone—fear can prevent women from stepping beyond that safe zone and outwardly seeking help. “It’s unsafe for victims to seek help because batterers go through their belongings,” says Kelly. “They’ve also been cut off from the outside world for so long, and are so beaten down and vulnerable, they struggle to even think about what it takes to get out. It’s very easy to convince themselves to stay.”

Especially in the Main Line area, where women often live a more comfortable lifestyle but may not control the purse strings. “There’s more for them to lose,” she says. “They’ll call, but they won’t leave.”

And for mothers, it’s especially hard, because they don’t want to uproot their kids. “I actually heard from a client whose child told her, ‘You’ve put up with this for so long, why not stay until we’re out of the house?’” says Kelly.

Those looking in on the situation “don’t want to ask the questions,” Kelly adds. “They’re reluctant to get involved. There’s a stigma that women bring this on themselves—and that, if it’s that bad, they should just pack up their stuff and move out.”

But leaving is a risky—even deadly—process. “It’s about taking the abuser’s power away,” Kelly says. “It’s the most dangerous time for a victim. This is why you read about so many homicides.”
 

Story continued on page 3 …
See page 4 for a list of Domestic Abuse Resources.
 

More often than not, domestic violence is still seen as a family issue rather than a crime. That at least partly explains why—despite increased awareness and stronger relationships between agencies, police officers, healthcare providers and educators—many women feel most comfortable reporting it over the phone. This is an obstacle for agencies and law enforcement, because they’re not permitted to coerce a victim into accepting help. All they can do is tell victims about what’s available to them. An agency’s goal is to make those services and resources effective and accessible enough to empower women to make the change on their own. “Batterers suck the power out of their victim,” says Kelly. “It’s our job to re-power them.”

When Mary Ann finally realized she wanted out, she tried to turn to some of her friends, but they couldn’t fully grasp how much her life had truly spun out of control. And because her wounds weren’t apparent, they couldn’t see the effects of the pushing, the shoving, the hitting. “I was totally under his thumb, down to what I ate,” she recalls. “As much as I feared for my safety, I knew the longer I stayed, the worse it would get.”

With the support of a few close friends and family members, Mary Ann moved to Wynnewood. Her kids were able to stay in their private school, and she was awarded primary physical custody.

The abuse, however, didn’t stop. “Right now, the custody situation for domestic violence victims is backward,” says Mary Ann. “When you try to leave, you need all the help you can get. You fight tooth-and-nail to get what you should be given, which is safety and protection.”

Every time she drove her two sons to see their father for unsupervised visits, he would instigate a volatile situation, leaving her feeling “abused by the system after being abused,” she says.

“The system hasn’t caught up with the needs of women and children,” Mary Ann adds. “When you’re handing over your children to a man who’s a proven batterer, there is an intense amount of fear and anxiety. You don’t know what he might do to you—but worse, what he might do to your children.”

Then there was Mary Ann’s experience with the court system. Every time she requested a protective order, she was told she wasn’t in fear for her life and denied—this despite suggestions from the police that she seek such protection.

“Perpetrators know no bounds,” she says. “The abuse, the criticisms—they’re so bizarre. Most of the time, you can’t talk about it because you don’t know how. And when you do, the people you tell can’t comprehend your experience. It’s a very lonely feeling.”

And when kids are involved, the ongoing custody connection between the victim and the abuser prolongs the healing process. “Getting out is just the first step,” says Beth Sturman, executive director of Laurel House, Montgomery County’s only shelter for women. “Women need support well beyond when the abuse stops. For some, that can mean 20-25 years.”

Mary Ann is the first to admit that not seeking counseling and support was a bad idea. Instead of moving on to a healthier, more independent space as a single mother, she landed in another, even more abusive relationship within three years of her divorce. “These guys know what they’re looking for,” she says. “I was the perfect target.”

After four years, she left, leaving her latest abuser while in the final term of her third pregnancy. “I couldn’t imagine another month, day or minute living like this,” she says. “This time, I sought every resource to get full custody of my son.”

For a time, she lived in two different shelters—a living arrangement she had to explain to her two older sons, who she was forced to leave behind while fleeing her second abuser. “You don’t want to do it; you don’t want to leave your beautiful home,” she says. “You come up with every possible excuse. But as awful as you might envision that shelter, it’s still not as awful as being in your own home and being so afraid. You feel so much better—safe, protected, trusted and mostly grateful that there’s help. It’s a hard environment, but if you see it as a bridge, it’s a miracle.”

Sturman doesn’t know Mary Ann, but her story is a familiar one. “Women of means are especially hard to reach because they’re often more isolated, more embarrassed and ashamed, and more likely to have a husband with a professional career,” she says. “Attention to the abuse would have a negative impact on the family’s financial situation.”

The bruises are gone from Mary Ann’s arms, stomach, legs and back—but inside, the scars are slow to heal. Her last abuser is in another state, but fear necessitates that she keep tabs on his whereabouts. And though she’s in another relationship, there’s a deep-rooted sense of worry for herself and her kids. Trust is no longer something she takes for granted. And while others are sweating it out at the gym, her spare time is spent in support groups.

“I spent 12 years trying to get out of this,” she says. “I’m definitely on the other side—but it took so much to get here.”
 

See page 4 for a list of Domestic Abuse Resources …
 

Local Domestic Abuse Resources

Domestic Abuse Project of Delaware County
dapdc.org
Hotline: (610) 565-4590
Media Office: 14 W. Second St., Media, (610) 565-6272

Domestic Violence Center of Chester County
dvccc.com
Hotline: (610) 431-1430
Kennett Square Office: 106 W. State St., Kennett Square, (610) 444-6797

Laurel House (Montgomery County)
laurel-house.org
Hotline: (800) 642-3150

Women’s Center of Montgomery County
wcmontco.org
Hotline: (800) 773-2424
Bryn Mawr Office: (610) 525-1427
 

State and National Domestic Abuse Resources

Domestic Violence Awareness Project
dvam.vawnet.org

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
ncadv.org
Hotline: (800) 799-7233

National Resource Center on Domestic Violence
nrcdv.org
(800) 537-2238, ext. 5

Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence
pcadv.org
(800) 932-4632
 

Domestic Violence Awareness Month

To learn more …
• Domestic Violence Awareness Project, dvam.vawnet.org
• United States Department of Justice and the Office on Violence Against Women, ovw.usdoj.gov

For events …
• Domestic Violence Awareness Project, dvam.vawnet.org
• Laurel House (Montgomery County), laurel-house.org
 

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