Rockefeller to hold roundtable discussion about violence
Originally this column was going to be about the results of my own meeting last night, to discuss plans for the workshops I want to hold to help empower women who are living with domestic violence. But today I received an email that should make many people happy, especially the loved ones of Shannon Stafford, Lori Dodson and Leslie Layman.
No doubt other people’s loved ones, too, since West Virginia has had an even greater number of violent crimes—most of them domestic in nature—within the last few months. I can’t even begin to list the people’s lives who have been so traumatically transformed, but if you do a Google search, you can find a whole slew.
The West Virginia State Police has been keeping statistics on crime for several decades and according to their figures, two deaths occur each month in our state, due to domestic violence. The majority of these deaths are women—because most of the time, it’s men who beat and kill women. It’s rarely the other way around. This figure has held steady since the 1970’s, and it’s one I cite when I speak at conferences around the country.
That this number has not gone up is good, but that it hasn’t gone down is quite troubling. That Preston County lost three women to this type of violence in three weeks (Stafford, who was killed here in Monongalia County, Dodson, and Layman) is more than troubling: it’s a sign that something is broken. I’m one of many, many people to say that, and who believe the status quo is no longer acceptable.
When The Charleston Gazette ran a recent editorial about this problem, it suggested that the Legislature appoint a commission to study the matter. Someone I spoke to about that suggestion said they didn’t believe Charleston’s lawmakers would listen.
Well Washington, D.C. is listening, and that means so is Charleston. So I’m guessing that commission may just become a reality. I say this because Sen. Jay Rockefeller agrees with us. He agrees with the 2,735 members of the “Justice for Shannon Stafford” Facebook page, that was started after Shannon’s death.
An aside: that group says “justice” will only occur when Shannon’s two-year-old daughter, Faith, is removed from the home of the man who killed Shannon. I have yet to publish it, but I’m working on a column that will show conclusively that Faith was not just abused the day she saw her mother’s dead body in the Wal-Mart parking lot, but she’s been abused her entire life, by her father’s family. That column will also show that Harrison County Child Protective Services (where Faith lives) has refused to intervene, even at the request of Faith’s guardian ad litem, for many months. This is a separate but equally serious issue that needs to be addressed for the children in this state.
Sen. Rockefeller agrees with everyone else in West Virginia who I run into, in the bank or the grocery store, or the doctor’s office or coffe shop, who says something must be done—and done soon.
That’s why Sen. Rockefeller is holding a roundtable discussion about this horrifying increase in domestic violence at 10 a.m. Tuesday, May 29, in Charleston. Somehow his staff learned about my advocacy, as expressed in my columns here, and today I received an invitation to attend that roundtable.
As someone with a specific interest in domestic violence issues, I know Sen. Rockefeller can make a difference. I first interviewed him in 1997, when I worked at The Dominion Post. He was then fighting for veterans’ rights, and as I recall, he was going it solo at the time, without much help from other people who could and should have stepped up to help. Ultimately, his advocacy for their rights made a huge difference. He was sincere then, and I believe he’s just as sincere now.
“West Virginia has been gripped by a wave of startling domestic violence-related deaths this year that underscore the need for continued advocacy and strengthened resources for education, prevention, protection and prosecution,” Sen. Rockefeller said today.
Sen. Rockefeller first co-sponsored the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 1994. He now says that “every time we read about a local tragedy we are reminded of the importance of a strong reauthorization of VAWA. Congress is considering that reauthorization now.”
VAWA is an important piece of legislation because it provides money to agencies that help women who can’t always find help in other places. Without this funding, it’s not clear where that money will come from.
Sen. Rockefeller says VAWA has provided “survivors with refuge—helping them leave the specter of violence that shadows their lives.”
West Virginia led the country’s prosecution under VAWA in the 1994 case of Sonya Bailey, a 49-year-old Kanawha County woman whose husband severely beat her, locked her in the trunk of his car and drove to Kentucky with her trapped and terribly injured inside. When he finally took her to a hospital, she was in a coma—from which she never fully recovered. Sonya finally died in December 2010. Thanks to VAWA, her husband was convicted of kidnapping and interstate domestic violence and is serving a life sentence.
I would argue, as we discussed at our own small roundtable meeting the other night, that women not only lack the resources to get the help they need, they also lack a realistic plan to reach their end goal of escape. Women who attended the meeting talked about shelters in West Virginia that give limited and temporary help, but if a woman hasn’t found housing when her time at the shelter is up, she’s forced to go right back to her home—and her batterer. Why shouldn’t she? If she hasn’t been successful in finding another home, where else could she logically go?
I’ve been talking to some experts in this field who are fighting the same fight on the West Coast. I met them in March when I was invited to sit on the Association of Batterers’ Intervention Programs (ABIP) board. After the three Preston County deaths, I began talking to them about what they do out there. Turns out, they use the local churches to help provide housing. It isn’t a perfect solution, but it’s all they have, in a state with a fiscal budget that’s in dire shape.
Ministers in the churches ask their flocks to provide housing for these women (and their children) and—guess what—the parishioners do it. Of course, it isn’t long-term, it’s only temporary, and the women have to move around from home to home. But it’s a far better solution than going back into a home where you might just end up like Sonya, Shannon, Lori or Leslie.
There’s one crucial element that’s not being addressed when it comes to helping victims. I’ve interviewed many people who knew Shannon, and I spoke with a father whose daughter was murdered recently, and there was a common denominator in both cases: the women didn’t speak out about their abuse. Now that’s nothing new, and I’ve known that for years. Why do you think I titled my book as I did? Sister of Silence represents the bond of silence that keeps women captive in violent homes.
One reason in particular, though, that causes these women to remain silent, saddens me. They are not only embarrassed, ashamed, and confused, they are afraid. But not for themselves. They are afraid of what might happen to their families, if they speak up. Of what their fathers, or brothers, or uncles will do to the abuser—maybe at personal harm to that family member. If not jail time.
Take the case of Ryan Young, the Safeway employee who came to the aid of a pregnant woman whose boyfriend was kicking—yes, kicking—her. When the man refused to stop, Young struck him. (Which immediately made him my hero, if not every other woman’s who has ever been abused.) Most fathers who find out their daughter is being abused will go ballistic, and understandably so.
This is one of the biggest reasons these women don’t speak up. So we need to train ourselves to be the ones who speak up for them. Observe their behavior and their bodies. Don’t turn a blind eye when a friend or a neighbor has a black eye or a bruise. Don’t buy her easy excuses, when your gut tells you she’s covering for someone. (No, this is not being nosy. This is showing love.) Ask probing questions. (Yes, it is your business.) Don’t be afraid to offer to help, with transportation or child care or anything else you know she needs, to get herself out of a violent home. Because that’s the only way she can, if we all come together and help her.
Remember the old saying about how it takes a village to raise a child? Well the same saying applies here. It was a village—an entire culture, in fact, that stood back and remained mute, saying that what goes on behind closed doors “is none of my business”—that has brought us exactly to the point where we now are, with what Sen. Rockefeller calls “the wave of startling domestic violence-related deaths this year.”
Each of us can do our part. Maybe it’s only a small part, but maybe it’s much bigger than we even realize. I’m doing mine by giving away a book that took me 20 years to write, for tomorrow, Sunday and Monday. I’m doing that to honor Shannon, Lori, Leslie, and all the other women who have died or who still might, unless we step up to the plate. My book isn’t the solution, but it certainly is an important part of it (according to the survivors, therapists and educators who are using it), because it shows what steps I took to escape, both psychologically and physically, and how many people along the way helped me.
I’m also going to hold those workshops. Right now, they’re in the planning stages. And I’m hopeful that Tuesday’s roundtable meeting, which I plan to attend, will provide some more ideas for what each and every one of us can do differently, to put a stop to these crimes.
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Daleen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 40 other five-star reviews, check out this title on Amazon. To view the Sister of Silence book trailer, go to her VintageBerryWine Youtube channel. For a mock up of the SOS t-shirt readers are demanding, check out Berry’s Facebook page.