Tuesday, October 24, 2017     Volume: 31, Issue: 20
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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on October 4th, 2017, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 18, Issue 31 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 18, Issue 31

No longer silent: Local support organizations, law enforcement, and survivors speak out to end the cycle of domestic violence

By JOE PAYNE

The first homicide within Santa Maria city limits in 2017 wasn’t the result of a gang-related shootout or stabbing, but rather a suspected act of domestic violence.

Natalia Morozova was found shot when Santa Maria Police Department (SMPD) officers responded to the scene near her home on North College Street in Santa Maria on Aug. 21. Her 9-year-old son was missing, spurring an Amber Alert that buzzed phones across the state, warning that the child may be with her ex-husband, Konstantin Morozov, who was likely armed and was the prime suspect in Morozova’s murder.

The next day, Morozov was gunned down by Los Angeles Police Department officers in Encino; he died later from the wounds. Their boy, reportedly present during the confrontation but unharmed, went into the custody of LA County’s Department of Children and Family Services.

Help is here
Domestic Violence Solutions serves Santa Barbara County with three emergency shelters and 24-hour crisis lines available for anyone dealing with domestic violence. The numbers for local areas are:
• Santa Maria: 805-925-2160
• Lompoc: 805-736-0965
• Santa Ynez: 805-686-4390
• Santa Barbara: 805-964-5245

Back in Santa Maria, the city where Morozova and her son called home, friends and acquaintances responded with shock and grief. Some of her closest friends gathered at the Orthodox Church of the Annunciation for a memorial service, where Morozova, a Russian native, was a congregant.

A friend of Morozova’s told the Santa Maria Times that during her divorce from Morozov, Morozova began to fear for her life, called local law enforcement repeatedly, and even sought safety at a shelter for those fleeing domestic violence situations. Records shared with the Sun by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office show that Morozova had filed several domestic disturbance reports with the Sheriff’s Office and called multiple times to speak with deputies without filing reports.

Morozova’s isn’t the only local life lost to domestic violence this year: Elyse Marie Erwin was shot outside her home in Orcutt in April, and her ex-boyfriend and father of her child is being prosecuted for the crime. Paulina Ramirez-Diaz of Nipomo was stabbed in late May, and her boyfriend was arrested on suspicion of murder.

For Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley, the current state of domestic violence on the Central Coast, and in the county she serves specifically, qualifies as a crisis. Dudley discussed the issue of domestic violence with heads of local and federal law enforcement earlier this year during a regular meeting, she told the Sun.

“As a result of [recent homicides] and the fact that it just keeps on happening, I’ve decided to focus on the crime of domestic violence for the next year,” Dudley said. “It was the most common violent crime we have in Santa Barbara County. It was also—along with driving under the influence—the most predictable homicide in Santa Barbara County. It’s predictable that someone who starts off engaged in misdemeanor domestic violence, it’s predictable that will elevate to felony, it’s predictable that it could elevate to homicide.

“As we know in law enforcement, if it’s predictable, it’s preventable, so why aren’t we doing more to prevent domestic violence homicides in Santa Barbara County?” she added.

While the DA’s Office is organizing to educate law enforcement agencies throughout the county, others are working to help make citizens aware of warning signs of domestic violence and mount a campaign to address the ongoing issue.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and local support organizations are taking to social media and city streets with marches and candlelight vigils to honor those lost to domestic violence, but to also empower survivors with a message of hope: The resources are available to those in need, and empowering victims with education, support, and a safe place to stay is the first step toward ending the cycle of domestic violence. 

Support with safety

David Sanchez Elementary School employee Lisa Garver told the Sun that she remembers Natalia Morozova from just one encounter she had with her after Morozova got a job at the school.

“I was very taken with her and thought she was a very nice person, and seemed to be a very kind and caring individual,” she said. “I really liked her from that one interaction with her, and it was just a couple days later that she was murdered. I was just so floored by that.”

Garver was compelled to do something in the wake of the tragedy, and reached out to the local nonprofit Domestic Violence Solutions (DVS), which runs a crisis hotline, support services, and a recently expanded shelter for individuals and families fleeing dangerous domestic situations. The new shelter needs housewares for the new living units, including kitchenware and appliances, so Garver began a drive to help furnish the shelter.


SPEAKING OUT
Domestic Violence Solutions holds candlelight vigils every year during October, Domestic Violence Awareness Month, in Santa Barbara, Lompoc, and Santa Maria (last year’s Santa Maria event pictured). The event both honors and remembers victims lost in the previous year, but also shares a message of hope and empowerment for survivors.
PHOTO COURTESY OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE SOLUTIONS

According to DVS Clinical Director Carolina Najera-Magana, the most dangerous time for a partner in a domestic violence relationship is when they try to leave the abuser. That’s what the shelter is set up for—to offer an immediate place to stay for individuals or families fleeing partner-on-partner domestic violence.

“We’re an emergency shelter, so it has to be a situation where a victim is in immediate danger,” Najera-Magana said. “It’s not an easy time for a victim. We’re usually the last resort. They’ve sought out family members, they’ve sought out friends, and they haven’t had any luck. Nobody wants to go to a shelter, they find themselves in that situation.”

But many who come into the shelter aren’t doing so because they’ve already decided to leave an abusive partner—they’re fleeing a violent outburst that just happened.

DVS responds to what are called DiVERT (Domestic Violence Emergency Response Team) calls from local law enforcement that are dealing with the aftermath of a nonfatal act of domestic violence. Those in serious crisis situations are taken in to the shelter immediately, whether individuals or families. DVS received precisely 6,250 calls to its hotlines in 2016, Outreach and Program Development Coordinator Eloisa Patterson told the Sun. Of those, 468 were DiVERT calls.

“Usually we see women in the second phase of the cycle of violence, which is the explosion phase, where the police have been called by someone or the victim,” Najera-Magana said. “Someone from DiVERT has gone out and offers shelter, that’s when we see most women come in. It’s right after when the violence has occurred, when they realized, ‘You know what, I just can’t keep doing this.’

“That is when we have the opportunity to kind of make sure they get all the education and information that they need, because sometimes we lose them right away,” she added. “They go back to their abusers or abusive situations, and so we have very little time.”

Most of the entrants to DVS’s shelters are women, though males fleeing domestic violence are welcome now as well, Najera-Magana said. Anyone who enters the shelter has 45 days to stay, during which time they receive support and counseling, but the goal is to keep families or individuals safe and self-sustaining apart from their abusers.

Many of those seeking shelter have children with them, Patterson explained, and more than 60 percent of those who stay at DVS shelters are children.

One of the first things that children and partners have to agree to when entering the shelter is to not reveal its location to anyone, especially the abuser. Location services and GPS settings are turned off on smartphones and laptops immediately, Patterson explained.

“The No. 1 issue is safety, it’s always safety,” Patterson said. “We want them to move on and stay safe, and not just themselves, but their families.

“This is something that really crosses ethnic, cultural, education, income levels, and gender,” she added. “It’s something that I read, and know the stats, but it wasn’t until I worked at the shelter that I really realized it, experienced it.” 

Patterns of abuse

Maria* married her husband when she was only 17 years old. She grew up in Mexico, and he was a Mexican-American and U.S. citizen. She also had her first child, a girl, when she was only 17, and was living in the U.S. when the abuse began.

“I don’t even know how everything started. He was a very good dad when my daughter was born, but he had a lot of family issues,” she said. “He witnessed a lot of domestic violence also in his family with his dad and mom.”

Her husband started using drugs and drinking, Maria said, and would go out with friends often, sometimes not coming home for days.

They were living in an East Coast state at the time, near some of her husband’s family. His substance abuse and erratic behavior came to a head during an argument, Maria said, and their relationship suffered a grim milestone.

“We used to fight a lot,” she said, “and when my baby girl was 2 years old, that was the first time that I ended up in a shelter.

“He was, I’m guessing he was drunk or drugged, I don’t know, I never saw him do any of it,” she continued. “That night he was really out of control, we started fighting, and I was defending myself. I’m not the type of person to not stand up for myself, fought back several times, and then he hit me on my face with his fist. He made a scar on my lip, I was bleeding a lot.”


THE SILENT WITNESS
DVS brings wooden silhouettes to the vigil events, which they call “silent witnesses,” to represent those lost to domestic violence homicides during the last year.
PHOTO COURTESY OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE SOLUTIONS

Maria stayed in the shelter for almost three weeks, she said, before her husband and his family convinced her to come back and live with him again.

She had crossed the border between Mexico and the U.S. to marry her husband and was undocumented, couldn’t speak any English, and didn’t even drive a car. She was totally isolated but for her in-laws.

“They tried to convince me that he was going to change, that he was behaving better, and yeah, I contacted him,” she said. “I had no other home but his house, and no family but his family. I had no support, no job, and I realized all those things when I was at the shelter … . So he was my only option at the time.”

Not long after, they moved to Santa Maria, where they had two more kids in the following years. Maria describes the time as being “like waves, with good times and bad times, good times and bad times.”

Once established on the Central Coast, Maria received legal residency documentation, and began working at a local fast food chain. She found herself happier at work than at home, she said.

All the while, her husband began obsessing over her time away, accusing her of infidelity with coworkers. Emotional and verbal abuse was the norm for her home life, and physical violence was always a possibility.

Two different times since she moved to Santa Maria, Maria stayed at DVS’s shelter after her husband attacked her. While staying at DVS, the advocates there educated her on the pattern of abuse that so many relationships plagued by domestic violence follow.

Called the “cycle of abuse,” a term originally coined by psychologist Lenore Edna Walker, the theory includes four phases: The first phase is characterized by “tension building,” when daily stress and conflicts accumulate where an abuser may express suspicion or that they’ve been wronged somehow. The second phase is the moment of “acute violence,” an act of domestic violence that leaves a victim traumatized, injured, and dominated by the abuser. The violence is followed by the “reconciliation” or “honeymoon” phase, where the abuser often apologizes, shows affection, swears they won’t abuse again, and may take advantage of a victim’s mistaken feelings of being responsible for the situation. The last phase is “calm,” the “good time” wave that Maria mentioned before the cycle starts again.

Denise* saw her boyfriend of more than two years get sentenced to seven years in prison in September for what he did to her earlier this year. She reached out to the Sun of her own volition to share her story with Domestic Violence Awareness Month in mind.

Denise remembers the honeymoon phase well.

“A couple of times I tried to leave, but I just gave up after a short time because he just pursued me and pursued me,” she said. “I just felt kind of worn down, and so it just felt like it was kind of easier to stay, and so I did.”

Unlike Maria, Denise wasn’t isolated by language or legal status, but her boyfriend preyed on her insecurities and was very controlling.

Denise is in her early 50s, and has a daughter who is in her early 20s. Her boyfriend became jealous of the time she spent with her daughter. He also expected her to answer all of his phone calls to her cellphone immediately, and if it didn’t happen, he would get angry.

“I know everyone’s different, but for me, it wasn’t just any one thing. Different factors came together to form this kind of web, which was almost like a trap that was very hard to get out of,” she said. “He isolated me. There are some people in a situation like that who do confide in someone, but I had the idea that I should keep it all a secret. I didn’t tell anyone.”

She lied to an emergency room doctor about how her eardrum was ruptured, she said, even though the doctor insisted that there was only one way an injury like that could arise.

It wasn’t until Denise’s partner was screaming and punching her in the head in her car, in the full light of a Saturday morning, that someone noticed what was happening and called the police.

Responding to a crisis

When asked by the Sun how SMPD officers respond to domestic violence calls, Sgt. Mark Streker didn’t mince words.

“They are without a doubt one of the most hazardous calls we can take,” he said. “These are extremely emotionally charged issues that are extremely emotionally charged before we get there. These are matters that are oftentimes unraveling out of control prior to law enforcement even responding.”

Some of the most dangerous encounters that SMPD officers have had responding to acts of domestic violence ended in death. The department has responded to domestic violence homicides, like in the case of Morozova, but when the perpetrator was still present.


SANTA BARBARA COUNTY DOMESTIC VIOLENCE-RELATED CALLS FOR ASSISTANCE
Statistics for the years 2007-2016.
GRAPHIC BY JORDAN DUNN

On June 15, 2015, Jesus Gomez Quezada was killed in an officer-involved shooting with the SMPD after he fatally stabbed his wife, Teresa Meza.

Most domestic violence calls don’t end that dramatically however, and the SMPD gets its fair share of domestic violence calls, Streker explained.

“Any officer who has been an officer long enough to have responded to several of these calls will tell you, it’s literally daily that we’re responding to these,” he said. “Some very minor, of course, and some severe where someone is taken into custody.”

There’s a range of possible responses and approaches that law enforcement can take depending on the situation, Streker said. Someone can get arrested solely on the claim that they struck someone, he said. There are also protective orders, which a judge can approve, that removes an alleged abuser from a home for seven days while the victim arranges circumstances to get out.

“I can tell you, the law has evolved over the years for law enforcement to be much more cognizant of victims,” he said. “Depending on what happened in that house before we got there, someone could potentially go to jail if there’s any type of physical confrontation, even slight.”

But what happens after that is a legal matter, decided in the courtroom.

Santa Barbara County DA Dudley created the Domestic Violence Law Enforcement Task Force in an effort to address the crisis of domestic violence in the county. The task force includes partners from every law enforcement agency in the county, which are collaborating and communicating on the best ways to combat those crimes.

Some of her staff with the DA Office’s Victim Witness Unit make regular appearances at law enforcement briefings, but Dudley wanted to expand their reach. She spearheaded a short video featuring herself, Victim Witness coordinators, and domestic violence prosecutors that educates local law enforcement on how to most effectively handle those investigations to aid prosecutors.

“It shows, how do you collect the evidence, how do you handle a domestic violence investigation so that you can count on your DA’s office filing it,” Dudley said. “It’s that important to me that every law enforcement officer understand what it takes, because I truly believe that if we can better handle the misdemeanor cases, we can avoid domestic violence homicides.”

Domestic violence cases can be challenging to prosecute. Sometimes victims change their stories after the fact, Dudley said, because they’re trying to protect their abusive partners for a variety of reasons. She said they may be trying to protect their marriage or they might still love the abuser or think they’re a good parent.

Dudley said that bringing experts into the courtroom to explain why a victim might recant their story is one strategy to help a case move forward. That’s why it’s essential that officers collect enough evidence and testimony the day of the crime, she said, so that a case can move forward based on evidence beyond the victim’s changing testimony.

Depending on how codependent a victim is, or what phase in the cycle of abuse they are experiencing, they can be very combative with prosecutors and law enforcement. Dudley recalled one woman who assailed her with profanity for continuing a case against her husband.

“I listened, because I get it, in terms of understanding victimology,” Dudley said. “And I told her, ‘You can drop F-bombs all day long, nothing’s going to change. We’re going to go ahead and prosecute this case. I understand you don’t want me to, but I have a higher calling. You have a kid, and at this moment, you’re not thinking about your kid. You’re thinking about a lot of other really scary things, but every time your kid watches what her father does to you it makes it OK for her to be in a domestic violence relationship one day.’”

Dudley received a letter from the same woman two years later, thanking Dudley for prosecuting the case, and included a photo of her and her daughter.

For survivors like Maria, the words of an SMPD officer helped her understand her situation differently and ultimately make the decision to leave her husband. She had called 911 after he destroyed many of her belongings in a fit of rage. He didn’t hit her that time, but she was fearful enough to call police for help.

“He went crazy that night, and that’s when I decided to call the police,” she said. “Again, as soon as he saw the police, he was a normal person again.

“They took him outside,” she continued, “and one of the officers stayed with me inside, and he told me, ‘I know what’s going on, and you know what’s going on. You’re the one with the last decision, you’re the one who decides, and now is your time to decide.’” 

Speak out

Those who escape domestic violence relationships truly are survivors.

Denise told the Sun that she was left with myriad health problems that arose just from the 2 1/2 years she spent with her abusive boyfriend. She has 30 percent hearing loss from the ruptured eardrum, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression and feelings of low self-worth, and a fear of trusting others. She also has what her doctor called “post concussion syndrome,” or mild traumatic brain injury from the repeated hits to the head she suffered.

Every bit helps
Anyone interested in donating new or lightly used items, furniture, or appliances for Domestic Violence Solutions’ new shelter units can reach out to Lisa Garver at protectnatalia@gmail.com.

The reason the most recent attack was the last, Denise explained, was because one young woman witnessed the violence and spoke up, called the police, and offered her testimony.

“It was pretty bold of that young girl to do that,” she said. “I wasn’t in a place to just calmly give details and times, I was just shaking and crying because that morning had gone on so long.”

Domestic Violence Solution’s main poster is emblazoned with the words, “Speak Out! ¡Reportalo!” and “Domestic Violence Feeds on Silence.” A big part of DVS’s mission isn’t just educating the people who stay at shelters, but the wider community as well. The organization is part of a social media campaign that uses the hashtag, #Breakthesilence, during Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

A series of candlelight vigils are also scheduled in the county, including one in Lompoc, Santa Maria, and Santa Barbara. Advocates, local law enforcement, families, and survivors will attend and honor Morozova, Erwin, Ramirez-Diaz, and others lost to domestic violence.

At the Santa Maria vigil, scheduled for Oct. 26, Deputy District Attorney Anne Nudson will speak on what locals can do to help.

“It’s important that neighbors, friends, family members feel empowered to help victims of domestic violence,” Nudson said. “Because often times, if someone is suffering from domestic violence and they may or may not be ready to call for help themselves, they need the help and support of their community to get the help that they need.”

Nudson isn’t the only speaker DVS has lined up.

Maria will be there, sharing her story. She credits the support she received and what she learned at DVS as crucial to finally making the right decision for her and her children. But the support also helped her move forward in her life and find independence before she left her husband.

After her first stay at DVS, she began attending Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria and studying English. She eventually transferred to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where she completed a bachelor’s degree in social science.

“Knowledge is freedom,” she said. “So the less I knew, the more constrained I was.”

But like Denise, Maria is not constrained anymore, and she’s using her voice to further the conversation about domestic violence. She hopes to raise the consciousness of victims, friends, family, or neighbors who are afraid to say or do anything about domestic violence.

There are a lot of reasons why people stay in violent relationships, Maria said. Her father died when she was very young, and so she wanted her kids to have a dad.

“I wanted the chance to have a family,” she said. “I just forgot to include, ‘A happy family.’”

She hasn’t seen her ex-husband since she made the decision to leave and filed a restraining order in 2015. She has a new life now, a steady job, and a positive and loving boyfriend who is good to her and her kids.

It’s been a while since the abuse, to the point where Maria said she can tell her story without crying or sobbing. That’s how she knows she’s no longer a victim, she said, but a survivor.

“I get home and there’s peace,” she said. “My kids are laughing, they’re happy. There’s peace.”

*Only first names of domestic violence survivors are used in this story to protect their safety.

Honor and remember

Domestic Violence Solutions hosts three candlelight vigils to honor victims and survivors during Domestic Violence Awareness Month in Santa Barbara County:

  • The Santa Maria vigil happens on Oct. 26, beginning with a memorial walk at 6 p.m. at Santa Maria City Hall, corner of Cook Street and South Broadway, and a vigil ceremony at 6:30 p.m. at the Ethel Pope Auditorium, Santa Maria High School, corner of South Broadway and Morrison Avenue.
     
  • The Santa Barbara vigil happens on Oct. 19 at the Paseo Nuevo Mall, 651 Paseo Nuevo, and begins with a community resource fair at 4 p.m. The vigil ceremony is at 6 p.m., followed by a memorial walk at 6:30 p.m. More info: dvsolutions.org.
     
  • The 30th annual Domestic Violence Awareness Candlelight Vigil in Lompoc is Oct. 5 at Centennial Park, 100 Civic Center Plaza. The event is hosted by Domestic Violence Partners of the city of Lompoc, which includes law enforcement, support organizations, and community members. A ceremony happens at 6 p.m. and is followed by a memorial walk along H Street.
     

Contact Managing Editor Joe Payne at jpayne@santamariasun.com.




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