Knoxville's Growing Crisis of Domestic Violence

Knox County cases of domestic abuse are at an all-time high—and our support system can't keep up

In social-work lingo, domestic violence is what's known as a "stable community problem."

Meaning that it doesn't ever go away, nor does it decrease much, or increase much. But now, in Knoxville and Knox County, incidents are on the rise—or at least police calls are. The Knoxville Police Department and Knox County Sheriff's office responded to more than one domestic violence related call every 30 minutes in 2010; 19,043 total, the highest annual figure to date, compared to 17,951 in 2009, and 16,400 a year earlier.

The number of domestic-violence victims reported by KPD has grown steadily as well: 1,987 in 2009, the most recent year available, up from 1,745 in 2006, which is around an 8 percent increase, though the population increased about 3 percent in the same period. Dial back to 2002, when the victim rate was just 1,332, and total offenses have increased by about 30 percent in seven years, while population's gone up just 6 percent.

Why the surge? It's no coincidence that it occurs in tandem with economic losses and higher rates of unemployment at those same times, says Lisa Higginbotham, director of social work at the YWCA of Knoxville, which promotes a Victim's Advocacy Program—people who are stressed about finances might cross lines they hadn't before. "That can certainly add stress to the environment, and essentially cause people to act verbally, physically and/or sexually on another person. People who feel they have no control or losing control can tend to try to assert control over others," she says.

Along with more people reaching the breaking point, the violence is becoming more severe, says Dave Yoder, executive director of Legal Aid of East Tennessee, which closed 751 domestic violence cases from its Knoxville office last year. "Where we used to see more pushing and shoving and slapping, now we're seeing more internal injuries," he says.

Legal Aid, which provides a wide range of civil legal assistance and advocacy for elderly, abused, and low-income people, is also encountering victims with what Yoder calls a "higher risk assessment"—as in higher risk of hospitalization, or permanent physical injury. Or of dying. Already, he says, Tennessee has the fourth or fifth highest rate in the nation for murder of women by their intimate partners, year after year.

As horrifying as they are, increasing numbers of domestic violence incidents and more severe violence are just the first alerts to a community disaster in the making. The sources of support are dwindling, too, just when they're most needed. The situation grows ever more volatile as victims must stay in increasingly violent relationships—and the next generation watches and learns to perpetuate the cycle.

"I know it sounds melodramatic," says Yoder, "but the reality is, if we don't get this under control, more people are going to die."

Nowhere to Go

It may take everything in a victim's power to decide to leave an abuser; to break from the constant message that she's unloved, unwanted, stupid, can't do anything right—deserving of every punch or scathing remark leveled. And should she (an estimated 85 percent of abuse victims are women) finally summon the courage to move on, in our area, she might find herself right back in the same mess. Because much-needed systems of support and shelter for victims of domestic violence are stretched too thin, or simply no longer available.

"So much is missing in our community support system these days, particularly as far as jobs are concerned," says Janet Gurwitch, an assistant district attorney who prosecutes all the misdemeanor domestic violence arrests that come through Judge Bill Swann's Fourth District Court. "I work mostly with the victims. I let them know they don't deserve the kind of treatment they come to court from, that they can stand on their own. But they don't have as many places to turn to earn a living as they once did. And the resources that will help them know where to go next are dwindling."

One big gap, says Gurwitch, is an absence of reliable mental health care. "It's hit or miss. If a victim doesn't have medical insurance, we never know if they're going to get into treatment, and that can really hold a person back. The other thing recently is transportation. I can't tell you how many people say they can't follow through with jobs or housing because they don't have a car or can't pay for a bus."

From the legal perspective, Legal Aid has already been "triaging" services, with 24 staff, six of them attorneys, representing plaintiffs in around 8,000 cases annually—out of about 350,000 who are eligible. "We can't help everybody," says Yoder. In addition, his staff might be helping far fewer in the coming months. On Feb. 21, the House voted to cut Legal Aid funding nationally by $70 million; if it passes the Senate and the President, the trickle down to Knoxville would be a $450,000 cut, and an estimated 250 fewer domestic violence cases prosecuted for area victims.

Ironically, Legal Aid currently has the services of some extra attorneys paid for by Justice Department stimulus funding, due to run out at the end of the year. "We got that funding based on the federal studies that found that the single factor most statistically likely to end domestic violence is access to civil legal assistance," says Yoder. "In other words, a legal aid lawyer."

Victims are also running up against an affordable housing shortage that's evolved in the past few years.

"Since the first economic turndown in 2006, there are people now occupying subsidized housing who wouldn't ordinarily qualify under income guidelines, which means less subsidized housing is available overall, so it's harder or victims looking to escape to get affordable housing," says Annette Beebe, YWCA transitional housing program director. "Other victims of abuse have lost hours, lost their jobs, lost the cars they needed for work. It all adds up to more victims staying in abusive relationships because there are fewer alternatives for them."

The YWCA's transitional housing project is just one example of a system bursting at the seams. It contains just 58 bedrooms, and is the only intake center in the area intended for more than a couple of months of emergency shelter. Beebe estimates about 80 percent of the women who live there arrive from abusive households. Women can stay for up to two years total, but for a long time most transitioned back out within six months. In 2008, the average period stretched to eight months, then 10 months in 2009; now it's 12 months.

That means around 300 qualified applicants are turned away each year for the housing, though support groups and some other services are still open to all comers. Just not a place to stay. "For each transitional housing opening, I'd say we're getting 10 or 12 calls," says Y business manager Danielle Benson, who's held the job for two years. "We ask that each one come to the front desk to fill out an application, and the front desk staff will refer them to homeless shelters, or to Catholic Charities, but those are very short term, maybe at the most three months. Most of the time, there are no other options."

The YWCA does a have a plan in the works to hire a worker who could act as a resource for those who can't enter the program, but that's in the future, as are another potential 11 rooms that will be built if the Y's capital campaign is successful. In the meantime, says Benson, she avoids asking people who can't enter the program where they'll go, or what they'll do instead. "It's too difficult to know what they're going home to, if they even have a home," she says tersely. "If I knew for sure, I wouldn't be able to sleep at night."

Programs in outlying areas are feeling the pinch, too, like Loudon County's Crisis Center for Women, Iva's Place. "We've seen an increase in need just in the year I've been here," says executive director Sue Anderson. "A lot of that is due to the economy, women are being evicted, being abandoned."

Iva's is a complete transitional program with a 98 percent success rate of having women move out into their own places with jobs that will sustain them. For their participants' safety, they don't reveal occupation numbers, but Anderson does say they've had to turn women away this year. "We do referrals, but that is difficult, because we're the only ones who take women with children in Loudon. It's hard; we have to send some victims to Knoxville, to the homeless shelters, and they're not set up for victims of domestic violence."

Iva's is in the process of expanding. "There's just so much need," says Anderson. "It's a very difficult thing to say no, but if our beds are full, they're full."

Another aspect of the vicious cycle is that without the support, or the place to live, a victim attempting escape may unwittingly exacerbate the situation, says Higginbotham. "If a victim moves out and she doesn't have her finances set up, or somewhere to live, it's very easy to go back. To have to go back." More often than not, the return will increase the level of violence in the home, sometimes to lethal levels.

Who's It Hurting?

Knoxville does have some advantages when it comes to coping with domestic violence, says Legal Aid's Yoder. For one thing, it began addressing victim's advocacy way back in the 1980s, and has been moving forward ever since. Knoxville is one of just 15 places in the nation with a Family Justice Center, which streamlines services for victims, and a systematic approach and sympathetic ear from Judge Swann's Fourth District Court makes us one of the top cities in the nation in terms of issuing orders of protection for victims and prosecuting violators—2,519 granted just last year, for example.

Yoder also praises local law enforcement for being knowledgeable and committed to preventing and handling domestic violence.

But we're still with the rest of the nation in terms of avoiding much discussion of domestic violence, and, intentionally or unintentionally, making it seem less threatening than it is.

In eight years of working with area victims, the YMCA's Beebe says the overwhelming public attitude is one of downplaying the brutal reality. "They think it's just a woman with the occasional black eye, but what I've seen is women who are missing teeth, who have suffered brain damage, who have been raped, who have been given STDs, who have had earrings ripped through their ear lobes, who have scars from being burnt with cigarettes, who have broken bones that never healed properly.

"And the image the public has of the uneducated woman, who doesn't know any better, no. It is across the board," says Beebe, who worked earlier as a paralegal with Legal Aid and has been in her current job the past five years.

Along with being skeptical of the severity of the problem, our area has a long-standing attitude of "mind your own business." "Because we live in Appalachia, there are certain traditions of isolation that have not quite worked themselves out the past couple of generations," says Higginbotham. "So it's easier to isolate a victim; through the years, people have come to feel they don't have the right to interfere. They don't see this as a community problem that impacts us all."

Perhaps the biggest barrier to change as a community is the idea that the victim should "just leave."

There are multitudes of reasons why a victim wouldn't—or couldn't—leave her abuser, even if subsidized housing was cheap and plentiful, and jobs were there for the taking.

"I think what people tend to forget is the emotional part; they don't stay with the men who are beating them because they're getting beat; they stay because of the times they're not getting beat," says Beebe. What is now an abuser was once a man a woman fell in love with, or may still love.

One victim who staffers talked about just last week, says Benson, was a woman who was ready to leave and then admitted to a case worker that when she heard her abuser's voice, she wanted nothing more than to go back. "This man had made threats towards the children and abused her while she was pregnant, and there was definitely an issue of animal abuse in the home," notes Benson. "But she heard his voice."

Another reason a woman chooses to stay presents a chilling cautionary tale: She witnessed an abusive relationship as a child. "If a woman grows up in a violent home," says Beebe, "this is what she relates relationships to. A man who grows up in a violent home, ditto. When you don't know how to deal with conflict in a healthy manner, this is what you're learning, this is how you deal with it and this is what you do."

And, victims get used to their status, get worn down. "These guys start out, they act like they're so caring and loving because they have your best interest at heart: ‘I don't want you driving, I don't want you working, because, you know, it's so dangerous out there,'" says Beebe, who has more than 300 hours of clinical training in domestic violence issues. "Most of the time it happens a little at a time, and before you know it, you're in it. He's got control of everything; you don't even have a car, or a phone, any more."

When Higginbotham asks women to write down reasons in support groups, the answers range from "guilt" and "shame" to "a child should have two parents" and "I wouldn't have a place to sleep anymore."

Why doesn't she just leave? Here's another answer, says Beebe: "If I leave my batterer, go out on my own, I have no idea where he is. When I go to sleep, every single noise is going to wake me up, because the last word he said to me is, ‘I'll kill you if you leave me.'"

Why does she stay? That, says Beebe, is the wrong question. "This is my deal, and not just for Knoxville, it's anywhere. This is never going to change until the community changes, until we stop saying, ‘Why does she stay?" and start asking, ‘Why does he abuse?' Because even if she leaves, he'll move on to another victim. When you ask, ‘Why does she stay?' you're putting the accountability on the victim. Until we stop and say, ‘That's crazy!,' we, as a community, are never going to see a big change."


Do You Need Help?

According to the YWCA's Victim Advocacy Program, here is a list of common abusive behaviors—though they also caution that each situation is individual and unique:


Controlling behavior

Pressing for quick involvement

Unrealistic expectations—of their mate, a child, or an animal

Attempts to isolate a person from friends and family

Blaming others for problems and stress

Blaming others for his/her own feelings

Hypersensitivity (Victims may feel like they have to "walk on eggshells")

Cruelty to animals or children

"Playful" use of force in sex

Verbal abuse

Sudden mood changes

If you or someone you know needs help with domestic violence issues, call the YWCA Victim's Advocacy Program

865-215-6383 services in English

865-257-6785 o 865-257-6786 servicios en Espanol (services in Spanish)

865-521-6336 24-hour local crisis line

865-523-6126 YWCA Knoxville