Domestic Violence Awareness Month brings hope to a survivor
She is surviving domestic violence one step at a time.
GET READY, I'm going to throw a lot of numbers at you.
Every day, the Philadelphia Police Department gets hundreds of calls about domestic violence. Last year, nearly 400 daily.
Every year, thousands of petitions for protection-from-abuse orders are filed. In 2011, 11,714 restraining orders were sought.
In 2012, more than 8,500 calls were made to the 24-hour Philadelphia Domestic Violence Hotline. Nearly 9,000 requests were denied space in Philly's only 100-bed shelter for domestic-violence victims, which is almost always at capacity. (Another 100-bed shelter will be opening soon.)
There were 24 domestic-violence homicides in Philadelphia last year, the highest number in any county in the state.
Behind those sobering numbers from city agencies are women, and men, navigating authorities that have undoubtedly improved in their treatment of domestic-violence victims, but that can still get better.
One of those women is Felicia Menna. For years, the 44-year-old South Philly mother was afraid each breath she took might be her last. Her abuser, the father of her 6-year-old son, often threatened it would be.
The man was charming, good-looking guy from a well-to-do, influential family - Menna once thought he was too good to be true. It turns out, he was.
It started with the discovery of a drug addiction she said he hid from her, and then controlling and violent behavior that isolated her from her friends and family. At first, Menna stood by him. She even agreed to move to Mexico, to open a business and start a new life away from the influences he blamed for his behavior. "You don't want to do drugs if you're in paradise," she recalled him saying.
His drug abuse continued, she said, and so did the violence. It only got worse when they came back to Philadelphia. Menna endured brutal beatings, stalking and harassment. Throwing him out and calling the police did no good, she said. He'd break in and take everything he could. He'd assault her if she fought back, sometimes even if she didn't. If she was lucky enough to hear him coming, she'd grab their son and hide in the closet, holding her breath until he left.
Around Menna's home, which she's fighting to keep from foreclosure after he emptied her bank account, signs of abuse are everywhere: broken doors and windows; dented doorknobs and appliances; holes in walls from the few blows that she was able to escape.
But the worst damage can't be seen. Her son just recently stopped having night terrors.
Help fittingly came during Domestic Violence Awareness Month, when, on Oct. 2, a judge sentenced her abuser to two years in jail. It gave her the first piece of mind she's had in nearly a decade.
"I slept through the night for the first time in years," she said.
Over the years, Menna said she noticed a change in how she was treated. Early on, she filed protective orders that her abuser laughed off and that she said authorities didn't enforce. But then she went to Lutheran Settlement House for therapy, and a staffer helped her navigate the often overwhelming systems and agencies that are increasingly collaborating to better respond to victims.
"They saved my life," Menna said of Lutheran. "They saved me and my son."
It starts with people understanding how far-reaching the effects of domestic abuse are, said Brenda Shelton-Dunston, executive director of the Black Women's Health Alliance. The impact includes physical, emotional and financial abuse. In one study about the barriers to employment resulting from domestic violence, one-third were beaten to the point that they could not work.
The problem can be daunting. But Women Against Abuse's Jeannine L. Lisitski made a simple request when we talked: "I want people to memorize the hot line number, to be prepared to offer it to someone that needs it." The hot line, run by four agencies, is 1-866-723-3014.
A couple of years ago, Menna and her son received an award for surviving domestic violence. She was honored, she said, but she couldn't bring herself to put the medallion on.
"I didn't feel like a survivor yet," she said.
For now, she's taking baby steps, including helping out at tomorrow's sixth annual Run/Walk to End Domestic Violence to raise funds for the hot line: 1-866-723-3014. I told you, Lisitski wants us to memorize it. Get additional info on the walk here: runtheday.com/registration/race_info/20263.
Menna said one day soon, she hopes, she might even pull out that award and feel like a survivor.
"I'm on the other side" she said. "I'm getting there."