Domestic violence awareness vigil held in downtown Canton

Attendees light candles to honor victims of domestic violence in Cherokee County during a candlelight vigil for victims hosted by the Cherokee Family Violence Center in downtown Canton.

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series about domestic violence and how victims can find help and break the cycle.

In discussions about domestic violence, a question often asked of survivors is why they stay in an abusive relationship. People in abusive relationships often stay because they don’t see a way out, and it’s common for them to blame themselves for the abuse, experts respond.

That was the case for one Canton resident who requested to be identified as Darlene. For 20 years, she was married to her now ex-husband, who could be violent and manipulative, keeping her isolated and causing her to doubt herself. The abuse started before they were married, and the gaslighting went as far as drugging her, she said.

In one incident, she called him from a store and he found her, hitting her and a friend. She called 911 and he was arrested and charged with assault, but when they went to court together, he told her what to say. He was convicted of simple assault and sentenced to anger management courses. Darlene also had to go to group therapy for domestic violence, in which the forced environment felt uncomfortable, she said.

“I was overwhelmed,” she said. “I didn’t feel safe there, or comfortable.”

She continued to stay until she started regularly going to church and her pastor noticed she had a black eye, she said. He asked if her husband had hit her, and she began to explain that she thought it was her fault. The pastor convinced her to find a safe place to stay. This would be the first of seven times that Darlene left the home she shared with her then-husband.

“Once I got away, I had time to breathe,” she said. “It was calmer. I wasn’t walking on eggshells.”

Later she would choose to go to couple’s counseling and direct her husband to anger management therapy, hopeful that she could still make the relationship work.

“I thought I was going to be gone for a week, to give him a cool-down period. But things weren’t changing,” Darlene said.

The last time she left in 2009, after getting a temporary protective order against him, he attacked her, blinding her in her right eye and nearly killing her.

“I thought when I got the protective order, he would be too afraid to go back to jail,” she said. “[A TPO] is just a piece of paper. In my mind, that was going to stop him. In my mind, I was safe.”

The protective order didn’t stop her abuser from attacking her, but it did prevent him from getting a permit for a gun, and Darlene is glad she had it in place, she said. After the attack, he went to prison and was sentenced to 30 years in 2010.

The Cherokee Family Violence Center helped Darlene heal through support group meetings, where she made friends with those who had been in similar situations. While every domestic violence story is different, these friends have brought her comfort and helped her recognize the abuse for what it was, and that none of it was her fault.

“When you’ve gone through 20 years of abuse, you don’t just get over it,” she said. “I still have nightmares. I don’t feel totally safe. (But) there’s the support group when I need it. If I’m having a hard day, I try to be around people who understand.”

Now, Darlene paints and does other arts and crafts, finding them therapeutic. She’s also learned how to open up and talk to others about her experiences.

“If I can help somebody else through with what I’ve been through, that’s what my goal is now,” she said. “I want to help people realize they’re not at fault and they’re not alone.”

For another survivor who requested to be identified as Johanna, English is not her first language, so she was assisted by a translator for this story.

Johanna’s abusive ex-husband is the father of her two youngest children. Like Darlene, the abuse was happening before Johanna married him. He was having an affair with a minor when she was pregnant with their daughter, she said. When she was going to report him, he took her phone, strangled her and dragged her outside when a neighbor saw them and reported him. He was arrested and taken away, and in court Johanna was advised to leave and find safety.

“If he could be equally violent with the children, he could kill all of us,” she said.

Johanna was referred to the Cherokee Family Violence Center, where they helped her with a legal advocate, temporary housing, childcare services, finding a job and managing money, as well as support from other survivors.

“I’ve come to realize I can live alone, that I don’t have to put up with the abuse,” she said. “I can live in tranquility and the children are safer and live at ease. I am able to sleep safely.”

Churches came to the center with children’s activities, and Johanna began to seek out God, she said. Now, she goes to church with her children. Johanna said her faith helps her to overcome what she has been through.

“At the feet of Jesus, I am OK,” she said.

She also encourages others who are facing similar difficulties. Johanna became emotional as she remembered another woman who reached out to her for a ride, during which she learned that her new friend was in an abusive situation.

“She was going through a crisis, and I told her I knew that there was help, financial and emotional help, and I would bring her to where she could get help,” she said.

Her friend was Antonia Ruiz, who was killed with her brother Omar last July. Ruiz’s boyfriend Jose Oscar Tierrablanca-Gierro was arrested after the siblings were found stabbed to death, and charged with 12 counts in October including two counts each of malice murder, felony murder and six counts of aggravated assault.

Fortunately, Johanna’ story has a better ending. Now, she has a car and a job in Woodstock, working hard to support her children.

“Now, my only concern is raising my children,” she said. “To care for my children, I have to be strong. They’re my motivation. I have to provide everything they need, and it’s motivated me to work hard.”

The holiday season can exacerbate cases of domestic violence. With people spending more time indoors, children being out of school and rising levels of stress, it can be a dangerous time for people living with abuse. Because it’s common for abusers to isolate their victims, it can be a lonely time when normally people get together with family and friends, survivors and professionals say.

It can be hard for survivors, too.

For Darlene, Christmas is a time of thankfulness but also can bring back painful memories, as well as other holidays and anniversaries.

“It’s a mixed thing,” she said. “I am happy and thankful I am not in that abuse any more. But at the same time that’s when I really have to surround myself with family and friends, because I don’t want to feel alone. Sometimes I kind of feel alone around the holidays.”

The Cherokee Family Violence Center offers a diverse range of resources, from temporary housing for those who need safe shelter and legal advocates offering help with protective orders, divorce and custody issues and more. They offer support groups for survivors as well as children’s counseling. The center helps survivors develop safety plans, offers childcare and parenting classes, teaches budgeting and managing money and helps people find jobs and live independently. The multicultural program offers case management and other services in Spanish, a Spanish-speaking support group and immigration services, among other resources.

“No matter your color, race or language, there is a way out,” Johanna said. “Hay ayuda mucho. There’s a lot of help.”

To reach the CFVC 24-hour crisis line, call 770-479-1703 for English or 770-720-7050 for Spanish. For more information, visit www.cfvc.org.

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