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"Life is far too valuable to be at the hands of someone who doesn't value life."

After years of domestic violence, a woman and her child fled to Raleigh to start a new lifeone without fear 

Shelter from the storm

Editor's Note: To protect the safety of the subjects, we have changed their names and descriptive details that could be used by their abuser to identify them.

Vanessa stops and stares down the impatient driver of a Range Rover. As she crosses a hot, crowded parking garage at Crabtree Valley shopping mall to apply for a second job, the car revs its engine and starts toward her too quickly. She wins the standoff; he lets her pass. She steps onto the sidewalk and enters the air-conditioned mall, smiling.

Vanessa is an African-American woman in her 30s with close-cropped hair, bright eyes and an expressive voice that is by turns gentle and exuberant. She's worked her way back from nothing many times. With each move to a new apartment or a relative's house, her ability to save money on a meager salary has helped her regain a foothold. But it hasn't been enough to free her from her past.

"At times, I really thought I was going to lose my mind," Vanessa says, "but I had to stay focused because I had two children that had literally only me to depend on."

After more than a decade of being beaten, stalked and threatened, Vanessa finally caught a break last winter when a judge granted her a protective order against her estranged husband, Victor. The judge ruled that Victor may not abuse, threaten, harass or contact her. She was also granted sole custody of their children for a year, which enabled her to take them to safety. She arranged for her older son, Chris, to stay long-term with a relative and came to Raleigh with her younger son, Daryl. For now, Victor doesn't know where any of them are.

"It was a matter of life and death to me," she says, "because he wasn't going to stop until he killed me."

Vanessa is one of thousands of women who seek help for domestic violence in the Triangle each year. When she ran into trouble, she called Interact, a Wake County nonprofit that helps domestic violence victims. The agency logged almost 9,000 calls to its crisis line last year and provided direct services to more than 5,600 women and children.

Victims navigate a complex legal system while trying to manage the other challenges of work, school and family obligations. Vanessa's experience shows how long it can take survivors to move on with their lives.

In the month since she and Daryl moved out of a Raleigh shelter for domestic violence victims, life has begun to seem normal, full of everyday errands that working mothers do. This is her day off from her job at the grocery store. While Daryl spent the morning at the public library, she was at his school filling out paperwork.

Their lives in Raleigh are improving. Daryl has stopped having nightmares, and Vanessa's made two good girlfriends she spends hours talking to on the phone. But the feeling that she's in danger never goes away. Because she's heard from family members that Victor is actively looking for her, she's told very few people what state she's living in. "My mother doesn't even know where I'm at."

It's been lonely for both of them to live among strangers so far from family and friends. But it's worth it, Vanessa says. "I don't have to have my guard up or be worried that he's going to walk up and be like, 'I told you I would always find you.'"

The first time Victor hit Vanessa, she left. "That's when I decided, Uh-uh, I ain't living like this."

But that was neither the beginning nor the end of the story.

When they started dating, Victor was charming and attentive. "You would think he was the perfect gentleman," she recalls. When she became pregnant with Chris, Victor wanted to marry her. Eventually, he persuaded her it would be good to have a father around.

But his charm wore off soon after they took their vows. "There were signs of, OK, this was a mistake. But I wasn't sure," Vanessa says. "The first few months, it was just a lot of arguing and walking around on eggshells. Then came the cheating."

Victor wanted the house kept up a certain way. He wanted his clothes ironed a certain way. And he didn't want her to work. "I had just finished school and I had a certificate that said I was smart enough to be able to do something. I was like, 'I have these skills and I would like to use them.'" She never intended to be a homemaker, she says. "I can cook, but I hate it. I did not go to school to learn how to cook."

She turned to family and clergy for advice. Vanessa says they told her, "'Well, you should feel lucky he chose you,' and blah, blah. 'You don't have to work and you should be grateful' and blah, blah, blah. I'm like, This is crazy. This is the '90s, not the '50s."

When she became pregnant a second time, the tension worsened. One night, he came home unhappy. "I don't know what he was upset about. Everything, of course, was just not the way he liked it. And I'm like, 'You know what, I'm sick of this. If you don't like it, then clean it yourself and cook it yourself and it'll be your perfect way.' I got a nice black eye for it."

Vanessa left with Chris and stayed with her mother. She went to the police station to report the beating. "I asked what the process was, and once they told me all I had to do just to get him to leave the house, I was like, 'By the time I go through all of this, all y'all going to do is send him back home the next day and he'll be even more mad. Forget it. I don't feel like going through all of that.'

"That's when I devised a plan for how to relieve myself of him." She would get a job and save enough money to move out of the house they shared.

But there were complications with the pregnancy, and Vanessa visited the hospital frequently. She couldn't work and needed someone to care for her constantly. Her mother wasn't willing to do it. She ended up back at home with Victor, where he showed his charming side for the next few months. When Daryl was born, however, the physical abuse resumed.

"He did more than hit me. He literally tried to choke the life out of me. When he left to go to work, I left. But the family member I went to was like, Well, y'all need to work this out."

click to enlarge Illustration by Liz Amini-Holmes
  • Illustration by Liz Amini-Holmes

When she returned to the police, they weren't much help, either. "They said, 'Well, you can wait until the morning and go to the court and you can plead for protection. He'll leave the house and you'll just have to get a job and pay all your bills.' I'm like, OK, that's fine, I'll get a job, I don't care what it is, just to get away from this situation. And then the police said, 'But the other thing is, we can't legally make him leave because both of your names are on the lease. So if he doesn't want to leave, you'll have to find somewhere to live. Because we've been though this before. You women want to leave the man and then two weeks later y'all are back together.'"

(In fact, protective orders can grant temporary legal custody of a residence.)

Knowing Victor would not agree to leave, and that she had nowhere else to go, she returned home.

However, Vanessa did get a job over her husband's objections. "By the time that second year came, I had enough saved up and we completely left him. We went to live in a really not-so-great neighborhood." The apartment Vanessa rented was infested with rats. After three or four months, she and her two small children couldn't take the squalor. Yet no family members were willing to take her in, so she moved back in with Victor.

Months later, she convinced some relatives to let her and the children move in with them temporarily. Victor called constantly, begging and pleading for her to return. "They were like, 'He's constantly calling you, begging you, crying, saying he's changed.'"

Victor also visited and handed out money to the kids, Vanessa and her relatives. Where the money came from, Vanessa didn't know. She was determined not to be fooled again, but the relatives were persuaded that Vanessa should take Victor back, and they let him move in. Since it wasn't Vanessa's house, she couldn't say no.

Much of Vanessa's experience is familiar to people who work with domestic violence survivors: that her husband tried to make her economically dependent on him; that he beat her while she was pregnant; that he won over her family and friends with a charming personality; that the burdens of money and children compelled her to go back. Her odyssey—court appearances, days lost from work, bouncing from apartment to apartment, lack of support from family members—is a story shelter staffers too often hear.

Dawn Bryant, an attorney for the Raleigh Police Department, has worked in domestic violence for 26 years. She says law enforcement has learned that it takes more than good police work to prevent crimes of family violence. "He may have all the money, he may have the job, he may have the checking account, he may have the car keys, he may have the power in the relationship as far as perceptions by family, friends and neighbors," Bryant says. "Oh, they're the ultimate manipulators. The victims get manipulated. Employers get manipulated. Judges and DAs and lawyers, everybody. These are people that the public would be shocked to find out are abusers."

Around the time Vanessa's abuse started in the 1990s, police, prosecutors and social service agencies across the country began to change the way they handled complex domestic violence cases like hers: They started working together.

The federal Violence Against Women Act, first signed into law in 1994, made available more than $1 billion in grants for specialized training for police and prosecutors nationwide. The Raleigh Police Department created a family violence unit with specialized officers, crisis counselors and a victim advocate. In Wake County, police, district attorneys, judges and magistrates, probation and parole officers, and nonprofit agencies created a domestic violence task force, among the first of its kind in the state. Bryant is the police department's primary liaison to the task force.

When police arrive on the scene of a suspected domestic violence case, they now know the questions to ask. In domestic violence cases, Bryant says, there may be an official documented history—police reports, court records and so on—as well as an undocumented history of daily life. One of the tasks of law enforcement is to make the official history reflect reality. It frustrates victims and advocates when an abuser is released from jail shortly after his arrest. But if the case goes to court, that arrest record can be a powerful tool for prosecutors and judges to stop the violence.

In Vanessa's case, the documented history shows only a few instances of the abuse she suffered. But as the years went on, Victor compiled a long rap sheet of theft and fraud convictions and parole violations, according to public records. "He's a career criminal," Vanessa says. "He is very cunning and deceitful, and he can be very manipulative. If he wants to, he can charm you and you'd be like, 'She's crazy. There's nothing wrong with him.' And he can turn it on at the drop of a hat."

For Vanessa, Victor's charming side had long worn off. She eventually moved into another place of her own. "I specifically did not tell him where I lived. But someone else did." He showed up at all hours, banging on the door and honking the horn. The frequent disturbances eventually caused her to be evicted from the apartment. "And because they weren't going to give me a good reference, I couldn't get into another apartment."

She and the children spent the next few years moving from relatives' homes to hotels she couldn't afford. Though Victor never assaulted the children, Vanessa says, he would come to their school and take them in his car, promising toys and video games he never delivered, asking them what their mother was up to. As the children got older, they became adamant that they wanted nothing to do with their father. They lived in constant fear of being abducted. She attempted to divorce Victor, but she says he was always able to convince a judge they had recently been intimate. Without a divorce, she was unable to get custody of her children. He had as much right as she did to take them.

Victor showed up at her job. He followed her home from work. He assaulted her in parking lots. No matter how many times she changed her phone number, he always found it out, through relatives or friends or innocently helpful staff at the kids' school. She went to court but couldn't get a protective order because she had no proof of the abuse—it was her word against his, she says, and no one who witnessed his harassment wanted to get involved.

"I would sit there in the courtroom and watch him and the bailiffs talking to each other, talking about sports or whatever, shucking and jiving, and I'm sitting here like, 'This is not going to go well.' Then the judge would always say, 'Well, it seems to me like this man's trying to get himself together and we're going to give him a chance.' I'm like, 'How many times do I have to come in here? Do you not see this stack of stuff y'all done thrown out? I'm back and forth to the courts trying to get my life rid of him. He's back and forth stalking me.'"

Wake County has two district courtrooms that handle only domestic violence. Victims come to the civil court for protective orders. If those orders are violated, or if there is a misdemeanor assault charge, those cases go to criminal court.

On a recent Tuesday morning, the civil domestic violence court is crowded, as usual. The bailiffs stand and pace while men, women and the occasional child pack onto wooden benches. People whisper and shift in their seats. Everyone's waiting for the clerk to call their names.

A man sits at the defendant's table in an orange-and-white-striped jail uniform, his legs and ankles shackled. As the shackles indicate, he's also been implicated in criminal court for assaulting the woman who's now seeking the civil order. The other men in the crowd are defendants, friends and family of victims, or victims themselves. Sometimes a victim and an abuser sit side by side. It's hard to tell what's going on.

In the clerk's fifth-floor office, there's a stack of blank domestic violence protective order forms. The form asks about threats and physical injury to the alleged victim and any children, whether there are guns in the house, and what the alleged victim wants. The civil court judge reviews the complaint and can make an immediate order without the alleged abuser being present.

Once served, the defendant must abide by the terms of the order. Ten days later, both parties return for a hearing before the civil court judge to determine whether the order will be extended for one year, and if so, to negotiate the terms for visitation and property.

To the frustration of judges and advocates, women frequently change their minds during those 10 days. Sometimes they ask the judge to dismiss the order; sometimes they just don't show up.

The presence of a victim's advocate in the courtroom can empower the woman. The advocate can tell her about services and about aspects of the legal system she may not know how to navigate alone. Today, for instance, the judge has asked a woman to speak with an Interact advocate before deciding whether to drop the order. A while later, when the judge asks if she still wants to rescind it, the woman says no.

"It's painfully familiar," Assistant District Attorney Jim Ferguson says when he is told Vanessa's story. Ferguson is the head of the domestic violence unit of the Wake County District Attorney's office. He and his staff prosecute domestic violence cases in criminal court.

Ferguson says the experience of going to court is a wake-up call for many defendants. "You have some people who've never seen the inside of a courthouse and suddenly they find themselves in an orange jumpsuit facing a judge. That has its own way of resolving any future issues." In many such cases, Ferguson will offer a plea bargain in which the defendant must attend an abuser treatment program as an alternative to jail.

Then there are the more violent batterers and the recidivists, whom Ferguson says he prosecutes aggressively. In either case, he says, it's important to get the details of the allegation, plea deal or conviction on the record and not allow records to be expunged. "We still want that record to be there so that a year or five years from now, if somebody re-offends, the evidence is not erased of this prior offense."

Ferguson is constantly trying to assess how much danger victims are in. "Personally, I live in constant fear of the case that I've just handled, what's going to happen when they leave here. That's why we feel so responsible about each case, that we don't let one case slip through."

When her children's complaints to child protective services persuaded a judge to grant her a protective order, Vanessa finally had a chance to escape.

Her older son, Chris, chose to stay long-term with a relative. Vanessa and Daryl arrived in North Carolina with enough money for one week at a hotel. During the day, she looked for work and tried to figure out where they might live when the week was over. When she went to social services to learn what assistance she qualified for, a worker there told her about Interact. The day before her money ran out, she and Daryl had moved into the shelter.

Vanessa was lucky. Interact is the only state-funded domestic violence shelter in Wake County. It has only 18 beds, and for every woman the agency accepts, it has to turn away another. Those the shelter can't accept are referred to shelters in other counties. With a population of more than 750,000, Wake County has the fewest shelter beds per capita of any county in North Carolina. Interact's shelter will expand to 45 beds next spring when the agency's offices move to an expanded $5 million facility. The Raleigh Police Department's entire family violence unit will relocate to the renovated YWCA building on Oberlin Road, and other agencies will offer legal services, health care and more under the same roof.

Daily life in the shelter was full of rules: There were daily chores and a curfew, and the TV could be on only during certain hours. "It was like prison," Daryl says.

But Vanessa appreciated the help and the structure. "A lot of times people would complain, and I'm looking at them like, 'If you lived the way I lived, you would be grateful for the rules. You'd be grateful that once you entered these doors you knew that come hell or high water, there was nobody going to come and get you.'"

There were mandatory group counseling sessions twice a week as well as one-on-one counseling. Because Daryl was the oldest child in the shelter, he and Vanessa were given the only private room, equipped with two twin beds. Other families stayed in bunk beds, several to a room. Adults were required to help cook dinner once a week.

Vanessa spent the first few days submitting dozens of job applications, and she was hired at a supermarket within two weeks. She and Daryl would wake up at 5:30 a.m. Daryl would be at the bus stop by 6:45; Vanessa had to be at work by 7. In the afternoon, the bus would drop him off near her job. He'd find a snack, and then they'd make their way back to the shelter. It was hard, Vanessa says, to see her son so isolated. He played basketball alone and ate little.

They spent eight weeks at the shelter; by then, most clients are expected to find more permanent housing. As each week passed, Vanessa says, she would panic about what she'd do about money and a place to live. But shelter staff reassured her and helped her find an apartment. She was able to furnish it with donated couches and beds. "They were like, 'Calm down, breathe, we're not going to just throw you out there.'"

Vanessa doesn't cry much, but tears well up in her eyes when she talks about the help she received from the shelter staff and residents. "These people are literally strangers. They don't know me. They don't know my son. And yet if I just asked for something, they did everything in their power to make it happen. Where people who are blood related to me literally acted like I was crazy just to ask for security and safety. All of the crap that I've dealt with seemed like it was so much easier to deal with at times than the simple kindness that I was getting."

Vanessa doesn't want to live in this two-bedroom apartment forever. The walls are cinderblock, the carpet stained and the kitchen tiny. But it's safe, it's hers, and she's only a quick bus ride from her job.

She knows precisely the amount of money in her checking account at any moment. With each expense, she calculates the balance in her head. The second job at the clothing shop didn't pan out. It paid only minimum wage, and since Vanessa doesn't have a car, transportation proved to be a hassle. She hopes to go back to school eventually and get a professional job that won't keep her on her feet all day. Then she and Daryl can move to a nicer place. Maybe one day Chris will want to join them.

"Am I happy that I moved to North Carolina? Yes and no," Vanessa says. "Yes, I'm happy I moved here because it's so much safer, people are so much friendlier, and I've been getting a lot of help that I should have gotten years ago. But no, I'm not happy that I had to leave the comfort of my surroundings because of a jerk. It's not fair. It's not right. Because criminals should be locked up and the people who are not criminals should be able to roam free."

Daryl is still unhappy here. He misses his old friends. For the first few weeks in their new apartment, Daryl wouldn't unpack. He left his clothes in a cardboard box, even after they'd been laundered. But today, the clothes that aren't in drawers are on the floor. The walls are covered with pictures of sports stars, and he has a homemade Do Not Enter sign on his door.

He says the one good thing about living in North Carolina is not having to worry about his father driving up and taking him away.

"I have experienced everything. At such a young age," he says, with an edge of teenage irony. "And I didn't even do anything! But I still don't want to be here."

The best way this ordeal could end is "him leaving me alone," Daryl says, referring to his father. "And her going about her life and getting off my back," he says to his mother's raised eyebrow. "Go find herself a man." Vanessa erupts with laughter.

But the ordeal isn't over in Daryl's mind.

He believes his father will come looking for them. "'Cause he's crazy! He's the devil. It's painful to be the devil's son," he says.

"At least I got God on my side," he adds, playfully hooking his arm around his mother's neck as she laughs.

If Victor does follow them to Raleigh, Vanessa's protective order, like all domestic violence protective orders, is recognized in all states. But in order for a judge to renew it, there would have to be a hearing at which Victor could present his case. Vanessa says she'd rather lay low and hope he doesn't catch up to them.

If Victor does find her and Daryl, Vanessa has more resources now. Besides Interact, she could call on Legal Aid of North Carolina (www.legalaidnc.org), a nonprofit that offers legal services to domestic violence victims. Then there is the hope that Raleigh's police and Wake County's court system would do a better job of curbing Victor's behavior than authorities in her former home state did.

"I've heard that it's a lot stricter or tougher here," Vanessa says, "but I really don't want to find out."

Vanessa's happy today. She has a date.

She met Paul, a single father about her age, on a chat line, which she tried for a laugh at the urging of her girlfriend at work. "I was like, 'Those jokers are just looking for booty calls.'"

Paul didn't mind her reluctance to meet him, or the fact that their first date, at a Starbucks, was like a job interview, or the fact that she didn't want to be physically intimate anytime soon. When he told her he didn't want to introduce her to his kids until they'd been dating for a while, she was smitten.

Yet, part of her is worried about moving too fast. "As excited as I am right now, I'm incredibly nervous. I'm a very cautious person." But where Victor swept her off her feet with a "macho thing," Paul seems sensitive; one night he told her he needed to go comfort his son because his turtle had died.

"He is such a provider," Vanessa says, beaming. "Wow, that is so sexy. Not that I want a man to take care of me, but the fact that he wants to and has the ability to—my girlfriends are like, 'Do you have clones in the closet we can have one of?'"

So far the only stress point Vanessa has encountered is Paul's impulse to provide for her. Much as she appreciates his offer to pay her bills, she can't bring herself to accept it. She's fought too hard for her independence to relinquish it. "I almost hate to tell him anything about what I need or want because it's a directive for him. 'OK, let's make this happen.' I'm like, 'When I meet your dad, I'm going to have to kiss him.'"

Vanessa's been reflecting about her family lately, and about how her experience might have been different.

"A lot of times, I feel that people don't get help the way they should or don't get out of the situation as soon as possible because the information they're getting from family members or people who are close to them is bad information. Just keep trying to find someone who's willing to go that extra mile to help you, because life is far too valuable to be at the hands of someone who doesn't value life.

"I was told once that people are like leaves or trees," she says. "If they're a leaf, then they're good for a season. If they're a tree, then they're going to be there season after season after season, no matter how the wind blows. I have very few trees, and a whole lot of leaves I gotta rake away."




If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence, you can get help from the following organizations:

  • Interact, an agency serving domestic violence and sexual assault victims in Wake County, www.interactofwake.org, 24-hour domestic violence crisis line: 919-828-7740

  • N.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, www.nccadv.org, 919-956-9124, toll free: 1-888-232-9124

  • National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, www.ncadv.org, national domestic violence hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)
  • "Life is far too valuable to be at the hands of someone who doesn't value life."

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