Cultural Changes, Severe Consequences Needed to Reduce Domestic Violence

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The end of my trip to Charleston for a discussion about domestic violence couldn’t have been more alarmingly apropos.

A Tuesday morning shower had just stopped and the sun was trying to peek around the clouds, when I heard a man yelling. I looked up from where I sat in my car reviewing my meeting notes, but didn’t see anyone. I looked up and down the street, and at a balcony overhead. To no avail. Then I heard the yelling again, as the same male voice made another reference to a female dog, among other things. I saw a mother and her child walking by and heard the verbal abuse a third time, just as the couple crossed paths with a man in a vehicle. That’s when I knew who was screaming. I watched, worried, because whoever the man was yelling at was in a car next to him, trying to leave. He appeared to either be trying to prevent that, or to strike her car with his own, and I feared the woman and her child could be injured by the fallout.

They weren’t, fortunately, and my suspicions were confirmed when the other driver—a woman—finally made her escape, as the man continued screaming abusively and pealed out behind her. I reached for my cell phone, but dropped it when he didn’t try to follow her vehicle.

I thought about my own need to continue reviewing my notes, and my desire to begin the three-hour drive home. Then I thought about the last time I saw a woman in need, at Kroger, and I couldn’t figure out a way to help her. So I followed the woman’s car just a short way, until she parked. I got out and asked her if she was all right. She said yes, we spoke about what was happening, and then she thanked me—twice—for stopping to check on her. I will never forget the expression on her face, which was one of extreme appreciation.

I knew she needed a copy of my book, and I gave her one as I told her she could, and should, file a restraining order. Then I asked her to contact me to let me know how things turn out. (If you’re reading this now, I will also gladly be a witness, should you need one. I forgot to mention that earlier.)

* * * *

West Virginia has had a shocking number of vicious domestic violence-related deaths so far this year, including one involving an 11-year-old boy who was trying to help his battered mother, and three unrelated Preston County deaths in just three weeks: 17 was the total cited by Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s office. If the historical data of two deaths a month hold true, that means we’re seven above that, to date. Plus, we have another 14 deaths coming, which is too dreadful to even contemplate.

There are two exciting programs I want to share with you, that I learned more about at the Violence Against Women Act roundtable today. But first, let me tell you the question Sen. Rockefeller, who convened the panel, asked: “What are we going to do to protect families?”

In response to that question, the overall message I took away was this: we all must take action, if we are to help these women escape from violence that seems unescapable, and their children from becoming casualties in a domestic war carried out largely behind closed doors.

What action we must take varies on who we are: if we are a parent, we must start by rearing our sons from the time they are little, to treat women with respect. “Somewhere . . . we’re losing respect for ourselves and each other,” Lisa Tackett, Director of Family Court Services for the West Virginia Supreme Court, said.

This is crucial because “home should be a sanctuary, not the most terrifying place you’ve ever been,” she added. Tackett believes this can only happen by teaching “our boys and young men different behavior.”

Ed Kornish, assistant prosecutor in McDowell County, saw his father abuse his mother from the time he was a small child. Kornish said even though she needed medical treatment many times, she failed to ever get it. He said he believes many batterers’ attitudes stem from ignorance.

“Men who grow up thinking they can do whatever they want because they’re physically stronger . . . are like bullies,” Kornish said. Men have to be taught they don’t own their wives, and the only way to teach that lesson is to make the consequence for battering harsh enough these men actually learn from their mistakes, he added.

But what if you’re a woman who’s being abused? What then? Well, you need to know you have other people who won’t judge you—or tell you to just be a good wife or endure abuse because God wants you to.

“People will reach out to whoever is most accessible and trustworthy,” Officer Troy Ball, with the Morgantown Police Department, said.

That means these women need to know people like you and me are there for them, when they need us. I would add that we may need to take the first step, in reaching out to help them. (Instead of thinking we’re too busy, or too tired, or because we’re simply afraid to get involved.) Because many women never reach out. And then it’s too late, and they can’t reach out, because they’re dead.

This may sound minor, but it’s actually a significant piece of the solution. That’s because West Virginia is largely a rural state, composed of many small towns or even unincorporated areas where everyone knows everyone else. Where a battered woman’s husband or boyfriend may be buddies with the town cop. Or where the emergency room nurse where she goes to seek treatment may be her husband’s sister.

It’s just such scenarios that cause battered women to remain mute. They perceive that a “good ole’ boy’s club” exists (and this, sadly, is often the case), that no one will help them or that word will get back to their abuser, if they do ask anyone for help.

Panel members and survivors Celena Roby and Sara Monroe both experienced this. Neither woman wanted their family to know about the abuse, so they stayed silent. Sen. Rockefeller commended the women for their strength: Roby sustained a closed head and eye injury and Monroe killed her husband in self-defense. “Being strong isn’t enough,” the Senator said. “There has to be a system that punishes people.”

The above-mentioned and other cultural attitudes need to be broken down and rebuilt, using materials that lesson the stigma, and which teach women to trust—and men to be accountable for their actions. One such attitude is the notion that “somehow if you behave right, these things (abuse) won’t happen to you,” Jeff Allen, with the West Virginia Council of Churches, said. “That’s just absurd.”

Changing cultural attitudes is far from easy, but everyone on the panel agreed its essential, to make more headway on this serious problem. Beyond that, the system has to do its part to help these women. To that end, one of the programs that’s been underway for four years is the West Virginia Domestic Violence Database. Protective orders and other vital information about the victim and her abuser are entered into the statewide database. That means that a law enforcement officer or a magistrate in one county should be able to see this information for the other 54 counties, which would be helpful in knowing if a batterer is a repeat offender—and what to do with him, if he is.

(Hypothetically, it should work like this, but I’m curious whether it actually does. If anyone knows, I’d love to hear from you. I only suggest this because, a few years ago, while working as a crime reporter in Maryland at the Cumberland Times-News, an officer told me that a similar computer system to track criminals was only as good as the department that entered the data—and some poorer departments didn’t have the necessary equipment to do so. If Maryland, a state with much more revenue than West Virginia, has this problem, I’d guess that we do here, too.)

Either way, VAWA funds help pay for this program here. So if VAWA isn’t reauthorized, that’s one less way to help women—and to hold the batterers accountable to the necessary degree. This accountability is key to getting men to see their actions are unacceptable, Ball said.

Another program that holds out hope for a more cohesive plan of action to accomplish male accountability—and to help women—begins on a trial basis in Kanawha County later this summer. When the Domestic Violence Pilot Program begins in July, Judge Mike Kelly, Family Court Judge for the 11th Circuit, will do something unique: he will preside over both the civil and criminal aspects of domestic violence cases.

Kelly said this coordination will allow domestic violence “to be stopped early on,” if the need to do so exists. (EDIT: Kelly, who sits on the state’s fatality review team, said that although not all fatalities in the state were from domestic violence, in 100-percent of those cases, the murderer had had “a long history of domestic violence.” That’s scary!)

I believe the implications of this are huge, and hope it’s wildly successful Instead of a battered woman going to family court, where she would for civil issues such as restraining orders, divorce or custody, the same judge—in this case, Kelly—will hear all the evidence. Then, in addition to deciding on the civil issues, he’ll render a decision about what criminal action needs taken.

Kelly, who said he’s worked 10,000 domestic violence cases in the 12 years he’s been on the bench, says he’s tired of seeing batterers get away with their crimes—without ever facing jail time. He spoke specifically of the 2008 Nalisha Gravely murder at Taco Bell, and said Desmond Clark “brutalized her for years, including stabbing her. But he never spent a day in jail,” Kelly said.

This pilot program holds out great hope, and Kelly said the goal is to implement it statewide. (But again, it hinges on money from the VAWA.)

* * * *

Other panel members included Sue Julian, team coordinator with the West Virginia Domestic Violence Coalition; Melissa Coffman Sponaugle, with Legal Aid of West Virginia; Nancy Hoffman, state coordinator of the West Virginia Foundation for Rape Information and Services; Judy King Smith, executive director of the Rape and Domestic Violence Information Center; Deb Weinstein, executive director of the Charleston YWCA; Shallon Oglesby, a domestic violence instructor with the West Virginia State Police; Sarah Brown, with the West Virginia Division of Justice and Community Services; and Bill Ihlenfeld, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia.

* * * *

Daleen can be reached at

Editor’s note: Berry has expertise in overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment, and wrote about Wanda Toppins’ murder in her book, after reporting on the case in 1991 when she worked for The Preston County Journal. Wanda was another Preston County woman who died needlessly, and who Berry wrote about in Sister of Silence.

To read the Sister of Silence e-book (or any other e-book), download a free app from Amazon for your phone, tablet or computer.

Berry’s an award-winning author, editor and journalist who speaks at conferences around the country. Berry was one of two keynote speakers addressing a national audience at “The Many Faces of Domestic Violence,” the 18th Annual Conference of the Association of Batterers’ Intervention Programs on March 1, 2012, in Anaheim, Calif. She recently spoke to social workers from all over the country at the “Hope for the Future: Ending Domestic Violence in Families” conference at the University of California, Berkeley.

Her memoir (paperback and as an e-book) can be found at bookstores everywhere, or ordered online. To read the first chapter free, please go to Goodreads. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”

If you want to read dozens of other five-star reviews, check out this title on Amazon. To view the Sister of Silence book trailer, go to her VintageBerryWine Youtube channel.


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