If you or someone you know is suffering any form of abuse constituting domestic violence or sexual assault, the Partnership for Children and Families operates a crisis hotline that can be reached by calling 423-755-2700. The hotline is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
While year-end crime numbers for 2017 carried positive news about decreasing gang shootings, they also showed a persistent portion of Chattanooga's homicides continue to stem from domestic violence.
Police believe that five of the 34 killings seen in the city last year resulted from domestic violence. While that constitutes only 15 percent of the total, such situations come with their own sets of challenges for authorities looking to interrupt violent cycles before they become fatal.
Even when victims haven't been explicitly threatened by their abusers, if they ever try to reach out for help, they can and often will be stopped from contacting authorities by other circumstances. Ruben Muriente, outreach coordinator at the Family Justice Center, said reporting abuse can have huge ramifications for the victim.
"[The victim] might be reluctant to report for two reasons: one, obviously, retribution from the abuser, and second, if the abuser is a breadwinner, what is she going to do if she leaves that scenario with no income? If she does that, she would be at the mercy of family or any services around that help her find affordable housing or something like that," he said.
It's impossible to say exactly how many domestic violence incidents occur every year because of the many factors preventing victims from coming forward, but according to statistics from the federal Bureau of Justice, from 2006-2015, only about 56 percent of the estimated 1.3 million nonfatal domestic violence incidents annually in the U.S. were reported to police. Offenders were charged or arrested in about 40 percent of reported incidents.
Some of the signs of an abusive relationship include a partner who:
› Tells you that you can never do anything right
› Shows extreme jealousy of your friends and time spent away
› Keeps you or discourages you from seeing friends or family members
› Insults, demeans or shames you with put-downs
› Controls every penny spent in the household
› Takes your money or refuses to give you money for necessary expenses
› Looks at you or acts in ways that scare you
› Controls who you see, where you go, or what you do
› Prevents you from making your own decisions
› Tells you that you are a bad parent or threatens to harm or take away your children
› Prevents you from working or attending school
› Destroys your property or threatens to hurt or kill your pets
› Intimidates you with guns, knives or other weapons
› Pressures you to have sex when you don’t want to or do things sexually you’re not comfortable with
› Pressures you to use drugs or alcohol
Source: The National Domestic Violence Hotline
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said it's essential to drive up reporting numbers in order to combat domestic violence, and he pointed to the construction of a new $3.7 million headquarters for the Family Justice Center on Eastgate Loop in 2015 as a massive investment in that effort. The 32,000-square-foot center now supports individuals and families in a variety of troubled situations, including victims of domestic or sexual assault, by educating them about and connecting them with available services.
"We've worked really hard to increase reporting and [former police Chief Fred] Fletcher said over and over again that we actually want to see the number of incidents reported go up, because we know there are more incidents out there than are being turned over to the police," he said.
"Nobody wants the number of incidents to go up, but we do want the percentage of incidents reported to go up. The city has done a lot to try to make that happen."
Muriente said solutions can seem obvious to people who aren't being victimized themselves, but cycles of violence involving close family members or intimate partners can be nearly impossible to escape.
"A lot of people say, 'Well, why don't you just leave?' But it's not that simple," he said. "We've had many victims take years before they get to a point where they are able to leave that scenario. We need to be cognizant of that, and if we really want to make a change, then we as a community need to understand the complexity of the scenario."
One survivor of domestic abuse, Michelle Perez, said she stayed with her abusive husband for a variety of reasons, none of them simple.
"I was married for 18 years and I chose to stay at first because I felt like it was my responsibility to help my husband," she said. "I felt like I had made a vow and I needed to do everything in my power to honor that and get him help, even if it was at my expense. Then, after we had children, I stayed because of threats that he would keep my children and never let me see them.
"There were also threats that he would ruin me financially. During my marriage, I did not have access to money, even though I was working. I felt like there was no way I could leave without putting myself and my children in even more danger than I was already in."
Perez has met several other women who have shared their own stories of abuse with her since she came forward and she's found that many of them echo her own experiences.
"When the abuse started, these women did not view themselves as [victims]. They viewed themselves as strong women who were trying to help," she said. "But then there are years of conditioning and control that change your mindset and make you question so much about yourself, your safety, and your children's safety."
In addition to seeing the intricacies of individual situations of domestic violence fully, Muriente said community members can help victims by being on the lookout for signs of abuse. He's participated in a number of educational sessions around Chattanooga to raise awareness and equip residents to identify problematic situations, both for themselves and others.
"We identify abusive and controlling behaviors as well as unhealthy relationships so people can do a health assessment and decide, 'Am I in a healthy relationship or not?'" he said.
The Family Justice Center serves residents of Hamilton County and Chattanooga. The following are services it provides:
› Assistance in creating a personal safety plan
› Help finding a safe place for you, your children, and pets
› Education and awareness regarding domestic violence, elder abuse, and human trafficking
› Referrals to services available in Chattanooga
› Civil Legal services and help with obtaining Orders of Protection
› Personal support in court appointments
› Emotional support
› Free individual and family counseling
› Online: connect.chattanooga.gov/fjc/
"We try to hold these conferences in such a way that if in the audience there's a person who knows someone and says, 'I think this person might be an abuser,' then we tell them to have a conversation where that victim is in a safe place where the abuser is nowhere to be found," he said. "We also let people know, don't confront the abuser and say, 'I think you're an abuser.' Talk to the victim in the safest manner possible."
Perez is also adamant that education and awareness are some of the best tools available to drive up reporting.
"The best way to ensure that incidences are reported, either by the victim or someone else who is aware of the abuse, is to educate the community on the resources available. If I had known about all of the resources available to me, I would have left much sooner. Many of the women I have spoken with were not aware of the resources available to victims of domestic violence," she said.
"Domestic violence victims come from all walks of life. I had a beautiful home in a great neighborhood, my children were in a private school, I drove a new car, and I had a great job. I never shared anything about the abuse with anyone until I decided to leave. To the outside world it looked like I had an angry, selfish, controlling husband, but no one ever knew what else went on behind closed doors. If you're experiencing domestic violence, there are resources to keep you and your children safe."
Given that they are usually some of the first people to know about and respond to incidents of violence that have bubbled up from domestic situations, police officers are often in an excellent position to identify potential abuse.
Chattanooga Police Chief David Roddy said officers now work with victims to fill out "lethality assessments," questionnaires designed to provide an accurate picture of the victim's domestic situation.
"It not only helps us identify suspects who have an increased propensity for inflicting harm on their partners, but it also helps the victim realize the situation they're in. It's raising that victim's awareness of where they are and also getting them in contact with their victim support coordinators," he said.
"We want to get them on an off-ramp and get them out of the cycle of violence that they have found themselves in," he said.
But sometimes personal relationships can complicate finding a solution. Law enforcement officers' hands are tied when victims are unwilling to press charges against their abusers for any number of reasons.
Roddy said most police officers have stories about the difficulties they've had in responding to explosive incidents in which emotions are running hot.
"I responded to a domestic violence call about a mother and son in which the son had assaulted the mother. While I was trying to take him into custody, she became upset and tried to hit me in the back of the head with an iron. I thought I was helping her," he said.
Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.