DOMESTIC VIOLENCE: Why it happens here

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Editor's note: The names of some of those mentioned in this story have been changed to protect the safety of the victims.

In a chokehold, world going black, one arm twisted behind her back, the other pinned beneath her, Jennifer struggled for air. She found it because she remembered a trick taught to her from her work in psychology.

Chin to the crook of his elbow. Breathe.

Closed fists, punching, kicking, David as she knew him was gone. She began crawling away and saw her phone on the arm of the couch. Jennifer made it to an oversized chair, but it wasn't over.

He pushed her down and threw a blanket over her, and then the garage door opened. It was the sound of Jennifer's brother arriving with her son - home from a bicycle ride.

Jennifer ran out the door and managed to whisper without David seeing: "Call 911."

"It amazes me that even when it was happening to me, I didn't think I was going to die," Jennifer said. "The whole time I was thinking I don't want my son to see, I don't want him to be affected."

Jennifer's story is just one portrait of domestic violence.

Kootenai County Prosecutor's Office Victim Witness Coordinator Susan Koerner sees a "couple hundred" cases similar to Jennifer's in a year. She sees cuts and bruises, brain injuries and strangulations - a particularly deadly form of violence because it leads to brain hemorrhage.

That domestic violence exists is not news to North Idaho residents. A recent report ranked Idaho seventh in the nation for its rate of women murdered by men.

North Idaho Violence Prevention Center executive director Joe Robinson said the center responded to more than 8,000 calls to the hotline number from July of 2012 through June of 2013. Of those, 1,606 were classified as crisis intervention or victim service calls. That number also includes the Kootenai County crisis line.

And it can happen to anyone.

"I'm educated. I have a career," Jennifer said. "I'm not a drug addict or an alcoholic. I'm not on welfare."

Jennifer had been with David for nine months before he exploded. She thought they had a normal life, eating dinner, playing board games, living and working. It took her months to realize it had really happened to her, that he really could have killed her.

"It just never dawned on me that it would happen to me," she said.

Darcy, another victim of domestic violence, kept telling herself it wasn't happening.

"I was a real person. I have degrees. I have a degree in early childhood education. I had a life," she said.

Why it happens

Theresa Staples believes North Idaho's historical geographic isolation is one reason domestic violence flourishes in the region.

Staples was the North Idaho Violence Prevention Center court program director for seven years before taking a recent break.

Family history can play a major role, though domestic violence isn't just a family problem, she said.

"Children are like sponges and they absorb their environment. If children are growing up in a violent home, that is their normal. That's what feels normal to them," Staples said.

Power and control are the roots of domestic violence rather than sudden, uncontrollable anger, local experts say.

North Idaho Violence Prevention Center executive director Joe Robinson said he can't think of a situation where a partner "just snapped one day." The abuser typically controls - money, where the couple lives, contact with friends and family, and the like.

Robinson attributed part of the problem to culture, accepted negative attitudes about women and what it means for men to be men and women to be women.

"It's not just a matter of telling people not to beat up their wives," he said. "We're trying to stop something that's been in place for hundreds and hundreds of years."

Men are rewarded for aggression, for being tough. And young women are told their value is based on their looks, Robinson said.

Treatment provider and licensed clinical social worker Jud Leifheit attributed domestic violence to unhealthy relationships, though he also said he doesn't know that it can be blamed on any one set of reasons.

Leifheit runs a state-certified 52-week domestic violence program, providing court-ordered treatment for offenders.

He agreed that domestic violence isn't an anger management issue - because offenders can manage their anger quite effectively in the workplace and with friends.

"They choose not to manage it in an intimate relationship when they choose to abuse," Leifheit said.

His program covers 32 main topics, from core beliefs and male privilege to stress management.

Offenders who are successful change their belief system. It takes six months to create a brain change, and it requires a conscious effort, he said.

"Actions will only change for a short period if the belief system doesn't change. They're always going to go back to acting what they believe," he said.

What happens

People do not always know when they're victims of domestic violence because some think it is always physical abuse. But domestic violence is also emotional, psychological and verbal.

It is "beating a victim down to where she or he really doesn't believe they can make it on their own," Staples said.

It can include threats to take away the children. Staples remembered one victim who would not leave her abuser because he said he would kill her mother and her dog.

"They are going to go after whatever is important to their victim," Staples said.

She remembered, too, a victim whose partner shot her up with heroin. Three or four years later, the addicted victim was in trouble with the law, losing her children and losing her home.

"She's losing everything, because he shot her up with heroin," she said. "Now he can say she's a worthless drug addict who can't take care of her children and he uses that to take the children away from her."

Certainly, it is difficult to force someone to do something that they don't want to do, Staples said, but a victim of domestic violence will often do whatever makes her abuser happy so that she doesn't have to endure violence, threats and humiliation.

Why they stay

Though ordered not to contact Jennifer, David found ways around it.

He sent her letters from jail, addressing them with her cat's name and her maiden name together. Or her son's first name and her brother's last name.

"It took me a little bit to understand what happened to me," she said.

Jennifer started reading about domestic violence and underwent therapy. It dawned on her that David didn't love her. He was manipulating her. What he really wanted her to do was recant her story.

The seriousness of what he had done struck home, and she realized that she had put his worth above her own. Instead of feeling sorry for him, she began lobbying for more punishment.

"I could have died," she said. "This is serious. He tried to kill me."

David was sentenced to 33 months, ending next March. Jennifer has moved and her address is no longer on public record. She is still afraid of him.

She recalled meeting a woman who had previously tangled with David.

"She said, 'You are going to have to hide. He's not going to let this go. He's not going to let you go. He will come after you,'" Jennifer said.

For most women, leaving isn't as easy as packing up and walking out the door.

The most dangerous time for a victim is when she decides to leave and through the divorce process, Koerner said.

"Invariably what I hear is he will take away my children. He will take away my dog ... and they believe it because of what he has done to them," she said.

Offenders do not just physically injure the victims. They find ways to cut off power, to drain bank accounts, and cancel insurance. They make complaints at the victim's work to get her fired. They find ways to get around protection orders. Offenders also threaten to kill themselves, and they do. They kidnap and they burn down houses.

Their mindset, Koerner said, is "if I can't abuse you by hurting you or putting you down, then I'm going to take your world and turn it upside down."

Darcy experienced this firsthand. Her ex told her to leave, and as she was trying to leave, he blocked the doorframe.

"He told me to leave, and then he wouldn't let me leave," she said.

He cleaned out their bank accounts and put thousands into an account she couldn't access. He left her $200. She still doesn't have all of her belongings, though Darcy managed to get her dog back.

Help for victims

Empowerment is the biggest help for victims of domestic violence, according to Staples. She supported whatever option the victims chose, even if leaving took years.

The need to support whatever choice the victim makes can be difficult to absorb, because of the lethality risk, but it is important.

"It is not our role to enable or tell a victim what they should or should not do," she said.

The victims know how to de-escalate better than outsiders do. They know how to keep themselves safe. And they know when they're ready to leave, she said.

Help is available, too, from Koerner, who deals with cases once the offender has been arrested. Koerner helps with victim's compensation, getting medical care, and general "clean up." And she listens.

According to Koerner, the region has a good group of people who work together and support each other. In April, Kootenai County's domestic violence court began at the misdemeanor level.

For Jennifer, healing has come through understanding that what happened was not her fault and through helping others.

She now speaks to groups about domestic violence, including law enforcement, social work and criminal justice classes, as well as crisis intervention training.

For some, however, healing doesn't come, or it's a long way off.

"Right now, it takes so much energy to survive, there's not enough energy left to plan goals or have dreams," Darcy said.

About this series

- October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. This is the first in a four-part series about domestic violence in North Idaho.

Editor's note: The names of some of those mentioned in this story have been changed to protect the safety of the victims.

Tuesday: Little victims, invisible scars - children and family violence.

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