By Loretta Gillespie
The Cullman Times
You might have noticed the Silent Witnesses around town and on the campus of Wallace State Community College. They are the black cut-out silhouettes standing as proof that domestic violence does exist, even in the best of communities.
It’s not a pretty picture, not a fun subject, not a life anyone would choose, but domestic violence exists in every level of society, all walks of life and all economic situations. It knows no boundaries.
According to Executive Director of Victims Services of Cullman, Donna Jacobs, the Silent Witness Program began in Minnesota, sometime in the early ‘90s. “There were 27 deaths due to domestic violence there in one year,” Jacobs explained. “A group of concerned advocates got together and came up with the idea to have ‘silent witnesses’ displayed throughout the communities. They put the name of each victim on the 27 silhouettes.”
It had a very powerful visual impact that wasn't easily forgotten.
Many victims of domestic violence are never seen or heard — except maybe by the doctors and nurses who care for them in the emergency room, some astute teachers, close family members — and sadly — by coroners whose job it is to try and hide the evidence of their abuse one last time.
One such victim who had the courage to share her story here was more fortunate than others.
Susan M. (not her real name) was the victim of domestic violence that went on for several years.
“I was a widow with three small children,” she said, starting out slowly, hesitating frequently when she got to the hard parts.
“When I met my second husband I thought I’d found my knight in shining armor who would love us and care for us.”
That image was short-lived, not six weeks after the marriage, the abuse started.
“The signs of domestic abuse were there, but I was too naive to see them in the beginning,” she said softly.
Over the course of their marriage he would beat her frequently, slapping, punching, hitting, strangling her and even breaking her bones.
She managed to work most of the time, and sent her children to school. She lived in fear, but like many other wives and mothers who are abused, she was economically dependent on her husband and thought she didn’t have any other place to go. His family was no help.
Like most victims, she stayed far too long.
“The night I finally took my four children and left, with just the clothes on our backs, he had broken my ribs, and punched me in one eye so that it was closed, but what really made the decision for me that time was that he hurt my child, our daughter, who was only three years old. That was the last straw.”
“I had heard through word of mouth that there was a shelter,” she said.
Susan went to Victims Services. Her safety was uppermost in the minds of the staff who took her to the police station and her little girl to the hospital.
“They made sure that we got medical care,” recalled Susan. “But first they made sure that we would be safe.”
It would take two long, painful, apprehensive years before her case came to court. “It was just like that back then,” said Susan, candidly. “Sometimes his lawyer would just put it on the back-burner to make it take as long as possible.”
In the meantime, she and the children lived in a safe house. “In the shelter we had the support of a group of people who understood,” she said.
With no money, and still afraid, she slowly began to realize that there would resources available to her that she’d never heard of. “I had no idea that there were people who would help me, and I was so scared, but eventually they helped me to relocate, far away from here.”
Susan and the children were provided with shelter, clothes, money for utilities and food, and gas so that she could start to bring in her own income. “In the beginning, economics were non-existent, because we literally left with the clothes on our backs. We had nothing.”
But with the help of trained and caring professionals, Susan and her children were able to make a new start.
“We took small steps at first, but from those small steps I began to set goals and to meet them,” she smiled.
For years the struggling mother worked minimum wage jobs to provide what little they had. “We had a roof over our heads and food, but no extras,” she said.
She and the kids got counseling for the trauma they had lived through. Eventually, she found herself in Cullman again.
At one point, during a visit to Jacobs’ office at Victim’s Services, Susan was given a thick packet of papers in a plain manila envelope that changed the course of her life.
“Donna just kept insisting that I take it home, read it and if it sounds like something you'd like, then fill out the forms,” recalled Susan. The forms were from The Women’s Independence Scholarship, through the auspices of the Sunshine Lady Foundation, a group led by Doris Buffett, philanthropic sister of financial wizard, Warren Buffet.
As Susan waded through the maze of paperwork, she began to think, “Wow, this might be a way for me to go to college…”
She returned the sheaf of paperwork to Jacobs, who sent it in the scholarship foundation. It wasn’t long at all until she called Susan into her office to tell the good news. “You’ve been accepted!” said Jacobs.
Susan enrolled at Wallace State Community College. The scholarship, which had to be renewed on a quarterly basis, not only helped with books and tuition, but with gas money and some living expenses. Someone who developed this particular scholarship must have known the reality of life at the bottom of the ladder.
But for Susan, the climb up that ladder had started, and she didn't stop. She received her Bachelors degree in Social Work, a field that she has seen from both sides.
Now she is a productive member of our society, who works in her chosen field, helping people who are where she was, who lived the same nightmare of fear and isolation that she lived for so long.
“It took four long years to get my degree, but this journey is doable,” she said, lifting her head, proud of her accomplishments.
“However, without the help of the agencies who were there for us, I wouldn’t be standing here right now,” she said emphatically.
“I want to tell people who are in an abusive situation and are reading this, that there is help out there for you,” she said. “There are people who care, and are trained to handle these situations,” she encouraged. “All you have to do is ask…”
According to Jacobs, there one shelter for abused and battered victims of domestic violence in Cullman County, Victims Services of Cullman. Daystar House is a shelter for homeless women and children, and there are halfway houses for people with substance abuse issues,” she said. “There are 18 domestic violence shelters in Alabama, where people can seek help and assistance.”
Jacobs emphasizes that children should be gotten out of situations where domestic violence exists as soon as possible. “Domestic violence is a learned behavior,” she stressed. “It’s all about power and control.”
“When women finally leave, it threatens some abusers who feel their control slipping away,” she explained. “It is vital that they have somewhere to go immediately, the police station, the emergency room, a shelter, or to our crisis center,” Jacobs continued.
The Silent Witnesses you see stand sentinel for the women and children who have lived through days and nights of being terrorized, threatened, and abused, both mentally and physically.
When you see them, pause for a moment to reflect on what their lives must have been like, and to realize that without shelters and the professionals who work there, these people would almost certainly be condemned to a life the likes of which most of us, hopefully, will never know.
“We like to imagine our world as being safe and secure,” said Jacobs. “People don’t like to talk about this subject, but it’s a reality for too many women and children.”
If you are a victim of domestic violence, seek help. This is one situation that almost never just goes away on its own. More times than not, it escalates, rather than abates.
Victims Services also has another visually centered project going on this month, which is Domestic Abuse Awareness Month. “We call this the ‘Clothesline Project’,” explained Jacobs. “Long ago, when women in big cities used to hang their wash out to dry, they would get a chance talk to each other about their victimization.”
The project honors victims of domestic violence by hanging tee-shirts on a clothes line stretched between two poles. On each shirt there is written a verse or a paragraph by a victim, about their situation.
These heart wrenching reminders of what life is like on the other side stand as a reminder of how fortunate some of us are, and of how people in situations like Susan M. and her children, do have hope and help… “All you have to do is ask,” said Susan, again.
Emergency Situations - Crisis hotline 256-734-6100 (available 24/7, 365 days per year)
Victim Services of Cullman, Inc.
P.O. Box 416
Cullman, Alabama 35056
You may also find them on Facebook at Victims Services of Cullman