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Pattaya Daily News

24 May 2007 :: 18:05:41 pm 30823

Escaping A Violent Partner Can Seem Impossible For Thousands Of Women

‘All the time my husband was beating me, he was telling me this was the day I was going to die ...‘ For Lakeesha Sexton, and the tens of thousands of women like her, escaping a violent partner can seem impossible. But a revolutionary one-stop centre in San Diego - which has now been cloned in Croydon - is bringing police, lawyers and care workers together in an attempt to break them free.
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Like many abused women, Lakeesha Sexton had known for some time that her life was at risk. The last time her estranged husband Kenneth attacked her, his assault began at a petrol station. He bundled her into her car and then forced her to drive to the San Diego freeway, where he made her pull up on the hard shoulder and beat her mercilessly for 25 minutes.

‘Finally a woman stopped,’ says Lakeesha. ‘He threw me out the door and drove away in my car. The cops found it a week later, the seats and the carpet stained with my blood. All the time he was beating me, he was telling me that this was the day I was going to die. But he made one mistake. The beating started in the gas station, so they got it on video.’

Now in jail awaiting trial for the attack, Kenneth Sexton faces a sentence of life without parole under California’s ‘three strikes and you’re out’ law. This charming, intelligent, well-groomed older man – he was 37 when they met, she was 26 – wooed Lakeesha for three years before their wedding with gifts, attention and passionate declarations of love. One thing he didn’t share was that he had already spent many years in prison, after being convicted, as a teenager, of rape and murder.

Sexton’s relationship with Lakeesha followed a pattern all too familiar to domestic violence victims, and those who support them, on both sides of the Atlantic. Once their honeymoon was over, ‘the physical abuse came in right away,’ says Lakeesha, while the escalating violence was accompanied by a range of controlling behaviours.

‘In some ways, the psychological abuse was worse,’ she says. ‘He wanted control over what I wore, how I spoke, what I cooked and ate, and how I presented myself. At first it seemed flattering. What he was actually doing was undermining my self-esteem to the point where I felt totally helpless. After he beat me, he would beg my forgiveness and promise he would change. The result of it all was that when I thought about getting out of the relationship, it seemed totally hopeless.’

Research has shown that the most dangerous time of all for domestic violence victims is after they leave, as Lakeesha finally did after six years. In common with many perpetrators, Sexton responded by stalking her: ‘He started coming to the place where I work [as a healthcare instructor], making threats, calling me and sending texts.’

In April, less than two years after she fled her luxurious marital home, leaving most of her possessions behind, her life is back on track. Immaculately styled and palpably proud of her achievements, Lakeesha does not look or sound like a recent victim: ‘I’m succeeding in my job, my children are doing great and I’ve rebuilt my confidence.’

For this, she says, she has the San Diego Family Justice Center to thank, a radical and innovative project housed on four floors of a spacious downtown office block that gives domestic violence victims immediate access to professionals from every service they might possibly need under one roof: from more than 30 police officers, teams of prosecutors and family civil lawyers to housing officials, doctors, nurses and psychotherapists. There is also a well-equipped creche with qualified staff to keep children occupied while their mothers see staff elsewhere, and a cafe supplied with free food by Starbucks.

For the first time, women – and the small minority of men – who want to leave an abusive relationship can access legal protection and diverse kinds of support almost instantaneously, from organisations now housed no more than a floor or two apart, and which are able to share information with ease. Previously in San Diego, as remains the case in most of Britain, victims who needed help would often have little idea of what might be available; they would traipse from office to office and wait for appointments, a process that could easily take weeks. Co-ordination and information sharing between different official bodies was at best sluggish and ineffective. If victims also had young children, the task often seemed impossibly daunting.

Anyone who knows a domestic violence victim will recognise the consequences of this failure to gain adequate support. Even women who had been badly hurt, had taken shelter at a refuge and apparently had every intention of going through with a prosecution at the time they called the police, often withdrew their testimony and went back home to be abused again – and in some cases murdered.

‘The Family Justice Center gave me a strategy and the means to leave him,’ says Lakeesha. ‘They got my restraining order, they found me a place to live and gave me the support of other women who’d had similar experiences, and counsellors who knew how to deal with them. They got my husband arrested and they gave me the strength to testify against him: the hope that justice will prevail. I’ve kept his last name because I don’t want him to forget me. Every time he hears it while he rots in prison I want him to remember what he did to me and my children.’

Before the centre opened in 2002, about 12 women a year were murdered by their current or former partner in San Diego, a city of 3m people. Since then, 27,000 victims have passed through the centre and there has been just one such killing, of a victim who had never sought help. The centre’s success has been recognised by the federal government, which has poured millions of dollars into opening similar centres across America – there are now 26, with a further 30 in the pipeline.

In Britain, both the government and domestic violence victims’ groups, such as Refuge and Women’s Aid, express their admiration for the San Diego model. Speaking to The Observer Magazine, Baroness Scotland QC, the Home Office minister responsible for domestic violence policy, says: ‘It’s clear to me that we need a holistic, well-integrated response. Co-locating services in one place is a real step forward.’

Clients of Britain’s only Family Justice Centre, which opened in Croydon, south London in December 2005, say it has transformed their lives. Angela Penney, 42, says she suffered domestic violence for 25 years before first presenting herself last year. She lifts her hair to reveal a 27-stitch scar on her forehead, from where her former partner threw her against a door and half scalped her. She had pressed criminal charges several times, and once, she says, he spent a week on remand; but each time she withdrew her complaint. ‘In the years of abuse, I’d fled to a refuge a couple of times, but I kept going back to him. All I really got at the refuge was a bed and room: it wasn’t their fault, but there wasn’t any aftercare or other form of support. When you’re in this kind of relationship, you know it’s wrong, but you can’t see any way out.’

The last time Angela went back, mainly because ‘his father died and I felt sorry for him’, he beat her up, left her and then tried to get the courts to give him custody of their two children – on the grounds that she was depressed. Finally, in 2005, she suffered a full-blown breakdown, and both children began living with their father.

‘I don’t think I’d ever have recovered if I hadn’t found this place,’ she says. ‘They listened to my stories when I needed someone to understand; they came to court with me and helped me fight for my kids. The elder is back with me now, and the younger stays every other week. They got me a non-molestation order [the British equivalent of a restraining order]. For the first time, I feel physically safe.’

The evidence suggests that the Croydon centre has also reduced repeated domestic violence, as well as providing other support. But financially dependent on the local council, two charities and the Metropolitan Police, it gets nothing from central government and cannot yet operate at its planned capacity. Its greatest problem is not threats from abusers, but a shortage of cash.

Reporter : PDN staff   Photo : Internet   Category : World News

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