To see the smile that enlivens Gabrielle Neira’s face, you might never know she was a victim of domestic violence.
And yet there she was, telling her story in the downtown chapel of the YWCA of Central Alabama on the occasion of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, which shares October with another issue of great concern to women: breast cancer.
The two issues both affect women in greater numbers than men, although both can in fact make victims of men as well. Both breast cancer and domestic violence have their own ribbons to signify awareness — the familiar pink for the disease, and the purple for the social affliction. Yet, while breast cancer awareness has attained a year-round recognition, for some, domestic violence is more out-of-sight, out-of-mind, except when notable cases bring it to the national attention — an NFL player knocks out his wife in an elevator in view of a security camera; a noted federal judge in Alabama pleads guilty to assaulting his wife in Atlanta.
For victims, of course, domestic violence is never easy to ignore or forget. And advocates and survivors say that for various reasons, people are more aware today of how many women’s and children’s lives are affected by acts of abuse and brutality committed by family members.
Last year in Jefferson County, 5,279 people were assaulted, raped or killed by an intimate associate, according to figures from the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center provided by the YWCA. National statistics have ranked Alabama among the top five states for the number of women killed by male partners for three of the past five years.
In 21 percent of the cases of domestic violence in Alabama in 2013, the victim was the wife or ex-wife of the abuser. In 47 percent of the cases, crime stats show the victim was the offender’s girlfriend or ex-girlfriend. And more than 70 percent of women injured in domestic violence cases were injured after separation.
Gabrielle Neira’s story illustrates, however, not only that there is a path for many out of abusive situations, but that the forms the abuse can take don’t always fit the stereotype. It’s not always about — or only about — physical assaults that leave bruises, or broken bones, or fatal injuries. And it is not something that can be cured by anger management classes, said Jennifer Caraway, Director of Domestic Violence Services for the YWCA of Central Alabama.
“It’s not an anger management issue. Some folks are confused about that,” Caraway said. “It’s about power and control. Abusers that we see, they’re not abusing their bosses or having problems controlling their tempers at work or out with their buddies. It’s all about power and control issues and violence in the home or with their intimate partners.”
The idea is to keep their partners under control, Caraway said, “to have them do what they want them to do. And when they feel like they’re losing that control, that is one of the most dangerous times for victims.”
The end product of domestic violence isn’t always visible on the victim like a scar, she said.
“In the past it’s been more like looking for signs of physical abuse — ‘Where’s the black eye? Where are the marks on the victim?” Caraway said. “Domestic violence can be financial abuse. It can be emotional abuse. It can be intimidation — fear tactics. So we don’t always look for the physical abuse on a victim’s body to know that there is domestic violence going on.”
Sometimes the abuse can take more than one form with a single victim. That’s Neira’s story.
Born in Miami, Neira’s family eventually wound up in Pennsylvania, where she began an online correspondence with a man who lived in the Birmingham area.
“We decided we were going to be together, so I moved to Alabama,” she said.
“Probably about a month later, after we got married, I started to notice how controlling he was. It got to the point where [if] I was sitting having a conversation with him in a restaurant or somewhere out in public, I was not allowed to look around, because he would think that I was seeing other men or interested in something else other than him. So I became very fearful of where my eyes were at all times.
“We started arguing a lot about him being controlling. It was always his way or the highway. That included with my son. … He does not have any kids and he thought that he knew how to raise a 7-year old, so he started giving me parenting tips. … I went along for a while with his parenting advice.
“He got very stern with my son, was getting into my son’s face, pushing him down. And then he came home one day and we were arguing about something and he decided that he was going to slam me up against the wall.
“It was quite scary…my son watching, myself, I mean, I felt very helpless. I didn’t know what to do. This was his house, he was paying the bills, you know, providing everything. … Things really went downhill from there, because I knew this relationship was not right.”
Her husband’s behavior involved one other physical assault — he angrily pulled a chair out from under her during an argument. But it mostly involved controlling her behavior — where she went, when she went, “who was around me and things like that,” Neira said. “He would get just very angry, very quickly.”
She moved into a guest bedroom with her son, she said. “It was something I decided to do for safety, [but] also for a sense of security, not just for myself, but for my son. I didn’t want my son going to bed and wondering, Is something happening to mom? Is she OK? I didn’t want him to have those fears.”
Her husband also started cheating on her, she said.
They went to church counseling, but it didn’t seem to help. A family counselor observed her husband. “Whenever I would come without my husband, he would tell me, ‘He’s got a lot of pride issues. I really don’t think you’re going to break him of the pride issues.’”
The counselor “kept urging me to stay with it, to pray about it. And I was, I really was praying about it,” Neira said. But one night, after an argument, her husband locked her out of the house and left. She managed to call the police, and when her husband returned, he told the police that she needed to leave the house, that the house was in his name, that Neira was crazy and needed to be on medication she had stopped taking.
Neira said she broke down. “I was depleted — my energy, my everything. Spiritually, emotionally, I was just dead. I really was.”
The next day she moved herself and her son into a hotel with the financial assistance of a friend. She hadn’t had time to pack everything, so she went back to get her belongings. And although she had only been locked out of the house the night before, her husband had already changed the locks. Her sister begged her husband to let her retrieve her things, but Neira said she packed only what she could cram into her Dodge Neon and left.
That night, after putting her son to bed, “I got on my knees and I just cried. I said, ‘God, I have nothing left. I have no more money for a hotel. This is the last night that I can stay here. It’s five days before Christmas. … Help me.’ That’s all I had in me.”
The next morning, she started calling around to different shelters. Between 3 and 5, she got a call that led to a room at the YWCA in Pell City.
“The biggest thing that stood out to me about the YWCA is that their voices were so warm and they were so accepting. … They said, ‘Come on, we have room.’”
She kept calling back with questions. “Every single time I called and they realized it was me again, they were…so sweet, so nurturing, and I needed that more than anything else in this world.”
When she arrived there, she said the “house mom looked me straight in the eye and she said, ‘Nobody is going to hurt you here. You have nothing to be afraid of.”
She said the abuse made her question her own self-worth, to wonder often, “What is wrong with me? What can I do to make myself better?
“I realized after a couple of months he [had] always told me, ‘There’s something wrong with you. Your past has ruined you. You’re damaged and you need help. You need to get on some sort of medication.’
“I heard ‘There’s something wrong with you’ so many times, I began to make those statements my own. I claimed them and it got to the point where I thought there was something wrong with me.”
Still, she said, “It was ridiculous how much I loved him.” And because she believes that “God doesn’t agree with divorce,” Neira kept trying to reconcile with her husband, visiting him on the weekends, even while staying in the shelter miles away. But this time, she said, “I realized a lot quicker with a lot less pain that I wasn’t supposed to work things out, because he had not changed.”
She stopped seeing her now ex-husband in July 2013, and is happily engaged to a man who treats her much better. “He’s definitely sent from God, he really is,” Neira said. “He’s definitely helped me work through so many issues that I thought I had.”
Now past the abuse, Neira said she is looking for a purpose in life — “Why God put me on this earth.” As part of that, she’s working with the YWCA, telling her own story about surviving domestic abuse. “There’s great blessing in the pain of the past for me. This helps me heal; to be able to help somebody, to have my own voice for probably the first time in my whole life, is the greatest blessing I could ever have.”
The change has also been good for her son, who, when they first moved into the shelter, acted out violently toward Neira. She believes he was angry at her for leaving her husband. Now, people comment all the time about his good attitude and conduct, she said.
“The blessings are overwhelming,” she said.
Gabrielle’s Triumph, her story, is on YouTube. “The reason I’m sharing everything is that I want other women to know that even in the midst of the nightmare, you can still have the happy ending,” she said. “You can find the strength and the people that will help you. There are plenty of people that will help you go on, to recover, to heal. It can happen. I mean, it’s happened. Here I am.”
Many services available
Neira credits the YWCA, particularly their counseling and shelter services, with helping her turn her life around. Group counseling, for instance, “wasn’t just about abuse,” she said. “It was a place that the women in the shelter, myself included, could come and anything that we were having issues with that day or that week, we could talk about it. It didn’t have to do with abuse.
“It could have been low self-esteem, it could have been depression. And just being able to talk about it and know that someone else has also felt that way is a huge relief, a huge weight off of your own shoulders.”
The YWCA offers a substantial slate of services for victims of all sorts of domestic violence and their children, Caraway said. That one social service agency offered shelter for 221 adults and 251 children — a total of 12,165 nights last year.
The YW also provided court advocacy services for 3,952 victims, educational outreach to 1,536 students through its Healthy Relationships Program and various types of assistance for more than 2,000 people through the YWCA Crisis Line (205-322-4878).
In addition to that, the YWCA provided housing for low-income and working poor adults as well as children in Jefferson and St. Clair Counties, child care for the kids of homeless and low income families, and academic programs and tutoring through the After-School Enrichment Program for children of homeless families.
Another program the YW provides is My Sister’s Closet, providing clothing items to a variety of disadvantaged people, including victims of domestic abuse.
“One of the wonderful things that we have the ability to do is to be able to offer these wraparound services at one location,” Caraway said. “So if someone comes to me but they’re coming to me for information about support groups and we learn during the conversation that they also need legal assistance, I have an attorney right down the hall that I can send them to. So they’re not traveling all over to get these services — transportation is always an issue for victims.”
The YWCA is one of several organizations offering services to victims of domestic violence, many of them in collaboration with other agencies. Some of those programs, such as the Jefferson County Coordinated Community Response, are relatively new, or, like the Metropolitan Family Justice Center, just in the pilot stages.
Next week, Weld will look at some of those specific programs, some of the collaborative ways service providers are coming together around domestic violence issues and tips and advice offered by advocates for victims.
Why so much attention paid to such an unpleasant topic? It’s obviously an issue that is of concern across communities. It is not isolated to one social or ethnic or racial group.
“This is not comfortable cocktail conversation, but it’s being discussed in communities,” Caraway said. “There’s not as much shame over being a victim as there has been in the past, historically. I think that the country has recognized that this is an epidemic and so more funding has been available to create awareness, to be able to go out and provide outreaches within our communities. Medical doctors are seeing it. Nurses are seeing it.
“The more we make folks aware of it and the more that we make this a conversation that we are having in our communities with our friends, with our neighbors, I think the more is getting out there about what domestic violence really is.”