The last time Stacey’s boyfriend strangled her, she nearly died.
“I woke up, I just felt numb. My whole body was just like, am I here? Am I dead?” she recalled thinking after she regained consciousness.
Warning: This story features accounts of domestic violence. If you’re experiencing abuse or partner violence and need help, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, or you can chat with an advocate on their website. SafeHaven of Tarrant County's crisis hotline is 1-877-701-7233, and resources are available on their website.
Stacey said he attacked her because she wouldn’t fix him something to eat, so he put his hands around her neck and started to squeeze, in the living room, in front of her children.
KERA is identifying her only as “Stacey” to protect her identity, and while we have checked facts in her story, domestic violence doesn’t leave a complete record, so this is her account of the events.
Stacey said when her 7-year-old daughter tried to stop the assault with her her tiny balled up fists, he paused the strangulation long enough to drag Stacey by her hair into a bedroom.
She kicked out a window, hoping someone outside might hear and come help.
He continued to strangle her. She tried to scream. He put a pillow over her face and she lost consciousness.
“He's strangled me before but not to where I blacked out, [where] I urinated on myself,” she said. “I woke up and just like in a daze and I was like, ‘I have to get out of this house. I have to leave.’”
This was late April. The whole state was locked down because of the coronavirus. Stacey was faced with the same terrible choice that has confronted abuse victims since the pandemic upended life: Flee from abuse and violence, or stay home to avoid covid-19.
“I had to make a decision,” Stacey said. “Should I leave right now during like this pandemic and we could get possibly get sick or I need to go and save my life and my kids.”
It’s a decision that women and men facing violence at home have had to make as the coronavirus has added pressure to already abusive home lives.
Nationwide, law enforcement and victim service agencies have raised alarms about family violence from the beginning of the crisis, pointing early on to both a spike in deaths and drop in police reports as people retreated from public to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
In April, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called on governments to address gender-based violence amid a “horrifying surge in domestic violence.”
In Tarrant County, 10 people have been killed by their abusers since March, one man and nine women. In all of 2019, the county saw eight intimate-partner homicides.
“I think it's an under count. I think that there are more people who have been murdered by their partner in Tarrant County and we just don't know about it yet,” Kathryn Jacob, who runs SafeHaven of Tarrant County, said. “I think that it is entirely possible that other people have died and we don't even know where the bodies are.”
While lockdown orders have been lifted in North Texas, the pandemic’s effects continue to give rise to a secondary public health threat of increasing domestic violence, advocates say.
As people continue to limit activities outside the home, victims are more exposed to their abusive partners, who may use the coronavirus as tool to further control their victim and restrict their movements. Work and social lives remain disrupted, and many victims first report abuse to co-workers and friends.
Increased health anxieties coupled with economic pressure are stressors that can act as added fuel to already combustible relationships.
“That’s why, on social media, we’ve constantly been telling people, ‘Check on your friends,’” Jacob said. “You're not going to see people at church. You're not going to see people at the grocery store, or at the mall, or at a party.”
In March, as Texas began to hunker down and counties ratcheted up restrictions, SafeHaven’s crisis hotline saw a dramatic spike in calls from victims who saw a closing window of opportunity to get help before shelter in place orders trapped them at home with their abusers.
When the orders went into effect, calls to the hotline dropped by nearly half, a terrifying sign for Jacob, who knew that the dearth in calls didn’t signal a reduction of abuse but an inability for the abused to call for help.
In April, the numbers returned to normal. Starting in early May, hotline operators began fielding between 90 and 100 daily calls, well above their average of 63 calls a day.
Jacob said two consistent trends have remained: First, caseworkers are seeing more instances where people don’t make it to pre-arranged pickup points, a sign it’s more difficult to get away with abusers at home more.
The other trend: The calls coming in are more often describing more violent, higher risk situations where victims answer questions in ways that indicate that, statistically, they’re at an extreme risk of being killed by their abuser.
“We saw a lot of cases where survivors were like being tied up in their home. That's not something we normally see. There were a lot of threats with weapons. We saw a few cases where an offender would stick a pistol in a survivor's mouth,” Jacob said. “There's always threats and always coercion in domestic violence relationships, but this just brought it to another level.”
More callers than usual are telling SafeHaven that their partner has tried to strangle or choke them, which is particularly alarming to Jacob. The presence of strangulation in an abusive relationship indicates that a victim is, statistically, seven times more likely to be killed by her abuser.
For Stacey, the brutal strangulation that triggered her decision to leave came after three years of severe and mounting violence at the hands of her boyfriend.
He first hurt her when she was eight-months pregnant with his child, she said, when he battered her with a belt, leaving bruises all over her body. Since then, he’s been in-and-out of jail, mostly for family violence. He’s punched her, strangled her and pulled a gun on her. One beating broke her eye socket.
“He deserves to be in jail. He’s a monster,” she said.
As of early June, he was in jail facing felony charges for continuous family violence.
The pandemic is making prosecutions of domestic violence more difficult, according to Allenna Bangs, the chief of the intimate partner violence unit at the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s office.
Most intimate partner violence is never reported to law enforcement, so most abuse never lands on the desk of a prosecutor like Bangs. Many of the reports that do get filed start with a call for emergency medical service, not to the police. But Bangs says victims may be avoiding medical help because coronavirus fears make the hospital a risky bet.
For cases where police have been called and an arrest has been made, Bangs worries about abusers out on bond hurting their partners again while they await trial. There are an unusually high share of people facing charges related to family violence out of jail on bond in Tarrant County, she said, because of upheavals in the system from the pandemic.
“We don't think of a low- level drug offender the same way we think of somebody who is committing family violence, even if we're still talking about a misdemeanor,” Bangs said. “Because I know where you're going, when you leave here, and it's home. That is where my victim lives, and I know that this could be a larger picture pattern of violence.”
Other procedural problems have been brought on by the pandemic: Jury and bench trials remain on hold until at least August. Police departments are still wading through a backlogs of reports. And Bangs can’t get defendants arrested outside the county back to Tarrant County, because jails aren’t transferring inmates amid coronavirus concerns.
As the justice system creaks back to life, Bangs thinks it’ll be harder to get in touch with survivors and victims. A lot of people just want to move on.
“If you need to go to Nashville to be with your mom so that you can be safe or get resources you need, please do that,” Bangs said. “But then if that that trial is not going to happen until 2021, I have real concerns about how I'm getting you back here or if you're going to be cooperative.”
Despite these complications, Bangs said her division is still working to bring abusers to justice, but she worries a survivor might see delays in prosecutions as proof the system doesn’t work.
The spike in domestic-violence killings amid the pandemic comes after years of work in Tarrant County to dramatically reduce the number of people dying at the hands of their abusers. By coordinating efforts from SafeHaven, police departments, prosecutors, courts, hospitals and community groups, the county’s eight intimate-partner homicides in 2019 were half of the 16 that occurred in 2016.
For Stacey, moving into the shelter has given her a chance to focus on her future and building a better life for her family.
It’s not the first time she’s left her ex-boyfriend, which is common: On average, a survivor leaves her abuser seven times before she finally breaks free of the abuse.
“Abuse is like an addiction like without drugs or alcohol,” she said. “You think, okay, if he calls and be [says] he's sorry and I love you and I can't live without you and my kids, and [he asks to] come back home … you'd be like, okay, maybe he is changing.”
But this time, she says, is different. After he nearly killed her in April, she says she was motivated to save not only her own life, but her children’s as well. After growing up watching her father abuse her mother, Stacey says she wants to break the cycle. Children who grow up exposed to abuse are more likely to become victims or abusers themselves.
“I don't want my daughter to growing up thinking it's okay for a man to put his hands on her,” Stacey said. “And I don't want my sons growing up putting their hands on a woman at all.”
Her abuser made her feel small, she said, and she felt like she’d lost sight of herself and her value. Now, she’s embracing the counseling at SafeHaven, and is planning to go back to school in the fall.
“I found myself once I got here, and I'm happy I came here because I'm on a whole new journey and trying to fix myself again,” she said. “Like I got the old me back.”
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