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Domestic violence numbers up

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By Calen McKinney

They had been dating for three months, and there hadn't been any sign of violence between them - until they went to a party.

People were drinking, and the situation got out of control.

"He beat her," Heather Barnes, Taylor County victims' advocate in County Attorney Craig Cox's office, said. "He beat her face until it became unrecognizable."

The scenario is the true story of one of Barnes' most recent clients, one of many Taylor County residents she has helped escape an abusive situation.

The recent scenario, Barnes said, has a happy ending. The woman asked for an Emergency Protective Order and has kept it.

"The last I heard, she was doing good," Barnes said.

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

Locally, Barnes said domestic violence statistics are up - considerably.

According to Barnes' statistics, she investigated 215 domestic violence complaints last year.

From Jan. 1 to Sept. 30 of this year, she has investigated 296, already more than she investigated for the entire year of 2007.

Barnes says she believes the current state of the economy could be one reason domestic violence statistics are increasing.

With less money to go around, households can get tense, she said, and the result can be violent.

"For families on a budget, times are getting tough," she said. "Mom and dad are trying to work extra ... there's a lot more stress ... tempers are flared."

She said people could also be drinking and using drugs to try and relieve their stress, which could also attribute to domestic violence.

The poor state of the economy has also cut Barnes' funding by more than $10,000. As a result, she said, she has less money to travel to trainings and conferences, and she has taken a pay cut.

Though domestic violence includes physical violence, Barnes said, emotional and psychological violence can be just as damaging.

"It can be psychological," she said. "The abuser calls them names, makes demeaning comments, tells them they're worthless, makes threats."

Sexual violence, she says, is another form of domestic violence.

"Some may think that because they're married, it's not abuse," she said. "[A client once said], 'I was asleep and he wanted to have sex so he forced me.'

"Even if they're married, if she says no, she means no."

Barnes says there can be warning signs that domestic violence is occurring, and co-workers, family and friends can recognize them.

"Obviously, unexplained physical marks are a sign," she said. "You don't get a black eye from falling down the steps. That's a big one."

Another big warning sign, she said, is a sudden change in personality. A normally outgoing person who suddenly appears withdrawn may be having problems. Changes in sleeping patterns and work behaviors are also signs.

She said some people may notice the warning signs but don't want to get involved.

"Some people can kind of have a feeling but don't want to get involved, don't want to go to court," she said.

For those afraid to step in and help, Barnes says, it's important to address the potential situation.

"I know it's uncomfortable," she said. "Talk to them. Say, 'Here's what I think is happening.' Let them know you are there for support and there are options."

For those who are the victims of domestic violence, Barnes said, she wants them to know that help is available.

Barnes, who often performs crisis counseling, can refer those who come to her for help to local counselors and local shelters, including the Caring Place in Lebanon and Bethany House Abuse Shelter in Somerset.

A local support group is also available. Survivors of Domestic Abuse/Assault meets every other Friday from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. at the Taylor County Extension Office.

Though Barnes says many come to her for help, several are "repeat" clients.

Often, those who have an Emergency Protective Order but later want it dropped are ordered to attend some type of counseling.

"The day after they file for that EPO is the most dangerous time," she said. "As an advocate, I know it's likely that they will come back [to my office]. It's kind of disheartening. As an advocate, I work so hard to get them safe."

She says she often hears, "Well, I love him," or "I need him financially."

"Also as an advocate, I can't judge that," she said. "I have to be supportive."

Sometimes, she said, she just has a feeling a victim will be back to see her.

"I'll see them again and I'll be there for them. That's what I do," she said.

Barnes says domestic violence is a cycle, and some victims just don't know any different.

For example, she said, a 15-year-old girl who witnessed violence between her parents may begin dating someone who starts pushing her and slapping her around.

"They're probably not going to think that's not normal," she said. "The truth is, they're probably drawn to that. It's sad, but true."

She said some abusers also attempt to intimidate their victims by staring at them at court or using other tactics.

For those who commit domestic violence acts, Barnes said, the consequences could include paying fines and going to counseling. Varying degrees of assault, ranging from misdemeanors to felony offenses, can also carry jail time as a penalty.

For those who have tried to leave a violent situation and haven't seemed to be able to, Barnes says it's important to create a safety plan - and tell someone about it.

"It's a process, it's a planning process," she said. "They just need to be safe and have a plan."

Barnes says victims need to first plan to leave. Part of their plan, she said, should include making an extra set of keys, having some money and gathering important papers that they will need to make a new start somewhere else.

It's also a good idea to have a bag packed, she said, with valuables stored safely so they don't get destroyed.

"The main thing is they need to be safe," she said.

For more information on domestic violence, call Barnes at 469-9456.

- Staff Writer Calen McKinney can be reached at 465-8111 Ext. 235 or by e-mail at reporter@cknj.com. Comment on this story at www.cknj.com.