Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Surviving in Blaine County

Overcoming abuse can be a monumental feat


By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer

Hailey Police Lt. Steve England is on the board of directors of the Advocates for Survivors of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault in Hailey. He says in the past two to three years hes seen the number of domestic violence reports increase in Hailey. Photo by David N. Seelig

Jennifer Estorga remembers blood and hair smeared on the walls and floors of her childhood home. She remembers being dragged by her hair and thrown against the walls. She recalls being choked and suffering broken bones and death threats. There were times she dug through trash to find food.

"How many children's parents put their 4-year-old child's hand on the electric stove burner and turn it on, holding all of their weight down on their child to make sure that they get burned?" she asked during a June 2008 speech in Hailey, "for not picking up the little toy train on the kitchen floor."

These might seem like twisted images from a far-off world, but they're reality for Estorga, a Blaine County resident, and they're reality for the people who know her and for members of the community she calls home.

And that's just the thing. Estorga isn't alone. Some statistics show that as many as one in three women worldwide has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused. The exact incidence of domestic violence in America is difficult to determine, but it is clear it is higher than reported.

"I think domestic violence is one of those things that people prefer to push away," said Susan Brown, a victim advocate with the Advocates for Survivors of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault in Hailey. "The best thing in my mind to do is to raise awareness, to get it out of the closet."

In the past two years the headlines concerning sexual assaults, particularly lewd and lascivious cases involving minors, have mounted in Blaine County. Domestic violence cases on the other hand, as reported to the Idaho Supreme Court, have declined. In 1998, 108 filings were made in Blaine County compared with only 58 in 2007. The 10-year low was recorded in 2003, with 53 filings. The year 1998 was the 10-year high.

But numbers can be deceiving. Domestic violence experts say as few as one in 10 incidences are reported. That could mean statistics indicate anything from reporting accuracy to actual occurrence of domestic violence.

"It's hard to say based on what's happening in the courts what's happening in the homes," said Carol Pintler, client services coordinator for The Advocates. Pintler oversees the Hailey shelter, the only shelter in the region, as well as The Advocates' staff and client programs.

She said the number of new clients arriving at the shelter this year is up slightly over year-to-date figures from last year—177 last year compared to 181 this year.

In the most recent fiscal year, Pintler said, the Hailey shelter serviced 1,958 adult nights and 1,332 child nights. The average stay for adults was 29 days. The most frequent age group was 30- to 44-year-old women, followed by 18- to 29-year-olds.

Those numbers are firm. What isn't clear is how much domestic abuse goes unreported.

"No national agency collects the numbers," said Advocates Education Coordinator Trish Tobias. "Everyone reports differently, so there's not a standard."

According to psychologist Howard J. Osofsky in his book, "The Future of Children: Domestic Violence and Children," the reasons domestic violence statistics are vague are because it often goes unreported, that there is no national database or organization that gathers data, and that there is disagreement about what should be included in the definition of domestic violence.

What appears clear, however, is that it is common.

"Emotional abuse is very pervasive," Brown said. "By our thinking I think it's very under-reported. It's shouting or yelling, isolation, name-calling—when it's happening to the point where you are shrinking, where your sense of self is shrinking and being overlaid by someone else's sense of self."

Domestic violence is broadly defined as abuse between family members, partners or ex-partners. Abuse can include attempts to physically or psychologically dominate another. It is perpetrated by both men and women and has many forms, including physical violence, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, intimidation, economic deprivation and threats of violence.

Although emotional, psychological and financial abuse are not criminal behaviors, they are considered forms of abuse, and they can lead to criminal violence.

The Centers for Disease Control classifies domestic violence as a serious, preventable public health problem affecting more than 32 million Americans, or more than 10 percent of the U.S. population. On its Web site, the Ada County Domestic Violence Unit says simply that domestic violence occurs "when a relationship is based on power and control."

But, as Estorga said, it sometimes seems easier for outside observers not to believe, "to turn and look the other way, to deafen your ears to the cries for help. Or to look at the bruises and the blank stares and pretend that you don't really see them. Because if you don't see it, it's not real.

"Ours is the ugly secret that gets whispered about behind closed doors, behind our backs," Estorga said in a speech at an Advocates fundraiser in June 2008. "And it is the evil within which many of us lose ourselves."

Estorga said survivors often become lost souls, their trust and innocence stolen. Many, she said, will fall by the wayside. Many will never find their way back. And even more, still, will carry on the vicious cycle. She said that, no matter where people are or what they think they know, domestic violence and sexual abuse touch friends, acquaintances and loved ones.

"I try not to show the scars that lie just beneath the surface because I don't want you to feel sorry for me," she said. "I don't want you to know that I still call out in the night in a cold sweat, crying and afraid. And not because of some awful nightmare, but because of memories that haunt me."

In recovery groups, victims of rape and sexual abuse are called survivors because they have lived beyond and risen above. Women like Estorga have proved they are not victims, Pintler said, and, more precisely, that they are not the people their abusers attempted to turn them into.

"Survivor—there's an optimistic take that it hasn't beaten me," Pintler said. "There's a lot of hope associated with it. You kind of need that. Hope."

In the past two to three years, Hailey Police Lt. Steve England said he has seen the number of domestic violence-related reports increase. He reiterated the point, however, that exact numbers are difficult to nail down.

"We're called to a possible domestic situation four to seven times a week," he said, "and obviously we don't make an arrest every time."

England is a police officer who also serves on the board of directors of the Advocates. It's a task he undertook in 2007 after attending a few fundraisers, and it appealed to him because it afforded an opportunity to work on the proactive side of the domestic violence issue rather than with the reactive nature of police work.

He said the women's shelter is "one of the biggest assets we have in the city of Hailey."

"We're definitely making more arrests on these crimes as of late," he said, adding that it is possible that it's a function of increasing population.

"The more populated it gets, the more crime we're going to have—more DUIs, more sex offenders. But also we're going to have more people who want to contribute to society."

Fifth District Judge Robert Elgee pointed to a recent increase in lewd and lascivious cases, particularly involving young women.

"They're just up, with minor girls in particular," Elgee said for an Aug. 8 article on Blaine County crime trends. "I think there's more happening, and I think they're being reported more. And, if I have to guess, I'd say that some of it has to do with the young ladies because they're not forced. They're not attacked. It's hard to quantify because if we have 10 in a year that's a jump."

If the damage inflicted by various forms of domestic violence is so common, what, then, constitutes healing? What is recovery for a survivor, for his or her family and for his or her community?

Brown said it's complicated, but it comes back to building, maintaining and fostering healthy relationships. Recovery means "she has moved on with her life and has separated herself from her abuser, to be able to release herself from that. She has grown from that. And she has healthy relationships. That would probably be the most important."

Estorga said in an interview that she is "absolutely not the person I was being molded into" by her abusers, but rather has grown beyond and believes part of her healing means it is incumbent upon her to give back and raise awareness.

"I've always been this strong spirit," she said. "However, I do feel like I was given a gift to be able to stand in front of people because this is something that is hidden, and it is my duty to show people and to tell people that it may start out this way, and it doesn't have to end this way. A lot of people don't know that. And I made it through. A lot of people don't make it through.

"I think that's what the Advocates are about. They have the tools, and they share them with us."

When relationships aren't healthy, it's not only the survivor who suffers, the Advocates counselors agreed.

"It really does have a ripple effect throughout the entire community," Tobias said.

It affects employers through missed work. It impacts children attending school and their ability to learn. And, even more, traumatic events actually change the way brains function.

"There's a member of your community who isn't productive, who's hurting and in pain," Brown said. "It affects our judicial system, law enforcement. It breaks up families. Like so many things, like alcohol addiction, the thing that troubles me the most, the thing that is so pervasive is what it does to our own brain pathways."

Brown said trauma, particularly repetitive trauma, changes the way a brain's neurons, axons and synapses align. Depending on the age and state of a victim, long-term neurological relationships can be formed "like a rut in a road," she said.

"Keep reinforcing a behavior, and it gets stronger and stronger," she said. "They (victims) certainly don't manage stress the same way. They often draw drama back into their lives because it feels familiar."

In what Brown and Tobias call the "cycle of abuse," domestic violence victims take an average seven attempts to leave an abusive relationship.

"I think there are so many possible reasons as to why," Tobias said. "It's familiarity. Women who have been abused have difficulty setting boundaries with people. Their abusers have no boundaries."

If abuse is about power and control, Pintler said, then recovery is about taking that personal power back. It's not about controlling others, but about controlling one's own life.

For Estorga the nightmare was all too real, and not of her own choosing.

"And if I told you that I endured these things and so much more, would you think that I was born of trailer trash or ghetto scum? Would you ever even consider that I was the daughter of self-proclaimed Christians, or that of my abusers the worst was a hero in his community, a firefighter of 28 years, a man who saved lives, who won awards for his bravery, and then came home and beat his family to a pulp?"

That man, who was a hero to many, was Estorga's father.

The Advocates

The Advocates For Survivors of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault is a Hailey-based domestic violence shelter for women and a resource center for abuse victims of any sex, nationality or age. It is the only shelter in the region and has eight on-staff counselors as well as vouchers for people seeing professional help elsewhere in the community.

The Advocates offers support groups in Spanish and English, life skills classes, a crisis hotline at (888) 676-0066, outreach programs to nearby counties, case management, a lending library, some money to help victims return to normal life, legal resources and help for women seeking Violence Against Women Act filings.

This October, the Advocates will host Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Details will be forthcoming.

Domestic violence by the numbers

According to numbers provided by the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, statewide there was one petition for a protection order for every 312 people in 2007. In Blaine County during the same year the number was one in 384 people.

In 2007 there were 22 fatalities related to domestic violence in the state. There was one in Blaine County.

Intimate partner victimization:

In 2003 Blaine County had 87 reports, which translates to 4.65 per 1,000 people.

In 2006 Blaine County had 55 reports, which translates to 2.53 per 1,000 people.

Statewide the numbers look different:

In 2003 Idaho had 4.56 per 1,000 people.

In 2006 Idaho had 4.20 per 1,000 people.

In Blaine County the intimate-partner victimization rate decreased from 2003 to 2006 by 40 percent, although they qualify that it does not mean an actual decrease since the number of reported instances is believed to have dropped.

If someone you know is being abused

· Ask direct questions, gently. Give her ample opportunity to talk. Don't rush into providing solutions.

· Listen without judging. Abused women often believe their abusers' negative messages. They feel responsible, ashamed, inadequate and are afraid they will be judged.

· Let her know you support and care about her.

· Explain that physical violence in a relationship is never acceptable. No excuses.

· Make sure she knows that she's not alone, that millions of American women suffer from abuse.

· Explain that domestic violence is a crime.

· If she has children, reinforce her concern for them, letting her know that domestic violence is damaging to children.

· Let her know that in spite of his promises, the violence will likely continue.

· Emphasize that when she is ready, she can choose to leave the relationship.

· Provide her with information about local resources.

· She may need assistance to escape. Decide if or how you can help.

· Contact your local domestic violence program yourself for help or guidance.

· If she is planning to leave, remind her to take important papers, such as birth certificates, passports and health insurance.

· If she remains in the relationship, continue to be her friend while communicating that she deserves better.

· If you see or hear an assault in progress, call the police, but don't intervene.

Source: Advocates for Survivors of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.






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