“May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.”
Sharon Cox is a victim of domestic abuse, but she uses that experience to help other victims create new and successful lives they thought they never deserved.
“I wear my victim status as a badge of honor,” she says. “Being a domestic abuse victim doesn’t control or define me — or affect what I do today.”
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in four women will experience domestic violence; more than one in three of all Texans report having experienced at least one form of domestic violence, either severe, verbal and/or forced isolation from friends and family. Other statistics show that 30-60 percent of those who abuse their partners also abuse children in the household and 50 percent of girls in an abusive home will go on to be victims of abuse; boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their partners and children when they become adults.
Domestic abuse is found on all social, economic and education levels. Cox has two degrees and a career in education. “I just thought I was married to a jerk. I was not physically abused, but I was constantly walking around on eggshells. He got furious if I wasn’t home before him to start dinner, for example. This went on for a long time, but you stay until it gets bad enough.”
The trigger was her 14-year-old daughter. After one blowup that left Cox crying on the couch and her daughter storming to her room, her daughter packed her bags and said, “I can’t live this way anymore.”
They both moved out and Cox got a job as a high school business teacher in an El Paso suburb where most of her students were children of migrant workers. She saw that the computer skills they learned helped them get better jobs after high school.
In 2001 she took a job as a training manager in Fort Worth. While visiting a computer lab First Christian Church was opening to train students from Women’s Haven (now SafeHaven), Cox volunteered to teach computer skills. This was the first step in her dream of opening a non-profit focusing on teaching computer skills to women victims of domestic violence and low-income women.
The main reason (victims of abuse don’t leave) is that they can’t support themselves.
The Ladder Alliance was established in 2003. Six years ago, it relocated to One Safe Place, a Family Justice Center, at 1100 Hemphill in Fort Worth, where most of the agencies working with victims of domestic violence are located. Some 300-400 women a year participate in two programs, Basic Computer Skills Training and Professional Office Skills Training.
“Too often abuse victims are made to feel that it is their fault. Why don’t they just get up and leave? The main reason is that they can’t support themselves. The biggest issue they face is lack of education — and lack of self-esteem,” Cox explains. “Our programs help them get over those hurdles. They gain confidence and self-esteem. To a prospective employer, they say, ‘I can do this. Hire me.’ ”
The stories of The Ladder Alliance graduates show a diversity of abuse, but similarities in why they stayed. They have completed both courses, found jobs and some have enrolled in college. (Their names have been changed here.)
The abuse victim believes she deserves the treatment, and especially if people don’t help, it validates that for you.
Tricia’s dad was an alcoholic with bouts of rage and beating his children. “We never knew why we were being beaten, but he would sometimes wake us up to beat us. He would chase us down the street where neighbors could see us screaming and bloody from being beaten with switches or belts.” At 12, Tricia tried to commit suicide; her brother, who frequently stood up to his father, was jailed for manslaughter at 16 for a beating he gave another man. She was kicked out of the house at 16. At 25, she was addicted to meth and was homeless. While homeless at Union Gospel Mission, she learned about The Ladder Alliance.
“The Ladder Alliance is a safe place and the people there help you change your life. The abuse victim believes she deserves the treatment, and especially if people don’t help, it validates that for you.”
The first time Diane was abused was the night before her wedding. “He was ever changing — mean, angry, but it was sporadic. We came from different ethnic backgrounds and I just thought it was cultural. He was a good provider and I thought that marriage was ‘in sickness and in health.’ ”
I feel so confident now that I am able to support myself and my children.
The one or two times she called the police, they didn’t believe her because there was no physical evidence. “My husband was very charming and could always talk his way out of it. I never pressed charges.”
She feared that if she left, her husband would still be able to see the children and she did not want to leave them alone with him. The final straw was that he was verbally abusive to one of their children who has an emotional disorder. She and her children now live apart from her husband in a peaceful home she has made for herself.
Once she left, she found out about The Ladder Alliance. “I liked that it was a small group and I surprised myself how I would speak up in the classes. I feel so confident now that I am able to support myself and my children.”
Now in her late 40s, Liz has been in several abusive relationships. “My current husband has helped me love myself. If I had felt about myself like I do now, I would have left much earlier. But it is part of my past, part of my story.”
Liz grew up in a small West Texas town, was pregnant at 16 and married the father. The abuse started right away, at first just pushing, but the physical abuse escalated and she was kept from seeing her mother. The couple later moved in with his family, making it harder for her to leave. When she found out he was cheating on her, she left.
She is now married to a Fort Worth man whose father is a pastor of a church she attended in her hometown. When Liz moved to Fort Worth in 2014, she went to the Women’s Center and was referred to The Ladder Alliance.
Leaving an abusive situation is just part of the end to domestic violence. Those who deal with abuse victims find that women flee to shelters seven to eight times before fleeing for good. They seek refuge at a relative’s or friend’s house eight to 10 times between shelter stays.
Ready for change
When women are ready to end the cycle, the Gatehouse in Grapevine can provide safe refuge, practical resources and healing relationships. It is not a shelter, but a faith-based independent life program offering housing, transportation, child care, food, clothing, education, employment guidance, medical care, counseling and life skills mentoring.
“Gatehouse fills the gap between short-term services such as in a shelter and women ready to work a program for permanent change,” explains founder Lisa Rose.
Deborah Lyons, now Gatehouse executive director, knew from years of working in transitional housing that the best way to help women toward change was to give them extended time to become self-supportive so they could grow spiritually, gain career skills and work on family relationships.
Friends of Lyons and Rose urged them to talk and finally they met in 2012. Each found a soulmate to develop a supportive community where women and their children in crisis could receive safe refuge, ample time and practical resources and form healthy relationships to discover new paths for positive change.
Gatehouse opened in 2015 on 61 acres. It offers one-, two- and three- bedroom units, fully furnished, in a “neighborhood” setting. It currently has 47 families and 70 children. There is a General Store with food and household items and the Keeps Boutique with new clothing to help with job interviews or court appearances. Members are given vouchers to learn how to manage their finances.
They are encouraged to join a church, make friends at work and volunteer in the community so when their program is finished, they have integrated into the community. “Every part of their training is intentional,” says Rose, “so when they leave they are self-supportive and emotionally comfortable. That usually takes two to two and a half years.”
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month
Domestic abuse is chronic, manipulative and controlling behavior — usually male against female, but not always. The abuse can be emotional or physical, or both. For the abuser, it’s about getting his or her way whenever they choose. If you or someone you know is being abused, there is help available. The following are signs of abuse and ways to help.
Identifying signs of abuse:
• Withdraws from usual activities and won’t answer the telephone
• Displays “startle response” or flinches at unexpected touch
• Significant appearance changes in things like weight, clothing or make-up
• Not in charge of their own money
• Lies frequently or for no apparent reason
• Ridiculed by their partner
• Physical marks
How to help:
Only the abused can make the decision to permanently leave an abusive situation. If you suspect abuse, share the signs of abuse and your willingness to help. To start the conversation, say things like:
“I’ve missed seeing you lately.”
You’ve been on my mind.”
I’m here for you.”
If you ever need to talk, call me.”
Offer hotline and shelter numbers, but don’t force the issue if the abuse is not acknowledged.
Encourage the abused to build a safety plan. The website www.thehotline.org gives an example to follow.
When the abused is ready to leave:
• Identify a neighbor or friend to tell about the violence or have them call 911 if they hear or see anything of concern.
• Have a safe place to go. Keep a list of shelters handy. (https://www.gatehousegrapevine.com/get-help/shelter-list/ has a list of local shelters)
• Keep one bag packed in an undisclosed location. Include three days of clothing for everyone. Only one bag for everything.
• Take personal identification, birth certificates, medications, address book, passport, driver’s license, money, jewelry, insurance information, Social Security cards, school records, legal/financial documentation, photos and small, personal mementos, plus one small “security” toy per child.
More information about the programs:
• The Gatehouse in Grapevine, call 817-912-0317 or visit www.GatehouseGrapevine.com
• Ladder Alliance in Fort Worth, call 817-834-2100 or visit www.LadderAlliance.org
• National Domestic Violence Hotline, call 800-799-SAFE (7233) or visit www.thehotline.org