The physical violence wasn’t the worst part about being in an abusive relationship, according to “Celeste,” a Chandler mother who suffered quietly for nine years. The insults and emotional torture hurt far longer.
To be sure, the physical abuse, which included being strangled, raped and punched in the stomach during pregnancy, were awful.
“Our bodies can heal the way our hearts can’t,” Celeste, who declined to give her real name, recounted at Chandler’s first annual Domestic Violence Awareness Breakfast Friday.
Although Celeste managed to escape, sometimes others do not. In the last two months, three young Chandler children have been killed in domestic violence incidents, including a 3-year-old girl police believe was beaten to death with a belt, and an infant girl who allegedly was thrown onto a concrete floor. An investigation is ongoing into the third child’s cause of death.
In a fourth, nonfatal case, a father was charged with breaking the leg of his 5-month-old boy.
The Chandler City Council this month is expected to consider forming a “domestic violence fatality review board” that would analyze each death in the city resulting from domestic violence, and how government agencies and social services could have prevented it.
Last month, the city’s Domestic Violence Commission recommended in favor of the proposed review board. Betsy Jo Fairbrother, a victim services coordinator with the Chandler Police Department, said the panel could bring together representatives from law enforcement, family courts, hospitals, nonprofit social services, mental health workers and Child Protective Services.
The group would review each death, from as far back as possible through the killing, and attempt to identify where the system failed the victim, Fairbrother said. The results would be used to improve each agency’s performance, to prevent a repeat, she said.
“It’s weird to talk about this in front of other people,” Celeste told the assembled officials Friday, including four members of the City Council.
Married at 19, Celeste spent nine years with an abusive husband, during which time she constantly was made to feel damaged and worthless. Eventually, she concluded the best option was to just die, she said.
“The world would be better off if I wasn’t here. All I do is hurt people,” she read from her personal journal, which captured her thoughts at the time.
Eventually, Celeste realized the person she had become wasn’t her true self, and that nothing she could do would ever fix her relationship, she said. That’s when she decided to leave.
“Deep down inside I knew I was a good person, and I could have a good life somewhere else,” she said.
Now, eight years later, she wonders how she didn’t realize what had been happening to her.
“How,” she said, “did I get to be 28 years old and not be educated about domestic violence?”
Yvonne Taylor, program director for Chandler’s only battered women’s shelter, My Sisters’ Place, said Celeste is not an isolated case. The shelter, whose location is kept secret, has 25 beds and is perpetually full, Taylor said. It was founded in 1985.
Most women who arrive at My Sisters’ Place are 18 to 32 years old, with children and without financial resources, Taylor said.
“She would be in crisis. Some precipitating incident occurred that caused her to flee from the situation,” she said.
The shelter, when space is available, allows them to stay for up to 120 days, but the average stay is about 34 days, she said.
Many people have to find another shelter, such as Mesa’s “A New Leaf.”
“We turn people away every day,” Taylor said. “There’s a shortage of shelter beds.”
In addition to more shelter space, Chandler needs more affordable housing, so those women and children can get settled and start a new life, Taylor said.
“We could work to stabilize them while they’re living in the community,” she said.
SHINING A LIGHT
Susan Stevens-Clarke said Chandler has been more attentive to domestic violence than other cities by creating a Domestic Violence Commission, of which she is the vice chairman, rather than just a task force. It’s important to raise awareness about domestic violence, she said, so that victims — spouses, “significant others,” children or the elderly — know where to get help.
“We want people to know that there are options,” she said.
Celeste said women in abusive relationships often are confused about their situation, and don’t realize how bad it has gotten.
“He says he loves me and understands me, but I am left feeling violated and ashamed. What’s wrong with me?” she said.
The shame of admitting something is wrong can be terrible and humiliating, she said. Family members and friends may try to convince a woman to leave, but until she makes up her own mind to do so, nothing will change, she said.
“Please find a way to still be there for her,” Celeste said, urging family and friends not to write off a woman who decides to return to an abusive relationship.
Bob Caccamo, Chandler’s vice mayor, said a public education campaign about domestic violence could make a difference.
“The more we talk about this, the more awareness we have about domestic violence, the closer we are to ending it,” Caccamo said.