Shattered homes: Three young women overcoming domestic violence in their families

Editors’ note: This story contains descriptions of domestic violence.

Illustration by Emily Teng

“During heated conversations, he would tell me to go to bed early or see if I could go to a friend’s house, and I never knew why,” she said. “As I got older, he began not caring whether I saw or not. I saw him put his hands on my mom.”

“I just remember running. We had to get as far away as we could get.”

This Lowell junior, who will be referred to as Nora because she requested not to have her real name used, lived in a home in which her father abused her and her mother for over 12 years.

Situations of domestic violence like this are prevalent throughout our community, with an annual 4,200 police reports in San Francisco alone, according to La Casa de Las Madres, a San Francisco non-profit shelter based in the Mission.

Domestic violence is defined as a pattern of abuse in which one partner in an intimate relationship controls the other through force or intimidation, according to La Casa. Domestic violence includes, but is not limited to, physical abuse. It also happens in the form of sexual, spiritual, verbal, emotional, and psychological abuse. Domestic violence affects not only adults, but also children, teens, and elders. It occurs in all types of intimate relationships, including heterosexual, same-sex, marriage dating, and even former relationships. It can happen between people of all races, nationalities, ages, and economic classes. Economic dependency is one of the main reasons victims decide to stay with or return to their abusive partners.

Both men and women experience domestic violence. Children in the family can also experience direct violence from their parents or the effects of violence between parents.

Even with statistics showing that domestic violence is an issue, high school students may fail to realize that such patterns happen regularly for some of their classmates and friends’ families as well.

Situations

“If she cooked dinner wrong, he’d get really upset. It’d be times when he wasn’t drunk either.”

Professionals refer to people who have endured domestic violence as survivors. Nora is a survivor who has overcome challenges and become more independent after domestic violence split her family apart.

Nora grew up in a household where her mother was a regular victim of domestic violence, both physical and emotional. Her father, an alcoholic, was controlling and aggressive, and would often hit her mom when he was drunk.

When he wasn’t drunk, Nora said her father would still threaten to hit her mom, or he would punch the wall in anger. “If she cooked dinner wrong, he’d get really upset,” she said. “No one else would see it as a big deal, but he would call her sexist names and even swing his hands at her. It’d be times when he wasn’t drunk either.”

Her father was aggressive all throughout her childhood, either towards her mother or towards her. “Whenever I made a mistake, he overdid the disciplinary stuff,” she said. “I imagine if parents yell a little bit, it would be okay. But his wasn’t a healthy amount.”

When Nora was one year old, Nora’s mother left her abusive husband and moved to a women’s shelter with Nora. Within a year, he convinced her mother to come back with promises to treat her differently and stop drinking. Nora’s two brothers were born shortly after.

Nora, who now had siblings to care for, felt that she could not help herself or her mother. “For a while, I believed that it was okay for him to get mad, that my mom was probably wrong, or that she should’ve just cooked dinner right,” she said. “I thought they loved each other, and I just wanted to feel like a family. He’s my dad, and I still love him. But I decided that I just didn’t feel safe in that environment.”

Another Lowell student, a current senior, here referred to as Phoebe because she requested that her real name not be used, is a survivor who grew up in a similar situation, as her mother was also a victim of physical, emotional, and verbal domestic violence. Phoebe did not witness the abuse for long, since she was young at the time. She said that she only has vague memories of her life with her father. “I just remember running,” she said. “We had to get as far away as we could get.”

For a while, Phoebe’s mother was hesitant to leave, as her husband was in control of their finances. But it was difficult for her mother to picture raising her kids under such abusive circumstances, especially since Phoebe’s older sister had witnessed the abuse for much longer than Phoebe had. She began staying in homeless shelters with her mother and sister.

Another young woman, Daisy, who also requested that her real name not be used, is a survivor whose experience shows the risks of domestic violence that immigrants can face. She is a recent immigrant from China, currently attending college in San Francisco, and was referred to us by the Asian Women’s Shelter.

Daisy was in a mentally abusive environment for a long time. “As immigrants who spoke limited English, we felt hopeless and needed help, but nobody was there to help us,” Daisy said.

Her stepfather was an American citizen her mother had married after they came from China. He was verbally abusive to Daisy and her younger sister, and physically abusive to her mother. “He would call me ‘stupid and weak,’ and ask me to repeat that,” she said. “He was so violent and aggressive. He would tell us he had a gun, or that he could get a gun.”

Daisy had to rely heavily on her stepfather because he was the only person who could sign the documents for her to go to school in the United States. “He would threaten me, saying that unless I did things for him, he wouldn’t fill out the paperwork,” she said.

Seeking Help

The first big step for all three students and their mothers in getting out of their harmful environments was having the courage to leave, which meant that they needed to find shelter and housing away from their abusers.

Initially, Phoebe and her family sought help at homeless shelters across San Francisco. Many of the shelters they initially stayed at had few rooms, so Phoebe and her family were often placed in areas in San Francisco that seemed unsafe. “At night, we’d hear gunshots,” she said. “But what are you going to do? You’d rather be in a place like that than on the streets.”

Daisy moved out to a separate apartment with her sister when Daisy turned eighteen.

Nora’s mother fled the country to get away from her abusive husband in 2012, leaving Nora and her two younger brothers with their father. He later became incapable of providing for her financially. Nora began staying with a friend’s family with her father’s permission. Her brothers remained under his care.

However these solutions were not permanent. Soon all three students needed to find more stable homes. Nora’s father had begun threatening her and the family she was staying with. Feeling unsafe, Nora went to Huckleberry Youth, a community-based agency for teens based in San Francisco.

Both Phoebe and Daisy’s families stayed at the Asian Women’s Shelter (AWS) in San Francisco. Nora and Phoebe, who both go to Lowell, also looked to the Wellness Center for counseling and help with case management.

The Asian Women’s Shelter

AWS works with survivors of all backgrounds and specializes in the needs of Asian Pacific Islanders and their families. AWS provides families with private bedrooms and familiar food, according to AWS director Elizabeth Kirton. As it can be a big adjustment to go from living in a private home to a shared living space, the AWS mimics a homelike environment. They currently have the capacity to serve about seven adults and their children.

They also provide staff members who speak their language and can facilitate communication in the shelter and in accessing outside services, and special activities that are designed to help them heal and recover from the trauma of domestic violence.

“The longer you stay, the more you hurt. Your feelings and well-being are worth a lot more.”

Phoebe stayed at AWS until she was four years old. The director took care of her family, eventually helping them find their own place to live. “She took really good care of us,” she said. “She understood what my mom was going through, and was able to reach out to different people to help us financially. She was really helpful in helping us get back on our feet and find our own place to live.”

Phoebe stayed at AWS as a young child, but in some cases, certain families who seek help from the shelter may have older children. Since moving to shelters can be a disruption to a teenager’s academic, social and emotional life, it is uncommon for teens to come to the shelters with their families. Survivors of domestic violence typically try everything they can to avoid disrupting their teens’ lives. The teenagers may choose to stay with friends or relatives instead in order to maintain their usual routine.

When Daisy was eighteen, her stepfather got into a violent fight with her mother, and the police intervened. Though Daisy and her younger sister were already living in a separate apartment, the police brought Daisy, her mother, and her sister to AWS, where they stayed for almost half a year. Since the family had relied so heavily on Daisy’s stepfather, the shelter had an attorney help change their immigration status, find an apartment, and help Daisy with an independent student visa so she could attend school. “The shelter has been really helpful,” Daisy said. “It changed my life.”

The Wellness Center

“At school, other kids had Lunchables while I had free cafeteria food, but I never envied those students too much because at least I had food too.”

At school, the Wellness Center offers the same resources for students dealing with domestic violence that it does for all students: a quiet space, somebody to talk to about what’s going on, and case management. Case management provides students with connections both around and outside the school to help them be successful and deal with any issues they do not feel can be supported by meeting one on one with a clinician, according to Wellness Center director Carol Chao.

The Wellness Center is focused on catering to students’ individual needs. “Everything we do depends on what the students want,” Chao said. “All of our services are confidential and voluntary.”

Nora spoke to Wellness about her father last year. She was paired with a social worker, who immediately brought her case to the judge, who gave her social worker sole authority in deciding where Nora went from there. Fairly recently, she began living in a foster home in San Francisco. “There are a few other girls my age living there, and it’s run by a really kind lady,” she said. “I got lucky that it just happened to be in the city, otherwise I would have had to go to a different city and different school. Everything would have been harder. I’m still able to take the same bus I’ve always taken. I got really lucky.”

Both Nora and Phoebe continue to speak with Wellness counselors about how to cope with their experiences.

Building Resilience

There are still ongoing court meetings regarding Nora’s case. She said her father was similarly emotionally and physically abusive towards her two brothers, but they have not spoken out against him as she has. The authorities are unable to remove them from his care, unless they themselves claim that they feel unsafe. “My dad has brainwashed them so they won’t speak to social workers,” Nora said. “We were told to lie about where my mom went. He guilt-tripped us and made us feel bad about missing her. It has gotten to the point where my brothers really do believe my mom did something wrong.”

Nora, who had time to reflect on the impact of domestic violence in her life, began seeing aspects of her parents in herself. “Sometimes I see myself sounding more aggressive like my dad or more submissive like my mom, and it worries me,” she said. “I saw my brothers slowly becoming more sexist as they got older.”

“Before this, I was good at letting people take care of me but now I like to take care of people.”

All three students also experienced surges of independence and maturity when they were uprooted from their everyday lives, seeking help from their abusive environments and moving from shelters to youth groups and the foster system.

With limited resources, Phoebe learned what it meant to not take anything for granted. Since money was still tight, fresh food was uncommon in her household. “Whatever we could get, we took,” she said. “I was raised on expired food from Safeway or Lucky’s. At school, other kids had Lunchables while I had free cafeteria food, but I never envied those students too much because at least I had food too. I remember making toys out of toilet paper rolls with my sister. It’s made me mature a lot faster, not taking anything for granted. I don’t need a lot of things to be satisfied.”

Phoebe, whose mother worked long hours to help support her family, began taking the bus alone when she was seven years old. “I saw people’s parents picking them up or taking them out for ice cream, and sometimes I think it would’ve been nice to have two parents to spend more time with, but most of the time it didn’t bother me because I knew my mom was working hard to make a better life for us.”

Daisy’s situation has also made her become more mature. “I’ve had to take care of my family, especially my mom,” she said. “Before this, I was good at letting people take care of me but now I like to take care of people.”

Speak Up and Get Out

February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. Domestic violence occurs not only in parent-to-parent and parent-to-child violence, but also within nonfamily relationships, including teenage ones.

The Wellness Center promotes maintaining healthy relationships through events such as Love Fest around Valentine’s Day. A healthy relationship is one in which both partners feel safe, supported and connected, while still being able to maintain independence, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, an advocacy group. The two major components of healthy relationships are communication and boundaries. Both partners treat each other with respect and feel supported without any pressure to do things they don’t want to.

“I didn’t deserve to be emotionally put down by him for my mistakes. I’m allowed to make mistakes.”

The three students, the Wellness Center, and AWS offered some advice on how to maintain healthy relationships and get out of unhealthy ones.

Nora found the courage to speak up about the abuse she and her family endured after spending time apart from her father. “It took me being completely separate from him, talking to my boyfriend and to the mom of the household I was staying with, to really realize and understand that it wasn’t my fault and that it was a situation I needed to get myself out of,” she said. “I didn’t deserve to be emotionally put down by him for my mistakes. I’m allowed to make mistakes.”

She found that her life drastically improved once she was out of the situation. “The longer you stay, the more you hurt,” she said. “Your feelings and well-being are worth a lot more.”

With the help of AWS, Phoebe learned to help others with similar struggles recognize when they’re in a bad situation. “I wish that everybody could see the signs early when their partners tell them they’ll be better, that they won’t hurt them again, that it was a one time thing,” Phoebe said. “When you don’t speak up, especially if you’re the victim and you’re not telling your family or seeking help, the more you try to deal with it yourself, the more depressed you get. With my mom, the longer she stayed, the sadder she got. I want people to know that if you start seeing the signs, if you start experiencing it, step up and say something. Don’t be ashamed.”

Daisy said that signs to pay attention include physical threat and daily sadness. “Tell family members or people you trust,” she said. “If it’s really life-threatening, you need to leave or call the police. At the end of the day, it’s not for anyone but yourself.”

Domestic Violence Awareness

Several groups are working to increase awareness, both at school and in the city. High school students can get training on how to support friends who are dealing with domestic violence situations and educate themselves on the resources available in our community, according to Chao. “San Francisco has incredible resources here, and sometimes there are so many it becomes white noise,” she said.

Domestic Violence Awareness Club (DVAC), a club at Lowell dedicated to educating others about domestic violence and fundraising for local women’s shelters, aims to promote domestic violence awareness within the school and city. In 2015 they won AWS’s Champions of Change Award for raising money for the shelter and spreading awareness of domestic violence.

Club president senior Vivian To created the club last year after volunteering with AWS. “Working so closely with the women at the shelter really exposed me to the effects of domestic violence and how it harms individuals and society,” To said.

Through Winter Faire, Co-curricular Day and self-planned bake sales, DVAC raised $1000 for the shelter last year. The money is being put towards supplies for activities for kids, emergency bus passes, special holiday food, and welcoming gifts for children when they come into the shelter, according to Kirton.

Kirton is amazed with the work DVAC has done in such a short amount of time. “Like our volunteers and language advocates, the members of DVAC are critically important in helping to change attitudes,” Kirton said.

While AWS aids individual families, Kirton believes DVAC has the potential to make a lasting impact on the greater community through its awareness-raising projects. “We hope and expect that students at Lowell will learn the importance of healthy relationships, where violence and power have no role,” Kirton said.

To show their appreciation, AWS celebrated DVAC’s work by giving them the opportunity to visit City Hall and meet Mayor Ed Lee, according to club vice president senior Vanessa Siu. The club has plans to continue raising money and begin volunteering at other shelters, such as La Casa de Las Madres, a non-profit shelter based in the Mission.

Phoebe hopes people will be better able to recognize and prevent it. “It’s a cycle that nobody should ever have to live through,” she said.

Originally published on March 3, 2016