When You Live With a Man Who Wants to Kill You, Where Can You Possibly Go?
In Missouri, domestic violence shelters are so overcrowded that two out of every three women, adolescents, and children who seek emergency housing are turned away. These are the stories of women who survived beating, stalking, and death threats.
Illustrations by Jessica Olah
In August 2010, Brittney Walker was driving home from work, talking on the phone to her mother, when she spotted her ex-boyfriend's truck in her driveway. "If you don't hear from me in five minutes," she said to her mother, "something bad has happened." Her eight-week-old son Eli was in the back seat, sleeping.
Walker had finally left her ex-boyfriend, Dustin Pritchard, after years of an on-and-off abusive relationship. When she had left once before, he had attacked her, smashing her face into a mirror and choking her until she swore she would come back to him. He was arrested and diagnosed with bipolar disorder, so she returned to take care of him. She tried to leave again after she got pregnant, but he put his knee on her stomach and said that she wasn't leaving with their child. Now, a few months later, she was finally free--and she wanted to stay that way.
She tried to keep driving, but he chased her. She stopped at a stop sign--"stupidly," she says--and he pulled his truck around, blocking her in. Before she could react, he had reached into her open window and taken her keys and cellphone, their infant son sleeping in his car seat. Walker says her ex-boyfriend yelled that she had been dating other people to replace him as a father in Eli's life. Pritchard says it was Walker's phone's background photo that set him off: a photo of her new boyfriend holding Eli. He tried to pull her out of the window of her car, leaving bruises on her wrist and all the way down her side. "If you're not coming with me, then I'm taking Eli and we are never seeing you again," Walker remembers Pritchard yelling. She ran to the back of the car and wrapped herself around Eli's car seat. Pritchard dragged the seat, Walker clinging to it, through the ditch by the road toward his truck.
"By the grace of God a random car drove down that road. I have no idea who it was, but that person saved my life that night," Walker says. At the time, Pritchard was on probation for two domestic violence felonies against another woman. Terrified that he would be reported for breaking probation, he threw Walker's phone and keys into a nearby field when he saw the car and disappeared. That was the last time she saw him.
Walker is now the shelter director of Harmony House in Springfield, Missouri, the only domestic violence shelter in its county. Her past experience has made her passionate about helping other women escape from abusive partners. "I understand what they are feeling," she says. "I need them to know that, regardless of who is in your life, I am here for you."
There are a lot of women for her to serve in Springfield. It's often called the "Queen City" of the Ozarks region, an area encompassing southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas. Springfield also bears the grim title of having the highest incidence per capita of domestic violence of any city in the state. Last May, the national spotlight turned on Missouri after a 46-year-old woman named Sandra Kay Sutton was brutally murdered by her boyfriend, James Horn. He had held her hostage in a box for four months--a box he forced her to help build--and then, after she escaped, he tracked her down. Sutton and her 17-year-old son Zachary Wade Sutton were found dead on May 21 of this year in Sedalia, Missouri. Horn died on May 23 when he threatened police with a gun as they tried to arrest him.
On the same day Sutton was found dead, local news station KY3 reported that the level of domestic violence in nearby Springfield had reached an all-time high. Esther Munch, development director at Harmony House, says that she has no idea why. "People always ask me that," she says. "Southwest Missouri is a wonderful place. People wave as they drive by, even if they don't know you. But for some reason, behind closed doors, people are being abused. We don't want our happy country town to be known for domestic violence."
Domestic violence advocates and members of the police department speculate that Springfield might have higher rates of reporting than other areas. This could be due to better community awareness, especially after new initiatives like a citywide Domestic Violence Task Force was established in 2012. Another contributing factor could be a "reclassification" procedure recently instituted at the police department. Captain David Millsap of the Springfield Police Department says that other agencies might call a visit to an abusive home "checking in," but Springfield officers will go back into the system after the visit and classify it as domestic violence. Still others speculate that Springfield's infamous meth problem could be the culprit. The city's area code, 417, is a well-known street name for methamphetamines.
We don't want our happy country town to be known for domestic violence.
I spoke with four survivors of domestic violence for this piece. They gave a variety of reasons why their husbands and boyfriends abused--watching domestic violence as a child, mental illness, or a need for control--but all of them are focused on moving forward. All of them now work with abused women in their professional lives, in some capacity, and they say that helping others is key to leaving their pasts behind.
On Christmas Day in 2010, Debra Horn woke up in a small room with her children. There were three strange things about doing that. First, she was sharing the building with just over a hundred other women and children. Second, there were gifts for her and her children at the door, left by a stranger. Third, and most remarkably, there was peace. After twelve years of chaos, there was no anger, no threatening, no yelling. That was her first glimmer of hope, Horn says, that she and her children could have a peaceful life.
Horn woke up that Christmas in Harmony House, which, in addition to being the only domestic violence shelter in Greene County, was the first domestic violence shelter in Missouri and is now the state's second-largest emergency violence shelter. It serves 110 people a night--nearly all women and children in "imminent danger" from domestic abuse. "Imminent danger" is the standard for admitting a victim into the shelter's secure area--past two sets of locked doors guarded with key codes only the staff knows, one of which has a video camera. For one of the doors, not even the staff has keys; that way, if someone got in the first door, they couldn't force their way into the inner area where the rooms are. To get in, someone has to ring the bell and wait for the office to confirm his or her identity through the video camera near the front door; only then will the door be unlocked. Such precautions keep those inside safe from violent abusers, who often resort to stalking to intimidate their victims into returning. Abuse is a "power and control" dynamic, according to experts, so victims are most in danger when the abuser feels he or she has lost that control: when the victim finally leaves. Horn says that the only reason she survived leaving her abuser was because she was in that emergency shelter.
Horn was lucky to get a spot in Harmony House that Christmas morning. About two out of three women who call seeking emergency shelter there are turned away because it's full. Harmony House gets so many requests for its 110 beds that it had to reject 2,326 women last year, up 35 percent from the year before. It's been operating at capacity since 2010. These statistics mirror the need for shelter throughout the state; in Missouri in 2014, for every one woman who was granted shelter after a domestic violence situation, two were turned away.
The process of turning away victims is a gut-wrenching one. Munch says that advocates, or the staff members manning the 24/7 Harmony House hotline, are often forced to tell women in violent situations that they don't have a bed for them. (On average, there are more than 18 domestic violence hotline calls per hour in Missouri.) Sometimes advocates have to make those decisions when a woman has fled a beating in her home in the middle of the night and she has nowhere to go. Because their space is so limited, they try to make sure that they're taking the worst of the worst cases--people who might not survive if they can't find a safe place. The interview process can sometimes take hours.
Women who don't get a bed at Harmony House are sent to a local church program called Sleep Safe, given a hotel voucher for the night, or referred to another secure shelter in a neighboring county. Harmony House used to use federal money funneled through Missouri's Emergency Services Grant to transport women to secure shelters. However, some of those funds went to other agencies last year, cutting just under $100,000 from Harmony House's budget. If a woman wanted to reach one of those shelters, she would often need to drive an hour or more. Munch says that sometimes Harmony House even refers people to St. Louis or Kansas City--both a three-and-a-half hour drive from Springfield. However, most of Harmony House's clients don't have access to a car; despite the overflowing population, the ten-spot parking lot behind the building is usually almost empty. Most women show up to Harmony House with just a bag and their lives.
That's what Horn did just before Christmas in 2010; by the time she finally decided to leave her husband, she had been fearing for her safety for several years. Her husband had been hearing voices, sometimes telling him to do "bad things," according to a psychological evaluation from his workplace. After he threatened to kill a coworker, Horn tried to talk him into getting help when they were in a car together. He started screaming as they drove, keeping Horn captive while he stayed on the road aimlessly for hours. He said he had a plan to murder her and the children--it would be doing them all a favor, he insisted. "I thought he was going to kill me that night," Horn remembers. "After that, I knew I had to get away. I made plans to leave because I didn't want my children to grow up without their mother."
She made what advocates call a "safety plan," or a way to get out of a dangerous domestic violence situation. Domestic violence experts tell women to do this because even if they can't or won't leave the relationship now, there may be a moment in the future when they realize that they have to, for survival. Those moments don't often afford the luxury of thinking through what documents or funds you might need. Horn made surreptitious phone calls to find out what she should take, and on the advocates' advice created secret stashes all over the house of items like social security cards and birth certificates. She wrote a long letter to her husband about getting help and explained her fear for her own safety. One morning while he was at work, she gathered up her children and left to stay with a friend in Mississippi. She was afraid to stay in the same state.
After that, her husband's behavior became even more bizarre and erratic. He told their church community that she had kidnapped their kids, and she eventually had to return to Missouri because he was threatening to get her arrested for taking the children. When she went to get clothes from their home, she discovered that her husband had put loaded guns at every window--he had heard voices surrounding the building every night. After she let him see the children in a park, he called her and began screaming that he was going to kill himself. At one point, he even starved her dog to death because she had left it behind.
"The relief that I felt [walking into Harmony House] was almost instant," Horn says. Almost everyone in the shelter was traumatized, she says, and PTSD was common. She and her children stayed there for five months--well beyond the usual 90-day stay limit--and then applied for one of the few transitional housing apartments on the top floor of Harmony House. Those areas provide longer-term housing for the most extreme stalking and abuse situations. Her children kept visiting their father because Missouri law says that children must have meaningful contact with both parents. Horn insisted on meeting him in a public place, usually a gas station, but he kept trying to lure her into dark corners of parking lots. If he started screaming at her, she would run into the gas station. Thanks to Harmony House, she says, she still had safety at home. In total, including the time she spent in transitional housing, Horn and her children lived in the shelter for a year and three months. Throughout, she was putting herself through CPA school, dealing with the ongoing divorce proceedings, and supporting her children.
After Horn was back on her feet, Harmony House asked her if she would be willing to talk about her experiences for a local news show. At first, she wouldn't let anyone use her name or face, but as she began to realize how little her interviewers understood about domestic violence, she wanted to be a voice for other victims.
"People often think that victims who stay in abusive relationships are weak, needy, or that there is something wrong with them," she says. "I want to remove the stigma. Being open and vocal helps other people in understanding the problem, and helps people who have gone through it know, 'Even though I went through this, I'm not a bad person.'"
Sometimes, Horn says she had nightmares on the evenings that interviews aired, imagining that her ex-husband would come find her. But she was relentless in challenging her fear. She spoke at her graduation from Missouri State University.
Horn now appears regularly in the media as part of the Family Violence Task Force. It's an organization that began in the fall of 2012, when the Springfield Police Department discovered that 70 percent of aggravated assaults in the area were domestic violence related. Law enforcement officials and members of the county prosecutor's office then created a two-pronged approach for curbing domestic violence.
The first part of the project works to address the way the police deal with domestic violence calls by implementing a "lethality assessment," a series of questions that officers ask on domestic violence scenes to evaluate how dangerous the home is for the victim. Captain David Millsap, of the Springfield Police Department, says that the new practice gives officers a concrete way to help victims recognize how serious their situations might be. "If they answer yes to the top three questions, we put them in touch with victims' advocates right away because it's likely that there will be a homicide," Millsap says. Horn says the assessment a way to affirm victims' fear and tell them they're in danger. "That's not a message victims hear a lot," she says. "A lot of times you hear, 'I don't believe you.'"
The new lethality assessment also requires police officers to make calls to victims' advocates like Harmony House from the scene. Previously, officers might give victims phone numbers for local resources and occasionally call for them, but now Millsap says that there is a required direct call from the scene if the assessment shows significant danger. According to Captain Millsap, that practice has caused a 126 percent increase in police referrals to Harmony House in the last year.
If an officer appears at a scene and there is physical evidence of an assault, he or she will go further than making a phone call: The officer will make an arrest. Even if the victim does not want to press charges--and they often don't--the prosecutor will often still file a case. "We know the lethality of their situations," says Captain Millsap. "Often they're just scared." Going forward without a victim's consent is called "victimless prosecution," and Millsap says the lethality assessment has helped lay a stronger legal foundation for doing it. With the lethality assessment, the prosecutor now has more concrete evidence of a victim's fear for his or her safety, which is the legal basis for victimless prosecution.
However, sometimes victims are still in relationships with the offender and resent the prosecution. "I spent a lot of time trying to convince the prosecuting attorney not to press charges," says Walker, the shelter director at Harmony House. "[My boyfriend] had been seeing a counselor throughout, and I didn't want him to go to jail." Pritchard was in court on domestic violence felony charges from another relationship, and Walker kept their contact secret so that he wouldn't go to jail.
Another woman, Ariel*, a corrections officer herself, remembers being too scared to press charges against her husband. Her husband was arrested once for bursting her lip open during one of his violent episodes. "I refused to cooperate, like most domestic violence victims. I was still with him," she says. "You can't. You don't want to. You know you're going to get in more trouble." Ariel says that her husband would hit her in places people couldn't see, preferring to choke or pull her hair because it left subtler marks than a black eye. But even when he got caught, she knew she couldn't confront him for fear of worse things to come. "If he killed me," she says, "he would have done it in a moment of rage, by choking me too far or hitting my head on something. He wouldn't have planned it out because he didn't want to go to jail." She feared pressing charges would bring on a moment of rage that she might not survive.
The second part of the police department's new initiative is the Family Violence Task Force, a community organization that aims to increase awareness and education about domestic violence in the Ozarks. Its primary activity is a Stop the Violence conference, which features panels of survivors like Horn and legal experts like Greene County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Patterson. The task force hopes that the conference will help correct societal misperceptions. "People think that [domestic violence] isn't something that happens in [their] neighborhood, or that it's only in a certain socioeconomic class," says Munch, the development director of Harmony House. "It happens everywhere and touches everyone." Munch adds that Harmony House has sheltered people from all backgrounds, including physicians and accountants. In fact, Horn says, wealthier women can sometimes have a more difficult time getting away because there is a perception that they don't need help. "An influential man in a community is often held above reproach," she says. "Sometimes people also think that being wealthy is worth being abused." Munch adds that awareness is also important to decrease victim blaming. "The question should not be 'Why didn't you leave?' but rather, 'Why did that person abuse?'" she says.
I refused to cooperate, like most domestic violence victims. You can't. You don't want to. You know you're going to get in more trouble.
Sara* is also a law enforcement officer, and she remembers the shame, guilt, and uncertainty that kept her from calling the police during a near-death episode with her ex-husband. She says he cornered her in the living room for hours, a cocked and loaded gun to her face, screaming that he knew she must be cheating. He had regularly accused her of unfaithfulness without basis since their early dating years, though she says he had come home with hickeys. Sara remembers the loud click of the bullet falling into the chamber when he cocked the weapon as the most chilling sound she had ever heard. "I remember thinking, 'This is the day I'm doing to die.' I had this new light-colored carpet, and I kept looking down and thinking about how I was going to ruin it with all of my blood." Sara's ex-husband threatened to kill himself and burn down the house with her in it. Yet, when he suddenly flew out of the door in a rage, promising to return, she did not call 911.
"I was embarrassed. I was the police," she says. She called a friend, who took it upon herself to call officers to the scene.
Not every woman in Sara's situation makes it out alive; Missouri is among the top ten states with the highest rates of women being killed by men, according to a report compiled in 2012. The vast majority of those homicides are committed by men the victims know; 62 percent are committed by husbands or "intimate acquaintances." For that reason, the Domestic Violence Task Force has been working with the prosecutor's office to conceptualize a "fatality review board." All but nine states have either considered or enacted these boards; Missouri's senate considered a bill in 2011, but it was never enacted. A committee of experts, law enforcement, and local family violence advocates generally convenes to review each domestic violence-related death to assess where the system could have intervened to prevent it. "That takes a lot of legislation and planning," says Lisa Cox, a member of the Family Violence Task Force who works for the Springfield Police Department.
Another part of the new push to decrease domestic violence is cracking down on repeat offenders. James Horn, Sandra Sutton's boyfriend who murdered her last May, had already served time for kidnapping and sexual attack in Tennessee and pled guilty to kidnapping charges in Mississippi before he imprisoned, attacked, and killed Sutton.
Captain Millsap says that police are working to target repeat offender cases. The department recently got a grant from the Department of Justice called COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services), and Springfield is using it to add two domestic violence investigators onto the four-person special victims' unit. Millsap works with the prosecutor's office to help ensure repeat offenders are singled out amongst the high volume of cases running through the system. The Springfield Police Department will often make a special run to the prosecutor to deliver these cases. On the prosecution side, Myers says that his office requests increased punishments for repeat offenders, including higher bond, additional conditions for being released on bond, and completion of batterers' intervention programs.
One of the reasons it's difficult to keep track of repeat offenders is that domestic violence defendants are often given an SIS, or a suspended imposition of sentence. That means that if the person behaves well throughout probation, the charge disappears from his or her public record. After a certain period of time, it's hard to discern whether someone had a domestic violence offense if it resulted in an SIS. Law enforcement alone can look at arrest records, and Sara says that she can see in the system whether someone has been taken in on domestic violence charges. However the database is not nationwide--and in the Sutton case, the abuser had been convicted in other states. It's also not public. If a future girlfriend looked at public arrest records, she might have no idea that her significant other had a domestic violence charge. Pritchard, Walker's ex-boyfriend, says he had two previous relationships ending in violent episodes, one resulting in a stalking charge. The other episode disappeared from Missouri's public criminal history database, Case Net. The only record of its existence is Pritchard's own word. Similarly, the only evidence Sara can show of her ex-husband's violent past is a divorce case. The multiple arrests are gone; she says her ex-husband's anger got worse after his domestic violence arrest disappeared from his record.
One week after that arrest, Sara returned home to find three of her freshly changed locks forced wide open. Her husband had been released from jail the day before. She says that even though he wasn't there, it was a sign to her that he did not care about her ex parte--a protective order designed to keep abusers or stalkers from contacting their victim. "'No matter what you do,' [he was telling me,] 'I'll be there.' It just deflated me. I thought I could never escape." She says that afterward, she worried that he was watching her at work, spying through one of his many rifles. Eventually, hopeless and hitting "rock bottom," she went back to the violent marriage.
I had this new light-colored carpet, and I kept looking down and thinking about how I was going to ruin it with all of my blood.
Right now, Springfield prosecutors usually seek unsupervised probation with a 26-week treatment course for misdemeanor domestic violence offenders; for first time for misdemeanor offenders with no criminal history, the state will agree to a suspended sentence with unsupervised probation and treatment. However, when there are prior instances of abuse and criminal history, there can be enhanced punishment, which may include a jail sentence or supervised probation by the specialized domestic violence probation officers and additional treatment. For felony domestic violence charges--more serious cases--prosecutors seek higher penalties. Sara's husband was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor. The day he was released from jail on unsupervised probation, he forced his way into her house. After completing the anger management classes, he began beating Sara again.
Kris Hamilton, a counselor who founded a batterer's program called Hamilton and Associates in the area, says that it is very common for domestic abusers to relapse even after treatment or jail time. Anger management courses are just lectures, she says, and these batterers need a full year of interactive therapy to truly enact long-lasting behavioral change. She recently transitioned into work with sex offenders, and she says abusers are far more difficult to treat. "Batterers are harder because sex offenders are shameful, so it's easier for them to change," she says. Domestic abuse, on the other hand, often has a veneer of societal acceptability; others may not believe the woman, or consider it a private problem to be resolved between the two people. That is one advantage of arresting abusers, she says: It sends a social message that their behavior is unacceptable.
Pritchard, Walker's ex-boyfriend, attended anger management classes after one of his domestic abuse arrests. "They were a joke," he says. "It seemed like a racket." He returned to his violent ways after completing the course. Pritchard says he has been violent towards each of the three women he has children with. There are still two stalking charges and an adult abuse protection order on his record--a record that excludes any charges resulting in SIS.
Judge Calvin Holden agrees. He has founded four specialty courts in Springfield, Missouri, focusing on DWI, juvenile, drug, and intensive supervision drug cases, and he's been a judge in the area since 1996. Now, he wants to create a domestic violence court that would revamp the way the legal system interacts with defendants and victims. "One quarter of my docket is domestic violence cases," he says, "and that should stop." The Domestic Violence Task Force has also been discussing a special court, but so far Judge Holden has not collaborated with them. The prosecutor's office emphasizes that success usually results from cooperation, but Holden says that he is waiting to be invited to the Task Force. For now, the topic remains in discussion in separate spheres.
There are three major aspects to Holden's idea for a new domestic violence court. First, he hopes to have defendants meet with judges every two weeks, like they do in other specialty courts; this would ramp up contact with judges from the current model, where defendants only appear in court if they violate probation. Both Holden and Myers have seen the intensive meeting model increase compliance in treatment programs, and overseeing judge Michael Burton says that the St. Louis domestic violence court also uses it. "Most people don't respond well unless they are in court and they are sanctioned if they don't go to treatment," Holden says.
What good does jail do?
Second, Holden hopes to provide sentencing incentives for batterers to complete treatment: shorter sentences and free programs. He says this would stop the revolving door in the current system: offenders skipping treatment programs, having probation revoked, and then getting out on parole again. Myers says that this idea was successful for drug offenders, but he would hesitate to consider it for domestic violence convictions. "Typically it wouldn't be our preference to start [decreasing sentences] for felony domestic violence offenses, because we want to target people [for incentives] who are just starting down this road with misdemeanors," he says. And it would be difficult to be more lenient with misdemeanors than prosecutors currently are: seeking unsupervised probation. Walker says that her job as director of Harmony House has shown her that batterer intervention is key, and jail isn't necessarily the best solution. "What good does jail do?" she asks. "I could serve 20 victims, or I could fix one batterer and prevent one more person from becoming a victim." Judge Burton disagrees with the entire concept of decreasing sentences for defendants. He says that drug and mental illness courts are different because they are treatment courts. "I have a problem for rewarding [people for completing programs] that they're supposed to be doing as a punishment," says Burton.
Holden also wants to use the court as a way to encourage victims to seek counseling. "What we don't deal with in court are the victims," he says. And they can't, of course--victims haven't done anything to merit a court mandate to complete treatment. Holden wants to have judges in the domestic violence court personally ask victims to attend counseling and report back to the court; it's not a mandate, but a strong encouragement. As it is now, victims can turn to the Victim Center, where specialized domestic violence counselors can provide long-term therapy, according to the center's executive director, Brandi Bartel. Horn went to the Victim Center once a week for two years. However, Holden says that most victims don't follow up with treatment. "They think they will be fine, but [what happened] doesn't go away; it just gets buried."
Walker says that therapy is essential to stop the cycle of abusive relationships. The average woman goes back to her abuser seven times before leaving, she says, and even after leaving victims often end up in other abusive relationships. "It's about learning what is OK and defining what your boundaries are that prevents you from going through that cycle again," she says. Sara goes to hospitals to talk to domestic violence victims as part of her job in law enforcement. "They go through it over and over," she says. "Some women go through it forever."
Communities across the country are founding specialty courts--like the idea Springfield is considering--to break that abusive cycle. New York City, Boise, Idaho, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, are just a few of the cities that now boast domestic violence courts. They use funding from the Violence Against Women Act, and each year one of them hosts a national conference for all domestic violence courts to attend. Throughout the year, courts can choose to become "mentors," opening their doors to another developing domestic violence court for tours and one-on-one guidance.
Tulsa's court is acting as a mentor court for Springfield, offering tours and one-on-one meetings. Springfield's Domestic Violence Task Force recently took a day trip to Tulsa, where Judge Mary Fitzgerald oversees the domestic violence court. "Clearly this [domestic violence court] is something that works," she says. "We are at the cutting edge." Fitzgerald says recidivism, or repeating abusive behavior, decreased for offenders in her program.
"It's very hard to understand the whole power and control dynamic of domestic violence, and training teaches you that," she says. Walker agrees that trained judges can assess situations better; often, Walker says, there are custody issues because a woman appears unstable, when really an abuser might have kicked her out of her home or otherwise impaired her ability to care for her children. Judge Burton from St. Louis says that the specialty courts can also move much faster than a criminal process to get defendants into a hearing. "It scares them," he says. "We don't lock up most of these guys, but when they are caught red handed [violating a protection order], they're scared to death."
Fitzgerald also emphasizes the importance of judicial demeanor: a sense of firmness and also treating defendants on a first-name basis so that they feel known. "[These crimes] typically happen behind closed doors," she says. "Bringing them into the sunlight, in front of a judge who knows the history of the case and what is going on in this defendant's life, makes a very big difference. They aren't hiding behind a façade anymore--the crime is called out."
*Names have been changed.