Enduring Domestic Violence: The Women of SAAFE House

Photo of a woman with a black eye reflected in a marble wall.

Two victims of domestic violence shared their heart-wrenching stories of abuse and survival with criminal justice students during a recent special presentation for Dr. Raymond Teske's Family Violence class.

“For each one of these ladies, this is part of their continued healing,” said Jolene Miller, a Sam Houston State University graduate and Director of SAAFE House of Huntsville. “Every abuse victim’s story is very personal.”

Beth, a Dean’s list student at SHSU, said that after 20 years of marriage, she shattered eight vertebrae when her husband threw her into a wall. She had suffered years of emotional, sexual and monetary abuse and medical neglect before the physical abuse began. Within an eight month period, her husband threw her into a wall twice before she planned her escape.

“My healing would come, but I wanted to make sure my son was okay,” said Beth, whose name is being withheld to protect her privacy. “While I was just being a Mom, a wife and an employee, I just kept plugging along over the years. Then I literally found myself moments from death.”

Concerned mom and distraught son study a chess board at a kitchen table.Two days before Christmas, she fled to a shelter in Montgomery County. After her husband hired a private investigator and found her and her son, she moved to a shelter in Harris County.

Loretta, a SAAFE House client, said she grew up in an abusive home with alcoholism and sexual abuse. She married at 18 to escape foster homes and soon discovered her husband too was an alcoholic. After attending church and its Alanon support group for friends and family of problem drinkers, she opted for a life of sobriety and hasn’t touched a drink in 31 years.

In the ensuing years, she helped her disabled sister raise her daughter and later adopted the child as her own. When she met her second husband, she thought her prayers had been answered. “Mr. Handsome” was a church going man who didn’t drink. He moved the family to Montana, but soon began controlling what she did and wore.

When her adopted daughter was 13, she informed Loretta that she was being molested by her stepfather. Loretta fled to her church family in Houston and found SAAFE House in Huntsville. There she got therapy and advocacy, eventually initiating a criminal case against her husband in Montana. She said the facility helped her with basic necessities, including food, clothing and “people to lift me up and encourage me.”

Today, she works at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

“You don’t have to be in a bad relationship,” Loretta said. “No one should have to go through what I did or my child did.”

For Beth, she ignored the lifelong signs of abuse in her marriage. Her husband would make fun of her. She was isolated from family and friends, moving 28 times in 21 years. He would micromanage her time and finances. When she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 2002, he wouldn’t let her get necessary medical treatment, taking away her license and petitioning her doctor to have her put away in a long-term care facility.

“He controlled my car, my family and my friends,” said Beth. “When you were in the eye of the storm, it was best to stay closest to the abuser. When you try to step away, you get hit with all the debris...On the night he threw me against the wall, he said ‘don’t think you can take my son away from me.’”

Miller said one victim of domestic violence described her life as like a frog in water. If the temperature of the water is turned up immediately to boiling, the frog would escape or die. But if the temperature is increased slowly over time, the frog doesn’t notice the changes.

SAAFESAAFE House helps women put their lives back together. SAAFE House assists victims of domestic violence and sexual assault with a wide variety of services including a shelter for women and children, a 24-hour hotline, individual and group counseling, assistance in the criminal justice process, transportation, skills training, and emotional support.

“We talk about things like life skills, budgeting, and personal plans of action,” said Miller. “We work with people to try and connect them to resources in the community.”

The shelter provides temporary housing for women and their children. There are only three main rules at the shelter, which include no drugs or alcohol and no divulging the location of the shelter for the safety of those that live there.

For Loretta, the shelter was much more than a roof over her head.

“The shelter woke me up,” said Loretta. “It was a warm and family type atmosphere. The women worked together to prepare meals and in group sessions. We learned to live together. SAAFE House worked with me in the court system. My ex-husband did get 25 years.”

Unfortunately, many women return to their abusers.

“It’s not our job to say what’s right or wrong,” said Miller. “We can only say that people have the right not to be abused, that they should have choice and equality. We are trying to help, but we do not always see the end results.”

Member of The Texas State University System