The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

October 13, 2012

YWCA Enid crisis center often is the first stop for domestic abuse victims

By James Neal, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle

ENID, Okla. — Kamelle James never thought she was the kind of woman who would become a victim of domestic violence.

She was a successful athlete in school, valedictorian of her senior class and she came from a supportive community, family and friends.

“I came from a strong, very tight-knit, supportive and unconditionally loving family,” James said. “I don’t think the possibility of being a domestic violence victim was even something that ever entered my mind. I had never come across someone in my life who had experienced domestic violence.”

Two years into her marriage, the young wife and mother of one son discovered an often overlooked fact of domestic violence: it affects women and men from all backgrounds.

“I was in my marriage for five years, and I was abused for approximately three years of my marriage,” James said.

She said the abuse started like it does in many domestic violence relationships — with verbal and emotional abuse.

“I went through that part of my marriage thinking ‘It’s just words,’ but those words begin to wear on you emotionally because it’s your partner,” James said. “They’re your love, your life, they’re the person you’re supposed to be able to count on.”

Ashley Scholey, an intake supervisor at the YWCA Enid crisis center, said most women coming to the shelter arrive there after a long and calculated escalation of domestic violence.

She said domestic violence perpetrators usually start out with emotional and financial control of their partners, and only later escalate to physical violence.

“They put their victims through a grooming process, almost like a sexual predator,” Scholey said. “It starts with little things, like controlling the money or they control how much time the victim can spend with their family. That’s where the grooming process starts, is with jealousy and control.”

James, like the majority of domestic violence victims, stuck it out through the emotional and psychological abuse, hoping things would improve. The first time the abuse turned physical, James said it was a surreal experience.

“The first time for me, it was more or less an out-of-body experience,” she said. “You get the apology, and I somewhat dismissed it, thinking things would be fine.”

“That wasn’t the man I married,” she said. “When it happened two or three more times, that’s when things started to break down.”

James said many people who haven’t experienced domestic violence have a hard time understanding or empathizing with the victims.

“The question I always get is ‘Why didn’t you just leave, how could you stay with him, how could you stay in that situation?’”

She said the gradual escalation of domestic violence erodes victims’ will to escape the abuse.

“Your courage, your self-confidence, your self-worth is diminished, and ultimately you lose your hope,” she said. “You don’t feel like you can speak up, you’re broken. I was a broken person. There came a point where I couldn’t leave. I was trapped in this marriage, alienated from my family and my friends. I was alone.”

James said the very nature of domestic violence, the intimate family ties involved, make it even harder to escape.

“The fact that it was my husband, the father of my son, definitely made it that much harder to leave,” she said.

And, social norms and expectations can make the path to escape even harder.

“I was raised to value a marriage and to honor your vows,” James said. “I made excuses for everything because I wasn’t going to be another statistic in divorce. I was afraid of being judged.”

James tried unsuccessfully several times to break free from her abusive relationship. Each attempt brought with it more danger, and more risk of reprisal.

“I had made a choice the last time I tried to leave was the last time I was going to try, because of the danger I was putting myself and my child in,” she said.

Her last attempt was successful, in part because her husband had been arrested and was incarcerated on an unrelated matter.

“I don’t know if I would have made it if I hadn’t gotten out that time,” James said.

Dozens of Oklahomans each year don’t make it.

Almost 70 have died from domestic violence so far in 2012. During the 2006-2010 period, an average of about 100 Oklahomans each year either died as a direct result of domestic violence, or took their own lives to end the suffering, according to numbers provided by the Oklahoma Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board. Eight Garfield County residents lost their lives to domestic violence during that time frame.

For victims who do escape, their first stop often is the YWCA Enid crisis center.

The center houses domestic violence victims during a 30-day program, which may be extended if needed.

The program offers counseling services and connection with a victims’ advocate, who can help with court processes, medical needs, job training and housing assistance after the program.

Scholey, who enrolls women in the crisis center and its services, said victims’ emotional and psychological state when they first arrive cover a huge range.

“Sometimes they’re just in shock, they’re numb to it,” Scholey said. “Sometimes they come in and they’re crying because they’re bloody, and their kids are bloody. It’s a broad range, and it just depends on the individual and where they are.”

She said they almost all have one thing in common: “They want answers.”

“They want to know why it happened, and they want to know what’s going to happen to them,” she said.

The ‘why?’ is addressed in the long-term by counseling and by building the victims’ personal support network.

The issue of ‘what’s going to happen to them?’ raises another characteristic many of the women share: they are short of money, job skills, connections, housing ... all the resources needed to make it on their own.

James said the combination of leaving the relationship and finding yourself without any resources can be terrifying.

“I had $100 to my name, a 4-year-old child and no job,” James said. “I had nothing. My whole world changed in a moment, and I had nothing. It was scary.”

James sought counseling for herself and her son, a step she recommended for all domestic violence victims. Even so, she said it was hard to adjust to life after the abuse.

“Everything was so abnormal when I came out of that situation,” she said. “It was almost as if I didn’t know how to function in the world. It’s such a roller coaster of emotions, once you’re free from that situation, it’s hard to determine what your own wants and needs are. You’re kind of lost.”

Scholey works daily with domestic violence victims, helping them build the physical and emotional support network they need to transition into their new life.

She described an all-too-common scenario for a woman on the brink of leaving an abusive relationship: “She has no job, she has no skills because she’s never worked outside the home, she has three kids, she doesn’t have a car because it’s not in her name, and if she leaves, she’s homeless and afoot.”

YWCA staff partner with other social service agencies and non-profits to meet the women’s needs, build job skills and get them situated in the community. But, one basic need remains particularly hard to secure: housing.

“We have a serious shortage of places to rent in this community, especially low-income housing,” Scholey said. “If they can’t afford the rent and utilities, and very few of these women can, it’s going to be very hard for them to find housing.”

Shalonda Kearney, director at the crisis center, said the lack of resources, especially housing, leads many women to return to their abusers.

“A lot of the women end of feeling like the roadblacks in front of them are just too hard,” Kearney said, “and they end up going back.”

But, she said, domestic violence doesn’t just affect low-income women.

“We see people come through here from every segment of the community,” Kearney said. “She could be a stay-at-home mom, she could be someone holding down a job at a fast food restaurant, or she could be the CEO of a company. It’s no different.”

She said the crisis center also regularly receives calls from men who have been subjected to domestic violence. According to figures provided by the Oklahoma State Department of Health, as many as 40 percent of all men in Oklahoma will suffer domestic violence during their life. The figure for women in the state is higher — about 49 percent.

Kearney said it is not at all uncommon for men to be the victims of domestic violence, but social norms and stigma keep most men from reporting the abuse.

“To get a man to even come out, even to make a police report, is very hard,” Kearney said.

Experts say domestic violence for both men and women remains underreported, largely due to negative social stigma and lack of support for the victims.

“We don’t talk about it, and we don’t highlight it as an issue in the community like we do with other issues,” Scholey said. “It’s something we as a community don’t like to talk about, and it’s something the victims often are unwilling or unable to talk about. Nobody likes to admit they’re a victim.”

YWCA Enid community education and prevention specialist Rynn Day said many victims still are held back from reporting their abuse by social stigma surrounding domestic violence.

“When someone hears the words ‘domestic violence,’ there’s still a lot of questions that pop up in people’s minds,” Day said.

She said the public as a whole still has a tendancy to blame victims, assume the abuse was “just a family issue” and question ‘Why she would stay if it was really that bad.’

YWCA Enid is working to overcome some of those social perceptions this month with Domestic Violence Awareness Month events.

YWCA Enid’s largest event of the month will be the Remember My Name ceremony and cookout at noon Oct. 17, on the YWCA south lawn at 525 South Quincy.

The Remember My Name ceremony honors domestic violence victims from the last year by reading their names and by a symbolic balloon release. District Attorney Mike Fields will speak during the event.

A free hamburger fry will be offered to the public following the remembrance ceremony.

Domestic Violence Awareness Month activities conclude with Community Response to Domestic Violence training 9-11:30 a.m. Oct. 29 in Kingfisher and Oct. 30 at YWCA Enid.

The free community training is open to the public, and is designed to help community members recognize, prevent and respond to domestic violence.

James said public events like those hosted this month by YWCA Enid, paired with ongoing public discussion of the issue, is the long-term path to reducing domestic violence in the community.

“Domestic violence is a totally preventable problem,” she said, “and until we accept that as a community, it’s going to be harder for victims to speak out and get help.”