Digging Deeper: Domestic violence in our community

Published: Oct. 11, 2022 at 5:05 PM CDT
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PEORIA (25 News Now) - When it comes to measuring the full scale of domestic abuse in the area, it can be hard to pin down how many are affected.

“It’s really hard to manage the scope of the problem because we don’t even see all of it,” Clinical Director for the Center of Prevention of Abuse Sara Runyon said. “What we do see is big.”

A survivor’s story

There’s a misperception that leaving a domestic violence situation solves the problem. Once the survivor has left, the danger is over and they can start to heal.

A decades-long survivor of domestic abuse tells 25News it isn’t that simple.

“It might seem easy, just pack up one day and leave, but it doesn’t stop there,” she said. In the interest of protecting her and her children, we’re concealing her identity and many of the details surrounding her case, referring to her as Jane.

She left her abusive ex-husband decades ago but has been the victim of constant threats and fear ever since. She remarried in her time away, and her ex-husband also pursued other relationships, however, he still regularly stalks her and has said threatening things about her to their children.

Experts tell us the moment someone leaves an abusive situation is when tensions are at an all-time high as well as the risk of violence.

“Because ‘how dare you leave me,’” Jane said. “They’ve lost their control when you leave. It’s bad during the situation... but when you find a way out it continues.”

Jane has taken out orders of protection against her former spouse to this day, but she tells us he flirts with the borders of the order. He antagonizes her from just outside the sight of law enforcement by parking outside her house and following her in his car. Jane told us she feels the order doesn’t protect her at all. If her ex-husband is gone by the time police arrive, nothing can be done.

“As long as they keep that distance or whatever, they know that you can look in the mirror and see them following you,” Jane said. Every time she sees her abuser outside her house or following her, she wonders, “is today the day I’m gonna die?”

Beyond the physical danger Jane experienced, the mental and emotional damage still ripples throughout Jane’s life. She hasn’t gone to counseling for her experience. She said when she was with her abuser, he would hit her when she said something he didn’t like, that’s left her unwilling to share her story with many people.

“I have a very hard time trusting people,” Jane said.

Her trouble with trust, focus, and everyday life is common for domestic abuse survivors. Runyon said survivors that go through her clinical services often have trouble forming relationships and holding jobs. A person who’s gone through that trauma is essentially on high alert,

“The individual who is the victim of that carries a lot of grief,” Clinical Psychologist Barbara Toohill said.

Those lasting effects also spread out from the spousal relationship. Jane’s children witnessed her abuse, all while facing verbal abuse and physical threats from their father. Jane said that has left them with trouble communicating, trusting, and forming healthy relationships.

“If all you’re seeing is violence, it definitely carries over with you into adulthood,” Runyon said.

Jane eventually remarried into a safer, healthier relationship. She said that provided a positive role model for her and her children.

“It was the best thing of my life,” Jane said. “It taught me what a really healthy, loving relationship was like. It taught me that there are people out there that truly care that don’t have to hurt you, it taught my kids the same thing.”

The danger still isn’t over for Jane. Her husband has been arrested no less than half a dozen times for domestic violence charges involving other women, one of which was a felony charge. He remains free. He continues to make threatening statements about Jane to her children, telling her he will “have her.”

Community Impact

CFPA serves the Peoria and Tazewell area. In Peoria County, 40 to 45% of all arrests over the past three years were for charges of domestic battery. Domestic battery does not always include spousal abuse, but rather an act of violence against another family member.

So far this year, 36% of Peoria County’s arrests were for domestic battery, there are a little over two months left in the year. That percentage is expected to end in line with previous years, with around 40% of arrests for domestic battery.

On the clinical end, Runyon said her clinic receives 80 referrals a month for new patients. They span all ages, races, sexual orientations, and situations. All are seeking trauma therapy to rebuild their lives and heal after experiencing domestic violence or human trafficking in the local area.

Runyon considers 80 referrals a month high, noting that she would like the number to be as small as possible. However, the full scale of the problem is likely higher. Runyon said many who are in a domestic violence situation never tell anyone or seek help, suggesting there could be a hidden population of victims and survivors.

“If someone gets through their lifespan without being personally touched by it, it’s almost shocking,” Clinical psychologist Barbara Toohill, PsyD, said.

The impact of those crimes and situations puts strain on other areas of the community, requiring the attention of emergency rooms and law enforcement.

“the cost to an individual is great, the cost to the community is great too,” Runyon said. CFPA takes in nearly $7 million a year to fund its shelter and counseling operations, all of which are free and confidential to those seeking service. In the past fiscal year, CFPA reports more than 10,000 calls to their hotline and over 10,000 nights where survivors were housed in their shelters in Peoria and Pekin.

“The ripples in the pond really do end up affecting not only that individual’s personal community but the entire community around them,” Toohill said.

Even if someone isn’t personally affected, involved, or knows someone in an abuse situation, the trauma carried by survivors and their children affects how they interact with others. Healing and rebuilding lost trust require a larger conversation and initiative around mental health.

“This is really an epidemic situation and it requires an entire community to acknowledge it and start working with it for the victims,” Toohill said.

Both Toohill and Runyon want the conversation around victims and survivors to change, focusing less on “what they should have known,” or “you should just leave,” mentality, and instead recognizing the obstacles, barriers, and trauma a survivor faces.