Special report: Dakota County woman overcomes barriers to leaving her abusive relationship
When Mary moved into her house a few years ago, she planted some flowers.
Each spring they bloom and she rejoices in the day to come free from the yelling, screaming and the abuse she suffered at the hands of her former husband.
It’s been nearly a decade since the abuse started and it took Mary several years to finally leave her husband. It’s been several more years to put her life back together for herself and her children.
“I appreciate every day,” Mary said. “People take so many things for granted.”
After she left her husband and the abusive relationship behind, Mary went back to school to earn a degree in which she can help victims of domestic abuse in some way.
“I never thought any of this would be possible,” she said. “I have a new self-confidence, feeling complete and am free to make my own choices.”
But that wasn’t always the case.
After she was the victim of domestic abuse the first time, it took her several years to finally break free of the relationship with her husband because of the many obstacles she saw in the way.
When the abuse started, she convinced herself it was a one-time occurrence, but it kept happening every time he was drunk and their children were out of sight. She feared what leaving her husband would do to her children – then elementary to high school aged – how she would support them financially and emotionally, and she feared leaving him might drive him to worse violence.
Mary’s story is similar to that of Woynshet Woldemariam, who was shot and killed by her estranged husband outside her Apple Valley apartment building on July 14. They both left their abusive husbands, went back to school and had placed their life on a new track with many possibilities.
The recent murder of Woldemariam has led to an increase in calls to 360 Communities domestic violence prevention programs, including several from women of African descent.
Woldemariam, known as Winnie to her friends, was an Ethiopian immigrant and naturalized citizen who worked as a nurse.
She had broken ties with her husband after the relationship turned violent and had turned her life around, including volunteer work with 360 Communities.
Despite the horrific end to her life, the incident is serving as a way to help pull other women out of abusive relationships.
Knocking down barriers
The biggest challenge domestic abuse advocates often face is convincing victims that the most important thing is to end the abuse.
“We have to break down the barriers,” said Ann Sheridan, director of violence prevention for Burnsville-based 360 Communities.
The domestic abuse victim this newspaper interviewed, Mary (not her real name), said she went to 360’s Lewis House several times after nights when she had been beaten, hit with furniture and threatened with a weapon before she had the fortitude and evidence she needed to file for an order for protection and charges against her husband.
Sheridan said victims often think of all the reasons they can’t leave rather than focusing on the positives that can result from exiting an abusive relationship.
“I thought all about the 100 reasons I couldn’t leave,” Mary said. “I could never see a way out.”
Sheridan said the sooner 360 Communities can be involved through its confidential services, the more it can help prevent future violence. It is estimated that one in every four women will be the victim of domestic abuse, which crosses all racial and socioeconomic categories.
“It can happen to anyone, but it doesn’t have to,” she said. “I think people don’t want to believe it. There are a lot of abusive people out there.”
The nonprofit is equipped to intervene and support families and victims by obtaining an order for protection, sorting out options for housing and employment, caring for children’s emotional and educational needs, and much more.
“There is a lot of reminding them that the abuse is not their fault,” said Sheridan, who said 360 Communities has contact with some 2,500 victims annually.
“Once you start seeing those red flags, you should call an advocate,” Sheridan said of 360’s trained volunteers and professionals who have prevented countless cases where violence would have escalated without intervention.
Mary called the people who work at Lewis House “angels” and said she couldn’t have ended her abusive relationship without their help.
Some of the warning signs of potential abuse is a husband or boyfriend controlling certain aspects of their wife or girlfriend’s life – who they can call, who they can visit, when they can leave the house, spending decisions, what they wear, etc.
“Sometimes it is just a gut feeling,” Sheridan said. “If they get that feeling that they might be abused, they should make that call.”
Making that first call for help was “humiliating” for Mary, who said she didn’t think anyone would understand her problem.
Sheridan said overcoming fears of how to provide for children under a single-parent household is difficult to overcome.
She said there are many options for closing the income gap, including child support, financial aid and scholarships for education and job placement.
One of the difficulties some abuse victims face is they are not currently employed or do not have the training needed to enter the workforce.
“Once we get more information we can kind of guide them in the right direction,” she said.
Sheridan describes the work with immigrant populations on the issue of domestic abuse as requiring special effort.
The nonprofit is working on translating many of its brochures into different languages and has interpreter services available.
Aside from the language barrier, there are several cultural differences that pose challenges.
Those cultural barriers include religious views, seeking help seen as a sign of weakness or overcoming traditional subservient roles.
In some instances, a marriage separation or one that ends in divorce is viewed with disdain for religious or cultural reasons.
In some of these male-dominated societies, women fear reporting their husband to authorities.
“They don’t want to get their husband in trouble,” Sheridan said.
She said there also is fear of interacting with the criminal justice system because of the language barrier.
Some undocumented women fear they will be deported if the police are involved. There is a provision of the federal Violence Against Women Act that allows undocumented women who are the victims of abuse a work permit to remain in the United States.
Some minority women who are victims of abuse are trapped since they are unable to communicate in English but their husbands are and are the ones communicating with police.
Repairing the damage
Putting one’s life back together after breaking free from an abusive relationship doesn’t happen overnight, Sheridan said.
Among the first steps is finding housing. Lewis House in Eagan and Hastings offers temporary housing for victims. While people are at Lewis House, advocates work to find them a safe and affordable place to live.
They help them coordinate retrieving their belongings or going back to their home if that is the case.
Food shelf services can help them if needed.
The services of 360 Communities also tends to the emotional side. Support groups meet regularly for both women and children who have been victims of abuse.
Children’s Support Group for young people who have been abused is a safe place for them to talk about their experiences.
Advocates work closely with children to overcome the damage inflicted by abuse whether that entails just talking to them about how it is not their fault, how they can keep themselves safe or even scheduling time with a trained psychologist.
Sheridan said it takes about a year before victims can get their lives back in order.
“A lot of it is just knowing they can break through it,” Sheridan said. “It takes a lot of energy out of them.”
She said the best part of it is the victims are now living on their own and not dependent on someone else.
Mary said the first night she spent away from her home was on the floor of a dwelling that was empty except for the bare mattress upon which she slept with her daughter.
“I told her we were going to be OK now that we were gone,” she said. “It was a cool feeling to know that we were gone. … It’s a whole new world for me.”