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'The first time, get out': How Columbus advocates fight to break cycle of domestic violence

Columbus Ledger-Enquirer - 10/7/2019

Oct. 7--She came to, on the bedroom floor, her 5-year-old son standing next to her, crying.

Her boyfriend of seven months had just pinned her against the wall and choked her until she passed out, in front of her child.

"It was like the second or third time I blacked out in front of my oldest son," said the 24-year-old mother of three. She recalled the abuse that drove her finally to take her kids and seek refuge in a shelter. Her identity is withheld for her safety.

She said they had just argued over whether her boyfriend could skim through her cell phone to see all her calls. He was jealous of other men, even his own close friends.

It was not the first time he had choked her until she blacked out in front of her children, but it was one of the last.

Domestic or "family violence," as Georgia law calls it, often makes headlines here because so many Columbus deaths are the result of it, including 10 of the city's 28 homicides so far this year, a third of the total.

Meanwhile, advocates and police continue trying to rescue victims from abusive relationships before the violence escalates. They refer them to services such as Hope Harbour, Columbus' shelter for battered women and men, offer assistance in filing for temporary protective orders and cover some of the expenses to help build new lives after they flee their abusers.


"Why don't they just leave?" people ask of domestic violence victims.

That reinforces the stigma that those who don't leave deserve it, said Lindsey Reis, director of Hope Harbour.

"I think everybody's initial first thought is, 'Why doesn't she just leave?'" Reis said. "It's not ever, 'Let's hold that abuser accountable. Let's take that blame away from that victim and let them know that it's not their fault.'"

What shocks the public most is when children are killed.

On July 17, 29-year-old Jerrica Spellman was found fatally stabbed in her Elizabeth Canty Homes apartment along with her three children, 3-year-old King Jackson, 1-year-old Kensley Jackson and 1-month-old Kristen Jackson.

Police said the homicides were the result of an "ongoing domestic violence situation" with Spellman's longtime boyfriend Travane Brandon Jackson, the children's father.

Such gruesome news sharpens the focus on family violence, and how to stop it.

Those who work with victims of abuse say it often follows a cycle: People who witness it as children are more likely to be in abusive relationships as adults, either as perpetrators or victims, as some learn to accept it as a "normal" aspect of an intimate relationship.

So advocates now are working to reach younger people, particularly teens, to teach them that violence and verbal abuse should play no role in a loving relationship.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, it accounts for 15% of all crime. One of three women murdered is killed by an intimate partner, and domestic violence is involved in 72% of all murder-suicides. Most victims are women: 85%, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

"I think domestic violence is as old as time," Reis said. "I think people forget that in these relationships, that they are intimate relationships. They do love each other. Every day is not bad. So it's 'I do love him' or 'I've been married to him for 25 years. I know that in a month, he'll be OK, and he'll be sorry.' It is truly a cycle that they go through."

Columbus had about 2,000 reports of family violence last year, and studies show just one in four victims reports the abuse, Reis said.


Among Hope Harbour's victim advocates is Tabitha Marion, who knows what it's like to feel you have to stay with a violent man. She uses her experience to tell other victims they do not have to stay.

The native Alaskan survived two abusive relationships and had two children before she married in 1991, to a soldier she met in Anchorage while he was at Fort Richardson.

When he got kicked out of the Army because of his temper, they moved to Detroit, where he was from. He had a problem with substance abuse, couldn't keep a job, and vented his frustration on her, she said.

When she told him she was pregnant, he snapped, and started choking her. She called the police, and an officer took her aside and told her about a shelter she could go to. She left.

A month later, she and another woman got an apartment, but her roommate soon moved out, and her husband asked to move back in. She agreed because she had little choice, she said: She was eight months' pregnant, and already had a 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son.

While arguing over whether he could take their car to go drink with his friends, her husband kicked her hard in the abdomen. She called the police, again, and this time officers arrested him.

When he was released, she let him come back, again, but she had a plan: She would stay with him only until the baby was born.

Six weeks after the birth of her third child, she waited until he left for the day, and had a friend come by to get her and the kids.

"I packed up just a couple of things," she said. "I didn't want to take all my stuff, because I wanted to get out as fast as I could."

She lived with her friend for a year, until she could afford her own place.

"It wasn't easy at first, because you know, you think he's changed or going to change or hoping for the best, until you know he's not," she said.

The cycle

Domestic violence often starts young: The 2018 Georgia Domestic Violence Fatality Review Project found 49% of those killed started their relationship with the killer between ages 13 and 24.

The Columbus woman who fled her abuser after he choked her unconscious, said she had endured abuse for five years, with previous partners such as her oldest son's father.

"We've had women here -- I've been here 12 years -- who have come in and said, 'I was here with my mom 10 years ago,'" Reis said. "They're seeing this stuff and then they accept it as, 'This is what a normal relationship is.'"

Those who witness domestic abuse as children are 50% more likely to wind up in abusive relationships themselves, said Chrissy Redmond, Hope Harbour's education coordinator.

Part of her job is trying to break that cycle, visiting schools to teach students family violence is not normal.

While speaking to students recently, Redmond as an icebreaker, told them to stand if this applied to them and then asked, 'Have you ever experienced or witnessed abuse in your household?'

"And the whole classroom stood up," she said.

Redmond said she showed a middle-school class a set of text messages illustrating controlling behavior, such as the sender demanding to know where the recipient was, all the time, and demanding a reply, and threatening a breakup.

A seventh-grade boy told Redmond that his girlfriend always does that.

Teens have to learn what's OK and what's not, Redmond said: "It's not OK for someone to tell you you're worthless every day. It's not OK for someone to hit you. That doesn't mean that they love you."

Redmond also helps train police on what to look for on domestic violence calls.

Calling police

Records show Jerrica Spellman reported Travane Jackson to the police, on May 17, 2018, when Jackson was charged with simple battery involving family violence.

Officers noticed Spellman had blood on her left cheek, her nose was bruised, and she was apprehensive about explaining the injuries.

Jackson told police he pushed her, and she fell and hit her face on a table. Officers said Spellman told them it was an accident, and repeatedly tried to blame herself.

"That's very common," Reis said. It's a survival tactic, to preclude retaliation for having called 911.

Georgia law requires officers to make an arrest if they can determine the "primary aggressor" on a domestic violence call, said Assistant Columbus Police Chief Gil Slouchick. If they do not make an arrest, they have to file a report explaining why, he said.

They always send two officers: "It's probably one of the most dangerous calls we can go to."

A study of police line-of-duty deaths in the years 2010 through 2014 found that 22% of the identifiable calls for service resulting in an officer's death were domestic disturbances, the largest portion. In 35% of those cases, the officer went in alone.

Police in Columbus follow a protocol to put victims in touch with services such as Hope Harbour after conducting a "lethality assessment," asking whether the perpetrator has a history of abuse, owns a gun, is depressed, using drugs, harming children or pets, threatening suicide, or facing a civil or criminal court hearing or the loss of a job.

Georgia law requires those convicted on family violence charges to undergo what's called a "Family Violence Intervention Program" or FVIP, a 24-week course designed to rehabilitate offenders. If the judge decides the program is unnecessary, then he must state why, for the court record.

The state fatality review project said a quarter of perpetrators who've been through the program abuse again.


Calling law enforcement is only one step toward escaping abuse. Another is applying for a temporary protective order, called a "TPO," to keep the abuser away from the victim and ensure the victim's children, pets and property are safe.

It requires filing a notarized petition at the Columbus Government Center, where Hope Harbour has legal advocates stationed daily on the seventh floor, 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Filing the petition for a judge's review can take from one to two hours, advocates said.

The applicant has to bring a photo ID, any evidence of the abuse such as police reports, medical bills or photographs, and the abuser's address, so deputies can serve the protective order, else it has no effect.

The judge reviewing the evidence decides whether to issue the temporary order, which lasts 30 days or until a court hearing is held.

Getting to the hearing on time is crucial, said legal advocate YuLanda Fryer, who recommends arriving 30 to 40 minutes early. Miss the hearing, and the judge dismisses the case, she said.

The victim also should bring any available witnesses to the hearing, where the judge may end the protective order or extend it.

Get out

Reis recommends victims who fear for their lives develop a "safety plan" to escape their abusers: Securing necessities such as IDs and insurance information, and having a safe contact, such as a friend or relative they can call with a code word that means they can't call 911 because the abuser is listening.

That doesn't mean the friend should try to intervene, Reis said: "Don't insert yourself into it, because bystanders can be killed, too."

Hope Harbour has a crisis phone line at 800-334-2836 or 706-324-3850.

It can offer shelter to anyone in immediate danger, even if all its 43 beds are occupied. It will pay for motel rooms, if necessary.

Afterward it can connect victims with caseworkers to create a plan for financial security, and for finding and furnishing a new home, paying security deposits and other expenses.

"We'll help with counseling; we'll help their kids with counseling; we'll assist with the school district," said Reis.

After escaping her abusive husband in Detroit, Marion got a job at a nursing home, where she worked for 20 years as her children grew up. In 2013, she learned her mother in Shellman, Ga., had Parkinson's Disease.

She moved to Georgia, got a college degree in human services, and went to work for Hope Harbour, where she answers hotline calls.

"My goal was to give back and share my experiences with other people, and let them know that you don't have to let your past define you. You can make something of yourself," she said.

Though she stayed only a month in a Detroit shelter, it prepared her for what would come. "I know it saved me. It helped me mentally get prepared so I could walk, and not keep going for years and years being in that relationship."

Now she prepares other victims to escape, and can promise them the kind of assistance she didn't get.

"I didn't have anything when I moved into my apartment. I didn't have a bed. I slept on the floor. ... We didn't have counseling, and that's very important, because you need to be able to talk through that pain."

Today those who escape no longer are left on their own. They just need to know that, Marion said, to have the confidence to leave.

The Columbus woman whose boyfriend choked her unconscious finally left, though she didn't want to.

After he choked her again one night as they argued over going to the store to buy diapers, she called a longtime family friend to take her to a shelter.

What would she tell other victims now?

"The first time, get out of it," she said. "Like, don't look at it as being something small, because it can only grow greater from that, because he's just like, 'Oh, she let me do it this time; I can do something else to her.' So get out soon as he first puts his hands on you or anything, verbal abuse, any of that."

What is domestic or family violence?

Domestic violence is instigated by one intimate partner against another. Georgia's legal definition of "family violence" is more expansive, including assaults involving "parents and children, stepparents and stepchildren, foster parents and foster children, or other persons living or formerly living in the same household."


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