I recently put out an ad on Facebook reaching out to intimate partner violence survivors asking if anyone would be interested in sharing their story. My original thought in putting together this project was to conduct interviews with the survivors and merely tell their stories, but my objective changed after receiving an email from a young woman by the name of Kirian Ruiz. Kirian reached out to me briefly sharing her experience with relationship abuse and her reason for wanting to share her story. She said, “I feel [like] this is a subject that is taken lightly and a lot of times it is as if the victim is the one to blame because she stayed with the person that is abusing her.” Like myself, Kirian is a New York City resident, living in a city with a high prevelance of adolescen dating violence. One in ten teenagers in New York City Schools reported experiencing physical or sexual violence in a dating in 2009; imagine how many cases of violence go unreported.
I knew that I wanted to share Kirian’s story, but I needed to do so while doing some myth busting. It is assumed that you are stupid and deserve whatever happens if you stay with someone who is abusive, but leaving the relationship is not that simple. Society's broad idea of domestic violence is unrealistic and does not factor in the cycle of violence. Thinking about the type of violence that Kirian endured during her relationship, I thought about the different phases in the cycle of violence. Phase one is referred to as the “tension building” stage; the batterer increases threats and the victim feels like they are walking on eggshells. In phase two, the batterer believes they are losing control then the abusive incident occurs; the victim is blamed and left traumatized. In phase three, also known as the “honeymoon period”, the batterer is very apologetic, manipulative, and may even promise to change. In this stage the victim often minimizes the abuse and considers reconciliation. While not all abusive relationships include physical violence, the cycle of abuse remains the same.
Kirian met her abusive ex-boyfriend when she was just 16 years old, and characterized him as a “really nice person”, “charming”, and stated that they had an ordinary friendship that blossomed into a relationship. When I asked Kirian how her family received him she said, “My mom and sister loved him.” About three to four months into the relationship things between her and her ex-boyfriend started to change; the verbal abuse and control began. The then 16 year old, stopped hanging out with friends, she no longer participated in school activities, and stopped doing the things she loved, such as writing poetry and theater workshops. Kirian realized that her relationship was slowly turning into an unhealthy one and started to distance herself from the relationship. I asked her if anyone was aware of the emotional and verbal abuse at that time and she remembers being recognized as the “difficult” partner.
Both her mother and sister believed she was not used to being in a relationship and was just going through a difficult stage that was sure to pass. Abuse is neither a phase nor a normal part of a relationship; it solely revolves around the control and manipulation of one partner. Kirian rekindled her relationship, finding fault in herself, and accepted the blame. It was a year before Kirian’s emotional rollercoaster turned into her worst nightmare and the abuse became physical. The first incident of physical violence took place at her ex-boyfriend's relative house; Kirian was pregnant with their son and never thought that he would hit her. From the outside looking in, the most logical response to a violent incident would be to call the police and tell family members what happened, but it is never that simple.
There are plenty of social stigmas that surround victims of violence, painting them as naive and foolish people, why else would anyone stay in a relationship with an abusive partner? All of those verbs incorrectly describe the battered individual and make it harder for the person to break their silence and receive the proper help that they need. Kirian told me that she did not tell anyone that the abuse escalated to physical violence. She then posed this question to me, “How do you tell the strong figure [that being her mother] I’m not doing what you instilled? I am not being the strong person you raised me to be”. Kirian went on to explain how a lot of victims of relationship abuse feel when confronted with the idea that they can stop the abuse, “People judge [you] but [they] have never been in one [sic abusive relationship]. They think that you put yourself in the relationship and you can get out whenever you want. It’s an ignorant outlook; I didn’t choose to get hit or verbally abused the way I was.”
Without having much of a support system at home, Kirian turned to her former high school guidance counselor whom she remained close with even after graduating. She described him as being, “down to earth”, “compassionate”, and an “easy listener”. Her guidance counselor gave her the number to Safe Horizon, an agency that provides various services to victims of crime and abuse. Without me asking, Kirian explained why she went back to her ex-boyfriend, and said, “I wanted us to be a family. I didn’t want my son to be without his father.” I didn’t need nor did I expect her to explain herself. Domestic violence is not a black and white situation; there are many reasons people stay in these relationships.
On average, it takes a person 6 to 8 times to leave an abusive relationship before leaving for good. The conversation between me and Kirian shifted back to the topic of confiding in her family members about the abuse. She said, “He hit me while my son was in the room. [My] son’s presence didn’t stop him and I realized how far he was willing to go to harm me.” That night Kirian went to the emergency room to treat her injuries and broke her silence. “I didn’t tell anyone [about the abuse] until I ended up in the hospital. The ER doctor called my family. It was no longer just about me, it was about the welfare of me and my son.”
Although Kirian returned home to her ex-boyfriend, she remained in touch with a Safe Horizon counselor learning the resources that are available for victims of domestic violence. Through the Safe Horizon hotline, she learned the best way to leave the relationship was with a safety plan. Kirian's plan included packing a bag of clothes for herself and her son, and saving up as much money as she could spare. Her ex-boyfriend installed locks on the doors, slept with the key, and isolated her from a life outside of their apartment door. As much as we would like to think you can just walk away from these relationships unscathed, ending a violent relationship becomes the most violent point of the relationship. When most abusers fear they are losing control over their partner, they become more violent and dangerous. It is reported that about 4,000 women die each year due to domestic violence and of that, 75% of the victims were killed while trying to leave the relationship or after they have already left.
After speaking with Kirian and listening to her describe the incidents of abuse that she endured, I was nervous to hear the way her story ended. Kirian described her last encounter with er ex-boyfriend, “He came home one day after a bad day at work and we had an argument about food. I really don’t remember why [we argued]. He choked me unconscious and left me in the kitchen with my son. He was just 2 years old at the time. I woke up with my apartment door open, I guess he was in a hurry to leave. The cops came to oversee me packing my stuff and escorted me out of my apartment. I called the Safe Horizon hotline and they sent me to a shelter in another borough.” Kirian did one of the most difficult things that a victim of domestic violence can ever do, and that is breaking the silence and getting help. She filed an incident report, received an order of protection, and criminal charges were pressed.
Fortunately for Kirian and her son no one was fatally injured, but the harassment did not end there. Following her escape from the relationship she was stalked and threatened. The 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey statistics indicate that “approximately one-quarter of women reported being fearful, and more than 1 in 5, reported being concerned for their safety, or reported at least one post-traumatic stress disorder symptom as a result of the violence experienced.” The first year out of the relationship Kirian found herself moving every 2 to 3 months because her ex- boyfriend would find out where she lives. She had to find alternate travel routes to and from home, as well as, stop visiting family members home’s whom her ex-boyfriend was familiar with. Her son began to act out in response to the violence that he witnessed and displayed the violent behavior on his toys.
Kirian still attends counseling with her son and she has since moved onto a new and healthy relationship. She says that the memories of the pain she endured from her past relationship didn’t go away overnight, and will probably never go away, but she is learning how to deal with it. Kirian finished our conversation with a message to those living in silence, where she emphasized the importance of knowing the resources available. She said, “People don’t talk about it [domestic violence] out of fear of judgment. Speak up and get yourself out [of the relationship]. If it happened once, even a small incident of physical abuse, it will eventually grow. Your safety is on the line, call a hotline, and go get information from a local precinct.” Kirian’s resilience and courage to share her story makes her a true inspiration.
If you are in need of assistance or know someone in the New York City area that needs assistance please contact Safe Horizon.
If you live outside the New York metro areas please use the National Domestic Violence Hotline for crisis assistance.
I was invited as a guest speaker to The Domestic Violence PACT (Promoting Accountability And Community Ties) Unit at Department of Probation, Bronx, NY. The PACT program works with felony offenders with a history of intimate partner violence within their relationship. The program serves offenders in the Bronx and Upper Manhattan area, while providing safety for the victims and accountability for the abusive partner. I met PO Bertrand at The Upper Manhattan Domestic Violence Services Collaborative conference, where several presenters, myself included, discussed teen relationship abuse.
Mr. Bertrand invited me to present at their weekly meeting stating, “We feel that your presence would be a great contribution to our general population, staff and clientele alike, and will become a constant reminder for the men to continuously challenge the “Male Privilege” supposedly received via socialization.” Changing societies’ view on gender roles is necessary to engage men in the fight to combat relationship violence. I was a bit skeptical about sharing my story with a group of admitted batterers. I was unsure of how they would receive what I had to say from a survivors point of view. Up until that point, most of the conferences that I have participated in the audience consisted of domestic violence service providers or groups of teenagers. I normally use a common outline for most of my presentations but I had to change my format to tell my story to connect with my new audience.
I was shocked by the setup of the PACT program, I imagined it to look like a stale institutional environment with plain walls. To my surprise the entrance reminded me of a college lounge and library area with computers and classrooms. Mr. Bertrand informed me that the PACT Unit was a part of The NYC Department of Probation Neighborhood Opportunity Network (NeON). Walking through the halls I got a few looks that let me know the program participants were thinking, “Who is this unfamiliar woman”? After meeting the PACT team, I sat in the front row with my back turned as I waited for the group of men to come in and be seated. We started off by showing the clips from my appearance on Katie Couric’s daytime talk show, Katie. While playing the videos, I heard a few gasps from the men, who I assumed were shocked by what they heard.
When the video was over, we were all asked to take 10 second break to reflect on what we just heard. Shortly after the moment of silence, the men were asked to stand as I was introduced and took the floor to share my experience with being in a violent relationship. I have to admit that it was a little uncomfortable at first because I was standing in front of a room of offenders trying to read their body language as I told my story. I did not want anyone to feel like I was accusing them, but I had to speak as if my ex-abuser was in front of me and I was letting him know how I felt. The audience gave me a round of applause then we began our panel discussion.
I received nothing but positive feedback from the guys as well as the staff. I think it was an educational experience for all of us involved. I’ve never had the opportunity to speak with a group of admitted batterers that were held accountable for their actions. In our discussion some of them opened up about their experiences battering their significant others, not realizing that intimidation and verbal abuse were the most common. Others shared stories of witnessing abuse in their homes as children and not understanding how they became the abuser.
As the conversation continued, I didn’t look at these men as criminals, but as someone’s father, son, brother, uncle, and husband. It’s unfortunate that they were at the level of rehabilitation and not prevention, but I think their voices needed to be heard. There are several groups that involve men in their initiative to end violence against women like, CONNECT and Men Can Stop Rape, but if we combat intimate partner violence at the education and prevention, but by not including the rehabilitation aspect, we neglect a whole population of people. We always see women involved in raising awareness to violence against women but the movement is missing the face and voice of men. I agree with the PACT program’s initiative and I look forward to participating in their future presentations regarding violence against women.
The Children’s Aid Society’s Domestic Violence and Child Welfare initiative of the Family Wellness Program organized a conference for foster care and preventive staff. The conference’s theme was trauma and domestic violence. I was invited to not only share my story, but to discuss the traumatic impact of dating violence and my experience with trauma care providers. While preparing for the conference, I experienced difficulty molding my presentation to cover my own healing process. I was so used to discussing my mother’s trauma and recovery that I forgot that I too had experienced trauma.
In my presentation I was sure to discuss how I worked to regain a high self-esteem, love myself again, forgive, and release the feelings of shame, guilt, and hopelessness that once consumed me. While it wasn’t an easy road to healing, I did so with the complete support of close friends and family, as well as over a year of therapy. The impact of a good therapist, one that actively listens, makes suggestions on how to move forward, rather than give instructions, can really make a difference to someone seeking healing. There were two more presentations that followed mine; Dr. Erica Willheim gave a presentation on the biological effects of trauma and DeShannon Bowens, M.S. Sexual Trauma Therapist, talked about the impact of vicarious trauma on social workers. At the end of the morning session, all presenters including myself, sat on a panel to answer audience questions.
The rest of the day consisted of different educational workshops surrounding the theme of trauma. I attended the "Teen Relationship Abuse: Understanding the Trauma" facilitated by Reetu Deleon, LCSW, Psychotherapist. The workshop was designed for service providers to better understand the dynamics of relationship abuse in adolescent development. We started the session with an icebreaker, introducing ourselves and how we had a connection to working with adolescents. Most of the participants were social workers dealing with foster care clients and abused adolescents. The presentation turned into a conversation of how social workers can better understand the needs of traumatized adolescents. As a young dating abuse survivor, I gave the professionals insight on what I found effective and helpful in navigating through, what was for me, the most trying time of my life.
After the first session we were given the opportunity to explore other areas of trauma. I was interested in learning more about the vicarious trauma that care providers face in working with clients. Angela Cooper, LCAT, ATR-BC, Director of Disconnected Youth Services, Children's Aid Society, hosted, “Don't Take it Home with You: An Experiential Workshop on Vicarious Trauma”, an Art Therapy experiential workshop. The intention of the project is to help service providers leave behind the feeling of being overwhelmed with the “extra baggage” that comes with the professional responsibilities of client based social work.
In this session we were given empty boxes and were told to fill it with materials that described the most difficult feelings we experience in the line of trauma care. On the inside of my box I used cut outs from magazines and other trinkets that were provided, to describe how I feel after presenting and encountering other victims of trauma. I decorated the outside of the box with words of empowerment like courage, independence, leadership, and a drawing of a smile and a heart. Some of us went around explaining what each box meant to us and I was questioned by a participant on how this exercise was helpful to me.
Although I am not a social worker with clients, I do experience a great deal of vicarious trauma after presenting at domestic violence conferences. A lot of times audience members come up to me after I present my story to commend me for my honesty and bravery, then they reveal their own stories of relationship abuse. While I am glad that they feel comfortable sharing their story with me, my memories of past incidents of abuse resurface. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by these thoughts and other times I use them as a way to connect with my audience. After giving them a brief description, I closed my box leaving the feeling of heaviness behind and the positive images on the outside to reflect my current state of mind.
I'm glad to announce that the person responsible for committing violent crimes against my mother and relationship abuse against myself has been held accountable for his crimes. On Monday, June 10th, I walked into the Bronx Criminal Court building for what I was hoping to be my last ever appearance before the court. After 3 years of ups and downs with the judicial process, I was anxious to finally end the case and continue my journey of healing. I was greeted by family members in the waiting area outside of the courtroom wondering if they had the same thoughts as I did; was this case finally over?
The court allows victims to speak before the court and acknowledge the crimes that were committed against them. Up until that day, I had not said a word to him in almost 3 years nor had I been able to speak before the court. Prior to the sentencing hearing, I prepared a 7 page letter that was revealing, open, and honest. While I do not want to expose anyone to vicarious trauma, I find that sharing my story is therapeutic for me. I edited the letter to take out the extreme graphic details but in order for it to remain “real”, I decided to leave in my personal experiences.
“Good afternoon your honor. I would like to thank you for allowing me to address the court. This afternoon I will speak on behalf of my mother and I... I have so much to say about the things that I have endured... I never thought that I would be a victim of domestic violence... I never knew things like that could happen to me, I was naive and uneducated about dating violence...I remember the first time you blacked my eye, my first busted lip, and the ones to follow...
You took so much away from me, mentally, emotionally and physically. I felt so empty and angry for such a long time. You made me suffer time and time again because of your insecurities and selfishness... I kept the abuse a secret for such a long time, thinking who would ever believe me if I told them I was being abused... I always blamed myself for the way you treated me, thinking that there was something I could do to make you stop abusing me but only you control your actions...
My best friend kept telling me that if I didn’t leave, one day I might end up dead and to me that was the only way I thought our relationship would end. I remember the last day I was ever alone with you, you threatened to take my life... I knew that if I survived that night, it would be the last day I would ever let you cause me any harm. I thought that I would be rid of you and able to start a new journey and a life of happiness that I deserved but days later the new way of life that I wanted for myself was put on hold. I never thought that you would attempt to murder my mother... She was there to help you that day but you didn't want help. Instead you wanted to take back the control you once had and revenge against me for ending our relationship and you wanted me to feel pain and suffer...
The feeling that I had in my stomach and heart when I got the call from a detective about my mother's condition, is one that I could never wish on anyone. My grandpa had to drive through a blizzard and occasionally stop just so we could figure out where we were going. It was the craziest and scariest day of any of our lives. They had her listed as “unknown” in the hospital and she was barely recognizable... Her face looked like a mashed tomato...
The doctors told us that she had 48 hours to live and that they would make her comfortable so she could pass away peacefully. I couldn’t imagine how you could make someone comfortable that was just bludgeoned into a coma and set on fire. We sat in the ICU waiting room area for hours and hours. My grandmother was inconsolable kept screaming out “my baby, my baby, look what he did”.
I cried myself to sleep on the hospital chairs, vomited from crying so much. My aunt and uncle were stretched out on the hospital chairs; we all just sat waiting. It was the hardest thing ever telling my teenage sister that she may no longer have a mother, and for what, I have no idea. My sister dropped to the floor hyperventilating, shaking and crying. I think we just sat on the floor and cried for hours because there was nothing that I could tell her that would make everything alright.
For months I watched my mom lay in the hospital bed while she slept so peacefully in a coma... I used to stand at the edge of the hospital bed and watch her and just cry and beg her to wake up. Some days I was too afraid to even walk in her room fearing she would just die in front of me so i would stand at the door for a few seconds and walk away...The mental agony that we faced just thinking she would die at any moment was unbearable... It was so frustrating hearing constant updates from the doctors saying that she would never wake up or live a meaningful life, thank God that doctors do not have the final word.
As her brain started to heal from the trauma she began realizing that things were no longer the same. She asked me what happened to my old boyfriend. It was so hard to explain everything to her, it broke my heart to tell her what really happened. She couldn’t believe that someone was capable of beating her so badly...She had no idea that she was robbed of living a normal life for months and the years to follow her. I have watched her struggle every day with daily activities...
You have no idea what you put my family through in these years. This completely changed the dynamics and lifestyle of my family... We’ve spent all of our birthdays and holidays at the hospital and if we weren't at the hospital, we were at court. The whole court process was very exhausting on all of us. we had to take off of work and spend full days here waiting for you to be called up and hoping you would admit your guilt. You stood before the court each time full of arrogance and no remorse... Just last month on what we thought would be your sentencing we were struck with another blow stalling the process, stalling our closure. I watched you smirk and smile but I can’t seem to figure out what you think is amusing or entertaining about destroying lives.
Thinking about the 18 years to life plea deal, I can't say I'm satisfied with the amount of time your are ordered to serve because my mother was handed a life sentence. She wasn't offered a deal, you forced this new lifestyle on her... However, there is comfort in knowing that you will not roam the same streets as me... I guess I can feel safe for the next 18 years, but I am uncertain of what will happen after that. I can't imagine what my life would be life if you are ever released again. Would my family and I have to pick up and move to avoid you?
I know this sentence cannot and will not change the events that have taken place in the last 5 years but there is closure in knowing this case has come to an end. I have spent the past few years raising awareness to dating violence and teen dating violence... My hopes are to educate adolescents about dating violence and healthy relationships. I have been completely open and honest in telling my story without shame... I'm grateful that I still have my life but it came at the price of you nearly taking my mothers life.”
My mother wanted to speak before the court but she now has a speech impairment as a result of her injuries. The letter to the court ended with a speech prepared by my grandmother, my mother, and myself. In the speech my mother recounts her injuries and the difficulties she now faces living as a permanently disabled person. It was extremely difficult to read through the entire letter without crying but I managed to get through it. I stood taller and taller as each word rolled off of my tongue.
I returned to the court bench feeling a bit light-headed. like I had spoke without taking a breath, but it felt good to release everything that I had kept bottled inside for years. The judge thanked myself and my family for our dedication to the trial, our display of courage and strength. The last 3 years have been mentally, emotionally, and physically trialing, but I am still standing. I walked out of the courtroom feeling like a new woman. Although I cannot turn back the hands of time and erase the past, I can now focus on my mission to raise awareness about dating violence and promote healthy relationships.
Last month I had the pleasure to participate in the annual youth conference put together by the Healthy Teen Relationship Coalition. The day long conference consisted of various workshops hosted by local organizations that deal with teen relationships. Myself along with 3 other young ladies were invited by Day One’s Community Educator, Sara Gonzalez, to share our stories of surviving an abusive relationship and answer audience questions. I immediately accepted the opportunity and was more than excited to interact with the participating teens and answer any questions they had.
I arrived at the event approximately 30 minutes early to survey the crowd and found Sara in the middle of an activity with the teens, discussing sexual assault and acceptable behaviors in a relationship. I sat back against the wall listening to the teens raise relevant questions about sexual activity in adolescent relationships. While I was nervous about sharing my story with such a large audience, I was impressed at the level of maturity they displayed in discussing such serious topics. Most of the crowd seemed well informed, but I wondered how they would react after hearing my story. Society and the media’s version of violence in relationships create an inaccurate portrayal and stigmas surrounding the victim.
After we went around sharing our stories, at 23 years old, I was the oldest survivor on a panel of just 4 young ladies. The others were teens in high school and a young college student. On Day One’s statistics web page, they list New York City and national teen dating violence statistics. The two I find most shocking are, “A high prevalence of dating relationships of young women between 15 and 24 in New York City are characterized by physical violence (22%), coercion (67%) and forced sexual experiences (37%). One in ten teenagers in New York City schools reports experiencing physical or sexual violence in a dating relationship within the past year.” These statistics and the presence of the other panel speakers made me realize that teen relationship abuse is not only on the rise, it is pandemic.
The other panel members and I answered a series of questions following our presentation. The participating teens asked us common questions that most people want answers to. For example, "Why didn't you leave before it escalated?"; "Who did you confide in?"; and "What are the warning signs of an abusive relationship?". While these questions may seem too personal, intrusive, or geared towards victim blaming, I welcome the conversation as a learning experience. Hearing the reality of teen dating violence, from it’s survivors, is essential to prevention and intervention. In the majority of violent relationships, the victim has tried to leave the relationship before and has had some form of violence done to them because they’ve tried to leave. It is not easy to ask for help when you’re feeling ashamed or fearing ridicule.
The signs of an abusive partner aren’t always clear. What we sometimes mistake as someone displaying care, attention, and affection for us, could very well be jealousy, control, and manipulation. There was a parent in the audience who suspects that her teen is involved in an unhealthy relationship and asked us for advice on how she should approach her child. Our natural instinct leads us to want to protect our loved ones and sometimes it can be too aggressive for someone emotionally distraught. We all agreed that it wouldn't hurt her to ask her daughter about the relationship in a caring tone. These situations must be handled delicately without using the same forceful and controlling tone that the abuser uses.
Each of us continued to answered the questions based on our own personal stories but the overall message was clear; the victim is never to be blamed. Relationship abuse is about one person manipulating the other in order to gain power and control. I am thankful for the other young women that sat beside me, breaking their silence about dating violence. While it takes so much bravery and self-realization to share your story, it is therapeutic. I look forward to participating in upcoming teen workshops. Education and awareness arises from seeking information and being able to have an open and honest conversation.