Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Local centers offer help for domestic abuse victims: Domestic violence calls spiked after Azana spa shooting

A bedroom at a local women's shelter is simple but decorated in comfortable tones and relaxing colors. Rooms like these house domestic violence victims who can begin the recovery process.

Photo by Rick Wood for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

October 27, 2012

by Annysa Johnson

Three women work the hotline at Sojourner Family Peace Center's shelter for battered women and their children on Milwaukee's west side. They speak in hushed tones, and you hear only one side of the conversations, but you get the gist.

"Were you treated at the hospital? Was it a result of the abuse?" . . . "No, he shouldn't be doing that to you." . . . "I know, it's an unfair world out there."

A call to Sojourner's or one of the other domestic violence hotlines across southeastern Wisconsin is often the first step for victims - most often it's women, but sometimes men - in fleeing a violent relationship.

"It's all about safety. We want to make sure people have a safe place to be," said Dolly Grimes-Johnson, who since 1983 has run what began as Milwaukee's first shelter for battered women.

"And if they're just looking for resources, that's our goal too."

Calls to Sojourner, the Milwaukee Women's Center and other programs for abuse victims spiked in the days after Zina Haughton and two other women were murdered by her abusive husband at a Brookfield spa last Sunday.

The hotlines are one gateway into a complex system of shelters, health and educational programs, the courts and more aimed at extricating people from dangerous situations, holding abusers accountable, and in some cases healing families.

'It can be anybody'

At the Milwaukee Women's Center shelter on W. Mitchell St., sparsely furnished bedrooms line a first floor corridor. Nothing fancy. Just single beds and small dressers, and the occasional crib. They almost always are full.

Some are set aside for elderly women, a reminder that domestic violence isn't the domain of any one subset of society.

Abusers and their victims are white and black, Latino and more. They are young and old, gay and straight, affluent and desperately poor.

And they are male and female, though men report abuse at a much lower rate. There are no local shelters specifically for abused men.

"People have such preconceived ideas of what an abuser and a victim would be. That the woman's uneducated, or the man's a drinker. But it can be anybody," said Samantha, who was abused by her ex-husband during their five-year marriage and sought help through the Women's Center in Waukesha.

It can take a woman on average seven incidents before she leaves, according to experts. They stay for any number of reasons - love, finances, children, shame, fear - a reality that often is baffling to outsiders with no real understanding of the dynamics of abuse.

Leaving, it turns out, is often the most dangerous thing a woman can do.

"You don't second guess them when they say they're going to kill you, when they've already demonstrated that they're willing to be violent," said Erin Perkins of the Milwaukee Commission on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.

Safety plan needed

In shelters, on hotlines or other points of contact, one of the first things advocates do is help victims create a safety plan that often includes a getaway bag hidden in a safe place for a quick escape if needed.

They run through everything they should store there: a photo ID, keys, changes of clothes and copies of important papers - birth certificates, rental agreements, bank papers, social security cards - anything they might need for daily living or to start over in a new place.

At her court hearing for the restraining order against her husband, Zina Haughton testified that she couldn't get a hotel room the night she fled her home because he'd taken her wallet with her driver's license in it.

"Sometimes they come with nothing but the clothes on their backs," said Grimes-Johnson. "But if they have a safety plan, they can grab that bag and go."

Any safety plan, advocates say, should involve children, including instructions on how and when they should call 911.

"Do they know where the safest place is to exit the house? You run through it just like a fire drill," said LaTrice Buck Hogan, who directs the Milwaukee Women's Center.

Effects on children

Jessi Trauth runs Sojourner's children's programs, brightly colored and filled with toys and books, comfy couches and small tables and chairs.

Trauth sees firsthand the effects of family violence on children. They can be lifelong and show themselves in myriad ways, from academic performance to behavioral problems and eventually violent tendencies of their own.

"Children start to see that aggression is a way to get what they want. Or they learn that if I stay calm and do everything that's asked of me . . . if I can be perfect - everything will be OK," Trauth said.

Kids here spend a lot of time talking about their feelings, naming them and trying to understand them.

"We talk a lot about anger," said Trauth. "They see it as bad. But we say it's OK to be angry. But we have to think about how we show that anger and do it in a way that it doesn't hurt someone else."

For some mothers, the decision to leave comes when they see their abuser reflected in their own children.

"It might be in their language, or tone of voice or some physical expression," said Grimes-Johnson.

"They see it in their children, and they want to stop it."

Taking court action

Many victims seek protection through the courts, often seeking restraining orders that bar abusers, even those who just threaten violence, from contacting their partners.

They come, often, as a last resort, and can be easily discouraged by the process.

It is Wednesday afternoon in Milwaukee County's domestic violence court, and Commissioner Ana Berrios-Schroeder's docket is full.

Like life and love, and civil process, each case is complicated.

One woman, who frequently wipes the tears from her eyes, wants contact with her husband, because of their son. She just doesn't want him hurting her.

Another asks Berrios-Schroeder to bar her ex-boyfriend entirely, saying he's vandalized her car and left threatening messages on her telephone. He is a no-show for today's hearing.

"I'm scared because he does have access to guns," the woman tells Berrios-Schroeder. "I'm afraid he's going to kill me. I know it's not just talk."

The commissioner grants the restraining order barring the man from contacting her - in person, by letter, by phone or email - for four years. But she urges the woman to do everything she can to stay safe, even moving if she has to.

"These orders are only as good as the precautions you assist us with," she says.

Not everyone gets what they've come for. At least four petitions were dismissed or held over because deputies couldn't locate the respondents to serve them.

Restraining orders bar their subjects from possessing firearms, and that is always read into the record. On this day, Berrios-Schroeder makes a point of asking all respondents in cases where she's issuing an injunction, whether they have any guns.

If they do, she tells them, they must surrender them to the sheriff.

One man asks if he can give them to his father for safekeeping.

She lays out the strict procedure under which that's possible: His father will have to come to court and promise under oath that his son will not have access to the guns.

She gives him until Friday to surrender the firearms or produce his father in court. If he does not, Berrios-Schroeder tells his attorney, "I will issue a warrant for his arrest."

There was no such threat issued against killer Radcliffe Haughton at his Oct. 18 restraining order hearing, despite testimony that he had once fired a bullet - accidentally - within inches of his wife's head.

Zina Haughton called it "the scariest night of my life." She testified that her husband didn't have a gun, and it turned out he didn't - until he bought one on the Internet after the hearing.

"I know my husband's temper, and I refuse to have guns in the house," Zina Haughton told Commissioner Nancy Sturm just three days before her death.

"Nothing good can come from a gun."

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