Local shelter provides 'safe haven' to victims of domestic violence

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“My name is Katie, and I’m staying in the Family Services Women & Children’s Shelter with my four children this Christmas. Here’s why …

“My father routinely beat my mother. I saw and heard these beatings, and so it became my normal. It’s not surprising that at 32, I was in an abusive relationship.

“Two years ago, my husband became enraged at the thought of me going out with friends on my birthday. He locked me and my kids in the house that Friday night. For the entire weekend of my 32nd birthday, I was held captive in my bedroom. He watched my every move.

“When Sunday came, he was in such a rage that he choked me until I passed out. When I woke up, he said, ‘Do exactly what I say by the count of 10, or I’ll put you back to sleep.’ He choked me multiple times that day.

“I thought he was going to kill me – with my kids in the house. It was the worst day of my life.”

Katie’s story may be shocking to some, but familiar to far too many. Statistics from nonprofit Texas Council on Family Violence (TCFV) indicate one in three Texans have experienced domestic violence in their lifetime, and 146 Texas women were killed by male intimate partners in 2016 alone. That figure does not include the mass shooting in Plano in September 2016 when an estranged husband opened fire on his wife during a Dallas Cowboys viewing party at her new home and killed eight people prior to his own demise.

Statistics from the 2016 DPS Crime in Texas report show here in Southeast Texas, area policing agencies received thousands of calls reporting family violence last year alone.

In Jefferson County in 2016, the crime report indicates there were 4,545 reports of family violence. In Orange County, there were 555. Hardin County had 273, Jasper County had 143, Tyler County had 52 and Newton County had six. Those are just the cases that were reported.

And these statistics don’t include recent incidents of apparent domestic violence that are still under investigation by local police, such as the murder of Orange resident Stormy Stanley.

Officers discovered Stanley unresponsive at a residence on East Sunset in Orange the afternoon of Oct. 25, Capt. Robert Enmon reported. Medical staff were already assisting Stanley, but she didn’t survive. Orange officers believe Stanley’s longtime boyfriend, 28-year-old Jerry Williams, was responsible. He was arrested for murder.

Stanley’s friends say Williams had threatened to kill her if she ever left him, something they say she planned to do. And while Angie Kannada, Community Relations Director for Family Services of Southeast Texas, says she’s not sure what led up to the grim conclusion of Stanley’s relationship, TCFV statistics show 40 percent of women killed in domestic violence incidents in 2016 had made attempts or were in the process of leaving when they were murdered and 77 percent of perpetrators killed their partners at home.

When women are killed by abusers, said Kannada, “you invariably have somebody saying, ‘She never should have let it get that far. She should have called the police. She should have left.’ It’s putting all the burden on the victim to change their circumstance, when it’s really not that easy.”

She says victims are often too scared to leave abusers for a number of reasons, including the very real threat of violence, as was reported in Stanley’s case.

“No one deserves to be abused, and the victims need help,” she asserted. “They don’t need someone telling them, ‘You should have left,’ or making them feel more ashamed. It’s important to make people aware of the dangers and complexities of these types of relationships.”

Kannada encourages abused women to leave before it is too late for them, or their children or even for other members of their family. In addition to the 146 women killed in domestic violence incidents in Texas in 2016, 24 family members and friends were also killed as a result of the attacks.

According to Kannada, both victims of abuse and its perpetrators could face extreme physical peril or death if an already hostile situation escalates, which police say happens all too often in domestic disturbances.

Beaumont police responded to a call in reference to a shooting victim in the 3900 block of Eastex Freeway near Home Depot on Oct. 11 at 5:22 p.m. Beaumont EMS was on scene attending to 58-year-old Larry Wayne Atwood of Vidor, who later died of a gunshot wound to the chest.

Officers soon arrested Atwood’s 70-year-old girlfriend, Elizabeth Ann Taylor. She was taken into custody in Lumberton and remained in the Jefferson County Jail on a $300,000 bond at the time of this report.

Taylor’s mugshot, in which she sports facial swelling and a black eye, raised questions in the community, and people who say they are familiar with the situation, including Taylor’s family members, allege that Atwood abused his elder girlfriend, though Atwood’s obituary describes him as a “kind, loving man” who was “highly thought of by his friends.”

A criminal database search revealed the former boxer had a troubled past, with multiple arrests for driving under the influence and a felony theft charge that sent him to state jail in Huntsville, though there’s no indication of domestic abuse charges. However, Hardin County deputies reportedly responded to three domestic disturbances at the home he shared with Taylor.

Kannada says the public hears only a fraction of the stories about domestic abuse, and those are generally the ones that result in death. But physical abuse is not the only control tactic used by offenders to dominate domestic partners.

“Emotional abuse can be subtle but sophisticated,” warns Kannada. For example, she said, one woman who recently utilized the shelter, Esther, had never been physically abused by her husband yet was in constant fear for her life.

“People don’t really understand, and may ask, ‘How can you be in fear for your life if he never even touched you?’ It’s the mental and emotional abuse, breaking someone’s character down day after day after day so that they feel like they are no better than a dog or a servant,” Kannada said.

In Esther’s case, she came to the United States on a work visa to be with the man she loved and thought she knew well. She left her family, her support system, behind to start a new job and a new life. Once she got here, things slowly began to deteriorate. The boyfriend who had seemed sweet and supportive turned angry and mean, apparently more interested in training a nanny and housekeeper than in the loving partnership he promised Esther before the move.

Trouble soon started for Esther, an immigrant with no driver’s license. She depended on her beloved to take her to work.

“He would take her everywhere she needed to go, and at first, it seemed really sweet,” Kannada described. “Then, he promises to teach her how to drive so she can get her own license. But he never teaches her. Then, he stops taking her where she wants to go. He won’t help her renew her work visa, so she loses her job. Eventually, he even stops taking her to church,” thereby eliminating her last and only support system.

“He cut her off from everyone, and then he started treating her like she was the nanny, only there to take care of the son – do the dishes, do the laundry, cook the food, take care of my son. He was grooming a servant.”

Esther’s boyfriend threatened her with violence over and over again, and the words hit home. She truly believed he might kill her if she did not do as she was told. So she did as she was told – for a while – until she couldn’t take the constant terror.

Luckily for Esther, help was a phone call away.

“She called us, and we were able to give her safe haven even though he’d never laid a hand on her,” said Kannada. “You could be under the abuser’s thumb and be unsafe, even before the beatings happen.”

And if an intimate partner regularly threatens abuse, said Kannada, it is very likely physical violence will ultimately follow.

“A victim doesn’t have to wait that long.”

Kannada says women in rural areas tend to report domestic violence less frequently and she believes they often feel they are out of reach of help.

“People in rural areas think people in Beaumont don’t care about them, but we do,” she asserted. “Call us. We can help.”

In fact, said Kannada, Family Services of Southeast Texas and its Women’s and Children’s Shelter provide services to all of Hardin, Jasper, Jefferson, Newton, Orange and Tyler counties, including municipalities such as Beaumont and unincorporated areas alike, and they can get you a ride if you need one. 

Following natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey, Lumberton Police Chief Danny Sullins says dispatchers receive more calls reporting domestic violence than usual due to people living in uncomfortable situations or tight quarters. Kannada agrees and says disruptions to normal life caused by disaster can exacerbate already volatile family situations and lead to episodes of abuse. With 32 domestic violence programs in Texas impacted by Hurricane Harvey, according to information from TCFV, it is more important than ever to know Family Services is still here to help, said Kannada.

Kannada says the shelter gives women “a safe haven,” a gated and guarded community of people who have shared similar experiences and who understand where they have been and what they are going through.

“The common experiences of the women help them to bond and support each other through such terrible times,” said Kannada. “And everything at the shelter is free. A lot of women have to leave with nothing except their children. They need clothes, toiletries and other necessities. We will provide those things for you.”

In addition, the shelter offers counseling and other programs to help women get out of dangerous relationships and back on their feet. They can help navigate legal matters like divorce and child custody, help transfer children to new schools and point them to resources that could assist in finding a permanent home. Although the majority of their clients are female and children, Family Services provides abused men with assistance, as well.

Kannada said some victims are worried that they will be forced to call the police and report domestic abuse, something many of them fear will result in retaliation from the violent perpetrators. She said while she encourages women to report abuse to the authorities to prevent future instances, no one is forced to contact the police and victims are not required to file a police report to stay at the shelter.

Some abusers convince women not to call the police or leave by threatening them with violence, explained Kannada.

“He’ll say, ‘I’ll be out soon,’ and threatens to hurt or kill her when he is released from jail. Or, ‘I will hurt your family.’ Or, ‘I will kill your dog.’ Or, ‘I’ll take the kids away from you,’ ‘I’ll make sure you never see your kids again.’

“It’s all about that control, whatever type of tactics the abuser can use to control someone, that’s what they’ll do. They will tell victims, ‘No one is going to help you. There is no help for you.’

“That is a control tactic, and it is not true. We are here to help you.”

Katie’s story backs up that assertion. Held prisoner and choked into unconsciousness by her abusive husband, she survived. She saved her money and finally fled across the country. He and his family found her seven times, but Katie was determined to bring her nightmare to an end. After being turned away from a shelter in Houston that would not accept her with her four children, she found Family Services of Southeast Texas. Now, she is living a life of her own that she thought she never could.

“Because of Family Services, I never have to live in fear like that again,” Katie shared. “They opened their doors to all of us. Now I have a great job, my kids are in Head Start, and we finally, finally feel safe.

“My life is forever changed.”

Family Services is a private non-profit organization supported by a variety of funding sources, including generous local donors. It is a United Way agency and accredited by the Council on Accreditation.

The shelter’s hotline can be reached 24 hours a day, seven days a week at (800) 621-8882. Trained shelter personnel will answer and assist anytime. For more information about Family Services of Southeast Texas, visit www.WeStrengthenFamilies.org.

For anyone who does not want to call or feels they cannot speak on the phone, live chat is available through the National Domestic Violence Hotline at www.thehotline.org. They can also be reached by phone at (800) 799-7233.

Editor’s note: The names of all living victims have been changed for privacy and safety.

Sharon Brooks can be reached at (409) 832-1400, ext. 241, or by e-mail at sharon [at] theexaminer [dot] com.