Why Doesn't She Just Leave?

A special report on domestic violence

(page 3 of 3)

***

Whenever a domestic violence murder makes news, calls to Domestic Abuse Intervention Services drop. Even when we don’t recognize it for what it is—say, the murders of two innocent children by a batterer, which we chalk up to child abuse without looking at the bigger reality, that threatening to hurt or kill a victim’s children is one of the main factors that keeps her complacent—even then, the victim recognizes.

And so does the perpetrator. According to Shannon Barry, executive director of DAIS, perpetrators often attach newspaper clippings of domestic violence murders to the refrigerator to send a clear message to their victims. That’s why the DAIS help line appears on the bottom of every page of this article, to dilute that threat. We want the help line number to be the clearest message of all.

“It’s really important that victims realize that for every one of these stories, there are 1,200 to 1,300 people who are served face to face by DAIS every year,” says Barry. “We don’t tend to hear about the success stories, but there are so many. People do reach out for help. They do become safe.”

In addition to housing 524 people in 2010 (250 were children) in Dane County’s only domestic violence shelter, DAIS helps victims by fielding between 4,500 and 6,000 calls every year. DAIS offers a spectrum of resources, including legal advocacy counseling, support groups and one-on-one safety planning. They assist with things like changing locks, providing secret cell phones and help for children and pets.

“We’re trying to get people to understand that DAIS is a resource, not just a crisis-based agency,” says Barry. “We want to get involved much earlier, back even when people are kind of thinking maybe there’s something wrong about this relationship I should be concerned about. Even just those little red flags you want to talk through.”

Those little red flags are critical, although victims so often brush them off. Julie Rook Schebig says that growing up, she knew she would never be a victim of abuse, “never let a guy hit me.” But “it’s a slow process,” she says. Lisa Judd Blanchard remains certain her sister Tracy never would have recognized herself as a victim, and both women have been approached dozens of times now by friends and loved ones who have survived abusive relationships and never thought it would happen to them.

“The first part of a violent relationship is just like any other healthy relationship,” says Barry. “It’s so subtle and it happens so gradually over a period of time that you don’t even realize for a long time that you’re in an abusive relationship.”

Barry says each of us can play a supportive role, and no act is too small. Maybe you hang a flyer in your apartment building with numbers for DAIS, or Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence, or Unidos, a family violence resource for the Latino/immigrant community. Maybe as an employer you buy a table at fundraisers for organizations like these, or bring victims’ advocates in to speak. Maybe you write letters to the editor publicly recognizing victims when domestic violence is reported in the media, or maybe you write newsletter articles for your church bulletin. Maybe you choose to speak out or to support those who do.

“It’s about giving victims the control back,” says Barry. “Because they have had the control stripped from them by their batterers, and the last thing that we all want to do as a community is strip their control even further.”

Maybe you read stories like these, and flip the onus from the victim to the perpetrator.

“The number-one thing I think the community needs to do is to believe victims, and to hold batterers accountable,” says Barry. “That starts with really simple things, like switching the question from ‘why doesn’t she just leave?’ to ‘why does he do that?’”

***

It’s a Friday night, August 19, 2011, and a dozen or so kids are rocking a bouncy house in a Fitchburg park. It’s one of those classic Wisconsin evenings, a crisp, cloudless sky cut with a dry breeze, hot in the sun and cool-water-sweet in the shade, the smell of onion dip and grass clippings in the air.

“This is exactly how the air felt two years ago tonight, exactly how the day was,” says Julie Rook Schebig. “That can be a trigger, but I’m actually doing really good.”

This is the second annual “Celebration of Life,” a balloon release orchestrated by Julie, her way of marking the painful anniversary of both her abusive marriage and her near-fatal attack. She stands barely five-feet-five in white shorts and a purple tank top, a cold bottle of Miller High Life in her hand, surveying the scene of family, friends and neighbors.

“This neighborhood means everything to me,” she says. “My kids actually have friends now, coming in and out of our house. We never could have had any of this before.” 

About seventy-five purple balloons are tucked away inside an adjacent house, awaiting their big moment. Each balloon has two cards tied to it, with phone numbers of local domestic violence resources, victims’ rights and statistics. Each bears the quote, “When the caterpillar thought it was the end of its life … it turned into a butterfly.” This same sentence is tattooed across Julie’s thin back.

“For the rest of my life I’m going to do anything I can to help, to get the word out, not even just to women but to society,” says Julie. “Until society is there to back up these women and to say this is an outrage, this is not acceptable behavior, it’s a tough battle to get women to feel safe and come forward.”

Julie’s fingers brush across a second tattoo, this one a slim, purple ribbon on the inside of her wrist.

“It’s here so that people will ask me about it,” says Julie. “I will show them pictures, I will talk all about this, because it’s not my shame, it’s his shame.”

In some ways, it makes Julie feel better to have these outward signs to help articulate the reality of domestic violence. That’s something she didn’t have before, when she needed it most.

“Just because you don’t walk around with bruises, just because you don’t have a broken arm or black eye, does not mean that you are not in an abusive relationship,” she says. “The emotional abuse, the verbal abuse, the physical control, the financial control, the feeling of being trapped, I personally would have rather had broken arms and black eyes than the damage that can be done long-term by living your life in fear. Or wondering, is today the day that he’s finally gonna get to that next step?”

Julie’s ex-husband Jerry Orton was arrested within hours of her attack, after calling 911 himself to report he’d “just killed” his wife and that the babies were home alone in their high chairs. But Julie’s battle with Jerry continued long after her attack. In addition to her five-day hospital stay and months of painful recovery (she still suffers from post-concussive syndrome, PTSD, anxiety, insomnia and terrible nightmares), Orton continued to attempt to control her by manipulating the court system—a tactic experts say is very common. He fired attorney after attorney at the last minute just before trial, prompting the system to reset itself over and over again, before finally agreeing to a plea in the end. Julie alleges that Jerry wanted to avoid trial so that he could keep the illusion with his friends and family intact, and that he was unaware that physical evidence would still be presented at the sentencing hearing if he pled out—but it was. Yet, except for one couple who walked out of the courtroom upon seeing pictures of Julie’s battered face, many of Orton’s friends and family stood by him, and, Julie says, continue to blame her. Last April, Orton was finally sentenced to twenty-two years in prison, despite them.

But Julie doesn’t need the whole world to like her. She has a core group of old friends, and she’s made tentative new beginnings; new friends in the neighborhood, and women who know what she’s going through—like Lisa Judd Blanchard, who is here tonight to support her. The two women embrace, each with her separate path of advocacy. Lisa, along with her late sister Tracy’s friend Heather, has just unveiled the new Facebook page for Traja, and they’re now working to develop badly needed domestic violence legislation in Wisconsin as it exists in a few other states. For Julie’s part, she has just this afternoon come from a training meeting with new police officers, sharing her story. Both of these women have much more to say, but tonight is about the little things, about sunshine and neighbors who know the truth. It’s about what was happening exactly two years ago tonight, and how remarkably different life looks today.

Around 7:30 p.m. as the crowd gathers in a circle, Julie and her children lead a procession from the house, balloons in tow. Each person gathered is given one as Julie speaks.

“A few years ago I thought it was gonna be the end of my life,” says Julie. “And despite what my ex-husband did to me, it is now the beginning of my life.”

With Avril Lavigne warbling over the PA system to “Keep Holding On,” Julie and her supporters release the balloons. Julie moves slowly through the circle as they rise, balancing on tiptoe to deliver hug after hug, until the balloons are just a series of pinprick holes through a tissue paper sky. Shaky, destination unknown, but free.

Maggie Ginsberg-Schutz is a frequent contributor to Madison Magazine and founder of Violence Unsilenced Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to giving abuse survivors a voice.

 

Domestic Abuse 24-Hour Help Line: 608-251-4445 (abuseintervention.org)

 

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