Domestic violence has no boundaries

Staff Writer

A punch in the face marked the end of what started as a festive night for Lauren.

The Old Bridge resident had attended a wedding with her husband, who had gotten drunk and had never before exhibited any signs of violence.

“I was pretty much blown away,” she said. “All I could think of were my kids. I needed to protect my kids.”

Lauren was not alone. An estimated one in four women is affected by domestic violence at some point during their lifetime, according to 180 Turning Lives Around, a Hazlet-based nonprofit dedicated to ending domestic and sexual violence. Men can also fall prey to such abuse, but in much smaller numbers. Women constitute about 76 percent of victims, according to the 2011 “Domestic Violence in New Jersey” report.

And abusers come from all walks of life.

“Domestic violence is what we call an ‘equal-opportunity employer,’ ” said Elaine Meyerson, executive director of Bergen County-based Shelter Our Sisters, an organization that provides help to victims.

Lauren was a stay-at-home mom to her two young children, while her husband held a lucrative, white-collar position.

Promising that he would go to therapy, Lauren’s husband wooed her into giving it a chance, but he barely followed through.

A “honeymoon stage” is a common chaser to the bitter pill of abuse, according to Janet Lee of 180.

“All kinds of promises are made,” Lee said. “That’s often an appealing time for the victim, who hasn’t received these types of affections.”

For some victims, like Julie, even that brief reprieve never comes. Not only did Julie’s abusive husband refuse to call an ambulance after the broken nose he inflicted would not stop bleeding, but he also blamed her for his actions.

“There would never be any kind of remorse,” the resident of North Brunswick Township said of her now ex-husband. “He would always threaten me that, ‘If you tell anybody, they’ll find you in a body bag; they won’t even recognize your body.’”

Despite fearing for her life and the safety of her daughters, the terror Julie felt from her husband’s threats kept her feeling trapped.

“Domestic violence is about control — power over the victim,” said Cyndi Baumgartner, volunteer coordinator for North Brunswick’s Domestic Violence Response Team.

Every town throughout the state has such a team, which often provides victims their first chance to speak out about the abuse they are enduring, according to Baumgartner. But speaking out and getting out are two different things.

“You can’t just leave; there are so many things involved,” she said.

In an effort to control victims, abusers withhold money or other resources, prohibit victims from having contact with family and friends, and issue threats to take away children or have the victim deported if she or he is an immigrant, according to Baumgartner.

“It’s a very difficult situation, especially financially,” she said, adding that emergency shelters aren’t always feasible options when children and pets are involved.

Julie’s husband took away her vehicle, making her walk to the store with her young children, and his cruelty to the children from her previous marriage caused her to eventually relinquish custody to their father.

Fortunately for victims, organizations like 180 and others provide temporary and transitional housing for those looking to escape violence.

As scary as it is to stay, however, experts warn that leaving can be worse. According to Meyerson, when a woman attempts to leave, she faces a 75 percent higher risk of being killed than one who stays.

“It’s a real challenge to decide when to leave,” she said. “There’s no one easy answer.”

The consensus among those combating domestic violence is for victims to develop a safety plan before making a move (visit for more information). Such plans should be individualized and should involve any children in the house, according to the experts.

For Lauren, having taught her son how to call 911 proved lifesaving.

After her husband threw her down the steps one night, she decided enough was enough. She demanded he move out, and the separation agreement they had forged made her feel that things were OK, she said.

Lauren’s son, who was 7 at the time, had crawled into bed with her after a bad dream. Reality would soon become worse than any nightmare for both of them.

“His father breaks into the house and … he is choking me to kill me,” she said, adding that in his drunken stupor, he failed to notice his son in the bed.

The youngster saved his mother’s life by calling 911.

“I almost was done. I almost was asphyxiated,” she said.

Although Julie’s children and neighbors would call police regularly to report abuse, she usually declined to press charges against her husband. It took 16 years and a life-ordeath situation to bring the hell to an end.

“I’ll never forget — he picked me up by the neck and was choking me,” she said. “I thought that was it. It was so, so scary.”

The incident was terrifying for Julie’s children, as well.

“They said, ‘Mommy, we can’t live like this anymore,’ ” she said.

They convinced her to go to the police once again, but this time, she pressed charges and filed a restraining order.

Baumgartner admitted that when it comes down to it, a restraining order is simply a piece of paper, but she said it does give police more power against the abuser.

According to Lee, the question of whether to obtain a restraining order should be decided on a case-by-case basis. At 180, counselors ask victims whether they think it would be effective for them, she said. The organization’s Family Court Liaison Program also helps victims with things like restraining orders.

“You have to be on top of your game, or you won’t necessarily be able to convey to the judge why you’re concerned for your safety,” she said.

Lauren was able to get a restraining order after the last attack. But she also took matters into her own hands.

“I applied for a handgun permit,” she said, noting that she was well-versed in handling guns. “The system, all the women’s groups that I called, the authorities I went to for help — you know what they told me? ‘Run,’ ” she said. “I’m sorry … this is my home, these are my children. If you’re not going to help me to keep them safe, I’m going to do it.”

Despite threats otherwise, the restraining order worked in keeping away Julie’s abuser.

In both women’s cases, however, the court allowed for joint custody in the divorce proceedings. According to Lee, this is a major issue of concern in domestic violence situations, with some women staying with abusers because leaving would mean their children would have to be alone with them for visits.

Julie’s daughters, who were also abused by their father, opted not to see him soon after the split, she said.

Lauren’s ex-husband never abused the kids, but in pickups and drop-offs for visitations, continued to terrorize her — from emptying her kitchen garbage into the refrigerator to spitting in her face. Eventually, she changed their meetings to a neutral setting, but he would often be late, causing her to be late for work.

“The thing with abuse is, they do whatever they want to you, but it’s about how you react,” Lauren said. “Really, the crux of it is, the woman needs to deal with every incident from a place of strength and not be the victim.”

She said that could mean taking a self-defense course or gaining help otherwise.

For both women, it was their children who ultimately propelled them out of the situation.

In Julie’s case, the cycle replayed for two of her three daughters, who became tied up in abusive relationships. One daughter struggled with heroin for several years, but is now clean, she said.

Baumgartner pointed out that abuse is a learned behavior, and as the two most important figures in a child’s life, parents are powerful teachers.

Lee said 180 helps children and their nonoffending parent heal through a program called Amanda’s Easel, which uses art and movement therapy to help prevent kids from growing up to become victims or abusers.

“I do see that people are starting to become aware that help is available,” she said. “I do see things getting better.”

Lauren said she found tremendous support from Women Helping Women, a nonprofit that offers counseling services in Metuchen. Now in a healthy marriage, she said she is thinking about volunteering on her town’s domestic violence response team.

Julie, too, is doing much better. She shared advice for those who may be enduring abuse:

“Don’t even think you have to stay. It never changes; it only gets worse. You have to make that move, no matter how hard it is — if not for you, then for your children. Because they’ll be scarred for life.”

Hotline: 800-572-SAFE (7233)

180 Turning Lives Around
Domestic Violence: 888-843-9262
Sexual Violence: 888-264-7273
TTY#: 732-264-3089
2NDFLOOR Youth: 888-222-2228

Women Aware
Hotline: 732-249-4504
TTY #: 732-249-0600

Shelter Our Sisters
Hotline: 201-944-9600

Manavi (for South Asian women)
Hotline: 732-435-1414

Danger Assessment

Editor’s note: The names of the victims have been changed to guard their identities.