YWCA event breaks down domestic violence

‘In Her Shoes’ role-playing workshop helps explains challenges of leaving abusive homes

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 

After 33 years, Roz Schwartz decided she’d had enough of her husband’s fists. She confided in her rabbi, got cold comfort from her son, tried forgiving and forgetting — and got beat up some more. She wound up going to the police, getting a divorce and starting a whole new life.

Lena Petrovich’s path out of domestic violence ended differently. The Ukrainian native came to the United States to marry a pen pal she’d never met; her English was nearly nonexistent so when her husband repeatedly raped her, she found it tough to communicate with police, doctors and homeless shelter workers. She tried forgiving and forgetting, but her husband’s remorse quickly turned back to fury as he denied her language lessons and accused her of flirting with other men. He murdered her on Thanksgiving night.

Both women are composites — fictional representations of the realities that women struggling to escape domestic violence confront. Their life stories were among many experienced — episode by episode, with the future always unknown — by about 25 people who attended a role-playing workshop Thursday called “In Her Shoes,” hosted by the YWCA Clark County and its domestic violence program, SafeChoice, The event capped off a monthlong slate of activities in observance of National Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

“We are looking for new ways to spread the knowledge,” said SafeChoice director Debra Adams, who developed the role-playing exercise years ago. “This will give you a real feel for what someone goes through if they’re living in a domestic violence relationship.”

The point, said Adams, was to flesh out the complexities and difficulties and answer the frequently asked, skeptical question: If it’s so terrible, why doesn’t she just leave?

“This is based on real people’s stories,” Adams said. “This is the stuff that happens on a daily basis.”

Character cards

Among the people who turned out for the exercise were Irma Lucero, a social worker for the SeaMar Community Health Clinic, and Rae Lowry, an employment specialist for the homeless at Columbia River Mental Health.

Lucero drew the Lena Petrovich card. It explained that Petrovich was a 23-year-old Ukrainian who

fell in love with her future husband’s “beautiful, thoughtful” letters that made her feel like she was living a romance novel.

But “abuse happens,” according to the next card Lucero drew. Lena Petrovich’s husband turned violently jealous and ultimately a rapist — while also capable of tearful, sweet reunions. When Lena Petrovich attempted to get a pelvic exam, the “doctor visit” card looked something like this: “Kajk kalgjeopa owiaglna lkjada akgjeagji qoagj kajoa.”

She had to wait for a translator. When the “doctor” was finally able to ask Lena Petrovich if her husband had hurt her, she said no. She was terrified of legal problems and deportation.

Now Lena Petrovich (that is, Lucero) had a choice: try to find a shelter, or go home. Lucero decided to draw a “forgive and forget” card, which summed up Lena Petrovich’s desperate mindset: “Men are like animals. It’s my job to please him.” She returned home and begged for English classes. Husband said no and grew even more violent than before.

Lena Petrovich called the police, who couldn’t do a thing for her because her English was so poor and her husband was not at home to be interviewed. She fled to a shelter and started taking English classes. But her husband eventually contacted her and convinced her he was lonely and would never harm her again.

Another “forgive and forget” card. Lena Petrovich went home to him and went to Thanksgiving dinner with him — where he grew violently jealous that Lena Petrovich was flirting with another man at the table.

He shot her seven times in the street while she screamed for help. Game over.

Rae Lowry drew a very different character card: Roz Schwartz, a 64-year-old housewife and mother who’s endured a violent relationship for 33 years. When she went to her rabbi and confessed her cracked ribs, the rabbi told her God didn’t want her to be a victim. “Violence is a sin,” he said.

Rae Lowry, playing Roz Schwartz, decided to turn to family. She went to stay with her son — who assured her the situation couldn’t be that bad and wondered if his mother was just suffering from moody menopause.

Roz Schwartz managed to score a temp job but quit in humiliation because she didn’t know the technology. She went home to her husband — “forgive and forget” — who started out sweet but beat her again before long. She fled the house, went to the police, tried a support group and her rabbi again. The police arrested her husband; at a court appearance, the husband’s golfing buddy, an attorney, approached Roz Schwartz privately and asked her to “be reasonable.”

She pressed ahead with the divorce. The couple’s joint assets were frozen so Roz Schwartz went pounding the pavement for a job again — and got one.

Folks whose role-playing problems left them homeless had to haul garbage bags of belongings around the room as they hunted for resources. When they arrived at the “shelter,” they had to flip coins to see whether there was any space or not. Similar frustrations and cold shoulders confronted them as they made the rounds of other stations — support group, mental health, court, police, Child Protective Services. Nothing was easy.

Just leave

Why doesn’t she just leave? Statistically, it takes seven attempts to flee a violent home situation for good, according to Margo Priebe, the Y’s domestic violence legal advocacy specialist.

During a debrief after the exercise, Lowry and Lucero both said the complications of the role-playing exercise — skeptical relatives, language problems, bureaucratic delays, suave abusers and the victims’ own lack of resources and fear of change — ring totally true to their experiences working with abused women.

“There are so many barriers to women who are trying to get help,” said Lowry. She described a client who was homeless when she met her husband; he is abusive, but her client has decided it’s usually less dangerous living with him than on the street. At least she can stay with her children that way, she figures.

That’s a terrible — and typical — bargain to have to make, Priebe said.

When police are called into a domestic violence situation, they often show up to discover a hysterical wife and a cool husband, Preibe said. “Abusers can get into a calm zone and be very charming,” she said. Police who know what they’re doing will pull the couple apart and do separate interviews, she said. Vancouver police’s domestic violence unit is excellently trained to investigate and understand evidence of violence — but they are the exception, not the rule, she said.

A nurse in the group said she was approached by a man at her church who had been the victim of domestic violence. His problem was extra-complicated, she said, because he was so humiliated — and because it was hard to get anyone to believe him. When the nurse took his story to others for help, she said, “No one believed me.”

“We do serve men. They do walk in our door,” said Priebe. “But it is hard for men to come in — there is shame and embarrassment.”

Lucero said in her line of work she’s constantly seeing evidence of domestic violence, and constantly running into language barriers. Priebe responded that the YWCA has an account with Language Line Services, a 24-hour nationwide interpretation company that can provide simultaneous translation for any phone call. That’s useful for initial discussions as well as filling out legal forms and court complaints, she said.

Priebe said the YWCA can bring its “In Her Shoes” exercise to any community group that’s interested. Early next year, she said, the Y wants to host a similar role-playing event aimed at teen dating violence.

Contact the YWCA Clark County at http://ywcaclarkcounty.com or 360-696-0167. The crisis hotline is 360-695-0501.

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; http://www.twitter.com/col_nonprofits; scott.hewitt@columbian.com.