A young woman I’ll call Maria told me about her abusive marriage and how she finally escaped it after 13 years. When I thought about our conversation later, I realized that nothing she said surprised me. It’s too common.
One Maria would be too many, but there are thousands of people in Washington state alone living through the torture she escaped.
Kelly Starr, communications director for the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, told me that because domestic violence is so common, an important part of the solution is for everyone in the community to be armed with information on the topic, so that if someone turns to you, you can direct them to help. I’ve included that information at the end of the column.
On one day last September domestic-violence hotlines in Washington answered 837 calls, according to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, which collects data on domestic violence in every state on a randomly chosen date each year.
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But there are always more people who need help than ask for it. Last year, 35 deaths in Washington state were connected to domestic violence, according to data from the Washington coalition. That’s the lowest number in 17 years. Let’s hope it’s not a blip, but a sign of progress.
I heard about Maria’s situation from Consejo, a counseling and referral agency that specializes in serving Latino clients, that will be celebrating its 36th anniversary on April 26.
Consejo provided housing for Maria after she’d left her husband.
Consejo’s domestic-violence program manager, has been working with Maria; she helped translate when I spoke with Maria, who hasn’t yet learned English
Maria met the man she would marry in her village in Guatemala when she was 16.
They began spending time together, and after a couple of months he said he was leaving and wanted her to marry him or she’d never see him again. In 1998, four months after they’d met, the couple came north to Belfair, Mason County, where he had friends. Then they moved to Nebraska to work in a slaughterhouse. They had five children together.
He was abusive from the start, Maria said, especially when he was drinking, but she didn’t tell anyone because she was afraid of being deported and fearful of her husband, who threatened to kill her if she told and then to kill the children and himself.
One day, he hit her so hard she lost consciousness and was so badly injured she couldn’t work for a week. When the people at work saw her face, “They said they thought it was my husband,” she said. They didn’t believe her when she told them she’d fallen, but they didn’t press the issue.
Starr, who has worked with domestic-violence cases for years, said one reality is that police response isn’t consistent, but abusers are very consistent in carrying out their threats.
Starr also said the more connections to the abuser the harder it is for a victim to leave. Maria didn’t speak English. She shared a home and children with her abuser and was financially dependent on him especially after she stopped working to care for the children.
Her husband had beaten Maria even when she was pregnant, except during her last pregnancy when he found out the baby would be their first boy.
They returned to Washington late in 2010 soon after their son was born and found an apartment in Lacey, Thurston County. One day in February 2011, the husband called drunk and said, “I don’t have a good life with you.” He said he was coming home to kill her.
Maria decided to run. A neighbor offered to drive her away, another friend offered her and the kids a temporary place to stay. A counselor at her daughters’ school noticed something was wrong and asked Maria if she was being abused.
Maria said no, but the counselor called the police anyway, and officers took her to a motel where she stayed briefly until shelter space was available. Eventually, they moved into one of the 24 housing units Consejo provides for victims of domestic violence, and Beck began helping Maria make the transition to independence.
Maria qualified for a U Visa, which gives victims of certain crimes legal status for four years. Now she and the children are in Section 8 housing, and she has a job.
Maria said her heart used to pound every time someone knocked at her door, but the ex-husband has disappeared, and today she is happy in her new life.
Starr told me the coalition learned from studying the cases of people who died at the hands of abusers that the victims didn’t know they had real options. Many turned to “friends and family and those folks didn’t know what to do.” She said we all need to know about the resources so that, “If we are that one person someone connects with, we’ll know what to do.”
Here’s the national domestic-violence hotline number, 1-800-799-7233. It has information on local shelters if that is necessary. Translation is available, and there is a website: thehotline.org. For teens and young adults, 1-866-331-9474,
Stories like Maria’s should be rare and hard to imagine.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org