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Why leaving an abusive husband is necessary but dangerous

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KELOWNA – She was just 16 when they met and fell in love. He, four years older, was charming and attentive. He was a man who seemed to know what he wanted in life and one year later she was pregnant with their first child.

A dozen years later she found herself face down on her bed with him on top, smothering her. He removed his belt and told her he was going to strangle her with it.

“I’m going to kill you and I’m going to be smiling as you take your last breath,” he said.

She only managed to escape when her cat entered the room.

“He thought it was my dad so he got off of me,” she says. “I remember running up the stairs, I feel like I flew through the door. My dad said he’s never seen me so scared.”

The man cannot be named because of a court order protecting the identity of his wife. He pleaded guilty to assault and uttering threats, while charges of choking to overcome resistance and attempted murder were dropped. This is the fifth instance of an assault against her in the last two years, according to court records.

She continues to live in fear of the man who has since called her 17 times from jail and she hasn’t received much help in court. At the time of the incident, the man was under court order not to contact her, which he ignored, and yet he was allowed to live just a short distance away from her. She figured her best strategy was to remain civil since she couldn't really get away and she wasn’t getting much help from the justice system.

At a downtown pub with friends on her birthday he showed up and she let him drive her home to her parents. They played pool in the basement in the early morning hours until the abuse resumed.

“He was upset because she had gone out and he began to call her names,” Crown lawyer Murray Kaay said at his sentencing hearing. “She goes into the bedroom but he follows her. He talks of killing himself, killing her and says she ruined his life. He ultimately approaches her and takes off his belt.”

In March, Provincial Court Judge Brad Chapman sentenced the man to 18 months in jail, saying it would have been more had it not been for one thing. Some of the blame, he said, rests with her for allowing him to come over while he was under a restraining order.

“If she accepted the protection the system was trying to put in place, presumably none of this would have happened,” Chapman said. “There’s a certain level of mutual responsibility.”

The victim says those words hurt almost as bad as the assaults.

“He was allowed to live on the same street as me,” she says. “There was no distance requirement, there was just a no contact order. That judge said I should have used the system. Well, the system failed me.”

The case highlights a common problem when it comes to domestic abuse cases. Often the lives of the victim and the attacker are so intertwined that it’s almost impossible to make a clean break.

“Being an abused woman you feel like if you say something you’re going to get hurt worse so you keep quiet and hope it gets better,” she says. “Who wants to call the cops on their husband? He’s a 300-pound man. I’ve never been so scared in my life. The cops have been amazing but that judge let me down. I don’t want to deter anyone from getting help because the help is there.”

Central Okanagan Elizabeth Fry Society executive director Michelle Novakowski says women often instinctively know how dangerous leaving an abusive partner is and opt instead to try to avoid making things worse.

“Things often get worse after leaving, which is why some women return or don’t leave,” she says. “It’s safer to know where he is and what his moods are than to have someone out there stalking you and not knowing what they are feeling. It can feel safer. There is also loyalty and love and hope. It’s such a complicated dynamic.”

In 2013, there were 12,359 police-reported victims of domestic violence in the province, according to the Ministry of Children and Family Development. Research suggests this may represent less than 25 per cent of the total number, as the majority of these crimes often go unreported.

According to Statistics Canada, Kelowna leads B.C. and is in the top ten Canadian cities for reports of domestic abuse. Vernon, Penticton and Kamloops weren't included based on the size of the communities but stories of abuse are shockingly common.

Novakowski says most domestic murders generally occur within the first three to six months of the victim leaving.

“Leaving always ups the ante for someone whose issues are power and control,” Novakowski says.

The woman in our story says she knows exactly what that feels like.

“We’re already afraid of these men,” she says. “Every single time he’s been out of jail he’s ignored (the no contact orders) and the cops couldn’t get to me fast enough so it’s better to just go along with it.”

Novakowski likens it to “walking on eggshells.”

“When you’re in that traumatized state and you have that hope, it’s hard to disbelieve this person who has power over you and could kill you if he wanted to,” she says. “It’s common to feel it’s safer to let them in and play nice.”

Novakowski says abusive partners employ a variety of strategies to control their victims, including threats and manipulations.

“He may be at the door saying he’s so sorry and he loves you and that he just wants to see the kids. And the kids may even be in the back room saying ‘it’s daddy, it’s daddy’. Part of you even starts to believe it’s your fault.”

The woman in our story says her husband used the same tactics.

“He’d say he blacked out and be giving me ice while he’s wiping blood off my face,” she says. “He’s comforting me and it’s like, 'what’s happening?'”

Novakowski and the victim both feel Judge Chapman’s statement that she should have done more to protect herself are inappropriate and demonstrate a lack of understanding of how difficult it is to escape someone who has so much control over them.

“It’s victim-blaming,” Novakowski says. “A lot of women don’t (come forward) because they feel shame and feel like it’s their fault but it’s never their fault. There is nothing anyone can do to deserve being abused. No one deserves that.”

Now that the abuser is behind bars, his wife feels at peace for the first time in years, although she knows there’s an expiration date.

“Right now I feel good,” she says. “I have nothing to fear. The only person I fear is in jail. I don’t know what will happen when he gets out but he’s breached every time before so I don’t know. But I do know that if I’m down, my kids are down. I could feel sorry for myself or I can get on with it and hope for the best.”

She has some advice for anyone living in an abusive relationship.

“For 13 years I kept giving it another chance,” she says. “But they will never, ever stop. Even if they say they’re sorry and won’t do it again, they’re going to do it again. Use the resources that are out there. If you don’t it’s going to get worse.”

The Elizabeth Fry Society is a non-profit organization that helps abused women. They are not obligated to contact police and encourage anyone dealing with abuse to call, drop by or visit their website.

To contact the reporter for this story, email Adam Proskiw at aproskiw@infonews.ca or call 250-718-0428. To contact the editor, email mjones@infonews.ca or call 250-718-2724.

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