Domestic violence an ‘equal opportunity tragedy’
GREELEY – Sylvia Gonzales was not alone.She was an abused like the thousands of other women in Colorado and the United States whose lives are destroyed, or ultimately ended, by domestic violence.Gonzales, a 36-year-old from Weld County, was shot to death July 9 by her ex-husband, Raymond Rodriguez, who then killed himself. Rodriguez had a history of domestic violence against Gonzales, according to court records.Last year in Colorado, 23 women like Gonzales were murdered by their husbands or intimate partners. But there are happy endings, too. There are stories like Robin Brewer’s. The 51-year-old University of Northern Colorado professor said she escaped an abusive relationship almost 30 years ago, when she was a young mother in the Air Force.At 18, after dating for six months, she married a 21-year-old fellow airman. She barely knew him. “I think alcohol was involved most of the time when he became abusive,” she said. She was hit two or three times in their year-long marriage, but the verbal abuse was much more frequent, she said. Brewer remembers being pregnant and fearing he would be upset if she didn’t cook dinner well or forgot to clean the house.Once, he knocked Brewer across the room after an argument; another time, they were visiting his parents and he didn’t like something Brewer said and tried to strike her, she said. His father grabbed his wrist in time to stop him.In 1973, there was nowhere to turn for help. Brewer didn’t have family in Colorado, so when her abusive husband came home, she didn’t have any options. “When he would come home, whether he had been drinking or whatever, a couple times I tried to throw him out,” she said. “There was no place for me to go.”That changed when the couple moved to California after a military transfer. She got out of the service when she was pregnant, and her husband looked for an apartment near the air base. That’s when Brewer found out he was cheating on her, and she decided to leave, she said. She stayed with her mother for a while, then an aunt and uncle.Her uncle didn’t think she had it in her to stay away. Brewer set out to prove him wrong. “Had it not been for my uncle saying, ‘Oh, you’ll go back. They always go back.’ and me not going back to prove my uncle wrong, I probably would have done it again,” Brewer said.
She saw her uncle recently and told him she got out of the relationship because of him. “It was because of the family support that I was able to escape that situation,” she said.Other relationships took her to northern California, then Oklahoma, and in the 1980s, back to Colorado and to Greeley. Her ex-husband was dishonorably discharged from the Air Force in 1989 and lives in Aurora now. He was found to have claimed extra pay for his daughter with Brewer, who is now 31, but he never paid child support, Brewer said. Brewer’s daughter has no contact with him, and neither does Brewer. Brewer said she has been happily remarried for 16 years and teaches special education. She also serves on the board of Friends of A Woman’s Place, the fundraising arm for Greeley’s women’s shelter.No class barriersThough domestic violence occurs across the state, some places some more problems than others. For example, more misdemeanor domestic violence cases were filed in Front Range Weld County court per 1,000 residents in 2004 than in others in the Denver area. About a dozen small Colorado counties, mostly in the mountains, had more cases filed per 1,000 residents, but they were all within a few percentage points of Weld’s 5.09 cases per 1,000 residents.Hallie Beard, grant writer and educational outreach director at A Woman’s Place, said she couldn’t pinpoint why Weld’s numbers are so high. She said the numbers are one reason why community education and outreach are important.”We need to let society know domestic violence is a crime,” she said.It’s impossible to accurately track how many felony domestic violence cases were filed last year, because there is no domestic violence statute someone can be charged with. A crime like assault, trespassing or sexual assault can be aggravated if it’s because of domestic violence, but those crimes aren’t tracked as domestic violence cases.The large number of domestic violence reports means A Woman’s Place keeps busy – in 2004, the shelter’s nine rooms housed 123 women and 158 children. But those numbers – much lower than the reported misdemeanor crimes – indicate most women who are being abused are not leaving their relationships or seeking shelter.
There are many reasons for that, too, according to workers at A Woman’s Place. Women in low-income situations have a harder time packing up and leaving, and that is more complicated when children are involved, Beard said. Of the women served by the shelter last year, 78 percent reported an annual income of less than $10,000. That doesn’t necessarily mean people in low-income households are more likely to abuse or be abused, however. It could indicate abused women aren’t allowed to hold jobs of their own. Brewer said she experienced that, too – she wanted to return to work after leaving the Air Force, and her husband refused.Abuse happens in every social, economic and racial category, said Ellen Szabo, the shelter’s executive director. “It’s an equal-opportunity tragedy,” she said.Children in the middleSzabo said an abused woman leaves and returns to her abuser an average of nine times before she makes a final decision. And “why,” Beard said, is one of the most common questions asked about domestic violence victims. Psychological studies, victim’s advocates and shelter workers can’t offer one solid answer. The answers are as varied as the victims, Beard said.Children are a common reason for staying. Women might think they can protect their children or weather the abuse for their sake, Beard said.Cultural or religious beliefs can also play a part, not only in a woman’s fear of leaving but also reasons for abusive behavior, she said. Men with much more conservative theological views than their partners are more likely to abuse them, according to a 1999 study in the Journal of Family Issues.Women who hold strong religious beliefs might feel guilt or shame at trying to escape the relationship, and that’s true of Christian, Muslim and Jewish women, according to a domestic violence awareness program based in Seattle.
Those same factors – worry about children, even cultural or religious beliefs – can also turn the tide and finally compel women to leave an abusive relationship.”We do hear a lot of women say, ‘He finally hit my kid.’ or, ‘I realized that if I didn’t go, my child is watching this and is going to grow up doing the same thing,'” Beard said. “A lot of times children are a good reason to leave and to stay.”There is no common thread that makes women finally decide to go, however. Beard said the same reasons that might make one woman stay could be enough to make a different woman leave.When a woman does decide to leave, she could be in severe danger, according to the Family Violence Prevention Fund, a national nonprofit organization working in domestic violence prevention.The shelter tries to help in that regard, providing clothes and bare necessities for women who might flee their relationships at a moment’s notice. The shelter also hopes to provide money for bus tickets out of town and to relatives elsewhere, but right now, they are too strapped to provide that service, Szabo said.At the shelter, women can receive help filling out restraining orders, support in the court system and access to a network of area agencies to make sure they are safe, Szabo said. The shelter will not reveal who is staying there, even to police, and the shelter offers tips on how to stay safe, including a safety plan to follow while they are still living with their abusers. The plan might include packing a bag of important personal documents – like a birth certificate, Social Security card, and others – and stowing it in a safe place, such as a friend’s house. That way, if a sudden escape is necessary, the woman wouldn’t have to go back to her house and face danger.Greeley Tribune reporter Mailyn Salabarría contributed to this story.Vail, Colorado