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Wednesday, 18 October 2006 00:00

Safe haven: Domestic violence hits home

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By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Editor’s note: The names of domestic violence victims Linda and Anne, who were interviewed for this story, have been changed.

The afternoon Linda decided to leave her fiancé, she waited until he was asleep, put a slip of paper with the phone number of the Haywood County Reach Shelter in her pocket along with her cell phone, and walked out the back door very quietly.

 

She went up on a hill behind the house where the couple lived together and made the call. Administrators advised her to call the police, who came and picked her up and took her to the shelter office to begin a process that for Linda meant totally starting over from scratch.

She had been with her fiancé for eight years. Everything was in his name — the cars, the house. The couple had just recently moved to the mountains from out of state. Linda had no friends in town, and the only family she had stopped talking to her years ago, frustrated that she would not leave the man who was abusing her.

“Without this place I don’t know where I would have went or what would have happened,” Linda said of the Reach shelter for abused women in Haywood County.

 

What is domestic violence?

In domestic cases, abuse may not always begin violently. It may begin as non-threatening verbal abuse such as degradation and escalate from there.

“If they’re in an uncomfortable situation, they should start looking for resources to help get them out of the situation,” recommended Capt. Steve Lillard of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department.

In Jackson County, deputies respond to about two or three domestic abuse calls each week, Lillard said.

“Some are just verbal arguments, and some violent assaults,” he said.

Legally, domestic violence may include commission of bodily injury, attempts to cause bodily injury, continued harassment that inflicts substantial emotional distress, or conduct, including written or printed communication, that incites fear, said Larry Nestler, Legal Aid senior managing attorney who represents victims in domestic violence cases.

In August 2005, North Carolina became the second state to enact comprehensive legislation to protect victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking against tenant discrimination.

Senate Bill 1029 prohibits landlords from terminating a tenancy, failing to renew a tenancy or refusing to enter into a rental agreement because the tenant is a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. It also provides for changing locks on a victim’s residence and early termination of lease agreements by victims upon 30 days notice if the victim has a court order or is a member of the Address Confidentiality Program.

In addition to the bill’s tenancy protection elements, the legislation also bolsters state General Statute Chapters 50 and 50B, pertaining to family law and victim protection. The changes allow for a time extension of protective orders, require protective orders to be served to school principals if the defendant is ordered to stay away from school grounds, clarifies that the court shall not return firearms to a defendant until the final disposition of criminal charges, and clarifies custody mediation requirements.

In order to use Chapter 50B, the victim and perpetrator must have a certain relationship currently defined as people of the opposite sex who have been or are living together. If the victim and perpetrator did not date, don’t lived together and were never married, the Chapter would not apply, said Nestler.

In Linda’s case, where she lived with her fiancé, the abuse began with his control issues. He did not want her to work, limited how she dressed, and wouldn’t allow her to have friends to talk to anyone. Consequently, no one really knew about the abuse except when it escalated to the point there were physical signs.

“I never really talked to people or made it known about many of the things that were going on in the relationship,” Linda said. “I just pretended that things were OK.”

Sometimes it was easier for Linda to deal with the physical assaults, as they were over more quickly, whereas the verbal abuse tended to go on for hours, if not days, at a time. One day Linda’s fiancé made her leave the house in his old work clothes, suspicious about who she was trying to impress when she dressed well. He often would drink in the evenings, call her names and sometimes even wake her up in the middle of the night to continue the abuse.

“Anything that makes you feel bad in a relationship is not something that you should settle for,” said Anne, who left her abusive live-in boyfriend. “We’re adults, we shouldn’t feel unsafe or afraid in our own home.”

 

How prevalent is it?

Situations like Linda’s are not altogether uncommon. Last year the region’s Legal Aid office, which represents domestic violence victims, received 549 referrals from domestic violence shelters in their seven-county service area. The numbers do not include cases the office didn’t handle, such as those in which victims hired private attorneys.

County-by-county, Haywood had the highest number of referrals to Legal Aid at 219 cases; in Jackson there were 80, in Swain, 76, Cherokee County, 57, in Macon, 48, Graham, 39, and Clay, 33. In general the numbers are proportionate to each county’s population. However, it appears that a disproportionate number of victims proceed with legal action on their own in Macon County and most Swain County cases are from the Cherokee Reservation, said Nestler.

Approximately half the Legal Aid office’s caseload is related to domestic violence — the office works on all civil cases. Nestler said that having more attorneys on the job would make it easier to cope with the number of referrals coming in. Two attorney positions are federally funded to address nothing but domestic violence cases. The office itself is funded mostly with federal dollars as well, with specifically allocated dollars for domestic violence related work representing about half the budget.

Last year the Council for Women/Domestic Violence Commission, which supports victims and survivors of domestic violence, funded programs across North Carolina that responded to nearly 115,000 crisis calls and provided services to more than 47,000 victims/survivors. Also, statewide domestic violence programs provided overnight and emergency shelter to more than 13,000 victims, including children.

This year, 50 domestic violence related homicides have occurred in North Carolina. The victims have been girlfriends, wives, new boyfriends of estranged wives, fathers and acquaintances. Murder weapons have include guns, knives, fire, and in one case a fence post driver.

 

Who are shelters for?

The Haywood County Reach shelter averages between 110 to 150 women and children each year, with an 18.5-day average length of stay. Any victim of domestic violence in immediate danger — an incident having happened in the last 90 to 180 days — may stay at the shelter, said Julia Freeman, executive director of Reach of Haywood County.

The shelter is for women only; however, men who are victims of domestic violence also may use Reach’s services. The organization has an agreement with local hotels for short-term placement, and can help coordinate long-term shelter if needed.

Having used shelter services before does not preclude a victim from using them again, Freeman said. Victims of domestic violence frequently return to their relationships. Such was the case for Anne, who had left her relationship and gone to the shelter once before.

“You always want to believe they can change,” she said of her abuser.

Freeman said that the number of victims who use shelter services most likely split 60/40 — 60 percent returning to their relationships, 40 percent moving on to start a new life.

“The national average is 7 to 9 times that they will leave the relationship before they finally break free,” Freeman said.

Legal Aid attorney Nestler said that when he first started practicing law and representing victims in domestic violence cases it was hard to watch victims go through the court system time and time again and go right back to their abusers.

“But now, it’s just the way it is,” he said, noting 30 years spent with Legal Aid.

These days victims who are younger most often tend to take the initiative to leave their abusers, whereas the older generation — women Nestler pegged typically in their 40s — have been with their abusers for so long, it’s difficult to get through to them that they should get out of the situation for good.

 

How safe are shelters?

Bonnie Woodring, 48, was staying with her son at the Reach shelter in Sylva on Sept. 18 when officers believe her husband, John “Woody” Raymond Woodring, 35, forced his way in and shot her dead.

In nine of the state’s 50 domestic violence related homicides so far this year, perpetrators have gone on to commit suicide. John Woodring has been on the run since the Jackson County shooting, earning him a feature on the television show America’s Most Wanted.

The shelter, which has panic buttons, an alarm system and locks on every window and door, has been questioned for not more closely guarding its location. There were two signs posted outside — one in front of Reach’s administrative offices and one closer to the road with an arrow pointing to the offices and an address. Some say the signs made the location less secure, and since the incident they have been removed.

“The neighbors asked that those come down and we removed those to satisfy our neighbors, not for any other reason,” said David Moore, Reach board president.

Others have said that the incident is a shocking rarity. Woodring has been the only woman killed at a shelter.

“I don’t believe the shelter was at fault for that particular incident,” Freeman said.

Since Reach of Haywood County opened its own shelter in 1989 there have been no incidents of someone coming to remove or attack a resident. Perpetrators have been brought to the shelter after a victim choose to reconcile the relationship and needed help packing up, but it’s something Freeman said she’s seen only twice in her 10 years with the organization.

However, the incident in Sylva has prompted those involved in the domestic violence support community to begin serious discussions about how to improve shelter safety.

“It’s just sad that it takes something like what happened in Jackson County to bring the problem to the forefront,” said Anne, who volunteered at a domestic violence shelter prior to finding herself in need of such services. She advocated for additional funding to improve shelter safety.

Already the Haywood County Reach shelter has touch pad systems for the entrances, silent alarms, alarms on the windows and doors and a good relationship with local law enforcement.

Shelter director Janet Messer said one thing would make doing her job easier, “Getting it more secure, just having more cameras and things.”

The shelter is working on that now, aiming to have cameras that provide a view of who is coming and going when staff is not on the grounds.

For the most part, the shelter has staff on hand around the clock, Messer said. In addition, police keep a close eye on the shelter. One day, when officers felt that the shelter’s garage door had been open longer than normal, they went to go check it out. Everything was fine, but having pro-active local law enforcement helps reinforce the technological safety measures already in place.

In addition to improving shelter security, staff members now are looking at making additional recommendations to improve security at Reach’s administrative offices.

“We’re the only administrative office that has keyed locks,” Freeman said.

And District Attorney Mike Bonfoey is calling for changes to the domestic violence system throughout the 30th Judicial District — better security at shelters, including secure doors, locks and cameras; secure waiting rooms at courthouses for victims and witnesses; changing the law to add another aggravating factor for the death penalty of violating a restraining order or killing a person who has sought refuge at a shelter; changing the law to make trespassing at a shelter a felony; and increasing police patrols of shelters.

Both Anne and Linda said they have not felt threatened at the Reach shelter.

“They do everything here to make sure you feel safe,” Anne said.

“I feel absolutely safe,” Linda said.

The Jackson County shelter has been closed since the shooting that killed Bonnie Woodring.

“We are in the process of upgrading our security measures in order to ensure any future shelter residents that they feel safe,” said Moore, Reach board president.

The shelter is waiting on materials and work to be done and has not set a re-opening date, but anticipates for that to happen within coming weeks.

Along with Bonfoey, and other area shelters Reach has asked the state legislature and local county commissioners to up the funding allocated to protecting victims of domestic violence.

Meanwhile, Reach of Jackson County has postponed its fall fun/fund raising event “Bluegrass, Bar-B-Q, and Auction” and instead scheduled “Steps to Stop the Violence” from 4 to 7 p.m. on Oct. 28 at the historic courthouse in downtown Sylva. The courthouse steps will provide participants with an opportunity to learn more about the impact domestic violence has on a community. The event coincides with October’s distinction as Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

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