Domestic violence survivor leads awareness project at local school
PABLO — Two Eagle River School has a tradition of going all out in support of Domestic Violence Prevention month each October.
The computer and Photoshop classes produced posters denouncing domestic violence, and the home cultures class made ya-ya dolls to decorate the common area. Purple hearts inscribed with names of loved ones, acquaintances and other Montanans lost to domestic violence cover bulletin boards.
Students Ashley Lozeau, TERS student council president, and Ida Couture sewed a banner made of 24 pieces of canvas to hang on the fence facing Highway 93. The banner reads “Domestic violence is not traditional.”
Judy Gibbs, TERS counselor, and Evelyn Hernandez, domestic violence survivor and TERS school board member, have co-facilitated a domestic violence prevention group for seven years and are doing “valuable work,” Hernandez said.
“I’m the only school board member that gets hugs,” Hernandez said, laughing. “The girls trust me enough to come to me.”
Although it’s been more than 26 years, Hernandez’ eyes are sad and her hands tighten as she tells her story.
“I lived in Missoula, and I was an alcoholic,” said Hernandez.
“I was married to a white man from Tennessee. He was 6-foot-four-inches”,” she said. At a mere 5-feet” Hernandez’ husband towered over her.
A former violent, alcoholic boyfriend of Hernandez’ introduced the two. The boyfriend and her husband-to-be were in drug and alcohol treatment together.
One night the ex-boyfriend pulled a knife on Hernandez, and her husband-to-be saved her from being stabbed.
He told her, “I love you, and I want to protect you.”
To someone with low self-esteem, the word “love” is powerful, Hernandez said. She started calling him her knight in shining armor.
They were both alcoholics, she confided, although she’s been sober for 26 years.
“I remember the first time he hit me,” she said, tilting her chin up.
The couple was having a disagreement, not even an argument, and he said he couldn’t stay with her and stormed out. It was late at night; Hernandez’ three children by a former marriage were asleep. Hernandez locked the door and headed for her bedroom.
She heard her husband’s footsteps coming up the outside stairs, and before she could unlock the door, he kicked it down and “slapped me so hard he knocked me down.”
Then he knelt on the floor, cried and told her didn’t know why he’d hit here since he loved her.
At the time, Hernandez said tears from a grown man impressed her.
Looking back now, Hernandez realizes he started using power and control to isolate her.
She was not allowed to drive her car or go anyplace without him. She was cut off from her dad, her sisters and brothers. When they were driving somewhere, if she looked out the window and there was a man — any man, young or old — her husband would backhand her. At Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, she wasn’t allowed to speak to any men, even to say “Hi.”
“I learned to walk with my head down,” she said, remembering that she thought if she complied, life would get better.
“The violence escalated,” she said. “I was beaten up regularly.”
He would not let her watch the TV show “CHIPS,” because he knew she thought actor Eric Estrada was handsome.
He began to be violent toward her 12-year-old daughter, and her oldest son began to run to the neighbors whenever his mother was being beaten to ask them to call the police.
The police in Missoula, she theorized, were not interested in helping her; probably because she was Indian and married to a white man. They would make her husband leave, but then he would return.
Finally, one Halloween evening, Hernandez said her kids were with their dad and her oldest son was staying overnight with a friend so she planned to turn off her lights and try to de-stress by getting some sleep.
As she was lying on her bed, she felt as if someone was watching her. Even though her eyes were shut, “I could smell the alcohol,” she said. Her husband had crawled in the window. About that time, her male neighbor knocked and asked to use the phone. Even though the neighbor lived with his girlfriend, Hernandez’s husband accused her of cheating on him with the neighbor. He beat her badly and left her lying in a puddle of blood. That same night he also hit a Missoula policeman in the head with a 2-by-4 piece of wood. The assault on the officer resulted in a charge of attempted murder and a prison sentence. Hernandez believes the attack on the policeman, rather than the regular beatings she received, caused the judge to send her husband to Deer Lodge.
The power and control games continued, even with her husband in prison. Knowing she hadn’t much money, he insisted she drive to visit him each weekend. In the visiting room, he’d grab her hair and smack her head on the table or call her filthy names.
Finally a friend took Hernandez to meetings at the YWCA for victims of domestic abuse. She was astounded that they also were beaten; they called themselves “battered women.”
Hernandez said she told the women she loved her husband and was not going to leave him.
A woman came to a meeting one evening and said, “I took back my power.”
Describing her husband coming at her, screaming, yelling and cussing, the woman said she usually just put her head down and took the abuse.
But this time, she straightened up, looked her spouse in the eye and told him she wasn’t stupid, she wasn’t all the horrible names he called her, and she wasn’t going to take it any more.
Hernandez listened and quit going to the prison, even though she said her husband called every day and even phoned her at work until her employer got in touch with the prison warden.
“He couldn’t change,” she said, “so I did.”
An abused child, whose dad had beaten both his mother and himself, her husband was continuing the cycle of domestic violence.
Hernandez went to counseling, quit drinking, hired an attorney and divorced her husband before he got out of prison. She “learned to talk without putting my head down.”
Testifying before the Montana State Legislature, Hernandez helped get domestic violence laws passed, so abusers are automatically arrested.
She moved home to the Flathead Reservation, returned to college and earned two associate’s degrees, two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s degree, she began working with domestic violence victims as a Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Crime Victim Advocate and then a social worker for the tribe. Now she volunteers at TERS.
When Hernandez worked with alcoholic women, she’d hear them say things such as, “I know he wants the kitchen just this way,” or “if I had just kept my mouth shut, he wouldn’t have hit me.”
She told them, “In the real world, you are allowed to have free speech. It’s okay to say, ‘I don’t like it when you slam dishes around,’ or ‘I don’t like it when you cuss at me.’”
Another fact she’s shared with battered women is that if women who are beaten have a teenaged daughter in the home, it increases the odds of their daughter choosing a man who will hit her.
Her advice to a person who is either getting into a violent relationship or is already in one is to “talk to someone.”
Talk to a police officer, a social worker, a friend or a neighbor.
“Otherwise, you get brainwashed,” she said.
The man will say, “Oh, you think those people are your friends. I talked to them, and they thing you are crazy’ or “No one will believe you,’ and ‘Those people aren’t your friends. No one will help you.’”
“You’re isolated, and you begin to believe anything they say because they say it over and over and over,” Hernandez said.
She believes law enforcement officers should be required to have domestic violence training.
When working with young people at TERS, Hernandez said the more they read and hear about domestic violence, the more they know it is wrong. In the group, they talk about dating, isolation, a friend’s issues, controlling behavior and the fact that “sometimes words hurt worse than being hit.”
Hernandez wants to work with young people so she can let them know domestic violence is not normal or good.
Although most victims are women, men can also be victims of domestic violence. At TERS, Hernandez said she and Gibbs have tried to mix girls and boys in their group, but the girls “shut down.” They stress the fact that any domestic violence is bad.
“Judy and I respect the tradition of Native men who respect women,” she said.
They also have a man in their group, Montana Nevarez, who models the way a man should treat a woman.
“I think it’s good for the girls to hear it from a man’s side,” Hernandez said.
“Domestic violence is not traditional,” she said. “Take your power back.”