Editor’s note: This is the last in a series about Citizens Against Spouse Abuse, Inc., which provides services for victims of domestic and sexual abuse. If you or someone you know is the victim of physical or sexual abuse, call the CASA Hotline at 827-5555. All calls are confidential and answered 24/7.
Often, victims of abuse find themselves in a cycle of abuse — a parent abuses a child because the parent was abused himself as a child. Some victims, however, have no history of violence in their family. An assault or attack happens to them randomly, a victim of unforeseen circumstances. Sue is one of those survivors.
At 13, Sue was violently raped by a 24-year-old family friend and for nearly 40 years, she told no one.
“Pieces of that day are still missing from my memory,” she said. “I do remember feeling scared, hurt, lost, discardable. After that day I became two different people — the outside girl who was just the same as before and the inside girl, too afraid and lost to do anything.”
Sue, who asked the Democrat not to use her last name, has received free therapy through Citizens Against Spouse Abuse, Inc., something she calls a lifesaver.
“I’m not sure where I would be or who I would be without CASA and Juanita (Holmes, CASA’s adult therapist),” she said. “They’ve been a blessing to me.”
A new start
When a woman leaves CASA’s shelter she is required to have some sort of safety plan.
“The plan maps out the next step for a survivor’s life, whether that be moving in with friends or finding their own place,” said New Beginnings Coordinator Debbie Fisher. “Sometimes the plan is to go back home and if things get bad again, come back to CASA.”
Fisher actively stays in touch with the women and children who leave the shelter, even if it’s just to check up on them and have a quick chat.
“We don’t push them out the door and say, ‘OK, you’re on your own now,’ ” Fisher said. “For many of these women, living at CASA has been very inclusive for them — they don’t have to worry about anything here except themselves and their children. But once they leave it can be overwhelming to be back in the real world again, dealing with all of life’s problems.”
Fisher works with different social agencies in town, particularly Pettis County Community Partnership’s Putting Roofs Over People program, to help find survivors affordable housing. CASA will also help furnish apartments or homes as much as possible.
“Some of these women left their homes with the clothes on their backs and whatever they were able to grab, which isn’t much,” Fisher said. “They’re starting over from scratch essentially.”
Many times women will still use CASA’s services, such as therapy or different life skills programs after they leave, she added.
“I wish I’d known about CASA and the therapy services years ago,” Sue said. “I could have had a different life.”
After her rape, Sue decided to not tell her parents what happened. Aside from the shame of the incident, she believed her father would seek revenge.
“My daddy would have taken a shotgun to him, I know he would have,” she said. “I thought I could just get through it myself.”
During her teenage years Sue was plagued with thoughts of suicide. Her saviors turned out to be the puppies her family raised on their country farm.
“The dogs knew when I was upset, they cared,” she said. “I could talk to the dogs, tell them everything I couldn’t tell my parents. In a lot of ways, I really do think they saved my life.”
Sue kept her secret, she got married and had two children of her own. She had a happy life, she says, but her past continued to tear her apart.
“When I heard about CASA I thought, well, maybe I should start to talk about it,” she said. “It was hard. I had been this other person for so long, to go back and revisit those memories — that lost little girl has never left me, she’s still inside me. It was hard to be OK with her coming out, with admitting what happened.”
Hope for the best
The staff at CASA like to remind clients that abuse doesn’t discriminate, it crosses all age, race and socioeconomic barriers. CASA’s full-time Outreach Case Manager, Giselle Cruzdebaeza, sees this first-hand working with the local Hispanic community.
“In the Hispanic culture abuse is seen as normal,” Cruzdebaeza said. “The man is the head of the family and what he says goes. If a woman decides to leave her abusive husband and go back home, her father may tell her ‘no, you have to go back to your husband.’ ”
“Girls are often told if your boyfriend or husband doesn’t hit you, if he isn’t jealous, he doesn’t love you,” said Bertha Lerma, CASA’s part-time bilingual Sexual Assault Case Manager. “When that’s what you grow up with, when everyone around you is being abused in some way or another it’s just normal. That’s just life.”
Cruzdebaeza and Lerma work together to combat that way of thinking. Between them they have approximately 40 clients who speak little or no English and unlike English speaking victims who may come to CASA and interact with each member of the staff, for Spanish-speakers, Cruzdebaeza and Lerma are it.
“A lot of our work is helping survivors obtain legal documents,” Cruzdebaeza said. “Some of these women are married to U.S. citizens who abuse them and tell them, ‘If you tell anyone, I’ll call the police and they’ll send you back because you’re illegal.’ These women are frightened they’ll be forced to leave their children.”
Through the Violence Against Women Act, victims of abuse who are in the country illegally are allowed to apply for a VAWA Visa or U Visa. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, to apply for a VAWA Visa, the victim must establish they’ve had a relationship with the abuser, have been the victim of battery or extreme cruelty, reside with the abuser and have good moral character. If granted, a VAWA Visa gives a victim two years to apply to become a U.S. citizen.
U Visas require victims to have documented proof of the abuse, including assisting law enforcement in a case against the abuser, and character references, among other qualifications. If granted, victims have four years to apply to become a citizen.
“Not all victims leave their abusers,” Cruzdebaeza said. “A few years ago I had a client who was married to an American and when he drank he would beat her. She told me she was afraid to call the police because she was illegal and her husband threatened to take their child and leave. She couldn’t work, didn’t even know how to drive.”
Cruzdebaeza convinced the woman to take the man to court, where he proceeded to tell the judge she was an illegal immigrant.
“The judge said, ‘I don’t care about her status, you’re an abuser,’ ” she said. “He was put in jail for a time and now she’s a legal resident. They’re still together but he quit drinking and now she’s driving. Sometimes that’s the best you can hope for.”
For Sue, hoping for the best includes getting beyond her past. Two years ago she told her mother about the rape and “she took it as well as she could have.”
“Sometimes I’m angry at my parents, that they didn’t realize something was going on, that they didn’t think to ask,” she said. “But I realize it’s all part of my journey to happiness. It hasn’t been until the last year or so that I’ve really accepted that I deserve to be loved. I still have a lot to learn about not blaming that child I was.”
The courage to leave
It takes an abuse victim an average of seven attempts before she finally leaves her abuser for good. Of the women who leave CASA, Fisher knows she’ll probably see one or two again. Sometimes within a few weeks, other times it may be a year. No matter what, she said, they’re always welcome back.
“It’s a tough thing, leaving,” she said. “Because you’re not just leaving the violence. You’re leaving your entire way of life, everything you’ve known you have to change. It’s incredibly hard for these women, so to see them succeed, it makes everything worth it.”
Six years ago, Fisher worked with a woman who came to CASA with her daughter after suffering years of abuse.
“There was a horrid custody battle between her and her husband, absolutely terrible,” Fisher said. “She won. He went to prison. And now she’s doing wonderfully, she has her own apartment, her daughter is thriving. It’s good to hear those stories, to run into the survivors in town and have them tell me they’re on this new life path.”
For Sue, her main goal in life right now is to continue healing, for herself and her granddaughter.
“I didn’t want to tell my story, I thought about it for a long time and even right now, I’m still scared to be talking about it,” she said with tears in her eyes. “But if my story can help just one little girl know she’s not alone, if I could save one person from feeling what I felt, it will have made my journey worth it.”
CASA is looking for new or gently used furniture, particularly beds and couches, to give to survivors when they’re able to leave the shelter and set up a new home. Other household items are also appreciated. For more information about how to donate, call 827-5559.