Domestic Violence—Then and Now
I was first exposed to a sexual assault incident when I was about 10 or 12 years old. It was late at night—maybe around 11:30 or so—and my mom and I were watching an Elvis Presley movie in our living room. I heard a loud, persistent knock at the front door, and my mom ran to open it.
Still imprinted in my mind is what I saw when the door opened: a woman in her teens or 20s, with blondish brown hair that was long and a bit curly, and she was crying hard. She had red lipstick smeared all over her lips and face. She was wearing a navy-blue dress, and it was torn – and soaked. It was raining heavily.
When she came inside, she told my mom she had been raped in the park across the street after she had left a college party a block away.
My mom put her arm around her, told her she’ll be OK, and led her onto a chair in our living room. The woman looked comforted in my mom’s arms. She was shivering. I can still recall my mom walking out of the kitchen with a cup of something warm for this woman to drink and maybe a towel or blanket. After she had a sip or two, my mom asked if she could call the police to file a report of the rape.
This distraught victim was so lucky that she came to the home of a woman with a huge heart who would do everything in her power to comfort her and give her the help she needed.
Fast forward some 30 years.
In my second year as a reporter, I was assigned the Medford School District beat. Early on, I learned about a program called “Girls Matter!” in the middle school. The social studies teacher, Joni-Jean Crivello, was big on teaching her students about becoming responsible young women (and some young men also took the elective, believe it or not) and the importance of helping each other through rough times.
One of the projects she did with her students during the holiday season was to collect personal items to give to women (and their children) who were clients of the Women’s Opportunity Center (WOC) in Burlington County. At the time, it was located at the YMCA in Moorestown; it is now at the Burlington-Riverfront YMCA.
I wanted to familiarize myself with the WOC since I was going to mention it in my story, so I went there and spoke with then-Director Cathi Rendfrey. She explained that the organization is non-profit—relying on state funding and donations—and helps women become self-sufficient who have lost financial support due to separation, divorce, death or disability of a spouse or partner.
The staff, volunteers and community provide a plethora of services including job readiness training, referrals, creating a resume, computer assistance, emotional support, professional clothing for interviews, free haircuts, legal and budgeting workshops, and so much more.
I didn’t realize when I first sat down with Ms. Rendfrey just how dark these women’s worlds had become before they walked in to the WOC.
She explained that, over the years, many of the clients have experienced domestic violence. I learned then and there what that was: abuse that occurs behind closed doors, such as in one’s home. It is motivated by one partner’s need to control, manipulate and intimidate the other partner.
The types of domestic violence include—but are not limited to—physical, sexual, emotional, verbal and financial abuse. It exists everywhere, within every population and all over the map, including in our back yards.
Its prevalence is staggering. On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the U.S. During one year, that equates to more than 10 million women (and men). Many other stats are equally disturbing.
The impact to the victim—and family—can lead to a variety of health issues including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, pain, migraine headaches, digestive issues, heart problems, arthritis, asthma and much more.
Donna Lombardo, the WOC’s current program director, explained that domestic violence is often kept a secret— “a hidden issue”—because women may be terrified to speak out.
“They fear their abuser, they fear being judged or they feel they did something to deserve the abuse. If they are employed, they fear losing their job. They are afraid of losing their children. Fear is the dominating factor. Sometimes the fear of the unknown is scarier than the fear they have been accustomed to.”
Victims may feel if they reveal the abuse to anyone, even a good friend, they will be told that they should leave. “Even though the victim understands that, it may be too overwhelming to imagine leaving and starting over, with or without children. So, they may choose to stay silent. It is not unusual that people close to the victim do not realize the severity of the abuse in the home.”
There are times when the victim musters the fortitude to leave but returns to the abuser: she may believe the abuser can change, she’s having difficulty raising children on her own, or she cannot maintain stable housing. That reunification is also driven by the fear that the abuser will hurt her.
The fact that domestic violence is secretive also means that the victim will suffer alone.
She isn’t going to get the hug or warm cup of tea by a loving friend or family member that my mom gave to the rape victim who showed up at our door many years ago after her sexual assault. She isn’t going to report the assault. She could be struck in this nightmare for years.
However, for those who are able to break away, Ms. Lombardo said the WOC is there for them as they set the recovery process into motion and begin to emotionally heal and work toward their new role as financial provider of the household.
Once I learned about domestic violence, I realized that if this abuse is handled as a private matter by the victim in the relationship, that means that the person standing next to me, the person I see when I walk in my neighborhood, the person I say “hi” to in my synagogue or who I think I know quite well may in fact be suffering.
It breaks my heart that a woman would go through this alone, but I get it.
Sisterhood is the most powerful tool we have to keep us grounded, and I am grateful for all the women in my life—and the resources out there like the WOC which exists to support women—in times of need.
For more information on the WOC, please check out their website.