Reasons why abuse victims return often complex, experts say
The Salem News, Massachusetts/April 10, 2008
By Stacie N. Galang
Peabody – Jania Pacheco returned to her Oak Street apartment late last fall just as her neighbor Jessica Herrera was leaving, bags in hand.
Herrera was shaking. Her right eye was blood red, Pacheco said, and the area surrounding it was bruised from just below her eyebrow down to her nose.
“It was literally like charcoal black, purple, blue,” she said. “We knew, evidently, that it was him (Herrera’s live-in boyfriend).”
They had a brief exchange. Herrera hugged Pacheco and thanked her. The 25-year-old mother of two told Pacheco she needed to go.
“I said, ‘You need to do what’s best for you,'” Pacheco recalled telling her neighbor. “You need to run for your life.”
She hoped her neighbor would leave for good, but that wouldn’t be the case.
“She kept coming back for something,” Pacheco said. “It didn’t seem like love.”
Herrera’s body was found Sunday in the closet of the 7 Oak St. apartment she shared with the boyfriend, Ashley Fernandes. Police charged him with strangling her. Fernandes pleaded not guilty in Peabody District Court on Monday morning and is being held without bail.
“We were just shocked, really shocked, but not surprised,” Pacheco said.
She’d made occasional phone calls to police when arguments from Herrera’s apartment were too loud to ignore, she said.
Now, she’s asking herself why her neighbor of nearly four years stayed after enduring so much abuse. It’s a question that rarely has a simple answer, say those who work with victims of domestic violence.
Peabody police Sgt. Sheila McDaid, who heads the department’s Domestic Violence Unit, said she could not speak about Herrera’s case. But she said complex issues like past relationships and the nuances of the current one factor into leaving.
“Again, there’s all the underlying circumstances we may not even know about,” she said. “I don’t believe anybody who’s been battered likes the battering.”
Fear is an overriding part of the decision making. Sometimes a victim has to devise an escape plan, McDaid said.
“Domestic violence is a crime,” she said. “It’s a unique crime because it’s committed by someone who allegedly loves you or someone you love. It’s not black and white.”
Candace Waldron, executive director of Help for Abused Women and their Children, agreed with McDaid that the reasons for staying are often complex and multifold.
“I think that’s one of the most frequently asked questions,” she said. “There’s a lot of reasons.”
Perpetrators don’t always batter and can be charming and affectionate at times, or they shift blame on the victim. And victims find a host of reasons to stay: for their children, fear of loneliness, loss of the connection.
“They may believe that the abuser will stop or the perpetrator will change because they love them,” Waldron said.
Keep in touch
As neighbors, Pacheco and Herrera chatted regularly, Pacheco said. They became pregnant around the same time, and eventually their children played together.
When Herrera returned to 7 Oak St. after the incident in late fall, she shied away from Pacheco, only waving a hello from time to time, Pacheco said.
“I think she was ashamed that she came back,” Pacheco said. “She was a totally different person and didn’t talk to us as much as she did before. It was like someone else had come back.”
It’s a symptom Waldron has witnessed all too often. The HAWC executive director said victims start to isolate themselves whether it’s out of the shame for staying or their willingness to appease the perpetrator.
Once isolated, a victim has few outlets to share feelings or experiences.
“That becomes almost like a brainwashing environment,” Waldron said. “If you don’t have a lifeline to the outside, it’s very hard to see that there’s any hope for you.”
She encouraged friends and family to keep in touch with a victim. It often means being rebuffed multiple times, but it lets a victim know whom she can rely on when she finally leaves for good.
“Staying connected is like throwing a lifeline,” Waldron said. “Stay connected, as hard as it can be.”
McDaid wanted to flip around the questioning toward the abuser rather than point fingers at the victim.
“Why did he do this? Why do people batter? Why don’t we as a society look at the perpetrator?” the police sergeant asked. “Society tends to look at the victim and say why don’t they do this. Sometimes it’s not that easy.”