Editor’s note: This story contains descriptions of abuse and intimate partner violence and may be upsetting to some readers. If you are affected by intimate partner violence and need support, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. You can also visit thehotline.org or text LOVEIS to 22522.
‘God doesn’t want you to be abused’
Tia Payne remembers the act of filing for divorce as “very, very liberating.” Walking out of the Akron Municipal Court, she was looking at a “whole new world.”
The moment didn’t just signify the end of Tia’s relationship with her abusive husband but the breaking of a cycle of violence that began when Tia was a young girl.
To understand Tia’s story, you have to go all the way back to 1988, when Tia was just 9 years old, waiting for her then separated parents to come back together.
“I prayed and asked God, ‘Can you send my dad home?’” she recalls. “Everyone had a two-parent home except us.”
For seven years, Tia and her six siblings lived together with their mom in West Akron. They saw their father occasionally, until one day, Tia’s prayers were answered. Her father came home.
“It was roses for about six months,” Tia says. “And then the violence started. It was bad. It was really, really bad. You felt the atmosphere at home switch. Being at home, you literally felt like you were walking on eggshells. We termed it ‘black moods,’ because that’s how you felt it — like you were living in this cloud of blackness.”
Tia’s father was a preacher. On the outside looking in, Tia’s family looked perfect. They were a middle-class family with a nice home and a nice car. Tia describes her father as “charming” and “well-liked” in the community, the type of person who you’d never suspect to have a violent side.
On Sundays, they all went to church together, where they sang and watched their father preach.
“He’d get up and he’d preach, and you’d have this whole congregation with people praising, and then you get home and you see this totally different monster sitting at the table with you,” Tia says. “And as the preacher’s kid, you’re supposed to be perfect. You can’t have any issues. You have to go to church and you have to smile.”
Tia’s mom separated from her father because of domestic violence. But after seven years, she invited him back into their lives, believing he’d changed. But the domestic violence never went away, often spilling into physical and psychological abuse of Tia and her siblings.
“My mom lived through domestic violence and divorce was never an option,” Tia says. “We were taught we stayed and we prayed and God was going to do a miracle. You stick it out. You don’t leave.”
For a long time, Tia believed her prayers were what brought her father back home — and she quietly held onto shame and guilt, believing those prayers were the reason for her family’s pain. It took her years to unlearn this, even after she left home at 18 to join the military.
At 24, she married her high school sweetheart. In the five years before her divorce, she endured physical and emotional abuse, which pushed her to the point of considering suicide as her only way out.
“[He was] very verbally abusive, very mentally abusive, very degrading,” Tia says. “He treated me exactly how my dad did. In my marriage, there was physical abuse, but it was less about the physical abuse and more about the dominating control over me. And I had always been very independent and very sure of myself. And so, getting in that relationship, it took all of that away from me.”
It wasn’t until Tia’s daughter, 2 years old at the time, witnessed Tia getting abused that she decided she needed to separate from her husband.
“The first time he hit me, it’s almost like my eyes immediately went to my daughter and she was looking at me,” Tia says. “That started pricking a little bit, like ‘I can’t do this,’ because I had been watching that growing up, and now I was watching my daughter watch me repeat that cycle. It was heartbreaking.”
Despite the abuse, getting a divorce wasn’t an option for Tia who believed it would go against God’s word. She separated from her ex, which her parents supported as long as she didn’t get a divorce. Before gathering her things and driving to California to her parents, her ex pulled a gun on her for trying to leave.
“It had gotten to the point where, if I don’t do something, something is going to happen,” she says.
She stayed separated for three years until a preacher at her church reached out to her.
“I met with him and he said, ‘If all of this is happening, why are you not divorced?’ And I said, ‘I don’t want to go to Hell.’ And he said, ‘what do you mean?’ And I said, ‘You can’t get a divorce.’ And he was just kind of looking at me. And then he said, ‘Wait. Can you show me that in the Bible?’ And so, I sat there stunned, like, I’ve actually never seen that in the Bible. He said, ‘No, I want you to find it in the Bible.’
“So, I’m just kind of leafing through the Bible knowing it’s not there, but still, it has to be here because this is what I’ve been told. So finally, he said, ‘Can’t find it, can you?’ And I said ‘No.’ And he said ‘God doesn’t want you to be abused. That’s not the God that we serve.’”
The very next day, Tia filed for divorce.
Today, Tia is the founder of Legacy 31, a faith-based community organization that works with survivors of domestic violence through outreach, education and counseling. She’s also the author of Reflections of a Preacher’s Kid which documents her early life.
Not everyone finds a way out as Tia did. So far this year, at the time of publication, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) estimates that 287 people in the U.S. have died in gun-related domestic violence. Additionally, about 10 million people per year in the U.S. are physically abused by an intimate partner.
Because of COVID-19, many individuals living with domestic violence have had an even harder time accessing resources and escaping their abusers due to stay-at-home orders, which are slowly being lifted. Dana Zedak, senior director of educational services at Victim Assistance Program of Summit County, says she’s seen their domestic violence numbers for new clients slightly drop, but she says this doesn’t mean domestic violence isn’t happening, and it’s probably due to victims’ inability to find a safe place to reach out for help because of stay-at-home orders. In fact, The Devil Strip reported in early April that domestic violence calls were increasing.
Nathan Chambers, director of the Battered Women’s Shelter, says their hotline calls have increased by about 15%, and he expects them to continue rising.
Caseworkers at Victim Assistance Program are having to brainstorm follow-up plans for victims so perpetrators don’t escalate the violence upon learning that their partner has reached out for help.
“We’re putting more caution on [follow-ups] right now because of the virus, because people are in their homes and they’re using a lot of devices and you want to make sure people have that info on internet safety,” Zedak says. “So when people call us and they’re in crisis, we’re brainstorming and putting those records in our database so we can say, ‘Hey, if we wanted to call and check in, is this a safe phone? Is he able to check your voicemail? Could we call your mom, your sister, your best friend?’”
The term “intimate partner violence” is often used in place of “domestic violence” because it can include violence between dating partners and LGBTQ+ relationships. In Ohio, the NCADV estimates that “35.6% of Ohio women and 30% of Ohio men experience intimate partner physical violence, intimate partner rape, and/or intimate partner stalking in their lifetimes.”
The Battered Women’s Shelter in Summit County has 226 beds, which are often full, especially in the summer. The holidays, too, are another peak season for domestic violence, due to the financial stress families face.
Victim Assistance Program, another organization that works with domestic violence survivors, says of the 5,000 to 6,000 clients they work with every year, about 40% are intimate partner violence victims. Though they don’t house victims, they do serve clients by offering therapy, working to secure housing, helping clients apply for protection orders, and responding to 911 violence calls with the Akron Police Department to try to provide trauma-informed care for victims.
Not everyone calls the police, though.
Samantha Solomon, an attorney working with Asian Services in Action (ASIA), says immigrant and refugee communities often live in fear because of concerns for their immigration status, as well as community pressure and shame.
“A lot of our clients, they’re coming from cultures where domestic violence is a taboo. It’s a hush-hush topic. You don’t talk about it,” Solomon says. “A lot of our clients don’t even see themselves as being victims. And that, in and of itself, is a traumatizing process. Explaining that that person is not allowed to hurt them.
“In the cultures we work with, there’s a very strong community presence, very strong family presence,” Solomon continued. “And so, a lot of the time, we’ll have a client who is coming to us, who is getting victimized by their spouse, and we tend to notice that also the children are victimizing them as well. Because they’re saying, ‘if you leave, you’re splitting up our family. If you leave, you’re going against our culture.’ And then we also have religious aspects as well. A lot of our clients are, in their perception of their religion, not allowed to get divorced.”
Immigration abuse is another barrier. In some cases, Solomon says, a person is in the United States on a fiancé visa. In others, they’re on a two-year green card and waiting to get their marriage bona fide. Either way, their immigration status is dependent on their spouse. And if their spouse is abusing them, they’re even more vulnerable.
This is exacerbated if the victim, the abuser, or a family member is undocumented. Often, Solomon says, the abuser will terrify the victim into thinking they’ll get deported if they go to law enforcement, and that their kids will be taken from them. There are exceptions to help victims in these situations, but Solomon says these are getting “harder and harder to grasp” under the Trump administration.
“The state of affairs right now of immigrants and refugees in this community is terrifying,” she says. “Terrifying to a point where people who have been victimized, some of the worst things you and I have ever heard of, are afraid to go to our law enforcement because we have individuals at the court who are just calling [the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] on anything.
“So, on top of dealing with a trauma victim, on top of the cultural pressures, the community pressures, the family pressures, the immigration pressures, then you just get to straight racial issues. Straight bias that’s going on. Straight profiling or stereotyping.”
Victims living in housing provided by the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority, who may be housing their partner without informing AMHA, may be reluctant to call the police during an incident for fear of getting kicked out of their home. Married couples living together may also hesitate to call for fear of being separated.
AMHA Executive Director Brian Gage says AMHA “prioritizes the protection of the victim” in accordance with the Violence Against Women Act. Victims cannot be evicted as a result of intimate partner violence, Gage says, but the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reserves the right to divide a lease in order to evict the perpetrator.
HUD’s Notice of Occupancy Rights Under the Violence Against Women Act statement reads: “If [the housing provider] chooses to remove the abuser or perpetrator, [the housing provider] may not take away the rights of eligible tenants to the unit or otherwise punish the remaining tenants.”
But if the Akron Police Department cannot determine who the perpetrator is when responding to a domestic violence call, they often charge both people.
The Black community, too, may be hesitant to call police for fear of further violence and escalation. Dr. Ciara Dennis-Morgan, Clinical Coordinator at Minority Behavioral Health Group (MBHG), says there are “barriers in the relationship between the African American community and the police department,” and recommends more implicit bias training for officers.
“There’s always this distrust that’s there,” she says. “I think there are times where of course the police need to and have to be involved. And people hate talking about training, but there has to be a different level of intervention and understanding for police officers. So I do think that’s definitely an ongoing training opportunity for people to really understand how they’re thinking and how that plays out in how they provide service to people when they’re serving and protecting people.”
Nationally, an October 2009 report from the U.S. Department of Justice found that Black women were twice as likely to be killed by their spouse, and four times more likely to be killed by a boyfriend or girlfriend, than white women.
At MBHG, which specializes in providing mental health services to minority populations, Dr. Dennis-Morgan says “very few” of her clients have not reported some forms of intimate partner violence.
“A lot of times what we talk about at MBHG is also considering the historical components,” says Dr. Morgan. “So when we look at the Black family, and the impact of slavery, and how women have been demeaned and degraded and they’ve been thought of as less than human, and how that has even transferred from slavery into Black families and how Black men see Black women, how Black women understand and see their own self-worth — I think that correlates and translates into your body being abused in many ways. Whether it’s sexually, economically, physically, emotionally, etc.”
Bertina King, a detective for the Akron Police Department’s crimes against persons unit, says the police force is implementing a trauma-informed care approach when dealing with all victims of violence. She says Victim Assistance helps by also responding to calls, getting people to safe shelter, or even taking them to PATH Center to get tested for sexual assault, which collects evidence in case the victim later decides to prosecute. Ohio allows hospitals to do anonymous reporting for sexual assault, and patients can later choose if they do or do not want to officially file a police report.
Zedak says their commitment to responding to police calls is a unique service that’s not provided in many places. Part of the reason victims don’t call police is because police are often untrained in trauma-informed care. By responding to intimate partner violence calls, Victim Assistance is able to prioritize the mental health of the victim, connect them to resources throughout the community, and most importantly, validate the victim’s experience.
“Our agency really looks to the person who has been victimized to define what that is for them,” Zedak says. “So, if someone calls here and says ‘I’ve been sexually assaulted,’ we’re going to believe them, we’re going to support them, we’re going to pursue our process for them. We don’t have the burden that law enforcement has to question it, to define it, to put it in a box.”
King stresses that the police cannot ignore a domestic violence call, and there’s a procedure they have to follow when responding to an incident. Before the 1990s, she says the Akron Police Department didn’t have to generate reports for domestic violence calls. Callers who were influenced by their abusers could cancel a call after it was already made, and domestic violence calls weren’t prioritized by the department.
Now, police officers have to generate a report, and they have to arrest the perpetrator, whether or not the victim wants them arrested and charged. If police cannot determine which partner is the perpetrator, they’ll charge both people. And though a person who is charged can go through a court-ordered program to remove the charges, if the charges aren’t removed, this can hinder someone’s ability to apply for housing.
“In domestic violence, what the person really wants is for the violence to stop. Not necessarily for the person to go to jail,” King says. “And sometimes [domestic violence calls] go bad because we may determine who is the person we need to arrest, but even though she was beaten up, she may not want that person to be arrested. Even though you’re beaten up, there are economic reasons that may influence not wanting the person to go to jail.
“We have to do our job,” King continues. “We can’t not go to a call. And we get a bad reputation because sometimes we actually have to arrest somebody. And it may not be what you wanted us to do, but if we can determine who the primary aggressor is, that is our job. We get a bad rep for that but we’re doing what the law wants us to do. Sometimes you listen to the caller and they’ll tell you he beats her every single night. We hear this all the time. There’s children in the house.”
King says, on average, it takes between six and eight calls for a person to take steps to end an abusive relationship.
“They love them. They don’t love the violence, but they love the person,” she says.
‘Those things make leaving really complicated’
With all of this in mind, it’s easy to see why victims often don’t seek help or leave before the abuse gets worse. Some, like Tia Payne, grow fearful for their lives. Others are afraid for their immigration status. And often, economics get in the way — if your abuser controls your finances or a family needs two incomes to get by, it can be very difficult to leave.
And for members of the LGBTQ+ community, Community Aids Network/Akron Pride Initiative Outreach Director Jackie Knutti says that abusers can sometimes threaten to out victims. And for those who are out but have homophobic family members, reaching out and getting help can be an even bigger barrier.
Lily Holderbaum, a nurse at Cleveland Clinic/Akron General, says that sometimes, victims are just plain busy.
“We have patients who are here, they know they’ve been violated, but yet in the back of their head the only thing they can think of is, it’s 3:00, and they have to get their child off the bus and they still have family responsibilities,” she says. “And so even in those situations, sometimes they don’t report right away, or they present to the hospital a couple days later, because they still have family needs or other responsibilities that it just can’t bring them to us immediately.”
But the biggest barrier, says Nathan Chambers, is shame and trauma. Intimate partner violence often goes beyond physical abuse, taking on a psychological dimension.
“The bruises, the broken bones, the scrapes — those things typically heal pretty quick,” he says. “It’s the emotional toll, the trauma, that really dictates how fast someone heals and moves on to a better situation and to a better environment.”
Dana Zedak argues that “people love their abuser.”
“They have things in common. They have history. They have connections. And those things make leaving really complicated,” Zedak says.
Family and friends may pressure or judge the victim for staying in their relationship, which can lead the victim to feel shameful for staying, which can lead to not telling others when abuse continues.
“People are hopeful that the abuse will stop. And so lots of times people got into those patterns where they’re hopeful and they’re disappointed and then they become shameful, and pretty soon, they’ve isolated themselves from lots of other people,” Zedak says.
Tia Payne wishes people understood how common domestic violence really is.
“Sometimes we see domestic violence as the worst physically abusive cases, and we don’t see the verbal or the emotional or the mental,” she says. “Understand that you can be well-off and you can be abused. Understand that you can be church leadership and you can be abused. We make these judgments that what looks perfect on the outside has to be perfect on the inside and that’s not always the case.
“A lot of time we don’t think something is real until it hits our front door, especially when we think of traumatic events and people being victimized,” she continues. “Even with sexual assault, [there’s a sense that] ‘that’s not real until it hits my door.’ As long as we keep quiet about domestic violence, that’s as long as domestic violence will be around.’”
Noor Hindi covers equity and inclusion for The Devil Strip. If you’d like to speak out about domestic violence, or share your story, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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