REACH strives to prevent violence and help victims make new choices
Last fall, on the morning of Saturday, Oct. 16, the lifeless, beaten body of Amanda Smith Morrow was found on the her neighbors’ front porch just around the corner from her Nutmeg Court home in Jackson County.
According to police, Morrow, a seventh-grade school teacher at Fairview Elementary School, died of a bullet fired point-blank at her right temple. Morrow’s estranged husband, Michael David Morrow, was later charged with the crime.
Unfortunately, this grizzly tale is all too common in North Carolina. According to an unofficial count by the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 73 reported homicides in the state were directly linked to domestic violence in 2010, up slightly from the 70 reported in 2009, when domestic violence homicides accounted for more than 14 percent of the total murders in the state. The actual rate may be much higher.
“We would say that number is significantly higher,” said Jennifer Turner-Lynn, director of the Rape Prevention/Education Program at REACH of Macon County. “In many cases we will know there is domestic violence in the home, but maybe when it was investigated or when the murder occurred, law-enforcement didn’t know that domestic violence was a contributing factor.”
Part of the reason for this, says Turner-Lynn, is that many victims of domestic abuse are afraid to come forward and report violence. Some even blame themselves. Even more underreported are cases of sexual violence. Legal definitions of rape tend to be narrow, and taboos surrounding sexual violence often encourage silence rather than disclosure.
But things are slowly changing. Education has begun to raise awareness and change attitudes regarding domestic violence. And myths that have persisted for generations around sexual violence, such as the belief that most rapes are committed by strangers, are slowly being displaced.
“Statistically you are much more likely to be raped by someone you know, a family member or an acquaintance, than you ever would be by someone you don’t know,” Turner-Lynn noted. Still, domestic violence and sexual assault continue to be among the most chronically underreported crimes in the country.
The case of Amanda Morrow may be even more tragic in that she was a woman who had already taken the first giant steps of leaving a situation of domestic abuse and was attempting to make a new life for herself when she was so brutally murdered by her husband. A protective order request suggests a history of violence and controlling behavior in the period leading up to the Morrows’ separation in February 2010, when Amanda Morrow said her husband had choked her unconscious after accusing her of having an affair. But two weeks later, on the same day as the scheduled court hearing, Morrow dismissed the charges against her husband.
Fortunately, not all cases of domestic abuse have the same tragic ending, but for anyone trapped in an abusive relationship, the situation can seem hopeless. This was the case for one young Macon County woman who found that while life with her abusive husband had become unbearable, she did not have the means or the resources to separate from him, and she feared for herself and her young son if she were to try.
At the darkest point, Mary (not her real name) would lock herself and her son in her bedroom at night, afraid of what her alcoholic husband might do to them if he flew into one of his frequent rages. She slept with a lead pipe by her bed. “I just didn’t know what to do,” she said, describing a feeling of hopelessness that many women in similar situations have felt. In fact, it took almost nine years for Mary to find a way out, but she says turning to REACH for help was the first step in that process.
‘Domestic violence is in your hometown’
Domestic violence is defined by victim advocates as a pattern of abusive behavior that is used to gain or maintain power and control over an intimate partner. National statistics for domestic abuse estimate that 25 percent of women, or one in four, will experience domestic violence in their lifetime. Of all the incidents of domestic violence reported, the vast majority (approximately 85 percent) involve women being abused by men. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, of all the women murdered in the U.S., about one-third are killed by an intimate partner.
While domestic violence is an issue faced to greater and lesser extents by communities all around the nation, local statistics plainly show that Macon County has a problem. The Sheriff’s Office responded to 563 domestic violence related calls in 2010. The Franklin Police Department recorded 180 such calls. These numbers are comparable to Jackson County, where in 2009 the Sheriff’s Office received 535 domestic violence calls for the year, and the Sylva PD received 169.
“I don’t know if it is more or less than other counties, but I would say that domestic violence is more of a problem than the community recognizes,” Turner-Lynn said, adding that sexual violence is even less likely to be addressed in public than domestic violence. In 2010, there were 16 sexual offense charges from Macon County filed in Superior Court, including four for first degree rape.
Sheriff Robert Holland notes that domestic violence consistently represents a significant number of the total violent crimes reported in the county. “Domestic violence is always an important issue,” he said. Fortunately, however, there are organizations like REACH that women can turn to for help and support in getting through an abusive relationship. REACH, which stands for “Resources, Education, Assistance, Counseling and Housing,” was formed in 1990 to address the growing problem of domestic violence in the community. A relatively small agency – there are only seven full-time staff members – volunteers are essential and are necessary for everything from answering phones to staffing the shelter.
In the efforts to both help victims and raise awareness of the issues, REACH of Macon County is on the county’s front lines of both domestic violence and sexual assault. In 2010, REACH served more than 900 people. Of those, approximately 809 were victims of domestic violence or sexual assault. The REACH 24-Hour Crisis Hotline received 839 calls last year. (In the same period, REACH of Jackson County served more than 700 adult victims and 69 children and received more than 400 Crisis Hotline calls.)
REACH is a non-profit domestic violence and rape crisis center which also offers a wide range of education and prevention services as well as court advocacy, outreach programs and emergency shelter services. REACH recorded more than 260 counseling hours last year and approximately 324 clients were assisted by the REACH Court Advocate through legal processes, whether filing criminal charges, obtaining protective orders or just supporting and accompanying a client in court. REACH also gives referrals to legal aid in cases where legal representation is necessary.
The emergency shelter offers a safe haven to women and children dealing with abusive situations, and as with all services at REACH, it is free of charge. As many women and children arrive at the shelter with only the clothes they are wearing, everything is provided. Food, clothing, toiletries, medicines and many services and activities for children.
Shelter utilization rates go through phases, says Turner- Lynn, but the past six months has often seen the facility at full capacity with an average daily occupancy of nine clients. In total, 28 women and 35 children have used the shelter in the past six months. In 2010, REACH provided a total of 3,313 nights of shelter and 9,855 meals.
“The fact that our shelter is full is certainly an indicator that domestic violence or sexual violence is prevalent in the community,” noted Turner-Lynn. On the other hand, factors such as the economy, which affects what options are available to women, also impact occupancy rates at the shelter. “Just because the shelter is not full doesn’t mean that we don’t have sexual violence,” noted Turner-Lynn.
“The shelter is there for safety, but it is also there for people who are trying to leave a situation of domestic violence with no money, no resources and nowhere else to go,” explained Andrea Anderson, the Victim Services Director and Grant Administrator at REACH. She added that the shelter tries not only to meet the basic needs of its clients but to provide the women and children with as stable and normal an environment as possible as they try to get back on their feet.
The New Choices Program is a grant-funded program designed to help women become financially independent with counseling and seminars on job skills, life skills and continuing education. Roughly 116 clients participated in the New Choices Program in 2010.
The numbers provide a sense of the demand for these services in the community, but it is the stories of the women who have used REACH to change their lives that reveals how critical the need is. Mary lived in Macon County until 2004, when she fled an abusive relationship with her ex-husband and moved out of state. In many ways, her story is typical of the struggles of women trying to leave abusive relationships.
The couple had been married in 1995. A year later Mary gave birth to her son. The man she had fallen in love with had been kind, considerate and even gentlemanly. But after the wedding, things began to change. From early on in the marriage, her husband’s drinking became an issue, Mary says. As time went on, they began arguing a lot, and he became verbally abusive.
At one point, Mary says her husband had promised to quit drinking, but she soon discovered liquor bottles hidden under the sink. She confronted her husband and even convinced him to go to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), but he gave it up after a short time.
“When I married him, I knew he drank,” Mary said of her ex-husband. “But I made the fatal mistake I think a lot of women make thinking if he loves me enough he’ll quit ... I think it’s the mothering instinct in us. We want to cure somebody, help them get better, but you can’t. They have to help themselves.”
The relationship continued to deteriorate and the fighting and yelling became an everyday occurrence. Mary says she felt pressured to stay with her husband for the sake of her son, but at the age of three, she noticed an abrupt change in her son’s character. She says he stopped eating and playing. He became quiet and withdrawn. She took him to a doctor, but was told there was nothing physically wrong with the boy.
This went on for weeks. Then one day Mary and her husband were fighting while she was making the bed. Her son dove under the sheets and pointed at his father and said, “You’re scaring me.” Then he hid. Mary says this is when she began to understand what was happening and how her relationship with her husband was affecting her son. Shortly after this event, Mary tried to leave her husband for the first time.
The separation lasted less than a year. Even living in subsidized housing, Mary found she was unable to keep up with her bills. She was losing her apartment and close to losing her car when she decided she would have to return to her husband. The abuse began again, but this time it was escalating into physical violence.
“He would never hit me outright with his fists,” Mary explained, “but he would slam me into the wall. He would push me down.”
Mary had discovered REACH before she had separated from her husband the first time. She recalled the day a co-worker told her about it. “I went into work and I was crying. I really shouldn’t have gone to work that day, but I had to have a paycheck.”
Her co-worker, who had also been in an abusive relationship, explained that REACH offered counseling and held meetings she could go to for support, and there was a child-psychologist on-site who could watch her son. She says this was the main reason she decided to contact the organization. She even got her husband to agree to let her take her son for counseling, not telling him that she was also seeking help for herself.
Mary stayed with her husband for three more years, during which she felt trapped. She tried to save money, but keeping up with bills was hard enough, and the bank was threatening to repossess their trailer. In the meantime, her husband’s behavior became more and more erratic and threatening. Although she had family as near as Sylva, she was afraid to move somewhere so close by. Her husband still had legal rights to her son, and besides, she didn’t want to involve her family or anyone else in what seemed to be her problem alone. And her husband had told her that if he ever caught her leaving again, he would take their son and “disappear in the night.”
As is often the case with abusive relationships, Mary’s husband did everything he could to isolate her. “My friends quit coming to the house because [my husband] was a jerk,” she recalled. “Lots of times he wouldn’t let me go anywhere.” She remembers one time her husband calling a grocery store when he did not believe she was there shopping. She was.
It was also difficult for her to find support in the community. Her husband had grown up in the area and was well-liked. Many refused to believe that he could be dangerous or abusive.
Still, the drinking, abuse and threats continued. Mary would often take her son to work with her because her husband was too drunk to watch him. She began sleeping with her door locked.
Without REACH, Mary says she doesn’t know what she would have done. With help and a safety plan from REACH counselors, she began to plan again to leave her husband. Her main concern was maintaining custody of her son. She began collecting important documentation – medical and school records which REACH stored for her.
Around that time, she also made contact with a friend of hers who lived in the Midwest. He encouraged her to leave the situation and come to his state where it would be very difficult for her husband to find her. She knew that by leaving the State of North Carolina, that if her husband found her and brought her to court, she might lose – early on. She had tried to get a protective custody order but had been told by a judge that she did not have enough evidence – but it was a chance she decided to take. In 2004 Mary took her son and moved to the Midwest.
“I lived in North Carolina my whole life. I never thought I would leave,” Mary said. “Everyone that knew me was shocked that I would even consider it. But at the same time, the circumstances required it.”
Unfortunately, her husband found her and took their son back to North Carolina where a judge ruled that he would retain major custody of the child as long as Mary lived out of state. Over the course of the next several months, Mary would fly back and forth for hearings to fight for her son, but she wasn’t willing to return to North Carolina. “It really was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” she said of leaving her son who was seven at the time.
Still, knowing the conditions that were placed on her husband’s custody, she felt confident that the arrangement would only be temporary. She was right. After only four months, she received a phone call from her ex-husband’s girlfriend. The girlfriend said the ex-husband had not quit drinking, contrary to the conditions of his custody which said he could not even have alcohol in the house. In addition, he was supposed to go to AA and take a parenting class, which he had not done.
Mary recalled the conversation: “She said, ‘I am so, so sorry. I lied. I lied in court. I lied to protect him.’”
During that call, the girlfriend said he had been drinking and was in a rage. The girlfriend said she was hiding in the bathroom. Mary told her to hang up the phone immediately and call 9-1-1, which she did. “I told her, don’t do what I did. This was one thing that worked against me in court. I never called the police on him. I was too scared.”
After this final incident, Mary was able to obtain an emergency custody order and take her son home. Today, her son is in high school and living the life of a normal teenager, she says. She said it took time for him to feel safe again and to come out of his shell. When he first moved to the Midwest with her, she says he would hide under his desk at school. An understanding teacher was key in helping the boy feel confident and safe again. “Within a year, he had completely come around. You wouldn’t even know it was the same child,” Mary said.
Mary has since remarried and has a four-year-old daughter. “I really am a success story for REACH,” she said. She says besides just being able to talk to someone about her problems, she also learned important coping strategies by going to REACH. The REACH court advocate helped her go through the legal process and was later able to testify on her behalf, confirming that Mary had been going to REACH for some time to receive counseling for the abusive relationship.
Asked for her advice to other women in abusive relationships, Mary said, “I tell them not to be afraid to get help.” She says this is the huge first step that is so difficult for many people. She encourages women to speak about what they are experiencing, whether with friends or domestic abuse counselors. If they do, they will learn that they are not alone, she says.
Education and prevention
Besides helping victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, REACH’s Rape Prevention/Education Program seeks to stop the violence before it starts. The program, funded by a grant from the Center for Disease Control, targets students from the fifth grade through the ninth grade with the goal of preventing first-time occurrences of domestic violence or sexual assault.
“We are working with students to begin changing cultural norms,” Turner-Lynn said. To this end, the program develops age-appropriate curriculum which students are exposed to through the Healthful Living Curriculum in the health and P.E. departments. The curriculum is implemented in conjunction with state requirements, but with more focus on specific issues.
“It’s going to be different at different levels of maturity,” Turner- Lynn explained. “For example, at the fifth and sixth grade, we talk about bullying issues, respect issues and teasing issues.” In high school, the program begins addressing issues such as sexual harassment, consent and bystander issues, encouraging students to step up or call for help when they witness sexual violence.
With its emphasis on personal responsibility and changing cultural norms that objectify women, the program is somewhat revolutionary, says Turner-Lynn. “For many years, we’ve placed the responsibility on victims to prevent their own perpetration by using risk reduction measures ... But at some point, the only person who can prevent a violent act is the person that’s committing it.”
Turner-Lynn explains that this is why organizations like REACH have begun in recent years to focus so much on education. “Statistically, unless the person gets a significant amount of support in breaking the cycle of his own violence, it’s not going to stop.”
The school system’s cooperation has been key to REACH’s education program, Turner-Lynn notes. “The entire administration with Macon County Schools has really been an important collaborating partner with us in making sure that the needs of their students are met,” she said.
In its mission to educate and provide resources for dealing with domestic abuse and sexual violence, REACH partners with many other agencies and organizations in the community, including Macon County Schools, the Department of Social Services, the Health Department, KIDS Place, and other non-profit and church organizations.
Turner-Lynn stressed that the support of the community – whether through donations or volunteering – is invaluable to REACH’s success. The small staff depends on its volunteers for its services, including at its two stores. “All of the funds – 100 percent of what we make in those stores – goes back to provide client services,” Turner-Lynn emphasized. “Whether you buy something there or you donate, you can feel confident that that money is servicing people in Macon County.”
She adds that while many of the organizations are grant-funded, granting agencies are always very specific about how their funds can be used. “Just because you get a grant, doesn’t mean you can use that money for whatever you want to,” she explained. “We have to have heat in the shelter, and we have to have toiletry items in the shelter, we have to feed the women and children that come to us with nothing. The community helps bridge the gap between what the government and our grant sources will allow us to spend our money on and other things that we need to have.”
In recent years, the organization has seen even more demand for their services, said Andrea Anderson, Victim Services Director and Grant Administrator at REACH, who noted that part of the increase could be due to the strong collaboration in the county between REACH, local law enforcement and the District Attorney’s office. In addition, the Rape Prevention/Education Program has led to more disclosures.
“We have good organizations and good cooperation in this county between the different agencies fighting domestic violence,” Sheriff Holland agreed, adding that having a support system for battered or abused individuals is a valuable resource for law enforcement in the county.
Anderson noted that hearing positive stories like Mary’s, has also helped others come forward. “When victims hear about other victims having positive experiences in the system, they feel more comfortable in reporting their own abuse,” she said.
Court advocate Andy Hall said she hopes more people who are encouraged by stories Mary’s will then seek help. “We are not well-paid, but we believe in what we do,” she said of the staff and volunteers at REACH, “and we are really passionate about it.”
For more information, call the REACH Crisis Hotline at (828)369-5544. Counselors are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and all calls are completely confidential.