Advocates look to continue assisting domestic violence survivors

BIG RAPIDS — After suffering years of emotional, physical and sexual abuse, the turning point for Valerie* was when her husband and abuser went to strike her as she held their infant daughter. That was the day she decided enough was enough.

Valerie is one of the millions of people who has experienced domestic violence in their lifetime. According to a 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, one in three women and one in four men have been victims of some form of physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime.

When Valerie married her husband things, she remembers things were great for the first six to eight months. However, the verbal abuse soon began, followed by more violent behavior.

“He first started to belittle me and call me names, which I was kind of used to because my parents used to do the same thing,” she said. “About a year into our marriage, he hit me for the first time. I got really scared and didn’t know what to do.”

From there things escalated into sexual abuse as well as continued physical abuse, occurring almost daily for the next five years. Her abuser was manipulating and calculative, hiding bruises where no one else could see them.

When she tried to get help, Valerie felt like nobody wanted to assist her. When she sought medical treatment at a hospital after her husband sexually assaulted her, she was told there was no evidence it was rape.

“They said it could have been consensual, extremely rough sex, even though I left the hospital with 27 stitches … ” she recounted with tears welling in her eyes. “I felt like I was scum, like I was not a good parent because I continued to allow it. I felt like I deserved it for all the bad things I had done when I was younger.”

Although it can seem like nobody wants to listen, there are a variety of services available to victims of domestic violence, said Diane Eichenberg, program director of Women’s Information Services, Inc.

“It’s amazing how many times victims don’t realize the services out there and that there are people who will listen to and believe them,” she said.

According to a 2013 Domestic Violence Counts National Summary, on a typical day, there are more than 20,000 phone calls placed to domestic violence hotlines nationwide.

WISE offers a 24/7 hotline that is staffed 365 days a year. WISE staff who answer the phones will talk with callers about exit strategies, resources available or just simply lend an ear.

When preparing to leave an abuser, WISE helps victims create a plan and encourages taking certain items from the home when possible.

Social security cards, driver’s licenses, medical records and prescriptions are some of the most important things to take if a person can manage to.

“It’s very hard to get other services without having those papers for a victim and the children,” Eichenberg said. “However, possessions are just things, but we can’t replace your life. If you can’t get those things, it’s most important to get you and your kids out.”

The WISE shelter also accepts women and children displaced from their homes after leaving a domestic violence situation. Men in domestic situations cannot stay at the shelter, but are referred to Our Brother’s Keeper in the winter and to other services, Eichenberg said.

WISE was able to provide services for Valerie upon leaving her abuser. Ultimately, Valerie divorced her husband, but did not pursue any other legal action against him. However, there are legal options to hold abusers accountable.

So far in 2015, the Mecosta County’s Prosecutor’s Office has handled 88 cases of domestic violence. In 2014, there were a total of 118 cases of domestic violence handled by the office.

According to Mecosta County Prosecutor Brian Thiede, those numbers are solely cases charged as domestic violence and don’t include misdemeanor cases handled by the Big Rapids city attorney.

“We have a number of other cases where it is a domestic violence situation, but it’s charged as something more serious, such as felonious assault because there is not a special domestic violence felonious assault charge,” Thiede explained. “So the more serious cases aren’t reflected in domestic violence numbers because we go after a higher charge.”

First offense domestic violence is a misdemeanor, punishable by 93 days in jail. A second offense remains a misdemeanor, but the punishment jumps to one year. A third-offense domestic violence charge is a felony and is punishable by up to five years in prison.

While the number of cases fluctuates yearly, Thiede is certain the percentage of reported assaults has gone up. Years ago, domestic violence cases were handled very differently, he explained.

“We went from the days of old where before any charges were brought — and this wasn’t in this county, but a long time ago — the victim had to come in and specifically ask for charges,” he said. “And very few people were arrested at the time of the offense. People were separated for the night and that was the end of it.”

Now, police officers are better trained and more aware of how to assist victims of domestic violence, Thiede said. Victims also now are helped through the legal process by victim advocates from prosecutors’ offices.

Advocates keep victims updated on the status of their cases, provide information about upcoming court dates, assist in obtaining restitution that is owed to the victim by the offender and answer any questions they may have about the trial process. Should a case proceed to a jury trial, advocates will accompany the victim throughout the trial.

While spousal and relationship abuse is what first comes to many people’s minds when thinking of domestic violence, that isn’t always the case.

“A lot of people don’t understand domestic violence doesn’t have to be a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship,’ said Nicole Marshall, Mecosta County Prosecutor’s Office victim advocate. “We charge domestic violence on brothers and sisters, moms and dads, kids, grandparents. Domestic violence isn’t always dating or romantic relationships.”

After receiving help and services, Valerie realized she didn’t deserve the abuse she had suffered. She believes the experience has made her stronger.

For anyone who feels alone and trapped in an abusive situation, Valerie encourages finding inner strength and seeking assistance. There is always a light at the end of the tunnel and people willing to help, she said.

“Stay strong, don’t give up and keep motivating yourself to be better because no matter what your abuser says, you are a good person and everybody deserves a positive life,” she said. “It takes courage, but there is a little lion in everybody.”

The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). The WISE 24-hour crisis line is (231) 796-6600 or 1-800-374-WISE (9473. The Mecosta County Prosecutor’s Office can be reached at (231) 592-0141.

*Name has been changed for the domestic violence survivor to remain anonymous.

Victims of domestic violence are encouraged to begin a plan for exiting the situation when they are ready to leave. Below are some tips for staying safe when leaving an abusive household.
  • Open a savings or checking account in your own name.
  • Leave money, an extra sets of keys, copies of important documents, medications and extra clothes with someone you trust so you can leave quickly.
  • Keep the shelter phone number, some change and a calling card with you at all times for emergency phone calls.
  • Review your safety plan as often as possible to plan the safest way to leave your abuser.