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story.lead_photo.caption Julie Smith/News Tribune Angela Hirsch, executive director of the Rape and Abuse Crisis Service, speaks about the early signs of domestic abuse during an interview Friday.

Editor's note: The name of the domestic violence victim has been changed in this story to protect her identity.

Now 58, Gloria endured years of abuse from a man with whom she once enjoyed spending time.

Jefferson City's Rape and Abuse Crisis Service helped her escape her torment.

Gloria lived in the St. Louis area more than 10 years ago.

Her children were adults, and she met a male friend and they started dating.

"It started off OK," Gloria said. "Then, he started getting abusive with his words and hands."

The man became a heavy drinker, and about two or three years into their relationship, he became violent.

Four years into their relationship, she lost her job.

Things took a turn for the worse. The beatings intensified.

He would slap her, and Gloria ended up with marks on her face. He wouldn't let her see her adult children, but when she did see them, they would ask why she was still with him.

Gloria's story isn't as uncommon as we would like it to be.

And, in the isolation of a pandemic, it's gotten substantially worse in the past year.

Reports of domestic violence surged nationwide as the COVID-19 pandemic began and states started issuing stay-at-home orders, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Psychology Association.

Missouri data reflect the trend — isolation and close proximity may have led to escalating violence. In 2020, reports of domestic violence in Missouri leaped by nearly 62 percent over 2019, going from 15,924 incidents to 25,761, according to data found on the Missouri Highway Patrol Criminal Justice Information Services web page, showmecrime.mo.gov.

Breaking cycle of violence

Gloria was with her abuser for about eight years before she found the strength to get out.

"I took enough beatings and name calling," she said. "He was cheating on me, too. I thought, 'I'm too old for this.'"

She couldn't take it anymore.

And about three years ago, she received the phone number for the Rape and Abuse Crisis Service in Jefferson City.

She got away.

"The best thing that ever happened to me was when I walked into RACS," Gloria said. "It's quiet. I stayed there for about eight months. The staff is beautiful. They have rules. That's normal. They have meetings. They do a lot for you to get you back on your feet."

She heard voices, which she said were flashbacks to the man.

But, she met a lot of women going through the same things and didn't feel out of place. The voices went away.

RACS built up her confidence and self-esteem, Gloria said.

"Sometimes, you think you're the only one. You find out there are other women who were going through the same thing as me," she said.

She said she's out and on her own again and doing very well. Her children are happy for her.

And she'll step carefully, Gloria said, if she ever decides to enter another relationship.

Isolation can promote violence

During the pandemic, the severity and frequency of domestic violence in Missouri has dramatically increased, said Mathew Huffman, public affairs director for the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

"We've heard that through reports and from advocates on the ground," Huffman said. "Survivors are reaching out and saying that the violence they have experienced has escalated and the frequency — it is much more often."

For this story, we are looking at domestic violence as abuse or aggression that occurs within a romantic relationship; however, it can include former intimate partners and even extended families of partners.

Domestic violence is the willful intimidation, assault, sexual assault, battery and abusive behavior that are part of a pattern of power and control by one intimate partner over another, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

It can occur among heterosexual or same-sex partners, and it can involve the male or female in a heterosexual couple being the perpetrator.

In 2020 in Missouri, females were the offenders 28.3 percent of the time, according to the Highway Patrol data.

In addition to isolation and partners being forced to stay together around the clock, there is more stress and more job loss during the pandemic, Huffman said. In those regards, the pandemic is very much like other disasters, such as hurricanes, major floods and earthquakes, he said. And they all cause violence among close partners to go up.

Domestic violence is one of the most under-reported crimes there is, said Angela Hirsch, executive director of the Rape and Abuse Crisis Service in Jefferson City. Information about RACS may be found at www.racsjc.org.

"It's estimated that for every domestic violence incident reported to law enforcement, seven to 10 are not (reported)," Hirsch said.

She said law enforcement reported nearly 500 domestic violence incidents in Cole County in 2020, so it's likely more than 4,000 incidents actually took place.

There are a number of reasons more people don't report domestic violence, she continued. Victims may be in fear for their safety. There is a stigma associated with domestic violence, causing victims to fear receiving blame for the incidents, Hirsch said.

"There's a lot of shame. There's a lot of negative self- esteem," she said. "There's a lot of victim-blaming that occurs when it comes to domestic violence — and especially sexual assault."

Walking on eggshells

We have to flip the narrative, she said.

The first question that tends to be asked, Hirsch said, is "What did you do?" or "Why did (the perpetrator) hit you?" which puts the blame on victims.

"We have to change the conversation that we have about domestic violence — that it's not something to be ashamed of on the part of the victim," Hirsch said. "It's something to be ashamed of on the part of the perpetrator."

The incidents of domestic violence are not accidents. Whether the abuse is emotional and mental, physical or sexual, they are all about power and control that one party wants over the other, she said.

"It is all about that power and control. It's all about maintaining that authority over that other person in whatever means the other person can," Hirsch said.

The abuse happens in a three-part cycle.

It starts with a calm or "honeymoon" phase, then moves on to the "tension-building" phase and then the "explosion" phase.

The cycle typically begins with instances of manipulation, isolation and financial control, Hirsch said.

During the honeymoon phase, there is calm and all appears to be good. But, there may be signs of cracks in the relationship.

As the tension phase occurs, there's a feeling of "walking on eggshells," she said, knowing something is going to happen but not knowing what is going to set it off.

"Oftentimes, the tension phase can last weeks. It can last months," Hirsch said. "It can be something insignificant, but something is going to set off that fuse. And that explosion — that violent interaction — is going to happen."

In a newer relationship, the violent behavior may be a shove. It may be a grab. It may be a slap. It may be a full-on assault, she said.

"Those will gradually become more physical and more violent," Hirsch continued. "Once that explosive phase is over, you go back to the honeymoon phase."

The honeymoon phase may include an apology, the promise that it won't happen again and a reconciliation.

"And things are good for a time," she said.

But that will lead into the tension-building phase, which gets shorter and shorter during cycles. It leads to the explosion, and back to the honeymoon, which will eventually disappear, Hirsch said.

At that point, everything will be constant tension and explosions.

"Unless the victim leaves, law enforcement intervenes and removes the perpetrator from the situation, or she is killed, it's not going to stop," Hirsch said.

The most dangerous time for a survivor of domestic assault is the point when the survivor leaves or attempts to leave the abuser, she added.

"That's the most dangerous time because if the survivor leaves — and is successful at leaving — the abuser has lost all power and control," she said. "That's when we see the most volatile of the relationships. That's when we see the fatalities."

The victims know that. The abusers have threatened to kill them, or the abusers have threatened to kill themselves.

Access to weapons makes the situations even more dangerous.

Firearms were used in more than 1,000 incidents of domestic violence in Missouri in 2020, according to the Highway Patrol data.

Cutting weapons were used in more than 1,500 incidents, according to the data.

Bodily weapons, such as fists, elbows, feet and knees, accounted for nearly 16,000 weapons used during incidents in 2020.

The spiral gets smaller

The NCADV reports 89 Missouri homicides in 2018 resulted from domestic violence. That was about 11.5 percent of all homicides in the state.

"Domestic violence relationships rarely begin with physical assaults. It's like a spiral," Hirsch said. "As this relationship progresses — and the power and control gets tighter and tighter — that spiral gets smaller and smaller and smaller."

Assaults gradually become more violent, Hirsch said.

Hirsch described a hypothetical scenario to illustrate how a relationship with an abuser may begin, in which a young woman falls victim, although Hirsch reminded the victim wouldn't necessarily have to be female.

Imagine having a 22-year-old daughter, Hirsch said. And she goes to her parents and says she met the most amazing guy. He treats her like a queen. He wants to spend all his time with her.

"I think this is it," the young woman might say. "I'm going to go ahead and drop out of school and move across the country with him, because I think this is the person I want to spend the rest of my life with."

The signs of potential problems rest in those key pieces that she mentions — he wants to be with her all the time; they spend all their time together; the woman doesn't see her friends anymore; he wants to move across the country.

Parents need to be prepared to ask if their child still has nights with their friends or if they have time away from their partner, Hirsch said.

Abusers may appear normal. They may appear to be the life of the party, she said.

They don't want people to know they're abusers.

"They're going to be the one that everybody thinks is the greatest. He would never do anything like that," she said. "He's such a good guy."

How to intervene

A manager for the Women's Health Initiative, within the Department of Health and Senior Services Section for Women, Sarah Ehrhard Reid said there is evidence the pandemic has caused there to be an uptick in violence in the state.

"You probably know someone who is a survivor. And you probably know someone who's caused harm," Reid said. "It's really common."

It happens in every field of life, she said. It happens with churchgoers, community leaders, coaches and anyone else.

"There's no particular demographic that experiences it more so than anyone else," Reid said. "It's not a certain group of people that experience it. It's across the board."

But, there are a number of things that can be done to prevent domestic violence.

She points out the Green Dot Program, which focuses on bystander intervention.

"We like the Green Dot Program, because it helps people recognize their role in preventing it and helping people who are experiencing it," she continued.

The program focuses on "three 'D's" — Direct intervention, Delegated intervention or Distraction.

The program engages witnesses to interrupt situations that are imminently or potentially high-risk for violence, according to alteristic.org.

"You can directly help someone," Reid said. "If you notice something happening — a friend whose spouse is just not acting exactly like they should be."

Speak directly to them and tell them they shouldn't be acting that way. Or, speak directly to the survivor, asking what might be done to help.

If you don't feel comfortable intervening directly, delegate someone to do so, Reid said.

Maybe ask a pastor or a friend who is more comfortable with those conversations.

Or distract someone from the situation.

"If you're in the middle of something happening, you could do something to kind of divert attention, you could minimize the conflict," she said. "Maybe you could spill a drink on accident. That helps diffuse the situation because now everyone's trying to clean up a drink rather than focusing on the violence that's happening."

An important prevention step is to teach youth early on what a healthy relationship should look like.

She said teaching youth ways to solve conflicts without causing harm are essential. Teach youth ways to hold difficult conversations with peers. Build those skills with children early on.

The people who cause harm and domestic violence are often loved ones you really care about, Reid said. It's complicated.

People may leave a relationship multiple times and return multiple times, she explained.

"That can be really hard for someone who's watching it happen," Reid said. "We think everyone has a role to play. What's most important is just being there for folks. Be a listening ear."

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