Gora, who’s name has been changed to protect her privacy, didn’t have much close family, but after stints in three shelters in separate cities, she landed with a family member who kept her pet for her. She traveled on from there, putting miles between herself and her abuser. She eventually sold the vehicle she’d been driving and slipped into Atlanta by bus.
At yet another shelter, an advocate let her know about transitional housing in another part of the state, and Gora stayed for a year while she took classes that helped her transition to independence.
“I did all the resources offered to me, which was a good thing,” she told the AJC. “I started seeing a counselor, and that started making me feel better because I didn’t know who I was. I had to get back to being me. He stole a lot from my brain as far as confidence and the real me.”
October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and Gora’s narrative highlights an opportunity to reflect on a dynamic one local expert says communities can influence by refusing to accept.
Support at the ready
Community support is critical for those experiencing intimate parter violence (IPV), according to Ayonna Johnson, director of legal services for the Decatur-based Women’s Resource Center to End Domestic Violence. The public, she said, can take steps to make the dynamic nonpermissible.
“It requires a collective response,” she said.
Some of those steps can include trusting a survivor’s instincts and simply listening to their experiences. Some good questions to ask are simple ones, Johnson added: “How can we support you? What do you need in this moment?”
And when they’re ready, the center is standing by with support services, including a safe house, a 24-hour hotline, advocacy, legal advocacy and support groups.
“(It’s) meeting someone where they are,” Johnson said. “It’s just an opportunity to breathe.”
Connecting with the center often marks the first time a survivor has told their story, she noted. Threats from perpetrators often keep them quiet.
“It’s because it’s effective,” Johnson said. “They’ve isolated them from friends and family.”
A vulnerable population
Seniors who rely on a partner for care and management of resources may be especially vulnerable to IPV, according to Johnson. Health, cognitive and mobility issues can complicate victims’ chances for independence, especially if a victim wants to remain in their residence, she said.
Abuse can change in its presentation over time, sometimes shifting from physical attacks to emotional and psychological ones, Johnson explained. Some older people stay in situations they know are unhealthy because they don’t want to inconvenience their families with the complications of leaving, she added.
“And so, they try to navigate the dynamic by themselves,” she said.
A fixed income or love for their abusers may keep others in place. Recognizing a dynamic in which a perpetrator is loving sometimes and violent at other times can take time and space, Johnson said. Sometimes, that space means time in the center’s safe house so a survivor can determine a next move, she said; it can also include assistance with relocation and legal relief or advocacy or support from the courts.
For survivors who have moved beyond the initial stages of healing, there’s assistance available for reaching education and career goals.
The Women’s Independence Scholarship Program, Inc., a nonprofit based in Wilmington, North Carolina, has helped thousands of IPV survivors graduate from postsecondary and graduate education programs in its 24-year existence, according to Executive Director Tammy Simmons. WISP works with domestic violence prevention organizations across the country to assist individuals who identify as female.
“We run the gamut,” Simmons said in regard to the types of students the organization helps. “Some come in wanting to do certificates or trade programs. We do associates, bachelors, masters, so most that are doing masters, they’ve come in doing and associates or bachelor’s degree and then they’re continuing on.”
WISP assistance often goes beyond tuition, books and fees and can include housing, transportation and childcare.
“That’s what makes us stand out a little differently than most scholarship programs,” Simmons said. “If they don’t have internet, they’re not going to school, so we can help with that.”
At the end of 2022, the organization had given away $46.5 million, and it’s currently helped 2,720 graduates. Applicants need to have been separated from their abusers a minimum of a year before seeking help but not more than 10, Simmons said.
‘I am back to being me’
Today, many years after the violence in her home reached a point where Gora felt things could turn deadly for her, she’s been able to finish a college degree she began much earlier in life. And she has friends in her community and beyond who encourage her to share her story.
A few years ago, with assistance from WISP for tuition and supplies, she entered a cherished area of study at a college near her. Coursework filled her time, but Gora didn’t have a computer at first.
“I would have had to stay in the library and sleep in there in order to get all that stuff done,” she said.
WISP sent her a brand-new laptop, and she completed the necessary research, reports and papers.
Gora had begun courses as a much younger person, but her abuser, she said, wouldn’t let her finish her education. Fortunately, her credits transferred to the new institution. Now, she maintains connections with the academic community, and she’s actively working on projects related to her degree.
She acknowledges her own hard work and applauds the resources that helped her get to this point. And she looks for chances to help others experiencing IPV.
“There are women that will still get their arm broken and go back and get another arm broken. Some go back seven and eight times, and others don’t keep their lives,” she said. “So, I want to help save lives and show them that there is a way out. You have to have confidence in yourself, but first of all, you have to believe in God.”
Gora still sees a counselor who helps her process her experience. The flashbacks haven’t ended, but her coping skills and sense of self have returned.
“I’m still having nightmares sometimes, but I can wake up and say, ‘Oh, that’s just a dream,’ pray about it and go back to sleep,” she said. “I’m still having issues, but I am back to being me. I know who I am now, after all this time.”