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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Domestic Violence Action Month draws attention to underreported problem

Domestic abuse victim Aida Ortiz is photographed at her home in Hayden, Idaho, on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

The first time Aida Ortiz expressed concerns about her marriage, her mostly Catholic family encouraged her to keep it together.

But her husband’s fits of rage became more frequent, and he sometimes threatened to disappear with their two young sons, she said. And once he grabbed her phone and threw it at her face. But she ducked and it shattered on a wall behind her.

When she traveled for business, Ortiz said, he berated her in phone calls and text messages, accusing her of cheating and demanding to know what she was doing at every moment.

When she pulled into the driveway after work, her older son often made hand signals to indicate his father’s mood – “so then I’d know what I was walking into,” she said.

When she opened up to family members, he moved to isolate her.

And when she tried to leave him, he screamed that she’d be penniless.

Friends and co-workers noticed signs of abuse, but Ortiz shrugged them off. Her husband never hit or choked her. She wouldn’t admit – to herself or others – how the constant threats and intimidation weighed on her.

“I could justify everything he was doing,” she said in an interview at her home in Hayden.

Ortiz, 52, said she might never have summoned the courage to end her 15-year marriage if it weren’t for resources like the North Idaho Violence Protection Center.

She now proudly supports her sons by herself. They’re 13 and 18.

October is Domestic Violence Action Month, and Ortiz hopes her story will embolden other victims to seek help and “end the silence about domestic violence.”

‘We have victims every day’

Local law enforcement officers arrest hundreds of people on domestic violence charges each year, and advocates say there are victims at every rung of the socioeconomic ladder.

In the city of Spokane, “we average roughly 565 DV calls a month,” said Lt. Daniel Ervin, who oversees the police department’s domestic violence unit. “We have victims every day.”

City and county detectives and prosecutors assigned to domestic violence cases work at the YWCA’s Family Justice Center, 930 N. Monroe St., alongside a team of victims’ legal advocates.

“We spoke to and helped 338 people just in the month of September,” said Courtney Pettitt, an advocate at the center.

“Our numbers are very high, and people think that it’s not going on around them, and it is,” Pettitt said. “And it’s not just a personal issue – it’s an issue for our whole community.”

Established in early 2015, the Family Justice Center is a place where domestic violence victims can get multiple kinds of help and tell their stories without fear of being stigmatized.

“It’s probably a little more comfortable an atmosphere than for a victim to walk into the police department,” Ervin said.

Pettitt said legal advocates give victims a voice early in their abusers’ court proceedings.

“We read those police reports and then, if there’s a phone number available, we contact victims before the defendant is seen by a judge,” she said. “So we’re able to share any input that they want. The judge or prosecutor can know it at that first appearance hearing.”

Pettitt said friends and family members should encourage, but not press, victims to seek help, perhaps by accompanying them to the Family Justice Center. Most victims are women.

Pettitt said it’s easy to ask, “Why doesn’t she leave him?” But that ignores the risks involved. Domestic violence tends to flare up during and after break-ups.

“As victims’ advocates, we encourage people to make their own decisions and will walk through that process with them,” she said. “We are never going to pressure someone to do something they don’t want to do.”

‘The most dangerous calls’

On June 4, 2013, after a two-week trial, a jury handed down a guilty verdict for the murder of Chanin Starbuck, a 42-year-old mother of five. Her ex-husband, Clay Starbuck, was convicted of torturing her and leaving her body in the master bedroom of her Deer Park home.

Detective Mike Ricketts had investigated Starbuck’s murder as part of the major crimes unit of the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office. He might have felt some relief on the day of the guilty verdict, but early that morning he was called to the scene of another gruesome killing in which the victim and suspect had been intimate partners.

Regan Jolley, 33, was beaten, strangled and left in a bin of acid in a shed behind the Nine Mile Falls home where she had briefly lived with her boyfriend, Jason Hart, and several other roommates.

Before Hart was convicted in September 2014, Ricketts asked to be reassigned to the domestic violence unit.

“Most of my homicides were domestic violence,” Ricketts said. He wanted to stop the abuse before it could turn deadly.

Spokane-area officers now use a screening tool designed to identify domestic violence victims most at risk of being killed by an intimate partner. Responding officers go through 11 questions with victims, asking whether the abuser has ever threatened to kill, is employed, has access to guns or tends to be jealous or controlling.

Ricketts said domestic violence situations are “some of the most dangerous calls that police officers go on because they’re very volatile and there’s a lot of emotion packed into them.”

Domestic violence also can be difficult to sort out because relationship factors, such as children and finances, make many victims scared or unwilling to tell the whole truth. And abusers are often manipulative. Many victims are abused numerous times before they come forward.

“Victims, when officers go to the scene, often need immediate help and they’re willing to talk to them about what happened,” said Ervin, the police lieutenant. “But after that happens, after the perpetrator goes to jail, then they start processing things: ‘Is he going to lose his job? Am I going to get beat worse the next time around?’ ”

Ervin said domestic violence demands more attention.

“We all go about our day, and I don’t know that most people, if it doesn’t directly impact them, that it even crosses their mind,” he said.

Moment of clarity

On a summer day in 2011, Ortiz said, her husband lashed out at her and then took their sons for a car ride without saying when he’d bring them back.

Ortiz worried he might try to take the kids far away. So she began rummaging through a filing cabinet.

“I realized I didn’t have the license plate number, the VIN number or anything like that,” she said. “I wanted to have that information in case I needed to call the police.”

She came across a folder she hadn’t seen before, labeled “Guns.” Inside were some gun advertisements her husband had clipped from a magazine, and paperwork showing he had signed up for a concealed-carry certification class.

Ortiz was frightened, and to this day she believes her husband “had been planning something,” although she doesn’t know what.

“He had never, in my experience, had an affinity toward guns,” she said.

The discovery prompted her to get a protection order and seek help from the North Idaho Violence Prevention Center, which advised her to leave with the kids and all their important documents.

Ortiz said they spent nearly a week in a friend’s cabin in Hauser, where her husband couldn’t find them.

He later spent time in jail for violating the protection order, she said.

As the divorce proceeded, Ortiz said her family and friends, even those who had been at arm’s length during her marriage, came swooping in to support her.

For months, she attended group counseling sessions with Abuse Recovery Ministry and Services, or ARMS, a faith-based nonprofit. She said it prevented her from falling into another abusive relationship – and from trying to reconnect with her ex-husband.

“Within two or three weeks the loneliness hits, and then you start justifying stuff again: ‘You know what, it really wasn’t that bad. Maybe it’s just me overreacting. I was being hormonal that day.’ And then you kind of think, ‘How can I get back with him? How can I apologize?’ ”

Today she has her self-esteem back and volunteers with ARMS, teaching teenage girls about bullying, boys and abuse.

Ortiz urged other victims to confide in those they trust – to say, “I’m in trouble. I don’t think this is right.”