Leaving an abuser isn’t as simple as walking out the door.
A domestic violence victim may both love and fear the man who abuses her, and experts said severing ties can mean cutting through a complex web of emotional, financial, and physical strings he uses to control her.
“A lot of times, family or friends or outsiders want to say, ‘Why doesn’t she just leave?’ It’s not that easy,” said Ashley Ritz, executive director of Open Arms Domestic Violence and Rape Crisis Services in Findlay.
Victim advocates and domestic violence experts said the reasons why a woman might not leave are as varied as the victims. There are practical complications — money, housing, jobs — and physical exhaustion caused by the constant vigilance required of those dealing with an abuser who may, at any moment, snap. There are his threats — menacing promises to kill her or keep her children if she leaves. For some, there are the wedding vows or cultural values that stigmatize leaving. And there are those who may not recognize the problem.
Augustine Abbott has heard women repeat many reasons for staying in an abusive relationship. No matter the situation, she brings a straightforward, nonjudgmental approach as the supervisor of Project Genesis, a domestic violence program of Family Service of Northwest Ohio.
“The big one: ‘I love him,’ ” she said, pausing briefly for emphasis. “I think I can change him, that he’s going to change. Fear. Financial stability.”
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Her program offers group therapy sessions and one-on-one counseling. Domestic violence victims can get help drawing up a safety plan — from packing a bag to relocating to moving deep “underground,” a tell-no-one tactic she’s used to protect those in deadly situations.
“We don’t tell them you have to leave [or] you can’t come to this program,” she said. “We have ladies who are still with their significant other.”
What she does tell women is that they have choices and that there is no excuse for abuse.
The somber reality that victims face when deciding to go or stay includes many considerations. Mary Krueger, director of Bowling Green State University’s Women’s Center, said abusers are adept at isolating women from family and friends by insisting they must be the center of her life. Perhaps interpreted as romantic in the beginning, it’s actually a controlling behavior, she said.
“Sometimes what makes it hard to leave is that she has lost those other relationships. She is not close to other people ... He has succeeded in making him the only thing she has,” she said.
Add to that the effects of living in constant stress and fear.
“They don’t have the physical capacity to make a plan and act on a plan and do something as dramatic as change their life that way,” she said.
A chilling reason for staying is the most heartbreaking: If they leave, some women fear their abuser will kill them and their loved ones.
“That’s why battered women stay — to save their lives. It is an unrecognized noble thing. It’s not stupid. It’s practical; it’s pragmatic,” Ms. Krueger said.
She quickly underscores that point by saying it doesn’t mean women should stay with an abuser. But there needs to be more resources for victims, better protection-order enforcement, and a greater understanding that domestic violence is a “public health crisis.”
Cherry Street Mission Ministries in Toledo offers housing and support for domestic violence victims. Kim Smucker, director of advocacy, identified several reasons women stay with an abuser: Reliance, fear, religious or cultural values, and “a general belief that the abuse is normal.”
In Findlay, Ms. Ritz runs a shelter and offers help with a variety of needs, including navigating the court system. She said listening to and supporting women are key.
“It’s the victim’s choice what she is going to do, and she has to make that choice,” she said.
Experts said some of the same reasons women struggle to leave an abuser are factors in their decisions to not participate in the prosecution of offenders. In Toledo Municipal Court, victims appear an average of 25 to 28 percent of the time, according to court data.
Nearly 1,500 of the 1,721 domestic violence charges filed in that court last year have been resolved. About 42 percent of resolved cases concluded with a conviction of some kind, while 58 percent, or 870 cases, were dismissed.
Most often, the reason for a dismissal is because a victim fails to appear, said Adam Loukx, Toledo city law director.
Sharon Gaich, a Toledo prosecutor, said victims’ fear for their safety and emotional connections to abusers are primary reasons victims fail to show up for court. Still, Ms. Gaich said there are ways to proceed based on evidence, such as other witnesses, police statements, 911 tapes, and medical records.
“If we can put on a case, we will put on a case,” said Arturo Quintero, another prosecutor. “We can’t let the cases go by the wayside just because the victims don’t show up.”
Mr. Loukx said officials are discussing ways to approach domestic violence cases and if there’s room for improvement.
Ms. Abbott said intimidation plays a big role in some women’s reluctance to take part in the court process. Facing an abuser, who might try to express his love for her or make excuses, is difficult.
“That’s the thing we would like the prosecutors and our judges to understand: These ladies are fearful,” she said.
Women need better protection, and prosecutors and police should build strong cases so abusers can be prosecuted even when a victim isn’t present, Ms. Krueger said.
“It requires everybody in the system understanding why the victim no-shows and doing the work to make prosecutions successful,” she said. “It’s logical that they don’t show up, but then we blame our failure to prosecute perpetrators and protect victims on ... the victims ... but it’s our failure.”
Contact Vanessa McCray at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6065.