After a string of NFL players have been charged with domestic violence and child abuse in recent weeks, local advocates say Cullman area residents should not fool themselves into thinking that it doesn’t happen here.
“Domestic violence is alive and well and thriving locally,” said Donna Jacobs, director of Victim Services of Cullman. “And it doesn’t discriminate. It’s happening in the wealthiest and poorest homes.”
Last year, one homicide, three rapes, 11 aggravated assaults and 499 simple assaults were committed in Cullman County in domestic violence incidents, according to the 2013 Crime in Alabama report released by the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center (ACJIC).
Victim Services of Cullman will participate in Domestic Violence Awareness month this October. You may notice the black silhouettes of women and children around town, adorned with heartbreaking statistics about domestic violence.
One in four women will be the victim of domestic violence in their lifetime, and on average, three women are killed everyday by their current or a former intimate partner, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Of the domestic violence-related homicides in Alabama last year, 42 percent of the victims were wives or ex-wives to the offender and 25 percent were girlfriends or ex-girlfriends. Of the 3,186 domestic violence offenses reported last year statewide, 79 percent of the victims were females. Thirty percent of the victims were the offenders’ girlfriends, 17 percent were wives and 17 percent were ex-girlfriends.
Jacobs said there are plenty of red flags of potential abuse: controlling and possessive tendencies, controlling money, cruelty to animals, belittling a loved one in front of family, friends and in public and a generally degrading attitude towards women.
She said the Centers for Disease Control has calculated the costs of domestic violence nationally: $5.8 billion annually for health-related expenses, $4.1 billion for medical mental expenses and an estimated $1.8 billion for lost of productivity and wages.
“Victims are being terrorized all night by their abusers. They can’t go to work the next day. The kids aren’t sleeping and are struggling to concentrate at school,” Jacobs said. “Some studies suggest that as many as 10 million children witness domestic violence in their home. So it’s not just the victims that suffer, it’s the children and employers that are affected too. That’s why this is an issue for our community, not just the victims.”
Victim Services of Cullman assists women, men and children of Cullman, Marshall and Winston counties who are trying to escape violent households. Its Harbor Haus provides a safe place for families to stay, and it’s often at its 27-person capacity with women and their children, Jacobs said. Last year, 105 adults and 87 children stayed in the shelter, she said.
“When they come in, they’ve usually been hurt, physically and emotionally, and they have trust issues,” Jacobs said of her clients. “They come in with clothes on their back and maybe just a few belongings. We try to furnish what they have to have, like clothes and toiletries. They also get a meal three times a day, and a clean place to stay to get their bearings together about where they want to go from here.”
Staff help clients navigate the often difficult process of extricating themselves from a violent situation, whether it’s filling a protection order, hiring attorney or filing for divorce.
“They’re having to learn new ways to live,” Jacob said. “Clients can stay at the shelter for as long as they need to. It depends on them. We even have male victims and their children. Domestic violence is not all women and children.”
A Victim Services employee declined to be identified but wanted to share her story of abuse.
She said she was married to her ex-husband for 10 years, and the abuse “started out lightly.” He would curse at her and belittle her. He would whip her with a belt. Then he began punching her. Bruises turned to broken bones and even a fractured pelvis.
He controlled what she wore and ate, even where she worked. She said she had to work at the same place he did because of his possessiveness. He confiscated her paychecks and the child support her ex-husband would send for her three children.
“I would leave and go back to him, over and over,” she said. “Abusers always apologize and tell you it will never happen again, that they will change. They’ll tell you they’ll do anything, will start going to go to church, whatever it takes to make you stay. But they always revert back. It’s a cycle: They build up and then explode.”
She said her abuser, like many of the ones her clients tell her about, learned to use violence — physical and emotional —from an early age.
“His dad did it to his mother, and she wouldn’t leave or defend herself,” she said. “Two out of the three children in the home grew up to be abusive, just like their father.”
She finally made the decision to leave for good when he started physically abusing the child they had together.
“We left with the clothes on our backs, and never went back,” she said. “Of course, he destroyed our belongings. It took two years until the divorce was finalized.”
She said society is often frustrated with women who stay in abusive relationships, but she said the situations are not “cut and dry like everyone thinks.”
“You love that person. A lot of times you’re married and have kids with this person. You want to have a life and family together,” the woman said.
Another reason many victims stay is they don’t have anywhere else to go, with no family or backup system to support them when they try to leave their abusers, Jacobs said.
“The money situation can be a big part of it,” she said. “A lot of times, the abusers are controlling the money for that reason, to control them.”
The Victim Services employee also spoke of the loneliness that can engulf victims of domestic abuse. That’s why the agency offers support groups for those who have been abused or who are in an abusive relationship to talk and support one another.
“It’s very scary leaving because you have to rebuild your life, your self-esteem, but you can do it,” she said. “You just have to want it bad enough. I was able to relocate, find a job and get my kids in school. Then I went back to school. He got arrested and sent to prison. His paper trail (the string of abuse) is what helped put him there.”
Jacobs said from her experience, a majority of domestic violence assaults are never reported, and many clients come in seeking help have never contacted police, saying they’re afraid no one will believe them.
“There are more reasons to go back than to call it off,” Jacob said. “The victims are scared of their abusers. Often, they are tied to them economically. They have children. We can’t make domestic violence an issue of why she goes back. The question should be why is he hitting her? This isn’t a women’s issue. This is a men’s violence issue. ”
* Tiffeny Owens can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 256-734-2131.
Help for the abused
- Domestic violence/ sexual assault: Victim Services of Cullman, 256-775-2600 or 24-Hour Crisis Line, 256-734-6100.
- Child abuse: Cullman County Department of Human Resources, 256-737-5300.