(Lisa Cupolo, June 2013)

It wasn’t until she realized that her concern for her knickknacks became more important than her concern for her own life that she finally started her path to ending years of abuse.

Mary got married when she was young to a friend of the family.

“Although I was married, I was forced to have intercourse.  I felt like a rape victim with my own husband.  He pushed himself on me.  He forced me.”, said Mary describing the abuse.  “They (the abuser) think they control every part of you – even your body,” she said.

Approximately two-thirds of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows (U.S. Department of Justice National Crime Victimization Study. 2005). In 2012, according to Domestic Violence and Rape Crisis Services of Saratoga County (DVRC), 32 percent of sexual assault clients reported that their perpetrator was a marital partner, partner or ex partner.  Another 28 percent reported that the sexual assault was perpetrated by an acquaintance, 23 percent by a relative and only 17 percent by a stranger.

The sexual abuse Mary experienced became a pattern in her life, as it does for many. The abusive patterns started for Mary when she was just five years old when she was sexually abused by a family member. In Mary’s case, sexual abuse came paired with mental and physical abuse and control.

When she gave birth to her first child at a young age, her husband had not allowed her to see a doctor until the day that she gave birth. “The hospital staff told my husband that if it wasn’t for the fact that we were married, they would report him,” Mary said recounting her experience.  “That was the only time during my abuse that I can remember thinking that someone cared about my experience as a victim of abuse,” she said.

In 2012, DVRC met with 123 victims of sexual assault. According to the U.S. Dept. of Justice, only 20% of primary sexual assault victims seek help from an agency such as DVRC.  According to these statistics, there is the potential that there were over 615 cases of sexual assault in Saratoga County in 2012; 492, potentially, were never reported.

“I lost a baby due to his abuse,” Mary said.  “I went to the hospital and no one even noticed that my miscarriage was due to physical abuse.  I wondered how no one cared.”

Mary recounted blocking reality as a way to cope.

“He would force himself on me.  You know it is wrong.  You are fully competent but you go into survival mode just to get through the day and make it out alive.  You lose grip with reality,” she said.

There is an average of 207,754 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year in the U.S. (U.S. Department of Justice.National Crime Victimization Survey. 2006-2010).  This means on average, someone is sexually assaulted in the U.S. every 2 minutes.

After ten years of abuse, Mary finally came to the realization that she needed to make a change.

“My sister came to visit me for a few days.  My husband was beating me in the kitchen.  He didn’t care that my sister was watching him beat me.  My sister recalled me screaming ‘don’t break the knickknacks!’ A light bulb went off in my head when my sister pointed out after witnessing the abuse that I was more concerned about breaking the knickknacks in my kitchen than I was about my own life.  The abuse became so normal to me,” Mary said.  “I finally had someone say ‘What are you doing? Get out of this!’”

“There are a lot of reasons why people don’t leave abusive relationships,” says Jackie who works for DVRC of Saratoga County, “One of the biggest reasons is because they feel like they’re in love and they hope that love will make their abuser change. Other times they feel guilty; they believe they are at fault for the abuse or that it would stop if they could change something about themselves.”

“Thankfully, the trend I see is more people are reporting sexual assault and rape to the police and authorities,” said Jim Murphy, Saratoga County District Attorney. “I believe this is not necessarily because the assaults are occurring more often but because there is more awareness for what sexual assault actually is. Agencies are more helpful in terms of trying to understand and empower the victims.”  DVRC does its best to offer a variety of resources to its clients, including a 9 bedroom safe house, a 24-hour hotline, and a team of legal advocates” says the DA. Jackie agrees, “we have legal advocates at DVRC that are able to go through the criminal justice and/or family justice system…they’re not lawyers but they’re able to give legal information, they’re able to advocate for the victim in court and with law enforcement.”

Mary went to the police and stayed at a hotel.  She knew that whatever the odds were, she had to move on, for her own sanity and for her children.  Mary described being hesitant to leave because her husband assured her that he would stop the abuse. However, she knew from experience that he would not stop and that it would only become worse.

With support from NYS Department of Criminal Justice Services all Saratoga Hospital emergency room nurses are specially trained to assist victims of sexual assault. The hospital has private rooms for victims and works with DVRC immediately so that the victim feels supported and empowered right from the beginning.

“People are still embarrassed and there is a stigma associated with sexual assault.  I think it is far worse to say nothing and carry the burden throughout a person’s life.  I am not saying that going through the criminal justice system as a victim is easy but it is made easier through a supportive system.  The important thing is to understand that it is not the victim’s fault,” Jackie reports.

In terms of preventative services, the Saratoga County District Attorney’s office works with the County’s twelve school districts to educate youth about safe sex, sexting and protecting themselves and their bodies.  The office also meets with Saratoga Hospital monthly and provides police training related to interacting with victims. Likewise, there are a variety of services that DVRC offers, including prevention and outreach programs with youth and adults across Saratoga County.

“I think that in Saratoga County, one of the things that we are really lucky to have is agencies where the directors collaborate.  They meet and share resources,” said Murphy.

“I have been in these shoes and I understand.  My children saw me get physically abused.  Eventually you realize that you have to get strong and get out of the situation or you won’t survive,” said Mary. “Organizations like DVRC help individuals become strong and healthy again,” she said.

Creating an awareness of what abuse is and empowering victims and their families is one of the most valuable resources available to the community. With organizations like DVRC and Saratoga Hospital, in partnership with the District Attorney’s office, we can be sure that there will be far more happy endings like Mary’s.