No Safe Place
Domestic violence continues
to injure—and kill—women
By Janis Hashe
Every nine seconds a woman is beaten in the U.S. (Source: The Coalition Against Domestic & Community Violence of Greater Chattanooga, Inc.)
Despite years of media exposés, talk-show segments and movies-of-the-week discussing the violence, it continues. Women stay in abusive situations, said Dr. Charlotte Boatwright, founder of DVC, because of shame, economic powerlessness, the perception they have nowhere else to go—and because for many, leaving may equal a death sentence.
Dr. Boatwright founded the coalition 15 years ago after her daughter was nearly killed by her abuser. “At two, my grandson watched while my daughter was shot in the back,” she said. Though her daughter recovered and is now a successful businesswoman, “If you had known her at 19, before she met this man, you would have known a different person,” she said. Despite occasionally wondering why her daughter was wearing dark glasses indoors or long-sleeved shirts in the summer, she “had not a clue” that abuse was going on. Now, she works to help other women and children escape their abusers and begin over.
Tracking the rate of domestic violence in Chattanooga and Hamilton County is made difficult, Dr. Boatwright said, by reporting policies that differ from those nationwide, and even in other Tennessee cities. “But we know it’s above the national average. Of assaults, 41 percent are domestic-violence related. The national average is 25 percent. According to our district attorney, other than natural causes, you are most likely to die from a DUI—or be killed by a family member,” she said.
All ages, all races, all classes
Pam Perry was 26, with a small child from a previous marriage, when a self-described whirlwind romance resulted in a marriage to an abuser.
“The first time it got physical was on our honeymoon,” she said. “Every episode got more violent. Every time I tried to leave, he’d make promises and I’d come back. ‘We just have to have God in our marriage.’ ‘We’ll go to counseling.’ These would last a couple of weeks.”
Perry, who became pregnant during the first month of the marriage, endured the increasing isolation from friends and family typical of an abusive relationship. “At one point we were living way out in the country on a 45-acre farm. He told me, ‘I could kill you out here and no one would ever know.’” At that point, she sought help from The Partnership for Families, Children & Adults (PFCA), a nonprofit providing a 26-bed shelter for both women and children, as well as counseling and a 24-hour hotline.
Now a court advocate for victims of domestic violence, her advice for other abuse victims includes “making a plan to leave, becoming aware of the services that are out there to help—and calling the hotline.”
Domestic violence is not limited to “poor minority women. It’s actually harder for women higher up the economic scale to seek help, since the more resources the perpetuator has, the more ways he has to seek out the victim. The only common thread that links the victims is being female,” Dr. Boatwright said. “There remains a cultural perception that women and children are possessions, and you find this attitude persisting in some people of authority,” she said. “Sometimes efforts are thwarted because they do not believe that domestic violence is a crime.
“We need a law that says, ‘If you have been convicted of domestic violence, you can never own a gun again.’ This is a human rights issue—everyone has a right not to live in fear. We know that children who witness abuse become abusers or victims, and the longer we go without interrupting the cycle, the more pernicious it becomes.”
Dr. Boatwright notes that other changes are needed to help break the cycle. “Physicians need immunity when reporting domestic violence, as they now have in cases of child abuse. And the way we deal with protective orders here in Chattanooga needs to be changed.” She urged those who want to see these changes to contact their local and state representatives.
Two and a half years ago, the Bryan College International Development Center, with funding from St. Peter’s Episcopal and St. Paul’s Episcopal churches brought Dr. Eva Havelkova to Chattanooga for a three-month internship at the PFCA, said the center’s director, Dennis Miller.
“A University of Minnesota study estimates that 38 percent of all Slovak women have been abused,” Miller said. “Yet there are only two shelters in all of Slovakia housing about 70 women.”
Echoing Dr. Boatwright’s comments, he said, “Women with low job skills are at great risk, as they stay in abusive relationships because of the financial support. We are trying to help them develop skills.”
This summer, shelters in Fernandina and Naples, Florida are providing internships for Bryan students to travel to Slovakia next fall and spring to assist at the Duha Shelter in Bratislava.
Stop blaming the victim
Dr. Boatwright is adamant that the focus needs to be on why domestic-violence perpetuators do what they do—not on “Why doesn’t she just leave him?”
“Most victims have been so destroyed emotionally and psychologically, they are incapable of the decisions needed to get out. ‘You’re so fat, who else would want you?’ ‘If you leave, I’ll kill the kids.’
“It takes most women who do leave seven tries before they successfully get out,” she said. “And even then, they need support, a safe place for them and their children, and legal help.”
Where to Find—and Give—Help
•The Coalition Against Domestic and Community Violence of Greater Chattanooga, Inc.
(423) 875-0120. The DVC also provides a free brochure, “Personal Safety Plan.”
•The Partnership for Families, Children & Adults (24-hour Family Violence Hotline)
•Southeast Tennessee Legal Services. (423) 756-0128. Refers to lower-cost attorneys and helps with orders of protection.
• Bryan College International Development Center. (423) 634-1114.