Helping the hurt

“Why doesn’t she just leave?”

That often-innocent question, says Helpmate Inc. Executive Director Sharon Robbins, lies at the heart of the most common misconception about victims of domestic violence — that escaping an abuser is as easy as simply walking away.

Helpmate, an Asheville-based nonprofit, gives those victims emergency shelter and also runs a 24-hour crisis line, support groups, a court-advocacy program, community and abuser education, children’s outreach, and a variety of other services — all designed, as their mission statement puts it, to “promote an environment in which women and men in Buncombe County identify and exercise their power to eliminate physical, mental and emotional violence in personal relationships.”

And on Thursday, March 25, Tressa’s Downtown Jazz and Blues (28 Broadway) will hold a benefit — co-sponsored by Mountain Xpress — to ensure that Helpmate can continue offering those services, and maybe even expand them.

The goal, says Tressa Thornton — co-owner (with Terri Abernathy) of Tressa’s — “is to raise $10,000 for Helpmate [so that they can] provide even more resources for victims of domestic violence, particularly women.” Donations, notes Thornton, are already coming in — a clear sign of how deeply people feel about domestic abuse. “It’s an issue that touches so many people’s lives,” she observes, adding, “Domestic violence crosses all socioeconomic boundaries — all boundaries of every kind — and I’m finding, from just putting the flyers on the bar, that people are coming up to me and saying, you know, ‘My mother was beaten her whole life,’ and that sort of thing.

Robbins, too, confirms that — although the most common scenario involves a male abuser — battering runs “across the board, in every conceivable shape and form: spouses, partners, heterosexual, homosexual … lesbians batter, too.”

And Thornton stresses that Tressa’s is deeply committed to fighting domestic violence. “We just want to put the issue in people’s faces and have a big blowout,” she continues, adding that the club intends to hold a domestic-violence benefit every year, “as long as we exist,” on March 25 — the birthday of her late friend Bobbi Hardwick.

The benefit will kick off with an invitation-only champagne prelude at 4 p.m., lavishly catered by 23 Page Restaurant and fueled by the soulful sounds of Ruby Mayfield, Joe DiFeo and Kat Williams. At 8 p.m., the doors will open to the public, with classic jazz provided by Difaio and Williams. At 10 p.m., the super-funky Information Network will take the stage, fueling a dancing frenzy designed to keep patrons moving till the doors close at 2 a.m. Donations — all going directly to Helpmate — will be accepted throughout the evening, and the group will have an information booth set up in the club.

“Working on this benefit, and reading domestic-violence statistics, I realize why it’s often hard for people to deal with this issue,” reveals Thornton: “It’s so ugly. Plus, victims don’t often admit they’re being battered, and certainly, the batterers don’t admit [to doing it]. It’s so shameful to the victims, because [outsiders] can look at the situation and say, ‘Hey, you’re there by choice.”

But why don’t domestic-abuse victims “just leave”?

Robbins points to the tangle of complications most battered women must confront when faced with leaving an abusive situation: “As women, many of us grow up with what I call the Beauty and the Beast syndrome. … We’re … taught that — if you’re a good wife or partner, and you do everything you’re supposed to do — you can take that beast and turn him into a prince. And it just doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t work that way, at all.”

Even as we approach the millennium, notes Robbins, women still face heavy societal pressures to hold families together: “We put a lot of [emphasis] on families staying together — for the sake of the children, [or to avoid] putting daddy in jail. … Plus, there’s a lot of religious pressure to keep families together, at any cost.” And many people, she believes, underestimate how traumatic it can be to walk away from one’s whole life. “I don’t think a lot of people realize how devastatingly difficult it is to just take your children and start a new life, with absolutely no financial help. It is the most difficult decision, I think, that anyone can make.”

Helpmate, says Robbins, does not exist to “tell women to leave their husbands,” but, instead, tries to work with whatever decisions domestic-violence victims make. “We work with them on safety plans, so they can simply stay alive — things as simple as hiding car keys outside, or … teaching their children to leave the house, go to the neighbors, call 911, and not come back until the police come.”

Grim statistics show that women who do leave abusive relationships are more likely to be murdered by the batterer. “A woman has a 75 percent greater chance [of] being killed after she leaves,” reveals Robbins. “When [abusers] say, ‘I’ll kill you if you leave me,’ they usually mean it.”

That’s a pretty compelling argument for the importance of Helpmate’s work. During the past year, however, the organization was forced to turn away more women and children than it actually sheltered, due to simple lack of space (Helpmate sheltered 93 women and 55 children, but had to deny shelter to 134 women and 120 children) That space crunch, says Robbins, is the single biggest challenge Helpmate faces.

For her part, Thornton hopes that funds collected at the benefit will help the group expand its shelter, as well as create what she calls a “judicial watch” for women trapped in an often-ineffective court system (Helpmate currently employs two court advocates, who require extensive training to deal with what Robbins calls the “extremely tricky, complicated” nature of domestic-abuse hearings). Loopholes in the law, she says, allow for such unbelievable scenarios as this one, which Helpmate dealt with recently: “We had a client who came in here on a Monday. She had been in jail all weekend, because after beating her on Friday, her spouse had her arrested — he said that she had attacked him!

“She spent the weekend in a jail cell. And once she came in and the counselor saw her, we immediately sent her to the emergency room, because she was purple from under her arm down to her waist. He had beaten her so badly he had broken several ribs, and she was too embarrassed to say anything, so she spent the weekend in a jail cell. She was considered the perpetrator, simply because he got to a magistrate’s office and filed charges before she could.” This type of situation is not uncommon, Robbins reports.

And, far from decreasing or even leveling off, the incidence of domestic violence in Asheville continues to rise. According to statistics provided by Helpmate, that holds true for the rest of America, too. Worse yet, the sheer level of physical brutality in those incidents has actually increased: “One of my counselors has been with Helpmate for eight years, and she told me recently she has never seen such horribly, horribly physically battered women as she does right now,” relates Robbins, who blames pervasive violence in our culture: “I simply think people have become desensitized to violence, because there’s so much of it in the movies, on television and … everywhere you look.”

Robbins also believes that, until domestic abuse is considered a social problem — instead of a family or a private problem — the violence will continue to escalate because, as she puts it, “if it’s condoned merely by looking the other way, you’re still condoning it. And that gives the batterer license to become increasingly violent.”

When Robbins began counseling domestic-violence victims in Pennsylvania, more than 20 years ago, she says she and her co-workers were naively convinced “that, within five years, we’d all be looking for another job — because we could end the problem.”

As for Thornton, she simply hopes the Helpmate benefit can help plant small seeds of change. “Even if [the benefit] helps just one person get away from her abuser, that’s very, very important,” she declares.

The brutal numbers

Here are just a few of the gloomy domestic-violence statistics compiled by Helpmate, from such sources as the American Medical Association and the U.S. Department of Justice:

• Every nine seconds, a woman is physically abused in this country.

• 73 percent of the battered women seeking emergency medical assistance sustained their injuries after leaving the batterer.

• Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women ages 15 to 44 — more common than automobile accidents, muggings and rape combined.

• Women are 10 times more likely than men to be the victims of violent crime in intimate relationships.

• An estimated 52 percent of all female homicide victims are killed by their partners.

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