Donovan Christian, 10 years old, sat quietly in the church stairwell praying that one of the grownups stepping past him to climb the stairs would suddenly stop, look down at him huddled in his misery, and ask: “What’s wrong, son?”
Then he could answer.
Then he could say that once or twice a week he and his sister woke to the sound of their mother’s screams and the sickening thud that sounded when his stepfather threw her against the wall. He never knew what to do, so he just huddled under his covers.
And if someone would only ask the question that terrified, guilt-stricken 10-year-old boy could talk about how he had found his stepfather’s hunting knife and hidden it. In his fantasy, his stepfather would one day soon hit his mother and Donovan would just grab that knife and defend her.
“I remember sitting on that stairwell,” the pastor of the Expedition Church in Payson said during the annual meeting of the Time Out Domestic Violence Shelter on Tuesday, “wanting someone to ask me a question that would let me tell them what was going on in my life — a teacher, a neighbor, a Sunday school teacher — just wishing they’d say, ‘Is everything OK?’”
But no one asked.
So it went on and on and Donovan said nothing.
Fortunately, some things change. Donovan is no longer silent.
So as his wife and two, cheerful children listened, Donovan spoke to the 30 community leaders and advocates, who understood his story all too well.
Christian was the keynote speaker for the Payson shelter’s annual meeting, where advocates reported on their efforts to provide a vital service for beaten and battered women and children while facing the inexorable loss of state and federal funding in the face of the recession.
In 2008, some 126 women and children died as a result of domestic violence in Arizona, reported Time Out board member Gene Sampson. In Payson, police reported 117 arrests for domestic violence between January and September of 2008.
Time Out marshals volunteers, donations and grants to offer shelter to women and children fleeing abusive relations, plus counseling, medical, police services and community education.
The advocates offered sometimes startling numbers documenting the need, including:
• The shelter’s hotline fielded 1,736 calls last year.
• The organization provided long-term shelter to 163 women and children, with stays limited to 120 days.
• Time Out also arranged transitional, long-term housing for 23 women and children.
• The shelter provided a total of 11,111 nights of refuge.
• Counselors and advocates helped police conduct 39 interviews at the Gila Family Advocacy Center.
• The organization offered counseling and support to an additional 264 people, 15 of them men and 12 of them children.
• The group provided nearly 3,000 hours of group and community education.
• A total of 70 volunteers donated 16,000 hours — a value to the community of about $323,000.
“We help break the cycle of abuse,” said Executive Director Gerry Bailey. “But that takes a coordinated, community response.”
The shelter started on a shoestring in 1993, struggling to survive. The group established a thrift shop in 1998, which has since become a financial mainstay.
In 2000, they added transitional housing and in 2007, helped establish the Gila Family Advocacy Center, where victims of sexual and domestic violence can talk to police, get medical tests, provide evidence and testimony and connect to counseling and social services in a supportive, family-like setting.
The shelter exists to help mostly women and children make the dangerous and traumatic escape from a violent or abusive relationship. Although many people not familiar with the dynamics of family violence criticize women for staying, the odds a woman or her children will be killed nearly double when they try to leave, said Bailey.
The shelter’s budget stands at about $927,000 annually, with about 10 percent coming from the continued operation of the thrift shop — which remains in critical need of donations.
Shelter administrators say they’ve already lost crucial grant support due to the economic downturn and fear fresh cuts in the upcoming budget year.
The shelter’s volunteers and staff work hard to protect the women and children who seek refuge there, both by maintaining a secure environment and by helping their clients get the emotional support and social services needed to start a new life. Typically, the men in abusive relationships control every aspect of the lives of their partners and often use both money and the children to maintain that control.
Studies suggest that about one in five girls in high school have already suffered physical or sexual violence or abuse. Often, that sets them up for abusive relationships, which become terribly difficult to escape, said Bailey.
“First and foremost, women must feel safe in order to even think about moving forward,” said Bailey.
In January alone, the shelter provided 401 “bed nights” to 14 women and 10 children — which actually represented a heartening decrease from last January’s tally of 26 women and 20 children. The shelter also provided transitional housing to four women and seven children.
The annual event held Tuesday in the offices of the Central Arizona Board of Realtors focused mostly on the impact of domestic violence on the children, who often stand as helpless witnesses.
Bailey recalled sitting in her office one night, eavesdropping as a group of bored kids tried to figure out how to amuse themselves.
“Let’s play ‘dad kills mom,’” said Timmy.
So the kids decided that the dad should use a knife.
“I’m sitting there looking at my coworker,” recalled Bailey, “saying ‘there has to be an intervention here.’”
So she went to talk to the kids. “This game sounds really scary to me,” she said to the attentive children. “Could we play something else?”
“We could play church,” suggested Timmy helpfully.
Donovan Christian’s harrowing personal account of growing up in an abusive home further underscored the impact on children of family violence.
One of his earliest memories was the breakup of his parents marriage and the struggle about who would have the children. His mother ended up in Phoenix with the two children, staying with relatives until she met another man. After a brief romance, they married and moved again.
“It didn’t take long to figure out he wasn’t a nice guy,” said Christian. The next eight years proved “a living hell,” with constant fights, obsessive control and frightening incidents. One night he watched in horror and disbelief as his stepfather choked his step-grandmother.
The family fell into a pattern common in abusive families, when the abuser maintains tight financial control and everyone keeps the family’s secrets. Christian attended 13 different schools and they always seemed to move before he could establish connections with people who might have figured out what was going on.
“At a certain point, you don’t know what normal is supposed to be. Later I thought, why didn’t I say anything? Why didn’t I tell anyone? But I think I didn’t know any different,” said Christian.
Besides, the one night his sister did call the police in the midst of a terrible fight, the police did nothing. After they left, the stepfather turned to the children and said, “Who told?”
After that, Christian lost hope of rescue.
So as soon as he could, he left his mother’s home to live with his natural father.
But soon after he moved out, his grandparents called to say that his stepfather had finally beat his mother badly enough that she left him and took refuge in a hotel.
The family moved back in with the aunt and uncle in Phoenix.
Now, he has resolved to break the cycle. So has his sister.
They both have loving, respectful relationships with their partners.
“This is probably the most my kids have ever heard about this, but they’re not really listening” he said, as his young boys puttered about in the back of the room, whispering and sneaking back to the kitchen for extra brownies.
“We have tried to shelter them from this history — but this is the carnage of the past that isn’t in the official history books.”
One shelter volunteer said her daughter is in an abusive relationship, which she clings to. “No way is she ready to realize how damaging this is — she just wants to fix him.”
Then she asked what Christian’s grandparents did to rescue their daughter and her children.
Christian stared at the woman, pain and uncertainty passing over his face like cloud shadows.
“I have no idea,” he said after a long pause. “I really have no idea.”
But he remembers the time he spent with his grandparents as precious, the root of hope. They loved one another. They expressed affection openly. He held tight to that, memorizing what love looked like. Then he manifested that love in his life, in his marriage, for his children.
“I appreciated these moments” with his grandparents, “the calm in the storm.”
So he treasures his wife. He has raised his children. He entered into the ministry.
And he broke the cycle.
Even the cycle of silence.