MANSFIELD, Ohio – From the outside looking in, it’s easy to make judgments about victims of domestic violence who choose to stay with their abusers. But observers often cannot understand the level of mental abuse that accompanies the physical scars – abuse that contributes to the reasons victims stay.
“I get a lot of people saying, ‘If they hit me once I’m gone,’ and that is so not the case,” said Kathy Ezawa, executive director of the Domestic Violence Shelter in Mansfield. “It’s so much more than that.”
According to Ezawa, it takes a victim – usually a woman – an average of seven attempts to leave an abusive relationship before they’re successful. She explained there are a number of factors in choosing to stay, including financial issues, child involvement, and social issues such as a victim’s upbringing and their culture or faith’s views on leaving a partner.
However, the two biggest reasons to stay are the hardest to break: fear, and love.
“It comes down to the fact that if you’re in fear for your life you’re going to do whatever they tell you to do,” said Ezawa. “If you’re in fear your family is going to be injured you’re going to do anything to keep that from happening. Unfortunately we see a lot of that.”
“The emotional connection is the strongest force to break in the human psyche,” added Richland County Prosecutor Bambi Couch Page. “That human emotion of love has been used against that individual to rework their way of thinking about themselves, their world around them and what they are capable of as an individual.”
Couch Page has been involved the arena of domestic violence since the very beginning – she helped write the original protocols at the police department when responding to a domestic violence case. Now more than 20 years later, Couch Page said she has seen an increased awareness in domestic violence within the community.
“Based upon community awareness and the fact that people now understand that it is a crime and it is not a situation that involves something as a private family matter, it is being reported more," she said.
“Twenty years ago, a private citizen watching a husband slap their wife around in public or hearing it through the walls wouldn't have bothered to pick up the phone," she continued. "But now we are seeing they will make the call.”
But despite a system that has developed to give victims more confidence to speak out against their aggressors, Couch Page has seen little change in victim response.
“They still have the same sort of response to their victimization in that they will often recant or try to change their stories,” said Couch Page. “That part remains the same because those people still have an emotional connection to their abuser and they want to try to correct the situation. They want the violence to stop – they don’t want to see it go the full gamut of what our rights and responsibilities are in that we need to hold that person accountable to make them realize they can’t do this in the future.”
Detective Matt Loughman, domestic violence investigator with the Mansfield Police Department, investigated more than 700 domestic violence cases in 2014. He noted the majority of cases were repeat offenses – in the 20 years he’s been on the force, Loughman said there have been times he’s responded to the same house 10 or 15 times.
“That is more the norm than not,” he said. “Domestic violence is a completely different crime compared to anything else, because the person victimizing you, you love that person. After something bad happens you still love them. It’s not like any other crime there is.”
Fortunately, the justice system in Ohio is constructed to protect victims of domestic violence. Couch Page stated Ohio has a mandatory arrest circumstance in that if police officers find there has been physical harm and there’s a primary aggressor, officers are required to arrest the individual. This prevents victims from recanting their stories.
“There still remains that resistance after a point because what [the victim] wants more than anything is the violence to stop, and once the violence stops they think that’s the resolution, and it’s not," said Couch Page.
“Even though the violence has stopped, domestic violence is a cycle and will come back again unless someone intervenes and puts the safeguards in place to make people understand what is causing it and how we can correct it.
“The law doesn’t allow [the victim] to choose,” she continued. “In the prosecutor’s office, if there is the ability to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt and the victim wants to say they don’t want to go forward, that does not matter. Ultimately we have to look at it from her safety as well as the community’s safety, so the fact that the victim does not want it pursued is not going to change the fact we may go all the way and try the case.”
The same policy applies at the misdemeanor level in Mansfield. Hillary Brown, a victim advocate with the Mansfield City Law Director’s office, stated she has experienced many victims trying to stop the process once they believe the situation has been resolved.
“It’s a good feeling to be able to say we can’t do that,” said Brown. “Even if you wanted that to happen we’re not going to let it. Every once in a while I can sense they’re being pressured to do it, and I tell them to use us as the excuse and as the bad guy, because we don’t want anything else to happen to you. Use us as the scapegoat, we don’t care.”
Brown noted the most dangerous time for a domestic violence victim is when they are trying to leave, because the abuser knows they’re losing control. Which makes actually leaving a domestic violence situation an incredible act of courage.
“I give folks a lot of credit for being brave enough to leave,” said Ezawa. “That first step is the hardest step, and once that happens and they find out help is available, it helps them and their families to be a lot safer. When they finally have the courage to leave, they need to be able to go somewhere they know they’re going to be safe and secure and someone can help them figure out what’s next.”
The Domestic Violence Shelter in Mansfield has a confidential location so that perpetrators do not have access to survivors who seek the shelter for safety reasons. Ezawa said on any given day the shelter works with 10 to 15 survivors; in 2014, the shelter serviced approximately 450 survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking and dating violence.
“That number is alarming obviously, but the good thing is we have excellent services available to survivors when they do need us,” she said. “It’s terrible we have to do this work, it’s not ideal for us to have to have a shelter for survivors of domestic violence, but if you need it we’re here. We have really great advocates to help people figure out those traumatic events in their lives.”
With a strong support system from the shelter to law enforcement, victims have many places to turn to break the cycle of domestic violence.
“You should not be in any relationship with violence, if the person truly loves or cares about you they would not assault you,” said Loughman. “There is help out there, and the best thing to do is get help. If you don’t stop the cycle, it will never stop.”
For help or more information call the Domestic Violence Shelter at 419-774-5840 or visit http://www.thedvshelter.com/; or call Detective Matt Loughman, Direct Line, 419-755-9730; the Mansfield City Law Director's Office, 419-755-9667; or the Richland County Prosecutor's Office, 419-774-5676.