|Gwendolyn Turner, who works at the Family Safety Center|
of Memphis and Shelby County, assists a client with an Order
of Protection. (Photo: Wiley Henry)
Sunday, September 14, 2014
Battling domestic violence
The news of Sept. 2nd hit Gwendolyn Turner like a ton of bricks. Tasha Thomas, a woman she knew, had been shot and killed outside the University of Little Scholars daycare in Whitehaven. Thomas’ estranged husband had instigated the deadly encounter on the parking lot where Thomas worked.
“I was breathless and speechless to learn that another woman had become a victim of domestic violence,” said Turner, who’d suffered verbal, emotional, mental, sexual and physical abuse off and on for nearly 20 years.
While friends, relatives and the Memphis community were mourning Thomas at her funeral on Monday (Sept. 8), another woman was shot. This time the triggerman was a former boyfriend who reportedly had stalked and accosted her on several occasions.
Torhonda Cathey, 33, was shot multiple times in a Target parking lot in East Memphis. She was taken to Regional One Health, where she later died. Ronald Ellis, a Memphis firefighter, fled the scene. He is wanted for first-degree murder.
The violence directed at Thomas and Cathey is deeply troubling and all too common, Turner said. It is a reflection of a persistent scourge that gained national attention after a video surfaced recently showing former Baltimore Ravens running back Raymell Mourice “Ray” Rice knocking out his then-fiancée, and now wife, in an elevator in February.
Turner escaped her nearly 20-year ordeal, but other women aren’t as fortunate. She was appalled by the video. So was Vernetta Eddleman, director of Client Services at the Family Safety Center of Memphis and Shelby County.
“It’s fortunate that it was caught on tape,” said Eddleman. “For so many women, you don’t see the premeditation of domestic violence. We saw what went on. Unfortunately, there isn’t a tape for women who experience this every day.”
Just like Eddleman, Turner, also an employee at the Family Safety Center, is working to end domestic violence. “My life’s misery has become my life’s mission and ministry,” said Turner, who speaks out against domestic violence as the center’s unofficial ambassador.
The Family Safety Center often is the first point of contact for domestic violence victims and hurting families. It is a conglomerate of civil, criminal, health and social services that are available to help the victims and reduce incidents of domestic violence.
“The Memphis Police Department, the sheriff’s department and the district attorney are right there to help,” said Turner, noting that 30 partner agencies are available within the center, including legal services. And all services are free.
‘Order of Protection won’t stop a bullet’
An Order of Protection is a legal tool designed to keep the abuser at bay. Tasha Thomas had filed three trying to end the abuse that Charles Thomas was accused of meting out. But the orders didn’t stop him from gunning her down.
Two days earlier, Tasha Thomas was in the Raleigh community attending services at Golden Gate Cathedral, where Billy Rivers and the Angelic Voices of Faith (BRAVOF) were celebrating their 35th reunion concert. Turner, BRAVOF’s co-founder, announced that evening that the group had a new foundation to combat domestic violence.
An Order of Protection hinges on whether victims such as Thomas can prove to the judicial commissioner that abuse has indeed taken place. And while Thomas’ case met that standard, it is unclear whether Cathey had filed an Order of Protection against Ellis. Records do show that she’d reported several incidents of stalking to MPD and that her ex-boyfriend tried to run her off the road several times.
In all cases where a permanent Order of Protection is granted, the alleged abuser is ordered not to have contact with the victim for one year. Also, after signing an affidavit, he or she is not allowed to own, possess, or carry a firearm.
Charles Thomas was in possession of a firearm. He took his wife’s life and turned the gun on himself, leaving a community on edge wondering how he was able to get to Tasha.
So questions abound: Is the Order of Protection worth the paper it’s written on? And can domestic violence really be stopped?
According to the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference in Nashville, the victim of domestic violence is not safe just because an Order of Protection is granted. After one is filed, the victim – in most cases – may still need a safe place to stay.
“It’s good in all 50 states and it’s in the national database,” Eddleman added. “The abuser can be arrested, but the Order of Protection won’t stop a bullet.”
Between 2,400 and 2,500 Orders of Protection were issued in Memphis and Shelby County last year. The laws, however, aren’t stringent enough to keep the domestic abuser in jail after he or she is arrested, Eddleman said.
“For simple assault domestic violence is 11 months and 29 days. Abusers spend 30 percent of that time and most of them get diversion, or probation, and don’t go to jail at all. They need to strengthen the laws.”
‘A lot of work to do in the community’
Between two million and four million women are battered each year in the United States. There are two thousand deaths each year as a result of domestic violence. And at least 25 percent of battered women commit suicide.
Although the Memphis Shelby County Crime Commission’s Operation “Safe Community” crime statistics showed a decrease in domestic violence crimes between January and July, the statistics are still alarming and shouldn’t be overlooked.
The following are additional facts for domestic violence in the state of Tennessee between 2011-2013, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation:
• There were 247,069 incidents of domestic violence offenses as reported by all law enforcement agencies in the state.
• Of that number, females (71.9 percent) were three times more likely to be victimized than males (28.1 percent).
• 99.2 percent of domestic violence victims were either white (57.6 percent) or African-American (41.6 percent).
• By race and sex: Black females (31 percent), white females (41 percent), black males (11 percent) and white males (17 percent).
• From 2011 to 2013, victims were six times more likely to be abused by a spouse than an ex-spouse in domestic offenses.
• Domestic violence resulted in 288 murder/non-negligent homicides during this three-year period.
So can domestic violence be stopped altogether?
“We may not be able to eliminate it, but we can reduce it significantly. We just have a lot of work to do in the community,” said Eddleman, adding that the Family Safety Center enacts a safety plan for victims seeking a way out.
Domestic violence is a pattern of controlling behavior that is often physical, sexual or psychological and committed by an intimate partner against another. So why don’t victims just leave?
“If they leave, they go back because it’s about a relationship,” Eddleman explains. “They have children together and want the children to have a relationship with the father (who’s the abuser in most cases).
“A lot of women stay because they want to stay safe. You’re less likely to die if you stay. The issue is you’re still alive. Most women are killed because they leave. We’ve had two people back to back to get killed.”
(For more information about the Family Safety Center of Memphis and Shelby County or any of its partner organizations, call 901-222-4400)