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Unsafe at Home: Why don't the leave? The answers are varied

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Hearing tales of domestic violence, people often wonder why the victims stay with a spouse or partner who hurts them.

To many, the decision to leave after the first incident of violence seems like it should be a simple one. But those people often don’t realize how much victims stand to lose.

“For some, they don’t have the resources or the ability to leave, because their livelihood is tied to that relationship,” said Linda Collins, a case manager at the Family Justice Center in Georgetown. “They stay because their finances, their home, everything they know is tied up in that relationship.”

The center pools resources from a range of partner agencies to provide support and help teach the skills victims need to get out of abusive relationships and live independently. For some victims, it’s a process that can take up to two years.

“We had a woman call from Pawleys Island who didn’t even know how much their retirement check is, because it goes to her husband,” said Joan Meacham, interim executive director at the center.

Victims need a source of income, a place to stay, transportation, their own checking accounts and credit cards, the ability to manage a household budget and, in many cases, child care.

“It really takes some time to take someone from dependence to independence,” Meacham said. “One thing the Family Justice Center is trying to do that hasn’t been done very well in the past is pulling all the services together and wrapping them around the victims instead of just putting out the fire. That’s great for two weeks, but we want to give them the support they need for the long-term, even if it takes years to have success. We want to do that so they don’t come back in the door two months later with the same problem.”

On average, victims of domestic violence seek help eight to 11 times before leaving for good, according to statistics from the center.

“That’s the part where we see a lot of women fall through the cracks,” said Donna Watkins, a volunteer counselor who works with domestic violence victims. “Someone hands them a form through a glass window and says fill this out and go to this office. Some don’t know how to fill it out or navigate through the legal system. Our point is to get them from one point all the way through to the other.”

Abusers often try to isolate their victims, cutting them off from friends and family, and preventing them from working or going to school to keep them dependent. One victim, who asked to remain anonymous, said her husband made her quit her job and took her car keys. She and her toddlers often weren’t able to leave their home for two weeks at a time, she said.

Some victims Collins has worked with were cut off from their children when they left their abuser.

“Once they remove themselves from an abusive relationship, that other partner is going to use whatever means the most to maintain that control, whether it’s children, pets, finances, the home or something sentimental,” Collins said.

Each victim’s needs are unique.

“Some, they’re economically OK. They make pretty good money and are financially independent already, but there may be other issues,” Collins said. “One thing people don’t think about is what if some of the children are his and they’ve been together a long time. She has no right to his children, who have become a part of her life. She’s tearing herself away from them. It’s endless the situations that have to be dealt with.”

Victims come from all walks of life and education, money and social standing are no barrier to domestic violence. But whatever their situation, every victim stands to lose something when they walk away from a relationship, Watkins said.

For a woman with no job, no skills and no education who lives in a trailer, she risks her home and only source of financial support.

“You’re looking at the poorest of the poor. She risks everything,” Watkins said. “On the other extreme, what about the woman who has a six-figure income through her husband and lives in a three-story house on the creek? She’ll be punished too. She risks losing that house and the lifestyle she’s used to, and while it might sound petty, it’s huge to her. It’s her whole world, her kids, her security, everything she’s worked for.”

Additionally, there may be more consequences for exposing her abuser’s actions when the abuser is wealthy — a well-known and respected member of the community. People might be more reluctant to believe her story or more likely to excuse his behavior.

“When the abusers can afford high-dollar lawyers, they can actually take the victim to court,” Collins said. In that way, money and social status work against the victim. “They end up in just as bad a situation as the ones who can’t afford that kind of thing. When domestic violence is involved, no one wins, even the ones who are financially independent,” she said.

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