By Bill Davis, Special to the Press-Tribune
“I was very nervous, scared, and didn’t know what to do.”
Those are the words of a wife and mother (we’ll call her ‘Molly’) who had been hit and thrown against the wall by her husband. While it wasn’t the first time she had experienced physical abuse in her decade-long relationship, it would be the last…because she made a phone call to law enforcement…and got help from the Northwest Louisiana Family Justice Center. Taking either of those steps, however, is rarely easy.
“The fear of the unknown is greater than the fear of the known,” stressed Detective Kelly Downey, a detective with the Bossier Sheriff’s Office assigned to the Family Justice Center. “A victim does not go on their first date with their abuser and get punched in the eye and say, ‘This is how our life is going to be.’”
Domestic violence affects millions of people, both women and men, of every race, culture, religion, age or financial status. Mental abuse – yelling, humiliation, manipulation, or threats – and physical abuse – hitting, kicking, slammed against the wall, beaten, or burned – can cause detrimental and sometime deadly results. Domestic violence doesn’t discriminate, and it doesn’t take a vacation. But there is hope.
Downey has been serving at the NWLA FJC since it started operating in the spring of 2016. The passion she and others have for helping domestic violence victims permeates throughout the center, where the primary goal is to support victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and exploitation, and to break the cycle of abuse.
“The victim has been through a process of believing that they don’t deserve any better,” said Downey. “Fear and financial control are some of the biggest things we see, and there are a lot of different factors in abuse other than just the physical violence. Being able to help the victim work through that process, to put into motion from going from a victim to survivor. Being able to mold the entire person back into being a survivor, not only coming out of this situation, but having their test in life becoming testimonies for others.”
Getting Help – One Survivor at a Time
After 10 years of a physically and verbally abusive relationship, ‘Molly’ decided she had enough. On night after being thrown against the wall, she contacted the Bossier Sheriff’s Office. The deputies came to her house, conducted their investigation, and her husband was arrested. He was transported to jail, and the deputies departed her house. Then silence. She was alone with her child…and all was quiet. Until a phone call the next morning.
“Kelly (Det. Downey) called me the next morning and asked me if I wanted to come to the Family Justice Center and talk,” said Molly. “I was very terrified, wondering ‘should I or shouldn’t I?’”
That meeting with Det. Downey allowed Molly to write things down and tell her own story. She says it also allowed her to determine what she needed to do to protect herself.
“When you tell your story, they reassure you,” Molly said. “You are traumatized at the moment…I was terrified for a long time.”
The terror of Molly’s physical abuse began soon after her wedding. “Early in the marriage, he threw me against the wall, and I couldn’t lay my head down for a week or two. I had bruising on my arms. He told me it wouldn’t happen again.” But it did.
“Another time, he shoved me out of a vehicle and left me in another city,” Molly said. Then through the years, Molly said there was a lot of verbal anger and raging. “It wasn’t every day, but it was weekly. There was a dark, dark mood in him, and he would beat walls, screaming at the top of his lungs.”
That all changed with two phone calls.
The first one was when Molly said she couldn’t do this anymore and decided to call Bossier deputies when her husband hit her and threw her into the wall. That led to her husband’s arrest. The second phone call was the one she received from Det. Downey the next day. That led her to the Family Justice Center.
To Serve…and Protect
“Whenever our patrol deputies make a domestic violence arrest, whether violent of non-violent, we will make a follow-up phone call to the victim,” said Det. Downey. “It might be a five-minute follow-up or a three-day follow-up, but it helps the victim realize they are not alone and that there is help. Going through this process is very scary for victims. We can help them…not making decisions for them, but supporting them in the decisions they do make. It helps them knowing they have someone they can count on.”
Det. Downey also focuses on providing evidence-based prosecution in the follow-up, such as collecting any additional evidence in the case and taking more photos. And it’s that work and interaction with the victim after an arrest that can help with the case.
“The victim may have a spotty recollection of what happened,” Det. Downey emphasized. “When you have a sleep cycle, the broken pieces of the event are put back together,” she said, noting that a second recount helps put those pieces together. “You find out more detail. You find out if children were involved. And if so, you can set up interviews for the children with Gingerbread House.”
In Molly’s case, she said she was thankful she had family support through the process. But it was also the service and protection from the Bossier Sheriff’s Office and Det. Downey with the Family Justice Center that led her to a path of recovery.
“I can honestly say that I can call Kelly on anything,” Molly said. “If that service had not been there, I probably would have taken him back.”
One of the services that is often the most utilized is counseling.
“Broken bones and bruises will often heal, but it’s what happened to the person’s psyche and mind that can take longer,” said Downey. “There can be a grieving loss of a relationship in domestic violence cases, and we know it can take a lot longer for a victim to recover from the mental abuse than from the physical abuse. We can get counseling services for victims, and that’s where the true healing begins.”
Why Don’t They Just Leave?
“We often hear the question, ‘Well, why don’t they just leave?’” said Det. Downey. She says there is never an easy answer for domestic violence victims because they are scared and often feel alone. But sadly, it’s what they know, and as Downey noted earlier, “the fear of the unknown is greater than the fear of the known.”
“I’ve often referred to a victim leaving their abuser as something like being addicted to drugs,” said Downey. “By that, I mean I cannot want enough for you to remove yourself from the violent situation. I cannot want enough for a drug abuser to lay down the drugs.”
So, if help is available, why not seek it?
“There are a lot of people who push things under the rug because they don’t want people to know what kind of person they’re dealing with,” said domestic violence survivor Molly. “Or because they weren’t hit every day, that it’s okay. That’s what I thought. He’s not going to explode on me again, but he did.”
Molly says it took her a long time before she sought help. “When you love somebody and you don’t want to see that they are really that person they are. I know a lot of people go back for money reasons, for children, and they swear they are going to change.”
Downey emphasizes that help is always available, but it’s up the victim to make the decision to reach out for help when they are ready to move.
“I would not be able to push a grain of sand across my desk and make life great for you, but when you’re ready, we can move mountains,” Downey said. “We will be with you through the process. But I cannot want it enough.”
An Army Behind Them
In observance of Domestic Violence Awareness Month this past October, billboards in this region featured a group of people standing behind a victim of domestic violence throughout the area.
Area law enforcement leaders, district attorneys, law enforcement detectives, and leaders from Project Celebration and the Family Justice Center stood side-by-side in the billboard, with the words, “We’ve Got Your Back – Working Together to Help Stop Domestic Violence,” and another with “Behind the Arrest – We Have Your Back.”
It was an idea that Dep. Downey developed earlier this year to ensure victims of domestic violence that they have an entire team of supporters behind them…like an Army.
“When I attended a conference on ‘Crimes Against Women’ back in May, one of the classes was on ‘Why don’t they report?’ noted Downey. “We learned that some DV victims don’t report because of lack of confidence in law enforcement.”
“Hearing that hit me hard, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is not possible because I know my sheriff and the stance he takes against domestic violence, and I know that we are dedicated to what we do.’ But what if there is a victim out there with that mentality who is in a domestic violence situation and they don’t report?”
Downey says she woke up in the hotel room at 3 a.m. and had a vision to show victims that they should have confidence in themselves and in law enforcement. Thus, the billboard idea to provide a visual message that domestic violence victims are not alone.
For Molly, it was a message that resonated well while she was receiving services from the Family Justice Center. “I felt like there was a team behind me; it gave me validation.”
From Victim to Survivor
Domestic violence doesn’t take a holiday, and neither does the support the from the Family Justice Center. Whether it is an opportunity from patrol deputies planting that seed of support to people in the community or to a victim saying, “I’ve had enough,” there is a road to recovery for a domestic violence victim.
It’s that army of support.
“It’s a terrible feeling for someone to find themselves in the position of being a victim of domestic violence, being scared to the point that you fear someone is going to hurt you or even kill you,” said Sheriff Whittington. “But that’s why we are here…to help.”
And it’s also 100 percent about supporting victims.
“I’ve been doing this for 3 ½ years, and I have people ask me ‘how do you do what you do?’” Det. Downey said. “My response is ‘How do I not?’ This is my passion, this is my specific calling with the Sheriff’s Office.”
Don’t be afraid to call.
“Don’t be afraid to pick up that phone or send that e-mail or check on our website,” implored NWLA FJC Director Jeri Bowen. “Don’t be afraid to call us, because we’re here to help!”