It started as a love story, an all-consuming relationship with a charming man. But soon, Keri, whose last name is not being used by the Miami Herald to protect her identity, found her boyfriend was no prince. Over time, his devotion shifted to control: She wasn’t allowed to use the phone, have friends or go outside without permission.
“I thought ‘He must love me, if he wants me all to himself,’” Keri said. “So I learned my place.”
Soon, the verbal assaults started. He belittled her, cursed her and demanded apologies for making him angry. Then, she said, the beatings began. The Broward mother of two children, who is pregnant with her third, eventually found help and left.
But many women — out of fear, shame or financial dependency — don’t leave. They endure the physical pain and emotional abuse, often in front of their children. Some don’t make it out alive.
The video that surfaced last month of now-suspended NFL player Ray Rice dragging his unconscious fiancée out of an elevator in an Atlantic City casino has raised consciousness of the issue. Calls about domestic violence went from about 100 a week before the Rice video to 163 after the video — a 60 percent increase — at Women in Distress of Broward County. The nonprofit, which has a 132-bed emergency shelter and outreach programs, served more than 3,100 women and children in the past year.
One in four women will experience abuse in her lifetime, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Every 15 seconds a woman in this country is battered, many times with her children watching. In 2013, there were 6,226 domestic violence-related arrests in Broward and 9,953 in Miami-Dade, according to law enforcement records.
“People need to educate themselves about what domestic violence is,” said Ron Osborne-Williams, education and prevention manager at Women in Distress. “It’s not just about punches. It’s an umbrella of things that occur,” he said. “It’s about power and control” and can include sexual violence, stalking, emotional and verbal abuse. It crosses all cultures and economic classes.
Women in Distress will hold a Silent Witness Memorial on Wednesday to honor the 11 domestic abuse victims who died in Broward County last year. The memorial will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Nova Southeastern University in Davie. The event will include speakers, spoken word performances by Nova students and a candlelight vigil.
There are many reasons a victim will stay with an abuser, said Ivon Mesa, director of Miami-Dade County’s Violence Protection and Intervention Division. One is fear.
“It is statistically proven that one of the most vulnerable times for a victim of domestic violence is when she or he decides to leave the abuser,” she said. “Fear is a very important reason why victims are paralyzed. They fear the abuser will kill them, their children or family members.”
Another is shame. They wonder what their family and neighbors are going to think, Mesa said. “Sometimes a victim will stay to avoid the stigma of being a victim of domestic violence,” she said.
Other contributing factors are financial dependency and reluctance to leave the biological father of their children. But they have to break that cycle of violence, Mesa said. Many children of victims grow up to be abusers or abused themselves.
Most victims have low self-esteem and little to no family support. “One of the things abusers do is isolate the victim from the natural support system — family and friends — so the victim will only depend on the abuser,” Mesa said.
Keri, who is approaching her due date, said the violence escalated over time.
It started with slaps to her face and clumps of hair being ripped from her scalp. “No matter what I did, he was never happy,” she said. If work was slow, bills were unpaid or the kids were late for school, it was her fault.
The violence worsened. She says he pounded her head against the wall and slammed her face into the countertop. He was fond of grabbing her by the throat and throwing her on the ground, she said.
“One day, he shoved me into a chair and started to pound on my head. Pounding as hard as he could,” the woman said. “I had a headache for two days.”
Looking back, Keri said she accepted the situation because she was brainwashed into believing it was love. She thought that because she loved him, it would get better.
They fought nearly every day. Afterwards, he would take her face into his hands, she said, and say, “Why are you doing this? Don’t you know you’re my everything? That the last thing I want to do is put my hands on you?”
When she fought back, it would get really dangerous.
“I learned how to lay still,” she said.
The final straw came as she entered her ninth month of pregnancy in early October. He started an argument, picked her up and threw her on the bed, jumped on top of her swollen belly and started choking her, she said. Keri panicked because she feared the baby was injured. “I thought … he broke an arm, a leg … broke his back, his spine. I was thinking all kinds of crazy thoughts,” she said. “And my second thought was, ‘I think it’s time to call the police.’”
She called the police and the man was arrested. She sought help from No More Tears, a Plantation-based nonprofit that works with domestic violence victims. Founder Somy Ali helped her file a restraining order and moved her and her children to temporary housing.
No More Tears, an all-volunteer organization that operates on donor funding, typically pays for five nights of emergency shelter in a hotel and one month’s rent in a studio or efficiency apartment. It helps women find jobs, learn how to drive and register their children in school. Since 2007, the agency has helped 368 adult victims and 741 children. Ali said she gets calls all day seeking help.
“We focus on empowerment,” she said. “You can pay for one month’s rent in a studio apartment, but what happens then? You have to give them a skill, so they can get back on their feet.”
Many abuse victims have not been allowed to work, so they have no way to support themselves. No More Tears pays for job training.
“We want to give tools to help them survive on their own, so they won’t go back to the abuser,” Ali said.
Without a plan, victims will shelter-hop, from one program to another, until they run out of time at each and end up back with their abuser, she said.
Osborne-Williams said teens are at particular risk, often because they don’t know how to have healthy relationships. “Sometimes that abuse becomes the attention that they need at that time in their life,” he said.
To counter this, Women in Distress offers a five-week program for middle-school students, as well as programs for at-risk populations in any grade level. The agency also operates five outreach centers for victims who are still with their abusers and are covertly developing a “safety plan,” or who need support services for their children.
At its emergency shelter, Women in Distress clients have access to medical services, counseling and advocacy services. “It’s a very inclusive environment,” Osborne-Williams said. “You are in a safe place.”
Miami-Dade County’s Violence Protection and Intervention Division operates two emergency shelters, two transitional housing units where victims can stay for up to two years, outreach centers and a Coordinated Victims’ Assistance Center, a one-stop shop for legal, therapeutic, educational and vocational support. In 2013, it assisted nearly 8,000 people.
“Our shelters have been full to capacity for the past nine months, and our outreach centers are bombarded,” said Mesa, division director.
Outreach programs offer emergency safety planning, empowerment and support groups for victims and children. While the vocational training it offers is important, Mesa said, social support also is critical.
“Sometimes they feel like they are the only one in this situation,” Mesa said. “When they participate in an empowerment group, they begin to get stronger and feel that they have value, no matter what their abuser has told them.”
Keri said she is learning to take control of her life, and is relying on her faith to see her through.
“I know I made the right decision and I’m on the right path, not only for me, but for my children,” she said.
She said she wants to let other abused women know they are not alone.
“When you are a victim of domestic violence and are beat down physically and psychologically, you lose your trust and you think everyone is trying to get you. But there is light in the darkness,” she said. “I’m building my support system … and learning the gift of discernment, to be able to distinguish between good people and bad people.”
She hopes to pay it forward.
“I am not ashamed,” she said. “Once you step out of that shadow, you are not a victim. You are a victor.”
Miami-Dade County Community Action and Human Services
Safespace Shelter North
Safespace Shelter South
Miami-Dade County Coordinated Victims’ Assistance Center
2400 S. Dixie Hwy., Miami, 305-285-5900
No More Tears: 10097 Cleary Blvd., No.150, Plantation
Crisis Line: 954-324-7669
Women in Distress
24-hour crisis line: 954-761-1133
Silent Witness Memorial
What: Honors the lives lost this year to domestic violence
When: 6-8 p.m. Wednesday; Silent Witness Silhouette display, 6-7 p.m.; program starts at 7 p.m.
Where: Nova Southeastern University, 3301 College Ave., Davie; in front of the Rose and Alfred Miniaci Performing Arts Center
Information: Ron C. Osborne-Williams, 954-760-9800, ext.1261; firstname.lastname@example.org