Debreka Handy remembers exactly when it happened the first time. Her boyfriend, 17 at the time, demanded that she change her dress because it was too revealing. The 15-year-old mother of one was headed to a concert with her aunt.
“I didn’t feel like I had to listen," Handy recalled. "I had paid for it myself. I told him. 'I’m not taking off the dress.' That’s when he slapped me with the back of his hand so hard it busted my nose and my lip at the same time.”
Handy, now 34, is a lifelong resident of Lafayette and, you could say, a lifelong survivor of domestic violence.
Handy said her first boyfriend, whom she met when she was only 14, abused her throughout their relationship. She was reluctant to leave because the couple had three children together. She finally found the courage after an incident that left her scarred for life.
“I remember the last time I took it from him,” Handy said. “He was jealous. He thought I was seeing someone else, but I wasn’t. We got into an argument. He punched me with his fist so hard he chipped my tooth. I didn’t think someone could punch hard enough to break a tooth, but he did. I (left) and never returned after that.”
Handy, like so many women in her situation, made her way to the Faith House. The shelter offers domestic violence services to men, women and children.
Michelle Voss, development director of Faith House, said while Handy’s story is tragic, it is also very common.
"Louisiana is second in the nation for woman being murdered by men (in a domestic violence situation),” Voss said. "It's a cultural thing that truly affects everyone. It's about power and control."
What's worse, Voss said, is that many women, even when they leave one abusive relationship, will repeat the pattern and end up in another.
That is exactly what happened to Handy.
The Lafayette mother met her second boyfriend while he was still in prison. She claims she was just trying to be a friend to someone in need, when she offered him a place to stay after he was released. He was 31. She was 21.
"That was the worst decision I could have made," Handy said. "That relationship was worse than the first. He was on drugs, though I didn't know it at that time. He beat me uncontrollably."
Handy said her boyfriend would hit her when he was drunk, which was often. Still, despite the abuse, the couple stayed together for several years and had five children together. Handy has a total of eight children, though she only has custody of two. Handy said she lost custody of six of her children because there was a perception that she was putting the children in danger by going back to an abusive situation.
Faith House executive director Billie Lacombe stressed that, in many situations, the victim is not to blame.
"In our experience, it is not the battered woman who is putting the child in a dangerous situation," Lacombe said. "But rather it is the abuser who is physically harming the children's mother that is causing the danger."
Even though Handy was the main source of income for her family, she said she felt powerless to leave. She felt like she and her children had no place to go.
"I didn't want my family to judge me," she explained. "A part of me was afraid. I had five kids. I worked. He didn't work. Someone had to stay with the kids."
Family members and friends never saw what Handy's boyfriend was doing to her. She said when he would beat her, he would hit her in places that would not show in public. In front of others, he was nice.
"That is extremely common," Voss said. "They (abusers) choose to beat you in places that can't be seen so you can hide it. They can be charming people at first. People think they'd never hurt anyone else. But, once again, it's about power and control. She (Handy) mentioned alcohol. Alcohol doesn't cause the violence, but it makes it more dangerous."
According to statistics compiled by the National Network to End Domestic Violence, it is common for individuals to end up back with an abuser. On average, individuals will try to leave the situation seven to eight times before they finally get out. Fifty percent of all homeless women and children are fleeing domestic violence.
Handy worked up the nerve to leave her second abuser after one terrifying experience.
"I remember we were standing on the balcony," Handy said. " I was holding my baby in my arms. He wanted money to buy drugs. When I told him, 'I won't give you money to support your drug habit,' I thought he would throw me over the balcony. I thought, is this going to be the end of me? So I put my baby down and a neighbor happened to come out. If the neighbor didn't come out, he would have thrown me over. That was the most terrifying thing to me. Not being homeless, not other abuse."
Handy moved out and got her own place, but her ex-boyfriend tracked her down. She had just finished bathing her children and was taking them out of the tub. She never heard him kick in her door. All of a sudden he was standing right behind her.
Handy told him he had to leave.
"That's when he slapped me in the face, " Handy recounted. "It felt like he broke my jaw. I couldn't move my mouth. But I still told him I don't want you no more. Even though I was crying, I told him no more. I got down on my knees and prayed to God. I said if he would relieve me of this, I'd devote my whole life to him. And when I opened my eyes, people still don't believe me, but he was gone. And I never saw him again."
That marked the second time Handy sought shelter and counseling service at Faith House. Luckily, she was able to find support. The agency helped her with housing issues, emotional and legal support.
The agency also provides clients with domestic violence counseling, emergency shelter for victims in need of a temporary place to live, advocacy and referrals.
This year, Faith House will celebrate its 35-year anniversary. The agency will celebrate with a fundraiser, A Night of Hope, in Abbeville.
Voss said she does not know how many clients like Handy have passed through the doors, but in the past 10 to 20 years, the shelter has routinely seen about 2,500 men, women and children each year.
Experts on abuse say it crosses all socio-economic lines and it can happen to anyone, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, no matter the gender or ethnicity.
"Most individuals think it is only uneducated or poor people and it's not," Voss said. "That's a myth."
The statistics nationwide are even more startling:
• More than one in three women have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime, and approximately 7 million women are raped and/or physically assaulted by a current or former intimate partner each year.
• Nationwide, an average of three women are killed by a current or former intimate partner every day.
• A woman is battered every nine seconds.
• Approximately 15.5 million children are exposed to domestic violence every year.
• Young women between the ages of 16 and 24 experience the highest rate of intimate partner violence and sexual assault.
Handy was one of the lucky ones. She has turned her life around and has even written a book, "A Little Girl Scorned," about her ordeal. Today, she is happily married and has been for three years.
She is in school to become a teacher because she wants to help kids who have nowhere to turn. Handy is raising two of her children and sees the others often. She has changed her life in almost every respect, except for one.
She still has not fixed her broken tooth.
"I smile all the time and sometimes my husband looks at it and says he wants to fix it," Handy said pointing to her front tooth. "But I don't really want to fix it. It reminds me of where not to go back. My smile is my smile."