Flo knew the beatings at the hands of her alcoholic husband had to stop. She knew it not just from her own injuries, but from the look in her children’s eyes as they watched.
Pinned to a couch on a day that would change her life forever, Flo was getting beaten again by her manipulative husband, who was constantly accusing her of imaginary infidelity – making her check in with him from stores while shopping, even saying that some other man was the father of one of their children.
That was hurtful enough and experts say that is the classic scenario for domestic violence. It can take the form of belittling psychological abuse, designed to control victims by stripping them of their self-worth and self-esteem. Flo suffered all of that and more.
Flo said she would have left the abusive situation much earlier if she could have received the holistic outreach approach now used by A New Leaf, a Mesa-based social service agency that also serves a hub in the seemingly endless battle against domestic violence.
Catholic Social Services and the Arizona Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence also have put in place more options for victims even if they haven’t left an abusive relationship.
“It was fragmented, kind of a piecemeal approach. It wasn’t cohesive. Now, everything is integrated,’’ and Allie Bones, executive director of the Arizona Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, adding:
“It has matured over time. It’s so much more responsive and helpful. We have made significant improvement, especially in the last five years.’’
The agencies help them prepare financially to become independent. They help victims find transitional housing.
Social service agencies no longer focus only on shelters and getting victims away from their abusers, realizing that is not always realistic in the short term but that it is always the long-term goal.
Social workers also help a victim develop a “safety plan,’’ which can include a way to escape abuse, additional education, substance abuse counseling, a place to live and a job.
“It’s recognizing that you have been through a traumatic experience. We need to meet you where you are at,’’ said Leslie Mar’Na, senior program manager at My Sisters Place in Chandler, one of two East Valley domestic violence shelters.
“We work with them on what a safe life looks like and how would that be better for the kids,’’ she said, gradually preparing some victims to leave rather than insisting that they leave immediately.
What really made Flo leave – and push aside her lack of confidence and extreme shyness – was the way her children watched that beating. The 3 ½ year-old boy was holding her 7-month old baby.
Flo knew about the oft-repeated cycle, that children from violent homes, where domestic violence is a way of life, have a tendency to grow up into abusers themselves.
Later that night, Flo saw her drunken husband so inebriated that he was sitting at a kitchen table in their East Valley home, eating raw chicken.
He was so far gone, she thought, that this was her chance for freedom.
“It gave me a chance to grab the kids and a couple of pillows. I snuck out the backdoor,’’ Flo said, her flight to freedom winding down an alley to Tempe St. Luke’s Hospital, where she was treated for her injuries.
Photos were taken, police were called and Flo was introduced to A New Leaf.
“It was seeing their faces. I didn’t escape because I was getting hit. I said, ‘’this can’t happen again,’’’ Flo recalled.
Today, more than two decades later, Flo is a changed woman in every way.
She went on to a career in business after six years of therapy. She is happily re-married to a man who respects her, even though it took her into middle age to find him.
Dana Martinez, A New Leaf’s director of shelter services, said victims tend to turn to shelters as a last resort.
“Most of the time, they will come to family and friends first,’’ she said. “When they come to a shelter, they have left (an abusive relationship) three, four, five times before. They have kind of burned their bridges by the time they come to a shelter.’’
She said people sometimes don’t realize that a victim’s self-esteem has been eroded during a long period of psychological abuse, where they are told over and over again that they are worthless and stupid.
“For someone who has been exposed to trauma, it can be hard for them to make a decision for themselves,’’ Martinez said. “Nobody asks the perpetrator, ‘why do you stalk someone? The onus should be on the perpetrator, not the victim.’’
That is one reason some courthouses have advocates that can help domestic violence victims file for orders of protection, which make it easier for police arrest abusers if they come to a victim’s house or place work.
While the order of protection is viewed as a good tool, police and social workers also advise victims that it is only a piece of paper and not a shield – that it can’t stop a bullet, and that it can backfire in some cases by setting off an abuser.
“They are just a mess, they are in tears, they are crying,’’ Martinez said, describing some victims who have been stripped of their self-worth. “We have advocates in court to help them get through this process.’’
The advocates are only one example of how the response to domestic violence today is far more nuanced and organized, with a New Leaf’s Safe DV program coordinating the shelters, checking five times a day on what beds might be available.
Together, Maricopa County’s eight shelters have 410 beds, but special arrangements are made to find other accommodations when necessary.
The most immediate goal is safety. The shelters do not advertise their locations and do not have signs identifying themselves, for obvious reasons.
Victims from Glendale might be sent to Chandler and visa versa to make it harder for an abuser to track them down, Mar’Na said. Victims from other states will sometimes end up in Arizona for the same reason.
No drugs, alcohol or abusers are allowed on premises at Autumn House, A New Leaf’s shelter in central Mesa.
Flo said she wishes the more complete approach available to today’s victims would have been available to her when she was struggling to leave her ex-husband.
“I had nowhere to go. I ended up going back to the abuser,’’ Flo said.
One example of how the response has changed is the case of a homeless woman with a long history of drug abuse who got off the streets by living with a homeless man.
It didn’t work out because of their drug problems.
A New Leaf helped a victim find hope for a better life by teaching her how to live in a responsible manner after nine felonies. They helped the victim address her substance abuse problem and clean up her legal issues, said Sonya Underwood, manager of Autumn House.
“We see these accomplishments within her,’’ Underwood said. “We measure success differently. These little things they are doing, it’s huge for her. The 120 days are not enough.’’
Autumn House allows for a maximum visit of 120 days, but would find another alternative for a victim and never turn her back into the streets, Underwood said.
“What frustrates me is society is so accepting of it,’’ Martinez said. “We are so accepting of violence. It’s a violent culture and we have accepted violence.’’