Ending Domestic Violence May Start With More Focus On Abusers, Experts Say

By Katie Kustura
The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Volusia County, Florida suffers from some of the highest rates of domestic violence in the state. Local experts say the conversation about domestic abuse needs to shift. They suggest people need to ask: Why do abusers do what they do? Can the abusers themselves be helped before they do more harm?

The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla.

When the abuse began he would yell, call her names and blame her for his problems.

Then he started destroying their property.

He would apologize, but make up an excuse or tell her it was something she did, and offer to replace whatever it was he had broken in their Daytona Beach home, which once included a window.

Then the abuse started getting physical, a grab, a smack, and then one morning, on her way to work in June 2010, Brenson Burns threatened to kill Ekara Nichols. He choked her and tried to run her down.

Burns ended up in prison for his abuses and Nichols, now 32, found herself in a domestic abuse course called “Peace Begins at Home.”

Throughout the eight-week program, Nichols listened as women of all ages — some taking the class for a second or third time — detailed brutality and how they became convinced by their partners that they weren’t good enough, smart enough or pretty enough.

“You’re hearing the same story over and over,” Nichols, who still lives in Daytona Beach, said recently of her experience in the course. “I told myself: ‘That cannot be me.’ ”

While the state’s rate of reported domestic violence offenses has been declining since 2005, the rate in Volusia County has been on an upward trend, characterized by the state attorney this week as nearing an “epidemic proportion.” Records show Volusia County, out of Florida’s counties, ranked in the top five in 2014 and 2015 for highest rates of domestic violence.

Local experts say that’s because the conversation about domestic abuse needs to shift. People need to ask: Why do abusers do what they do? Can the abusers themselves be helped before they do more harm?

“We focus a lot of attention on the victims and what’s happening for them, the reasons why they return to their abuser or the reasons why they don’t leave their abuser, and it’s the wrong conversation,” said Angie Pye, CEO of the Domestic Abuse Council of Volusia County. “We don’t have that conversation in any other crime. When any other crime is committed, we don’t look at the victim and say why did you do this or why did you do that?”

Sophie Vessa, a victim advocate with Daytona Beach police, said abusers, more often than not, suffered some sort of trauma when they were young, which likely involved abuse.

“It’s a learned behavior without a doubt,” Vessa said. “If we can get to these people to make them understand why they’re behaving like that, we can change.”

Nichols said when she began dating Burns, now 49, there were no signs of what was to come.

“Wining, dining, the whole woo factor,” Nichols said. “It was good.”

She said he even liked doing family-oriented activities so Nichols’ child from a previous relationship could be included.
“Parks, zoos, aquariums, we did it all,” Nichols said.

The daughter Nichols had with Burns was 2 years old when the abuse started, then escalated in June 2010.

It was during court hearings, which ended with Burns pleading no contest to aggravated assault and domestic battery, that Nichols learned about her former boyfriend’s violent past.

In 1993, Burns broke into an apartment near Fort Lauderdale and stabbed a woman 24 times. He also attacked the woman’s mother and the mother’s boyfriend, according to a news report by the Sun Sentinel. The woman told police she and Burns were only acquaintances but that he’d become “infatuated with her.”

Burns was convicted of armed burglary and three counts of attempted first-degree murder, records show. He served nine of the 25 years to which he was sentenced.

“I had no clue,” Nichols said.

When Burns was released from prison after serving three years for what he did to Nichols, he did what Pye said prison releasees who served time for domestic abuse often do: he began to harass and intimidate Nichols. While on a weekend getaway, Nichols’ home was burglarized.

Nichols said she knew it was Burns because of what had been taken, which included pictures and videos of the children.

It’d been a little over a year after his release when he was charged with burglarizing Nichols’ sister’s place and aggravated stalking, but before Burns was found guilty of those crimes, Nichols shared her concerns in a letter that she sent to the State Attorney’s Office, the Daytona Beach Police Department, Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi.

In the letter, she detailed Burns’ disregard for the law and her fears of what would happen were he not sent back to prison.
“I feared that upon his release Mr. Burns would adamantly seek revenge or retaliation of some sort and he has proven me right,” Nichols wrote.

She asked the system to hold Burns accountable and show the community that domestic violence will not be tolerated.

Nichols wonders if Burns would’ve been sentenced to 15 years in prison — he must serve each day — if she hadn’t written the letter.

While Nichols stood her ground in seeking justice against her abuser and protection for herself and her family, each case is different, and for many women, doing what Nichols did is easier said than done.

Leaving, even when the resources to do so are there, is hard for a number of reasons.

Vessa said the majority of the couples in abusive relationships have children together.

“Parents don’t even realize they’re affecting the children,” Vessa said.

She said when police respond to a domestic disturbance, the parents often say the children were sleeping.

“I laugh at that because you don’t sleep through domestic violence,” Vessa said.

Pye said authorities should always talk to the children regardless of what the parents said.

“I think sometimes law enforcement is apprehensive about it because they’re kids, and (police) don’t want to force them to say something bad about their parent,” Pye said. “But I also think it’s important for kids to be able to talk about it and have somebody like an officer say ‘This wasn’t OK,’ because they’re growing up in it and they think this is going on in everybody’s home.”

Mike Chitwood has been Daytona Beach police chief for more than 10 years. He said he and his officers are “starting to see the kids that were in the house when we arrested dad, we’re now arresting the kid who is in a relationship as a domestic batterer.”

In Volusia County schools, teachers do two hours of training on domestic and child abuse and get an hour refresher each year.
“We have this philosophy that it’s not our place to judge or do an investigation, but if we have a concern, we’re going to report it,” said Amy Hall, coordinator of student and government relations.

Hall said students in sixth through 12th grades get a presentation on domestic violence and healthy relationships while younger students are taught “the basic tenants of sharing, caring, trust and respect.”

She said younger children are not taught explicitly about domestic violence because they can’t necessarily differentiate between arguments and actual abuse.

Vessa said she’d like to see the schools do more after identifying the children who are witnessing abuse.

“Sometimes we can’t change the household, but that child, all they need is somebody to focus on them, and we can get them through this turbulent time,” Vessa said.

She said she wonders how many children are diagnosed with mental health issues when what they’ve really been through is the trauma of being abused or witnessing it.

Vessa and Pye both said some women stay because they truly care about their partner and want the relationship to be normal and loving as it likely was in the beginning.

“They want mental health for their men, they don’t want to put them in jail,” Vessa said. “But he’s not going to get help while you’re there.”

Pye said contrary to what victims may think, filing “criminal charges can really help us get them help and get them ordered into treatment, which is sometimes, maybe what it takes.”

She said criminal charges and injunctions are steps, but ultimately the abuser has to be willing to change and learn to manage his behavior.

Some women also stay because they fear what their partner will do if they try to leave, they’re already isolated from family and friends and their partner makes or controls the money.

Pye said even if the woman has a job, domestic violence may affect her employment.

“So many women get fired from their jobs because they’re leaving their husbands who are violent and that husband is calling them at work and showing up on the property and the employer’s reaction is to fire the victim because of what her husband is doing,” Pye said.

Vessa said while domestic violence doesn’t discriminate based on income, most of the families experiencing abuse in the Daytona Beach area are poor.

To help women in these situations, the office of Jeff Atwater, Florida’s chief financial officer, expanded their financial literacy program with the “Your L.I.F.E.” program.

The program “teaches survivors about banking and budgeting, saving and spending” so they can achieve financial stability, Atwater said.

With Volusia County’s rate of domestic violence exceeding the state’s since 2005, local officials decided it was time to do more.

In the 2016 Volusia County Community Health Needs Assessment Report, domestic violence was rated the 10th health issue about which residents were most concerned.

On Wednesday, State Attorney R.J. Larizza announced the creation of a new task force comprised of local law enforcement, prosecutors, state attorney investigators, victim advocates and community members.

“We’re coming together today to work together to try and turn back the tide of this disturbing trend of domestic violence,” Larizza said, adding that the issue had neared “epidemic proportion.”

As part of the task force, one of the State Attorney’s Office investigators will focus solely on domestic violence cases and two new prosecutors will handle only misdemeanor domestic abuse cases. Seven additional victim advocates have been hired thanks to a grant of more than $480,000 from the U.S. Attorney General.

Sheriff Ben Johnson said the county was “not getting enough done.”

He said law enforcement officers will need more training and reports will need more scrutiny to ensure successful prosecution of the cases.

“We’ll never stop it, but we can sure slow it down,” Johnson said.

Tiffany Carr, CEO of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said the task force was a groundbreaking effort for a community of Volusia’s size.

“Survivors tell us that one of the most daunting, complex processes to go through is interacting with the criminal justice system,” Carr said. “What you’re going to do is save the lives of women and children in a very different way and hold perps accountable in a way that has probably never been done.”

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