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Candle Light Vigil

Good evening everyone and thank you for joining us to honor all of the victims we have lost to domestic violence nationwide and here in Georgia. My name is Natalie Johnson and I am an associate professor of criminal justice at Dalton State College. I teach a variety of courses, but the ones I am most passionate about are family violence, victimology, and sex trafficking. I am also a former board member and former board president for the Board of Directors for the NWGAFCC, but continue to volunteer and advocate for the Crisis Center.

I would like to thank the Crisis Center for sponsoring this event. I would also like to thank any first responders and law enforcement here who face domestic violence crises regularly on duty. Your service and sacrifice are appreciated beyond words. I also thank all victim advocates, attorneys, judges, nurses, doctors, and medical personnel who work tirelessly to protect domestic violence victims. I praise you for all the work you do to raise and promote awareness around domestic violence. Finally, I would like to acknowledge any domestic violence survivors that are here with us tonight. Please know that we are here to support you.

I am privileged to be here with you tonight to remember and honor those who have lost their lives to domestic violence. I want to thank you all for being here tonight. This is not an easy event to attend, especially as we consider the names behind the numbers. Behind each name is a person who had a family and had friends and has been taken from us too soon. From 2003 to 2020, approximately 2,500 Georgia citizens have lost their lives due to domestic violence. 136 occurred alone in 2020 and due to the many crises in 2020, that number is believed to be an underestimate. To put that 2,500 into perspective, that is approximately 55% of the Dalton State student population. If I were to read you that list of names, it would take almost an hour to read them all. I’d also like to take the time to say that a study of intimate partner homicides in Georgia found that 20% of victims were not the intimate partners themselves, but family members, friends, neighbors, persons who intervened, law enforcement responders, or bystanders. We often forget that domestic violence affects us all, not just the direct domestic violence victims. (National Coalition Against Domestic Violence) Source: https://ncadv.org/STATISTICS  

Georgia was recently ranked 10th in the nation for its rate of men killing women (with 1 being the worst).  This is a horrible drop from being ranked 22nd in 2018.  We were ranked 8th in the nation in 2015 and 17th in 2017.  We must do better. We can do better. We are here tonight to honor all lives lost to domestic violence. Thank you again for being here to honor them. I’d like us to all take a moment to stand in silence as we remember those lost to domestic violence.

I think one of the best ways we can honor those lives lost tonight is by educating the public on the basic dynamics of domestic violence. I am an avid educator, so it is only fitting for me to have the privilege of teaching you a few things tonight.

Domestic Violence is a systemic issue that impacts all of us and requires a coordinated community response to address.  It is a serious public health threat nationwide and in Georgia. In fact, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experience severe intimate partner physical violence, intimate partner sexual violence, and/or intimate partner stalking. It’s also important to understand that domestic violence also includes emotional and psychological violence: Almost half of all women and men in the US have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Given that I am a college professor, it’s important to know and understand that about 1 in 5 college students (20%) say they have been abused by an intimate partner, and nearly 33% (1 in 3) admit to having committed assault against their partner at some time in the previous year.

Domestic violence is a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner. Common abusive tactics include physical violence, sexual violence, isolation, economic abuse, emotional abuse, intimidation, reproductive coercion, and stalking. Domestic violence can affect people of all genders, races, and sexualities. 

You might be wondering why domestic violence victims don’t say anything and remain silent about what they’re enduring. To help you understand these dynamics, first, there are a lot of stigmas and a lot of victim-blaming surrounding domestic violence. A common question asked is “Why doesn’t she just leave?” Let us first unpack that question. When we ask that, we are laying sole responsibility on the victim when in reality the abuse is 100% the abuser’s fault. A better question to ask is “What barriers keep her from leaving?” I know this sounds like the same question, and technically it is, but the latter asks the question without victim-blaming. Language matters. So what are the barriers? She is financially tied to him. They have kids. This is the bible belt and they don’t want to break up the family. Divorce is looked down upon. They fear being shunned and turned away from their faith community—often the one place they can find solace, but often in silence. And let’s face it, she loves him and just wants him to change. Why does she love him? Well, on the first date he didn’t punch her or call her names, but instead wooed her and said all the rights things just like we would all want to hear. It’s not until after an emotional bond is created that the abuse starts, which is often subtle with a name here and a name there. He may slowly isolate her from her friends and family by saying he wanted to take her out so she cancels girls’ night and this continues to the point where her friends have had enough. The abuser has succeeded. A more obvious form of isolation is moving her away from her family and friends or outright forbidding her to see them. The abuse has likely escalated to physical violence, but to be clear, oftentimes it’s purely psychological abuse such as threats and intimidation—if you don’t do XYZ, I will kill you, I will kill your dog, I will kill your family, I will kill our kids, I will kill myself. That alone is enough to instill intense fear and silence into anyone. 

Further keeping them silent is the immense amount of shame and embarrassment surrounding domestic violence due to victim-blaming and the questions like “What did you do to provoke him?”  “You must have done something—no one lashes out like that without a reason.” Or statements like “If you were a better wife, this wouldn’t have happened to you.” And perhaps most pervasive is that the victim often blames herself/himself and they say these things to themselves and fear that others will ask the same. For male victims, the shame and embarrassment are arguably even worse and deeper because “What real man would let a woman abuse him?” They are less likely to report and when they do they often face ridicule by the very people that are sworn to protect them. I am sad to report that I know of a law enforcement officer acquaintance of mine back home in Texas who has admitted to laughing at a man who called police because his wife was chasing him around the house with an iron skillet. That is no laughing matter and I doubt he’d have laughed if the roles were reversed. I am proud to say that I was able to teach him about the dynamics and realities of domestic violence so that hopefully the next man that reported domestic violence would not be ridiculed—or even worse, be dead. Because you know what? The minute any victim is ridiculed, you know what they’ll never ever do? Call or ask for help. We as a community can do better. 

There is often the attitude of “domestic violence doesn’t happen here in our small, quaint little community,” and I am sad to report that in fact, it does happen here, much more so than anyone would like to believe. Some of you may remember the double murder and suicide back in 2015 in Varnell at the fueling bay at the combination McDonald’s and Shell convenience center on Cleveland Highway. The victims, Melissa Ball and her 8-year-old son Grayden were murdered by his father, Eric Whitmore. They had been in an abusive relationship for years but had recently left him. Just a few months after she left him, he shot and killed Grayden first as Melissa watched and he then shot and killed her, and then himself. The shocking events left the community shaken and put another spotlight on domestic violence. But for those that are educated in domestic violence know that it does occur here in our small community of Dalton at alarming rates. The murder-suicide made headlines because of how heinous it was, but think of how many others are suffering behind closed doors and are in fear for their lives every single day. The abusers can be anyone—doctors, lawyers, teachers, coaches, pastors. They hide in plain sight. We like to think we can spot an evil person from a mile away, but I’m here to tell you they don’t look like Freddy Kruger, Jason, Michael Myers, or Jigsaw…if they did, that would make everyone’s job easier. Abusers look like you and me and you would never know what they’re like behind closed doors. That’s why we always say to never judge a book by its cover. They’re often charming, charismatic, and manipulative, which is why they’re so easy to fall in love with…until it’s too late. There’s a statement I like to teach my students and that is “Abusers aren’t always abusers, except that they are. Even the times that they are being nice, loving, caring, showering you with compliments, and even making dinner and buying gifts—that is manipulation—a tactic of power and control to keep her there. That manipulation in and of itself is abuse.”

Back to the ever-horrifying question of why doesn’t she just leave?  FEAR. Oh, and she has left, which renders the question null and void. The most dangerous time for domestic violence victims is during the process of leaving or after having already left. In fact, out of all women that are murdered by their intimate partner, 75-80% had already left or were in the process of leaving. Why would he murder her after she’s already left? Because leaving symbolizes a loss of power and control, which is what domestic violence is all about.

Surviving victims who have endured both physical and psychological abuse will often tell you that while the physical abuse was awful and painful, the psychological abuse was worse. Why? Because physical, non-permanent wounds can heal, but psychological wounds do not. They are everlasting. Those are the lucky ones. Why are they lucky? Because they are still alive. As we all know, we’re here tonight to honor those who didn’t make it out alive. 

At this point, this is where I would like to strongly emphasize that there are resources out there to help you. Call the NWGAFCC Crisis Line number, (706) 278-5586, which is available 24/7 for help. Their services are free and confidential. They serve women, men, and children. They also serve the tri-county area of Whitfield, Gordon, and Murray counties.

You can also call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). You can even chat live with someone on their website: thehotline.org and you can also text START to 88788. 

Domestic violence victims need to know about these resources and it is our job to share these resources with anyone we know. We need to help by getting the word out. You never know if and when you might need them or if and when your neighbor needs them and you have shared them with her just weeks before. I know all of us here are compassionate so let’s show our compassion by helping out our neighbors within our community. 

I often require that my students teach others what they are learning in class, so similarly, I ask that all of you tonight, as you leave here, post on any social media platform the resources that I have provided. To repeat, you can call the NWGAFCC Crisis Line number, (706) 278-5586, which is available 24/7 for help. Their services are free and confidential. They serve women, men, and children. They also serve the tri-county area of Whitfield, Gordon, and Murray counties. 

You can also call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). You can even chat live with someone on their website: thehotline.org and you can also text START to 88788. You might save a life… (tell Starfish Story if time)

There is the hope that there will come a day when we won’t have to have events like these. But until then, we will continue to raise awareness and educate our community. We will continue to find ways to honor those we have lost and work tirelessly to offer support to those facing domestic violence. Thank you. 

Speaker: Dr. Natalie J. Johnson Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at Dalton State College

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