Featured photo: Survivor Lalani Reaves became a licensed counselor after she left an abusive relationship. (photo by Juliet Coen)
Trigger warning: This article mentions instances of domestic violence and sexual assault, including multiple survivors’ personal experiences.
“That doesn’t sound like him. I’ve never known him to be violent with women.”
“People loved him. My family loved him.”
“What will this look like to the people outside of this house?”
“He was witty, clever, and charismatic.”
“What did you do to make him hit you?”
Right now, a bright light is being turned onto the subject of intimate partner violence. It’s nearly impossible to escape the current cultural firestorm surrounding the defamation trial between actors Johnny Depp, 58, and Amber Heard, 36. Wide-ranging and salacious allegations of physical and sexual assault, psychological abuse and substance abuse during the couple’s marriage have been detailed in the weeks-long, televised trial that ended last week in Fairfax, Va. The constant churn of commentary, memes, and Tiktoks has been a catalyst for conflict and conversation.
Though the trial itself centers on two unreachable celebrities, the reality of intimate partner violence and domestic violence hits close to home for victims right here in our area.
Perpetrators of domestic violence don’t usually look like monsters to the outside world. Five survivors in the Triad are speaking up to share their stories in the hope that they can educate others and prevent the kind of physical, emotional and psychological suffering they’ve had to endure.
The myth of the “perfect victim”
Coming forward to speak out about abuse is a terrifying prospect, in no small part because victims don’t always fit the mold of acting perfectly in the midst of abuse. Where the perpetrator projects a sense of calm to the outside world, victims often project a sense of being out of control or unstable due to the emotional and psychological duress they experience.
“People loved him; my family loved him,” says Eileen Martin as she leans forward in a cushioned chair at a local coffee shop. She met her husband through his younger siblings when he came home from grad school years ago. She was a high school cheerleader, and he’d come to games to watch her. They married when she was 18 and he was 26.
Martin recalls being swept up in the relationship at first, but it all changed almost immediately after they were married. Four hours into the car ride to travel 3,000 miles to move, the rain poured down in sheets, creating dangerous road conditions. Cars were pulling over, but he wouldn’t slow down, even as she begged him to. As she continued to plead, he finally lost his temper and threatened to take her back home and leave her.
Martin’s husband became violent and struck her once during their first year of marriage, though not again after their first child was born that same year. However, the psychological abuse continued throughout their decades-long marriage. Martin shares that he would lock her in the bedroom, screaming and refusing to let her leave.
“He was always making me seem crazy to everyone around me,” she says.
Her moment of realization came when her teenage daughter told her, “You don’t deserve this.”
“He always told me that if I ever left him, I’d never see my kids again and I’d never get a dime from him,” she says.
As a stay-at-home mom, the financial implications were terrifying. When Martin finally decided to leave, things got worse. She says that he grabbed her by the arms, had her followed and made threats to cut her arms and legs off.
In the years that came after, her family said they believed her but would not give up their connection to him. To get away from him, she chose to cut ties with many of the people in her life.
“I’ve had to give up a lot for my freedom,” Martin says, her eyes looking emptily into the distance, Now a licensed therapist, she works with survivors of abuse in the Triad.
Overall, domestic violence rates increased during the pandemic according to the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Three-fourths of service providers in the state reported higher needs for services since the start of COVID-19. According to a study led by researchers from UNC Charlotte, North Carolina saw a rise in intimate partner violence during the pandemic due to increased unemployment, higher than usual levels of alcohol and drug use, social isolation, and COVID related stress.
Lalani Reaves became a licensed counselor after she left an abusive relationship. She speaks openly about her own imperfect reactions. After her abuser attacked her and trapped her in her apartment while her kids were at school, she ran for the gun that she knew he kept in the bedroom. Holding the firearm, she ordered him to leave.
Sitting on a couch in the Family Justice Center in downtown Greensboro, she lifts her hands and looks up at the ceiling.
“I thought, What am I doing?,” she says. “If that thing had went off, what would have happened to my children?”
That incident led Reaves to pursue a protective order against her then boyfriend, though he eventually pleaded with her that he had changed, and she let him back into her life.
“The intermittent reward and punishment is powerful,” counsels Martin. “It makes it hard for women to leave.” Another driver for why victims stay is that violence tends to escalate when they try to leave. The most dangerous point in an abusive relationship is when victim informs the abuser that they want to end the relationship, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
After returning the violence quickly escalated for Reaves again, only this time it was worse. Her abuser hid under the bed and grabbed her legs or lay in wait and jumped out from behind the shower curtain, grabbing her and attacking her. The fear of him hiding and suddenly becoming violent left Reaves in a constant state of anxiety.
“At one point, I didn’t feel like anybody could keep me safe,” she says.
Her situation culminated in an incident where he tried to take her car, and her school-aged daughter was knocked to the pavement with the vehicle when he put his foot on the gas as she stood at the window. Though the car didn’t strike her directly, the sight of her daughter being thrown to the ground shook Reaves deeply. After that, she re-engaged with the protective order.
All along the way, Reaves said she attempted to tell people about what was happening to her, but no one believed her.
“They’d say, ‘That doesn’t sound like him. I’ve never known him to be violent with women.’”
A persistent misconception is that false allegations in domestic violence and intimate-partner violence situations are rampant. In reality, domestic violence against people of all genders is underreported, with only 50 percent of incidents engaging with law enforcement, according to the Department of Justice. Female victims of domestic violence are also four times as likely to refrain from reporting than male victims due to the fear of reprisal.
Societal pressure sustains silence
An abuser often presents a charming picture to the outside world while terrorizing their victim behind closed doors. Relationships can move at lightning speed, before partners have time to process red flags.
“Three or four months in, he’s already talking about blending families, getting married,” says local survivor Juanyetta Beasley, who met a man through friends in 2019.
“We transitioned into a pandemic relationship that progressed our plans, and we set a date to get married,” she says.
Even before they were married, Beasley saw red flags like increased control over her behavior and outrageous financial demands, but she didn’t want to give up the relationship. Concerned, she reached out to his family members, who she was close to, but they minimized his behavior.
They got married during lockdown, and things escalated within weeks. It began with silent treatment and soon progressed to property damage. He broke things and left holes in the walls. Eventually, he threatened her and held her hostage. His children finally called the police.
“I thought that I did something to mess up this relationship,” Beasley confesses. “I am the highly-educated African-American woman who cannot hold a relationship together.”
Though law enforcement encouraged her to pursue legal action, pressure from outside expectations pushed Beasley to stay silent. He moved out after that incident, but she was still embarrassed.
“What will this look like to the people outside of this house?” worried Beasley, who was a healthcare leader at a Guilford County hospital at the time.
“How will they judge my ability to lead my team if I don’t follow through with the marriage?” she wondered.
The wakeup call for Beasley came as an actual phone call. A number she didn’t recognize called her repeatedly, until at last she decided to answer. When the voice on the other side said they were a domestic-violence liasion, she closed her office door and pulled the blinds. It was the first time she’d heard the words “domestic violence” associated with her situation.
Only three people knew about Beasley’s situation: the domestic-violence coordinator, her mother and her son. She continued to carefully curate her image socially and at work, pretending be a happy newlywed, hiding the fact that she’d skipped her honeymoon because of the violence. When a coworker pulled her aside one day, Beasley thought she was going to ask about her honeymoon. Instead, the woman said that she had noticed the change in her demeanor. She could tell that something was wrong because she, too, was a survivor of abuse.
The revelation that someone at work knew turned out to be freeing, Beasley says. She went public with her story, taking time off of her job to reset her life, and wrote a book about her experience.
“We have this perception of what domestic violence is, and it doesn’t always look like that,” Beasley asserts. “It makes it hard for some women to identify they are in it.”
Navigating litigation can be brutal
There are no laws against domestic violence in North Carolina, according to Greensboro Legal Aid attorney Emily Carico, who works with up to 200 cases of domestic violence per year. Instead, there is an umbrella of civil and criminal laws that victims must wade through in order to find safety. The process can be intimidating, financially draining and emotionally exhausting.
A Domestic Violence Protective Order, also known as a DVPO, a 50B, no-contact order or restraining order, is a civil order that grants a range of protections to victims in NC. DVPOs cover stalking, harassment, sexual assault and physical violence between individuals who have a “personal relationship.” Breaking a no-contact order can result in criminal charges. Per the ACLU, North Carolina is the only state that does not codify same-sex couples in its laws regarding domestic violence between dating couples, though the NC Court of Appeals ruled in December 2020 that same-sex couples must be included in domestic-violence protections. That decision was upheld by the NC Supreme Court just two months ago.
To get a 50B, the victim or their attorney files paperwork at the courthouse detailing their claims, then a judge or magistrate can enter a temporary “ex parte” order, meaning that the perpetrator doesn’t have to be present for the initial hearing. Within 10 days, both parties are to appear in front of a judge, who will decide whether to extend the order.
Criminal charges are a separate matter altogether, with a different burden of proof. In NC, criminal acts are considered to be against the people of the state, not against the victim. The prosecutor decides whether and which charges to pursue; police officers responding to the situation can hold offenders for up to 48 hours on suspicion of a crime. For intimate-partner violence, this could include both felony and misdemeanor charges like assault on a female, sexual assault, stalking and kidnapping, among others.
In Guilford County alone, Legal Aid annually supports nearly 1,000 victims in obtaining restraining orders and navigating the civil legal hurdles required to stay safe — free of charge. Carico works closely with survivors to pursue civil protection, but not all victims know how to get representation.
Lalani Reaves represented herself in her initial bid to get a 50B at the Guilford County Courthouse.
“His thing was choking,” Reaves recounts. “I thought I was hiding the bruises.”
Reaves attempted to cover the bruises with clothing and makeup when she was around other people. She had text messages and hotel receipts to back up her story, but her abuser appeared in court with a series of counter-claims against her. The judge wasn’t sure the evidence she presented rose to the burden of proof to extend her ex parte order as she didn’t have corroborating evidence from other sources. Reaves remembers pleading with the judge.
Towards the end of the hearing, one of Reaves’ coworkers presented pictures of strangulation injuries on Reaves’ neck that they had taken while they were at work. Those pictures were enough for the judge to grant her a protective order. In NC, initial orders last a year, then a victim can petition the court to extend for up to two years after that.
In half of cases, DVPOs are effective at stopping violence, and they’re effective at reducing it in most of the other half, according to a policy brief from the Carsey Institute of Public Policy. Though these orders are enough to keep many perpetrators from contacting victims or physically seeing them, abusers can still find other ways of seeking control.
Reprisal against reporting abuse often comes in the form of judicial retribution. Litigation abuse occurs when an abuser attempts to retain control over their victim by continually filing motions in civil and even criminal court. North Carolina is a private warrant state, meaning anyone can go in front of a magistrate and take out a warrant on another party. The prosecutor will decide then whether to pursue charges, after the warrant is out there.
In domestic violence situations, abusers sometimes take out unfounded criminal warrants on their victims through this process, according to Carico.
“Anything an abuser can use to keep control is used as leverage,” she says.
Like other victims, it was a hard road for survivor Keely Jordan to find people to believe her. Now a public policy analyst and intimate partner violence advocate, Jordan met her abuser in college, where she says he was a ‘shining star.’
“He was witty, clever, and charismatic,” she says of her ex-husband. “Everybody loved him.” She says that he was able to hide his drug use and physical violence because he managed to be so high functioning at work.
Far away from family support, she had to navigate her situation completely on her own.
Over the course of her time with him, Jordan suffered from six concussions. One night, when she tried to run from the violence, all of the shelters in Greensboro were full. Jordan had to drive to Reidsville to find safety.
“Child Protective Services had to kick him out of the house,” she says. “He has taken me to court every year since then.”
Like in Jordan’s case, judicial engagement keeps perpetrators connected to their victims, even after the victim leaves the relationship.
In May 2021, bipartisan sponsors introduced HB795 to “regulate and restrict abusive litigation”, but it remains in committee. This proposed legislation specifically targets perpetrators of domestic violence, stalking and harassment to censor their ability to bring victims frivolously into court.
Divorce and custody proceedings are also a massive piece of the puzzle for many people trying to escape violent situations, and they can drag on for years. Litigation abuse sometimes manifests in the form of custody battles, lengthy divorce petitions, libel or defamation cases, or property litigation.
Jordan has spent upwards of six figures on attorney’s fees over the course of two decades, only to be awarded custody of her children again and again with each new filing from her ex-husband. For her, filings often come with life events like her going back to school or getting into a new relationship.
“Every time I get a little agency in my life, he comes in and wants to have control,” she says.
Signs of immediate danger
Prior to the Family Justice Center opening in Greensboro in 2014, Guilford County led the state in domestic violence homicides, according to director Catherine Johnson. Since the center’s opening, the number of incidents has dropped by more than 50 percent, per data from the NCCADV. The center provides aid to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse and elder abuse. Twenty percent of the clients supported by the Family Justice Center are male identifying.
Even with the drop in incidents in Guilford County, the numbers are sobering. More than half of women killed by homicide in the United States are killed by an intimate partner, according to data from the CDC. Homicide is the leading cause of death for women under the age of 44. Black women and Indigenous women are at the highest risk.
The danger isn’t just for those immediately involved. According to a 2014 study from researchers at the CDC, 20 percent of homicides associated with domestic violence are not committed against the person who is the initial target, but against neighbors, first responders, friends and family, or bystanders. It’s notable that the school shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, TX, last week began as an act of domestic violence against the shooter’s grandmother, whom he lived with.
Abby Catoe is a domestic survivor and founder of Annie’s Hope Center, a long-term, safe housing center located on a 20-acre farm near Winston-Salem.
A safe place wasn’t available for Catoe when she reached out to her church about the violence she experienced at the hands of her husband.
“Elders in my church would advise me to stay in the relationship and to do everything I could not to cause the violence,” she shares.
They would ask her, “What did you do to make him hit you?’” Having grown up watching her mother, Annie, live through the same kind of violence from partners, she didn’t understand how wrong it was.
“He didn’t hurt the kids, so I just thought I’d stay and take it,” says Catoe.
At first, she tried to fight back, once even shooting a gun at him to get him away. After a while, she stopped retaliating and just took it. The level of physical abuse continued to increase, until one day he broke her nose, nearly ruptured her kidney and sexually assaulted her in front of her young children.
“He said to my kids, ‘This is what happens to trash women,’” she recalls.
Catoe made a plan to leave and worked her way through the difficult path of building a new life. She was able to find a job, eventually earning her Masters of Divinity from Wake Forest University and started Annie’s Hope Center.
“It’s a difficult decision,” she says. “There are lots of reasons why a woman would not leave.”
The real risk of death or serious injury is a compelling reason to leave, though not all victims realize how dangerous their situation is. According to Johnson and informed by national standards, five things that are immediate red flags for increased violence in a domestic violence situation are: strangulation, the victim informing the perpetrator that they’re leaving the relationship, constant jealously, a history of violence and threats of homicide or suicide. When any of these five are present, victims should immediately seek support.
Non-fatal strangulation is a major indicator of homicide in women in intimate partner situations. Women whose partners have choked them are 750 percent more likely to be murdered with a firearm by that same abuser, according to the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention.
That’s why it’s critical that anyone, no matter their gender or age, reaches out for support if they have experienced domestic violence.
“We believe you and we care about you,” Johnson says. “Not only does your voice matter, but we’ve got your back.”
The Family Justice Center is a one-stop organization where victims can access more than 75 professionals from 15 agencies. Offices in downtown Greensboro and in High Point are open to walk-ins Monday through Friday from 8:30-4:30. Victims can call the 24-hour hotline at (336) 273-7273 to ask confidential questions, discuss options for escaping their situation or get immediate help.
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