Damiko Justice lost a baby.Tina Roberts lost control of her life for 14 years.Jessica Warner nearly lost her life altogether.Today, they are counted among the survivors of domestic violence who found the courage to walk away from abusive relationships. They said they look back only when they believe sharing their experiences can help others break free from similar pain.The recent spotlight on high–profile incidences of domestic violence has created a more visible platform for survivors to step out and raise awareness that the issue is bigger than Ray Rice and the NFL. The league has become a focal point in a national dialogue about domestic violence since video surfaced of Rice punching his future wife in a casino elevator.Rice is appealing an indefinite suspension from the NFL; his two-day hearing ended Thursday.While survivors like Justice, Warner and Roberts applaud the NFL’s efforts to implement a Domestic Violence/Sexual Abuse Workplace Policy that trains team and league employees on critical first–response techniques, they believe there must be a change in societal culture if there is a chance to end domestic violence.“I’ve had bones broken. I didn’t see my mother for 10 years. I’ve been hit in public and people walked right by,” said Roberts, 47. “I ended up losing custody of my oldest son. When I was pregnant with my daughter, [her husband] backed a minivan up and pinned me in the garage. I was bruised from head to toe. I thought I was going to lose her.“If we are going to get to a place where domestic violence doesn’t exist,” Roberts said, “we need to make sure there is a safety net available for anyone experiencing abuse and we have to figure out a way to send the message that you don’t deserve to be abused and you don’t have to stay.”Roberts, who works as a commercial property manager, said she took control of her life with the help of her mother, a friend and the staff at the Battered Women’s Shelter in Akron. Looking back, she — like Justice and Warner — are hard-pressed to say exactly why they stayed in abusive relationships for 14, 12 and three years, respectively.Each cited multiple reasons for staying, including fear, finances, children and love. Each agreed that if you’ve never experienced the emotional roller-coaster ride of an abusive relationship, it is difficult to understand the complexity of why a person stays.“At the core of the reason for staying are self-esteem issues. It’s like they take everything away from you and make you think you can’t make it without them,” said Warner, 25, who has been out of her abusive relationship for two years. “Even though they’re your source of misery, they are also your source of happiness. It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t been through it.”Warner said she left her abuser because she no longer had any feelings for him and knew that things would only get worse. She, Roberts and Justice all agree that if they had stayed, somebody was going to die.“I vowed that it wouldn’t be me, but I wasn’t willing to go to jail and leave my children,” said Justice, 47. “I was four months pregnant, and we got into a fight. He went to the hospital that day, but that was it for me. I told him, ‘I’m not going to let you kill my baby.’“My baby boy was stillborn seven years earlier because he kicked me in the stomach. I couldn’t go through that again,” said Justice, who walked away from her abusive relationship more than 17 years ago.Justice and Warner have found strength in Power of a Dream: Sisters Helping Sisters Ministries (www.dreampowerful.com
). It offers support groups and provides educational and awareness opportunities related to the issue of domestic violence.Brenda Justice, sister of Damiko Justice and founding president of the ministry, said that although the initiative was established to empower women, several men now are included in the effort. She said that an increasing number of men are experiencing domestic abuse.Finding stabilityTerri Heckman, CEO of the Battered Women’s Shelter of Summit and Medina Counties, said men and seniors are “more hidden” than women as abuse victims.But no matter the gender, age, race or ethnicity of a person, Heckman said they all need a safe, trusted environment to go to when they make the decision to leave an abusive situation. Once they leave, there is a need to connect them to services and resources to help them stabilize their lives.“Our goal is to move the needle on the way our society looks at the issue of domestic violence. It is everywhere,” Heckman said. “We have to understand that people leave when they are ready to leave. When they do leave, we need to help them find stability — emotional stability, financial stability.“Leaving is a process,” she said. “On a national average, a person leaves an abusive relationship seven times before saying, ‘I’m not going back.’ ”Heckman added that the first 48 hours after leaving are the most dangerous, because it is during that time that the abuser is most likely to lash out.For Warner, it was seven months after she left that her abuser tracked her down on a local college campus, where she was taking classes.“He walked up to me and said he was sorry, he was going to change. I told him I couldn’t trust him. The next thing I knew, I was being choked. Somehow, I got away, but he got to me and stabbed me multiple times,” Warner said. “I lost a lot of blood. My lung collapsed. They gave me a 10 percent chance of making it.”Despite the attack, Warner said, she encourages others to “stay strong” when they make the decision to leave and to remember “there’s a reason that you left in the first place. You have to value yourself enough to not put yourself, or your kids, in harm’s way. ”Roberts, who left her abusive husband nine years ago, agrees. She said her decision to leave came when he abused her oldest son (his stepson), resulting in her losing custody.“It broke my heart when [the boy] went to live with his father. Then, [her husband] told me I wasn’t allowed to see my son,” Roberts said. “We were on our way home from my mother’s house — he was letting me see her at that time — and he pulled my hair the whole time we were in the car. He held a knife to my throat and said, ‘How would you like to die with your son’s knife?’ At that moment, I instantly made up my mind that I had to leave.”Roberts made her move with the help of the Battered Women’s Shelter. She recommends that the first step to take when deciding to leave an abusive relationship is to call the shelter’s hotline at 330-374-1111 in Summit County or 330-723-3900 in Medina County. The national domestic hotline number is 800-799-7233.“The abuser is the only person who can stop the abuse, and it takes a lot of strength for those who are being abused to come into a shelter,” Heckman said. “Fortunately for people in Summit and Medina counties, we are rich in resources. We can help — if we get the phone call — and all calls are anonymous.”Last year, the local facility provided 22,000 nights of shelter for people who couldn’t stay in their homes because of domestic violence. It is currently undergoing an expansion to increase its size from 70 beds to 150.For more information about the Battered Women’s Shelter, including how to help, go to www.scmcbws.org
or call 330-374-0740.