Behind the curtain of domestic violence

Steena Hymes Staff Writer

January 5, 2014

We’ve all heard that statistic before: one in four woman are victims of domestic abuse. Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women, but family violence still remains a large societal issue that is swept under the rug.

According to the 2012 Georgia Domestic Violence Fatality Review: Annual Report, Georgia is ranked 10th in the nation for the rate at which men murder woman in domestic violence cases and has been in the top 20 for 13 consecutive years; seven of which ranked in the top 10.

Domestic abuse is any kind physical abuse, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse or even the threat of abuse, although most abusive relationships include all of these.

“Its time that we step forward and let people know its OK to reach out for help,” Michele Bedingfield, executive director for Harmony House Domestic Violence Shelter, said. “It doesn’t need to be a dirty little secret an longer.”

Troup County is no stranger to domestic violence, as they average 2 family violence related homicides per year. On Dec. 13,2013, Pamela Hardy of LaGrange lost her life in a suspected act of domestic violence.

Detective Chris Pritchett said that the LaGrange Police Department averages 482 reported offenses per year, with 2013 documenting 488 reports.

Bedingfield said that they received 683 crisis calls. Though the number is high, Bedingfield said that most of those are duplicated and there were 283 individual unduplicated calls.

These numbers seem high, but are only a small sample of domestic abuse. Pritchett said that FBI statistics show that most family violence incidents are never reported.

What Pritchett called the “human factor” makes it hard to locate specific at-risk factors and cause for domestic violence as every case is different.

Bedingfield agreed saying “domestic violence doesn’t discriminate,” although both said that economy and substance abuse can sometimes play a role.

Harmony House, aimed at providing emergency shelter to domestic abuse victims 24 hours of the day, was created in 2005 and serves Troup County as its first priority but also serves Heard and Meriwether counties.

Harmony House offers four rooms and 14 beds. They have 11 advocates on staff. Four of the advocates specialize in specific areas: family advocate at the shelter, family advocate for outreach, teens and kids.

The advocates help clients with whatever they need, first starting with their basic and physical needs. Next they will provide assistance with counseling, job searches, relocating, schooling or whatever the client may want.

Bedingfield said the goal is to help them establish tools to become self-sufficient, as 50 percent of victims stay with their abuser because they feel they cannot support themselves.

They also offer parenting classes, Bible studies, self-defense training, co-dependency groups and life skills. Advocates also have safety plans that provide step-by-step instructions on getting victims out of a dangerous situation.

“Being a victim of domestic abuse is constantly being told what to do. Harmony House doesn’t want to do that, we let them tell us what they want to do and what their goals are,” Bedingfield said.

Part of being an advocate is supporting victims, whatever they may decide. According to Bedingfield, statistics show that women will go back to their abusers seven times before they leave. However, once they decide to leave, that is the most dangerous time for their safety.

A client of Harmony House and a victim of domestic abuse sat down and shared her story. To remain anonymous, her name has been changed to Mary in this article.

After just a few weeks into the relationship, Mary noticed signs of abuse and decided to leave. The day after she left, she discovered she was pregnant.

“I guess I was so excited about the fantasy of having a family and the thought of bringing a child into the world that I overlooked what I had seen so far in hopes that it would be better or different,” she said.

Just a few months later, she was forced into a marriage she didn’t want.

“I knew it was a mistake, everything inside of me was screaming no. I guess I knew I was going to be in for a wicked time.”

During the marriage, Mary’s husband isolated her from any friends or family, forced her to quit her job, prohibited any birth control, planted a tracking device in her car and tore the house apart each night looking for anything she may have been hiding. Mary would get creative and hide phone numbers behind magnets and in the lining of her car trunk.

In an effort to have ultimate control over her, he forced her to sign a paper allowing him to have full custody of their daughter. About a year into the marriage, Mary decided to take her daughter and flee the state and move across the country to her original home.

“What made me leave was my daughter. She is the reason I stayed and she is the reason I left,” Mary said. “I didn’t want her to grow up in that environment watching and learning from him. I didn’t want her to think those things were OK and it was OK if someone did those things to her.”

In Mary’s case, not unlike others, her husband was raised in an abusive family. Research from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence shows that boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their own partners and children when they become adults.

It was during the time Mary left that her husband filed for divorce and emergency custody using the signed custody document. The judge awarded him full custody.

“I couldn’t wait to get to court, I was so excited to get in front of the judge and tell him what was going on and I was so let down,” she said. “I feel like the system failed me. I just pray next time I have my chance. I’m not going to stop as long as it takes.”

When she came back to Georgia, Mary found shelter at Harmony House. She said they have helped her emotionally and financially, even buying Christmas presents for her daughter and fixing her car. What meant the most to her was how they believed her. Mary said the mental and emotional abuse had her believing that her husband was in the right and others would think she was crazy.

On top of fighting for custody of her daughter, Mary said the financial burden is a struggle as well as learning to trust people and develop healthy relationships.

“I still feel very alone, I still have nightmares,” she said.

“I had a lot of people who I thought were friends who I asked for help and they don’t want to get involved,” Mary said. “That line right there, ‘I don’t want to get involved,’ is really frustrating, because that’s why this is happening.”

Mary said she learned a lot from all this that would help others in the same situation. She advises that those who are being abused take a lot pictures, tape recordings, report the abuse to a doctor so its documented somewhere. She stressed having a thought-out plan before you leave and preparing your case and evidence to take with you.

State solicitor Markette Baker handles a majority of Family Violence Act (FVA) cases and explained the court’s role. Baker said the state court hold what they call a pre-trial diversion, which orders first-time offenders to attend a 26-week Batterer’s Intervention Program in hopes to change behavior.

“We have had an incredible amount of success with people who have gone in and completed the program, not re-offending,” Baker said.

According to Baker, the recidivism rate in a pre-trial diversion cases is only 8 percent.

Another factor in FVA cases, which Baker said is a hurdle, is victim participation. Baker said she hopes that having a special domestic violence prosecutor will help victims feel more comfortable being active in the prosecution.

Without the victim or witnesses, prosecuting an offender is difficult Baker said. In addition, it is difficult to track down victims or witnesses.

“The biggest thing I would like to see happen in 2014 is education and awareness,” Bedingfield said.

Both Bedingfield and Pritchett agree that education must start at young age. This is supported by the Georgia Domestic Violence Annual Report statistic stating that 46 percent of victims began their abusive relationship between the ages of 16-24.

Bedingfield said that young girls and boys need to be taught what healthy relationships look like and know the signs for unhealthy relationships.

“What I would like to see is folks being more proactive is recognizing signs of domestic violence,” Pritchett said. A few examples of signs to look out for include the victim calling home more often, missing work or school repeatedly, wearing an excessive amount of make-up, heavy clothing and a decrease of social outings with friend and families.

If you, or someone you know, is a victim of domestic abuse, don’t keep it a secret. Call the Harmony House 24 hour crisis line at 706-885-1525 or make a report to the LaGrange Police Department.