Is domestic violence in Oklahoma’s DNA?

As the 12th person came through security at the Family Safety Center before 9 a.m., I wondered, again, why Oklahomans are so violent toward the ones they love.

On that Monday last month, all the battered people seeking safety were women. Some had children, and a few sported visible signs of abuse, whether in bruises or eyes puffy from tears.

I’ve done this story before, many times, for decades. It’s a frustrating needle that will not move.

What is it in our state’s DNA that allows for such trauma, generation after generation?

“Oklahomans have normalized domestic violence,” said Suzann Stewart, executive director of the Family Safety Center. “We tolerate it as someone else’s problem — not mine. We don’t invest enough in prevention; it’s always after the event, when it’s really too late.”

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America’s Health Rankings from United Health Foundation give a good snapshot of what challenges Oklahomans face: 48th in per capita income, No. 4 in food insecurity, No. 3 in teen births, No. 8 in frequent mental distress, No. 3 in nonmedical drug use and No. 4 in high-risk HIV behaviors.

Photojournalism by Mike SImons, Stephen Pingry, Tom Gilbert, Daniel Shular and Ian Maule from 2022.

Throw in the state’s high ranking in adverse childhood experiences, erosion of support for public education and the most lax gun laws in America, and it’s a formula for violence. About 65% of women killed by men were murdered with a handgun, according to the Violence Policy Center.

“You can’t talk about domestic violence without talking about the intersection of violence with other social variables such as mental illness, substance abuse, poverty and access to weapons. It’s all connected, and we score terribly low in all of it,” said Domestic Violence Intervention Services Executive Director Tracey Lyall.

Also, don’t underestimate the role religious institutions play in this issue. I’ve sat through a few sermons in different denominations hearing about the evils of divorce, with no mention that violence has no place in a loving relationship.

Too many people may stay in abusive relationships based on their faith. I refuse to believe any higher power, any benevolent god would want someone to choose danger and trauma for themselves and their children. Faith leaders ought to be informing themselves about domestic violence to better guide their flocks. Faith ought to be about uplifting people, not giving cover to those wielding violence.

True prevention means improving everything from education to workforce development.

When criticizing schools, remember that kids who see a parent beaten or berated are in those classes. As for mental health, addiction may be about coping with a dysfunctional relationship. Lack of housing can have people reacting irrationally. Unemployment, underemployment and indebtedness add to what can become runaway stress.

It’s generational. Children who see a caregiver being violent to another have a pattern for their future relationships. They are unable to recognize a healthy relationship; they don’t have a nonaggressive model for dealing with disagreements. Most school districts do not allow the evidence-based sex education programs that discuss positive relationship traits.

A mountain of research has found that these children are more likely to become involved in a domestic violence relationship as adults, either as an offender or as a victim.

By ignoring what goes on behind closed doors, Oklahoma has become a top 10 state in domestic violence.

Right now, Oklahoma ranks No. 2 in women killed by men, according to an annual report from the Violence Policy Center. For more than two decades, the Tulsa World has reported on that ranking. In 2004, Oklahoma was 10th, and it had crawled up to No. 3 by 2014.

Tulsa County is on track to surpass its record number of domestic-violence related homicides. As of Sept. 23, DVIS estimates that 19 people have died as a result of domestic violence in the county so far this year.

The 2020 Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation report states a 44% jump in domestic-related deaths across the state (138). It found an increasing trend in overall domestic abuse, a 12% spike compared to a decade earlier. Of those situations, nearly 80% were assault and battery.

Domestic violence murders affect Black and Native American women disproportionately, representing a rate higher than their share of the population by up to nearly 50%.

The state reached its highest number of abuses by a family member (27,089) in 20 years in 2020. That only worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic under mounting pressures of isolation, financial instability and fragile health.

Hidden among these statistics are efforts during the past few years to curb the violence.

The Family Safety Center was established in 2006 after the city received a $1.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice (one of 15 cities out of 400 applicants) to create a one-stop facility for all domestic violence services.

Previously, victims went to seven different locations for those services. Within 60 days of the center’s opening, every ZIP code in Tulsa County was represented there with a victim, with relative consistency among City Council and County Commission districts. That has remained about the same.

The Family Safety Center grew and moved to the basement of a downtown police building in 2013, and it outgrew its space there fast. Plans to move again began in 2016, and it’s well past time for that to happen. Offices are housed in former jail cells, and shower curtains are makeshift walls. That’s no way to treat battered victims.

The center will break ground on a new $27 million facility next year at 28th Street and Sheridan Road.

Research has found strangling to be the strongest predictor of later violence. Strangling survivors are 750% more likely to die from domestic violence or suffer long-term physical ailments. Perpetrators are more likely to escalate violence against victims and others, including police.

The Tulsa Police Department worked with DVIS, the Family Safety Center, forensic nurses and the District Attorney’s Office to develop a protocol for responding to domestic strangulation calls.

Oklahoma lawmakers in 2020 changed the definitions of violent crime (finally) by adding domestic abuse by strangulation, domestic assault with a dangerous weapon, domestic assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, and domestic assault and battery with a deadly weapon. That gave heft to charges and sentences.

In 2013 Tulsa County used a grant to create a Domestic Violence Court that has become one of four mentor courts in the country.

Sometimes those wins are difficult to appreciate, especially for the frontline workers.

The day I was at the Family Safety Center, I noticed a seamless and unique camaraderie among workers, though they came from 13 different partner agencies.

DVIS advocate Trina Lee, who with four years on the job is considered the seasoned advocate, could talk only a few minutes in a hallway. The job has a high turnover rate because it’s a high-stress position with secondary trauma.

Imagine hearing from fellow Oklahomans every day how they have been beaten, belittled and brutalized by a loved one. Some want to get away permanently; others may have hope for a reunion. Lee’s job is to guide them in an immediate safety plan; she listens and assists in sorting things out to provide all options.

“I want to help people,” Lee said. “All I can do is give them all I’ve got to make them safe.”

Client navigator Karen Warrior is often the first person a victim will see in the center. She has an easy smile and a warm demeanor that naturally put people at ease. She also has a sharp mind and is able to cite research about adverse childhood experiences and hope theory.

Victims walk in the door with a range of emotions, she said.

“Sad, happy, resentful, glad, scared and in trauma; we’ve seen it all,” Warrior said. “We just want people to come in and talk. We don’t want them to be afraid. They are the ones in charge; we are here as support.”

These workers are doing the Lord’s work. They don’t earn big money; they hear the worst of our community’s humanity, and they withhold judgment. Still, I wish they didn’t have their jobs. I wish for a day this work wasn’t needed.

Oklahoma remains far from that day. Much is left to do at bringing down domestic violence, and that includes bringing it into the light.

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