Stopping the violence

Saturday, March 5, 2005

At first Julia thought her parents were very strict. Then she ran away from home and took up with a man who showed her what strict could really mean.

Julia, whose name is changed to protect her identity, involved herself with the wrong man and became a victim of domestic violence in Southeast Missouri.

Debi Oliver, domestic violence officer for the Cape Girardeau Police Department, says many women stay in abusive situations because they believe it's their only hope for survival. Sometimes they don't survive.

Julia is one of the lucky ones. She got away, she didn't go back. She says she was a good student when she was in high school. She made A's and B's, participated in sports. But she began rebelling against her parents and running away from home. She dropped out of high school her junior year, and began hanging out with people known to use and deal drugs. She got caught with a misdemeanor amount of marijuana and was put on probation. One older man in particular, who will be called RJ, took an interest in her.

"He sucked her in," Oliver said. "He saw she was naive and saw she was young."

"I felt bad for him," Julia recalled. "He said his wife had left him and he wanted me to help him get off speed. He put on a guilt trip. He said he was going to kill himself."

She became his prisoner. When she tried to leave him, he would fly into a rage, threaten to kill her family, threaten to kill her. And worst of all, he threatened to kill the only source of love she could cling to: her pet cat, Spike.

RJ had taken her to the humane society where they picked out a kitten for her. It wasn't because he liked animals.

"Very often abusers will get a small animal in the home and get the victim attached to it and use that as control," Oliver said. "We have an agreement with the humane society. Any time the same family comes back several times during the same year, we look into that as a possible domestic violence situation where someone killed an animal as a method of controlling the victim to get them to stay. It's not uncommon for perpetrators to abuse animals and hold the animal over the victim's head knowing it's the only unconditional love the victim has."

Psychological abuse

Throughout the year Julia spent under RJ's influence, he beat her, he threw her cat against a wall, told her she was crazy often enough she began to believe it. He gave her a car, but would not let her drive it. He bought her a computer but would not let her use it. If he allowed her to go shopping, he followed her to watch her every move. Julia said that RJ once locked her out of the house on a cold winter day when she was wearing only shorts and a T-shirt.

"I wanted to get a job, but he said he would support me," Julia said. "He didn't want me leaving or to have an opportunity to make friends."

She had an opportunity to get away when RJ made her miss a meeting with her probation officer and she was arrested.

"I didn't know anything," Julia said. "I was afraid I would go to jail if I told her."

RJ had also convinced her that the police would not believe her if she did tell them about her situation. Oliver said that's typical of domestic abusers, but the fact is, she said, that police always believe the victim.

It was an observant police officer, Oliver said, who helped her escape. Cpl. Rick Price was one of the officers called to the home Julia shared with RJ because a witness had seen RJ hit her. RJ had seen the police car pull up at the house, and ordered her to go take a shower. He told Price that Julia was all right, that she was taking a shower. Price could hear her crying in the shower and insisted she put on a robe and come out and tell him if she was all right. Other officers got RJ into another room and away from Julia, who finally was able to tell Price that she needed help.

Oliver's role

Julia, now 19, has been in close contact with Oliver ever since that day. Oliver has gone to court with her and counseled her, but was surprised recently when Julia said that she thought RJ was going to kill her that day.

Oliver credits Price for having enough perseverance to see for himself whether Julia was all right. A less experienced police officer might not have, she said. Oliver is working to make sure that police officers have the training and knowledge to know how to respond to domestic violence calls. She is part of the Cape Girardeau Police Department, but 75 percent of her salary is paid from a state grant through the U.S. Department of Justice. Grants pay for her office supplies, telephone, pager and computer. She works side by side with all of the officers on the force, but is not considered part of the city's pay plan. The city pays 25 percent of her upkeep in in-kind services or in cash; it changes with each budget year, she said.

Oliver, 51, is also a licensed registered emergency room nurse and a licensed counselor whose patients and clients were mostly abuse victims. Stepping into law enforcement was a logical transition, she said. She holds four degrees and is currently working toward her master's in criminal justice.

She had retired as a captain with the Mississippi County Sheriff's Department, she said, when Cape Girardeau police chief Steve Strong asked her if she would be interested in working with domestic violence victims in Cape Girardeau, where she lives with her husband, John, a lawyer. Tammy Gwaltney of the Southeast Missouri Network Against Sexual Violence wrote the first grant in 1997, and Oliver has been working in conjunction with NASV and the police department ever since.

Each year she writes a grant application to perpetuate, and eventually build on, the job she is doing. As long as there are men like RJ who use violence as a means of control and domination, she has job security. She measures success by the number of domestic violence calls the police department receives. In 2003, she said, there were between 700 and 800 calls for assistance for domestic violence and sexual assault. Last year, there were 1,270 calls. The increase, she said, can be attributed to word getting around that if a victim takes the risk and gets away from her abusive partner, she can be assured that the police will investigate and her assailant will go to court. In 2004, 396 reports were investigated and 332 suspects were actually arrested for domestic violence and referred to the prosecutor. RJ is only one of those.

Since she was rescued from the situation she was in, Julia has fulfilled a promise she made Oliver that she would take her GED. It took a while before she built up the courage to reunite with her family, but she and her parents are getting along better now. She has a job and an apartment, and is learning how to budget her money and pay her bills.

"Things I never had to do before now I have to do," she said. "Paying rent, utilities, food, phone bill."

She's keeping up her car, paying medical bills, learning how to balance a checkbook and providing for her companion who saw her through the whole ordeal, her cat Spike. She acknowledges that she's had to jump feet first into a living situation most women her age ease into gradually by learning from their families and through high school and college. Oliver said many women get bogged down at this point because they think they can't cope so they go back to the only life they know.

"I am so proud of her," Oliver said. "There are so many things she has accomplished. My biggest fear was that she would give up and go back into a situation where she is financially dependent on a man. She did not have the life skills to survive on her own. It's something she had to be taught."

Julia said she looks at men differently than before. She's not so trusting, not so eager to please, and if a man shows signs of wanting to control her she's not so patient.

"I don't want to depend on a guy," she said. "I don't need a guy in order to survive, to have good self-esteem."

She thinks when she's older she might want to marry and have a family, but says that before she does she wants to establish a career so she can support herself if she has to. Her plan now is to join the Navy. Oliver supports that decision.

"She needs the discipline and the structure," Oliver said. "She also needs to get out of this environment for her own safety."

Julia says she is hopeful about her future.

"I know I can do something with my life now," she said. "No one can stop me."

Added Oliver, "She knows she is worth the risk, worth the effort, the risk her boss took to hire her, the risk the police staff took, the risk the prosecutor is taking. She sees all these professional people telling her she is worth it."

Julia said that her ordeal also strengthened her faith in God. She said while she was with RJ, she often prayed for someone to help her.

Julia said after she finishes her tour with the Navy she wants to go to college and eventually join the FBI or the Drug Enforcement Administration. She said she wants to catch people like RJ.

"I know what to look for," she said.

lredeffer@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 160

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