When I was a girl, a police officer lived with his sweet wife and three fresh-faced children in the ground floor apartment. Think Norman Rockwell in the Bronx. Now and then, angry shouts and frightening sounds were heard behind their door. When I asked my mother about it, she said that things happen between a husband and wife that is none of our business. A culture of secrecy reigned. Anyone seeing a therapist must be insane, and cops were presumed superheroes.
Fifty years later, in a society with a plethora of therapeutic programs, one might imagine that domestic violence would have subsided and victims feel safe to report their abuse.
That is far from the truth, as discovered by Laguna Beach writer Suzanne Redfearn. Since last year’s publication of her first novel, “Hush Little Baby,” which features a successful woman trying to escape a heinous husband, women have revealed to the author their personal stories and praised her for spotlighting a largely hidden problem that won’t go away.
“The first time, at an author panel in San Clemente, a gorgeous woman in her 60s, dressed like she had stepped out of Vogue, said, ‘you told my story’,” Redfearn said.
The statistics behind the stories are startling.
On a one-day count last September, 66,581 adults and children sought domestic violence support services nationwide, 5,263 in California alone, according to the California Coalition to End Domestic Violence, based on data provided by programs across the country. These are only reported incidents, as an estimated three of four are kept secret.
“They fear for their lives,” said Margaret Bayston, executive director at Laura’s House, one of four Orange County programs offering shelter, transitional housing and intervention for victims of domestic violence. “Most homicides occur when a victim tries to leave.”
Of the 1,557 domestic violence complaints filed with the county district attorney’s office in 2013, roughly 90% will result in a felony conviction, said spokeswoman Farrah Emami. The majority of convictions result from a guilty plea, she said. Nationwide, there were 960,000 reported incidents of domestic violence in 2013, far more prevalent than the estimated 89,000 reported rapes or 16,259 homicides, according to Los Angeles-based Statistic Brain Research Institute, which compiles figures on 14 subjects.
Males were accused in 88 percent of the incidents and 15 originated in Laguna Beach, Emami said. Domestic violence includes violence against any member of a household, including children and relatives, although spousal abuse is the more common complaint.
One might expect the recession to exacerbate marital stress and the incidence of domestic violence, but statistics show no correlation. In fact, complaints filed with the district attorney peaked in 2009 at 2,076 and have steadily declined since. In Laguna Beach, there have been 22 – 29 arrests each year during the same period, with a low of 15 last year and a spike in 2012 with 38 incidents and 29 arrests. The recession did yield 25 percent more calls for intervention and counseling from more affluent families, Bayston said.
As a rule, two of three incidents result in an arrest. Victims often change their mind about pursuing prosecution or the perpetrator flees, said Laguna’s Capt. Jason Kravetz.
At Redfearn’s book groups, one in 10 participants confess to abuse; however Bayston reported that one in four women in the county are victims.
Professionals suggest that women stay in abusive marriages primarily because they fear losing financial security or out of shame. Redfearn’s research indicated another motive. “People think spouses stay because they are weak, but it’s the opposite. It’s an act of heroism to stay to protect the children.”
Even so, such heroism breeds an unintended consequence. Boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their own partner, reports the National Center on Domestic and Sex Violence.
Every hour of every day, 38 calls are placed to a domestic violence hotline across the country, and every day, two people die. Bayston confirmed there is no socioeconomic or racial bias. No one is immune and men also suffer spousal abuse.
“I thought I was alone,” women repeatedly tell Redfearn. Sadly, they are not, a little-talked about secret that is anything but fiction.
Redfearn’s Readers Respond
“OMG! I know you didn’t know but my ex abused me. He kicked me when I was pregnant and I lost the baby!”
“I was in an abusive marriage for 13 long years. Many times I feared I would not see the next day. Every time I left him I put my whole family in danger.”
“As a counselor who has worked with domestic violence survivors, I witnessed that breaking away from the abuser gets more treacherous as time goes by.”
“I was a Laguna resident for 17 years. [My husband] was financially controlling, abusive verbally, and a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
“I still rarely speak of my experience but if I ever do, from here on I am going to suggest someone read your book to understand how abuse can reach far beyond the black eye or the bruised arm.”
24-Hour Help in the OC
Human Options: 877.854.3594.
Laura’s House: 949.498.1511
Interval House: 714.891.8121
Women’s Transitional Living Center: 714.992.1931