Sitting in an office at House of Ruth Maryland, Christina Laumann* takes a deep breath as she begins her story. It’s the one that started in 1993 when she was 14 and first fell in love with a 16-year-old boy she knew from the neighborhood, and ended in 2008 with an emergency divorce after a middle-of-the-night assault that still haunts her.
“It seemed like he wanted to give me the world, and I fell for it,” says the 32-year-old Hampden native. “But what did I know about love? By the time I was 17 and pregnant with our daughter, things didn’t seem right; I had lost all connection with my friends, and if I said the wrong thing, I would get a shove or a hit.”
One day, Laumann’s ex-husband hit her with such force, she says, “he bent my earring, and I had pain going down the side of my face for months.” Another time, she recalls being kicked and punched as he lay on top of her in the middle of the street. “The cops came, and he was arrested that night,” she says. “I was embarrassed that I had become this person, but I let him come home.”
Of course, Laumann is far from alone as a victim of domestic violence (or DV as it is commonly called). Nationally, DV statistics are staggering: In the United States, one in every four women has been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner, according to a 2010 survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On a local level, facts and figures are equally alarming. A study conducted by the National Census of Domestic Violence Services found that in one 24-hour period on Sept. 15, 2011, 866 victims were served statewide.
And the epidemic is hardly new.
Way back in 1977, a concerned group of Baltimore citizens identified a largely ignored social issue and decided to do something about it.
“In the early 1970s, women were emerging,” explains retired Judge Kathleen O’Ferrall Friedman, a founder of House of Ruth. “The civil rights movement had been a paradigm for equality, and there was a climate of women’s impatience and anger with the inequalities that women experienced in so many spheres of their lives.”
In effect, the feminist movement empowered wives to seek emancipation from their husband’s or partner’s hands as women realized they didn’t have to take the abuse anymore.
Enter House of Ruth (a nod to the biblical reference from the Book of Ruth about women helping women). What began as a grassroots effort soon gained momentum, as groups such as University of Maryland’s School of Social Work and the Task Force of the Commission of the Status of Women, opened a small, ad-hoc shelter out of a row house on the 2300 block of North Calvert Street.
“There was no grand opening,” recalls Marcella Schuyler, House of Ruth’s first president. “We were in a bug-infested townhouse with people sleeping on mattresses on top of each other. It was a mess—we didn’t have the hands to organize, but we had no problem finding victims.”
And although nothing would make its dedicated team of lawyers, social workers, mental-health professionals, and ardent volunteers happier, House of Ruth Maryland is not likely to run out of victims any time soon.
Says Schuyler, “We have cemented generations of violent people into our DNA. It will never go away. Never.”
On any given night, the 84-bed Baltimore City shelter is almost always full, and, in any given week, the 24-hour hotline fields between 160 and 180 calls from victims and victims’ families.
Needs run the gamut. “I was on the hotline last Monday,” says Janice Miller, director of client services. “The calls ranged from a woman who wouldn’t give her name because her husband is in a prominent position, to a woman who needed help figuring out how to leverage funds to move because her abuser said, ‘I hope you don’t think you’re going to be living where you were before,’ which she took to mean, ‘If you go back to where you were living before, I’m going to get you.’”
Although cases such as Yeardley Love, the Baltimore-born University of Virginia student who was beaten to death by her ex-boyfriend, have helped raise public awareness about DV, the issue remains largely in the dark.
“We need to break the silence of an issue that is far too quiet,” says House of Ruth executive director Sandi Timmins. “This issue, even in the success, is silent. In many cases, women want to put what they’ve gone through behind them—to re-live the trauma is hard.”
The emergency shelter—a safe house for women who need an immediate out—is a pleasant, low-lying brick building that resembles a college dorm, albeit one with an unmarked address and the color purple (the “color” of DV) as a decorating motif. Inside it’s a microcosm all its own: a cafeteria serving two hot meals a day, a licensed daycare facility, and a health clinic to help with immunizations and school forms (for which no address is given). “A school bus comes here,” says Cheri Parlaman, director of development. “Even though there are no signs to say we are a shelter, the other kids [on the bus] know—it breaks your heart.”
Nearby, in the basement of House of Ruth’s administrative building, a group of men who have been court-ordered to attend a weekly workshop as part of a landmark abuser prevention program, The Gateway Project, pour in through a side door. The 22-week program has been designed to educate and rehabilitate men (and women) who have committed abuse.
Leading the class is veteran House of Ruth staff member Louise Machen. This is the last place you’d expect to see a sweet-looking 60-year-old woman dressed in a peasant blouse.
“If we don’t do this part of it, what’s the point?” asks Machen. In this predominantly female workplace, Machen is the rare woman who works with the men. “Nobody got here easy,” she says. “Some of them share stories about being horribly abused as children. We think we’re making progress—some of them have never thought about this stuff that we talk about before.”
Machen begins the session with an exercise in which the men are asked to come up with names used to refer to a woman. “Bitch,” shouts one of the men. “That’s always the first one,” says Machen. “You can’t offend me, I’ve been doing this for 26 years.” “Slut,” says another participant. For the following 10 minutes or so the list comes to include “Skank,” and “Dummy,” until Machen makes her point. “In this big old list,” she says, “there are only a few that are remotely respectful. If this is how we talk and think about women, how does this affect how you react to them?”
The idea behind the class is to make the abusers own up to their actions and reflect on the beliefs that led to them. Machen listens to their often graphic stories with respect, but she also puts them in their place.
“I slapped Susan*,” reads one of the participants from his required homework. “I didn’t think that she had the right to ask for money that was mine.”
“You’re blaming the victim,” says Machen. “You need to work on your sentences.”
Another participant writes, “I choked Nancy*. I believe I can choke her when she spits in my face.”
Says Machen, “Choking is what we do on food. Strangling is what we do to people. Again, you’re blaming the victim.”
While the women may move on, the cycle of violence will continue if the men don’t recognize the impact of their actions, explains Machen. “Your girlfriend decides she doesn’t need you anymore, but you’re going to find someone new,” says Machen. “Even if it didn’t work in the current relationship, the hope is that it will help going forward.”
The House of Ruth’s legal clinic, with 17 lawyers in six courthouses across the state, plays an equally important role in keeping women safe. Most recently, Dorothy Lennig, director of the clinic, helped get a law passed that will flag a domestic-violence offense on a defendant’s criminal record.
“Because there is no separate crime of domestic violence, there was no easy way to distinguish between a domestic-violence assault and a barroom brawl,” explains Lennig. “This new law . . . will increase accountability for domestic-violence offenders in the bail review, prosecution, sentencing, and probation phases.”
Ultimately, says Lennig, this law will enhance safety for the victims.
Christina Laumann came to the House of Ruth through the legal clinic. With the help of her family, Laumann was able to take her children and move into an apartment, but her husband stalked her and threatened suicide if she didn’t go back to him. On the same day she was denied a restraining order by the Baltimore City Police, who said they needed “proof” of the abuse, Laumann’s then husband snuck in through a window of her apartment while she was sleeping.
“I jumped out of bed to grab my cell phone,” she recalls, “but he had both of my arms and his body weight on top of me. Eventually, when he was leaning over the top of me, I was able to bite his neck which gave me enough time to run into another room with my 9-year-old daughter, give her the phone, and tell her to call 911.”
Finally, with the “proof” she needed, Laumann headed to the district courthouse on North Avenue to obtain a restraining order when a legal assistant from House of Ruth (which has an office on-site) asked to speak with her. “They took me through the whole process and were amazing,” says Laumann.
On Sept. 11, 2010, Laumann moved forward and married her husband, Joe, yet another boy from the neighborhood. “We liked each other a long time ago,” she says. “Years ago, he told everyone that I was the woman he was going to marry.”
But this time around, the ending is a happy one, and Laumann proudly displays a heart tattoo on her arm. “In my relationship with my ex-husband, I was not allowed to have a tattoo,” she says, “but he could get as many as he wanted. After my divorce, this was the first thing I did. I am a completely different person now.”