Editor’s note: The names of the victims have been changed to protect their identities.
When Mary came to Safe Alternative to Violent Environments (SAVE) last November, she showed up in pajamas with all of her teeth knocked out.
The 40-year-old had been in an abusive relationship for 15 years where trips to the emergency room were routine, she said.
“There was a lot of manipulation, physical and verbal abuse, making me feel like I wasn’t worth anything,” said Mary, who has a scar above her right eye where she was struck with a fire extinguisher.
When she couldn’t bear it any longer, Mary came to SAVE, a nonprofit that provides a variety of services to domestic violence victims, including a shelter and prevention, intervention and support services.
Though based in Fremont in Southern Alameda County, the organization serves teens and adults from anywhere in the country. SAVE serves 350 women and children annually at their shelter and thousands more through their transitional housing program, crisis hotline, workshops and counseling, staff said.
Through SAVE, Mary was able to become self-sufficient she said.
“SAVE saved my life. They’re my dream team,” Mary said, while speaking at an outreach event in Union City last week. “I came with pajamas on and left with three bins of clothes and piece of mind and the hope that I can do better.”
Mary received food and clothing, along with job training and computer literacy skills at SAVE. Through SAVE’s network, she was able to get teeth implants, she said, showing off her new smile. She also enrolled in a 12-step program to work on her alcohol abuse.
Within a month, Mary landed a marketing job and will begin a phlebotomy training course at a Bay Area hospital this week. She hopes to become a registered nurse.
“They helped me get my self-esteem up,” she said. “I know that I’m worth. I know what love is now.”
But not all women end up with stories like Mary's, said Rodney Clark, executive director of SAVE.
One in three women will be affected by domestic violence, and one in five teens, Clark said.
“It’s people that you know, they just don’t talk about it,” Clark said.
According to Clark, law enforcement agencies in Alameda County receive between 8,000 and 10,000 domestic violence calls annually, but only one in 10 cases are actually reported.
“So those 10,000 calls should be 100,000,” Clark said.
There are many reasons why such abuse goes unreported. People often don’t realize they are victims or are afraid to seek help due to isolation, fear they won’t be able to be self-sufficient or because they don’t want to break up the family, among other pressures, Clark said.
Not recognizing abuse is especially a problem for younger victims, said Sherri Plaza, manager of prevention services.
She said much of teen abuse revolves around control issues, such as constant text messaging or, worse, forcing partners to send nude or sexually explicit photos.
Not only is “sexting” considered child pornography, it’s a form of abuse, said Plaza, who works with ninth-graders to define the differences between healthy and unhealthy relationships.
“You’re losing control of your own body,” she said.
Even when abuse is reported, victims end up getting back together with their partners.
“When you fall in love, you fall in love because you feel good,” Clark said. “And that’s true of domestic violence victims. They’re looking for someone to make them feel good, feel safe.”
“Because you have that attachment, you want to forgive that person,” he added.
On average, it takes seven attempts for a victim to leave an abusive relationship, said Kate Hart, director of residential services for SAVE.
For Linda, it only took two attempts. It just took a long time — marriage and five children later — before she realized she was a victim.
Linda had no idea she was in an abusive relationship. Her husband’s constant verbal attacks and extremely controlling behavior paled in comparison to the physical abuse her mother experienced at the hands of her father.
Her husband was different, Linda thought. He was a charming and successful man, she said.
“He wined me, dined me and swept me off of my feet,” she said. “I fell head over heels and got pregnant.”
The two went on to get married, have more children and live in a large house.
“Materially, it looked like I lived the life,” she said.
But things soon started to change.
“It began with control,” she said.
Linda wasn’t allowed to visit her friends and family, she said. Her husband timed her when she went to the grocery store or ran errands and would get angry if she didn’t return quickly.
“All of a sudden I’m a slave, I’m a prisoner in my own home,” she said. “I felt paralyzed.”
She called SAVE when she was pregnant with her fourth child but said she didn’t have the strength to leave. She didn’t have a college education and was estranged from her immediate family, which her then-husband used against her.
“Where are you going to go? Where you going to get a job? What kind of life are our kids going to have?” he would ask.
“I started to believe it,” she said.
He wasn’t physically abusive at the time, she said. “I thought he was okay, a good father,” she said.
Then she caught him cheating on her, she said. That’s when she took her children and left. She landed a job as a case manager for a women’s shelter. While taking a training class about domestic violence, it finally sunk in: she, too, was a victim.
“I wanted to run out and cry. I said, ‘Oh my god. This is my life,’ ” she said.
But still doubting her decision to leave, she moved back in with her husband.
“Things got worse,” she said.
She tried to set her own boundaries and stood up to her husband. And then it got physical.
One night, he placed his 6-foot-4, 350-pound frame atop her and tried to suffocate her, she said. She managed to free herself, hit him and escape.
“I was ready because I became aware of the services that were provided at shelters,” she said.
Like Mary, she became empowered through SAVE.
“It’s like the ER. They’re resuscitating you back to life,” she said.
Linda’s currently in transitional housing and has a successful career in Alameda County.
But she doesn’t pretend that leaving is easy. She still has a legal battle ahead of her with the divorce and still struggles to get by and support her children.
“It’s hard. Every single day I second guess myself,” she said. “But I believe with the help of God and SAVE, I can keep taking steps forward.”
If you need help, call the 24-Hour Crisis Hotline: (510) 794-6055. To reach SAVE's Community Office, call (510) 574-2250. The next domestic violence counselor training is March 2.