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High-profile attacks reflect why Black community faces more domestic violence

By: Hannah Mackay, July 20, 2023

Kelly Mays was in an abusive relationship in 2010 when an assault happened. Her then 13-year-old daughter inspired her to leave and seek help to make it happen.

The now 48-year-old Westland resident said that controlling behavior in the relationship intensified and became physically abusive. On her youngest daughter’s first birthday, she was assaulted and hospitalized.

When Mays went home from the hospital, she decided to leave the relationship, but it was initially psychologically difficult. “In my head, as a Black woman, I have to make it work. I have to make things work with my Black man,” she said.

But her oldest child, Celeste, told her mother that she wanted to go live with her father and not watch her experience more pain.

“‘Mom, I can’t, I can’t do this,” Mays remembers Celeste saying. “I can’t be in this space with you watching you struggle and suffering. … Or, you can just call it quits.”

“I chose my baby,” said Mays, who is now a mental health counselor and advocate for survivors of domestic violence, “and I ended it, and I left.”

First Step, a Wayne County nonprofit focused on assisting survivors of domestic violence, helped Mays file a personal protection order and provided support when, according to court records, her abuser pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor domestic violence charge and was sentenced to 30 days in jail, 26 weeks in a domestic violence program and 18 months of probation. The abuser isn’t being named by The Detroit News at the request of Mays.

“That’s what Black women need,” Mays said. “We need that opportunity to normalize conversation, to feel pain, to feel heard, and not to feel embarrassed about reaching out for services.”

Experts agreed that domestic violence disproportionately affects the Black community. Nearly half — or 45% — of Black women and 40% of Black men have experienced intimate partner physical violence, intimate partner sexual violence or intimate partner stalking in their lifetimes, compared with 25% of women and 11% of men across all races, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

There are a variety of reasons the Black community deals with more domestic violence than others, including poverty, a lack of access to help, cultural factors and a mistrust of police that discourages the reporting of violence that allows the situation to fester, experts said.

While intimate partner violence can affect anybody, access to resources is not equal, especially for the African American community, said Christine Kinal, president and CEO of Pontiac-based HAVEN, a center for victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault. Marginalized populations that experience higher levels of stress, unemployment and poverty encounter more barriers to getting help, she said.

“All those things keep you away from resources and having an ability to get away from your abuser,” Kinal said.

‘The kids come first’
A recent spate of high-profile killings in Metro Detroit reflects how domestic violence tears at the Black community.

In mid-May, Detroit Medical Center nurse Patrice Wilson was found dead inside a car in Novi on Mother’s Day, and ex-boyfriend Jamere Miller was accused of abducting and killing her in an incident that Detroit police said involved domestic violence. During the same month, Oakland County public health officer Calandra Green was found dead in her Pontiac home along with her husband, Charles Quincy Green, whom Oakland County Sheriff’s investigators believe killed Green before he took his own life.

Earlier this month, Rashad Trice, 26, was accused of sexually and physically assaulting Wynter Cole Smith’s mother in a Lansing apartment before kidnapping her 2-year-old daughter, who was later found dead in a Detroit alley. Trice, who is charged in federal court with kidnapping resulting in death, was previously convicted of domestic violence charges involving the mother over a year ago, court records show.

Black women in the United States were killed in homicides related to intimate partner violence at a rate of 1.5 per 100,000 in 2020, nearly three times the rate of 0.56 for White women, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Michigan Black women were the victims in such homicides at a rate of roughly 0.7 per 100,000 in 2020, more than double the rate of 0.3 for White women, according to the latest data from the state Department of Health and Human Services and the 2020 U.S. Census.

Abusive partners may harm children or use children to control victims of domestic violence, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

When Wynter’s paternal grandmother Sharen Eddings found out that Trice had reportedly stabbed Wynter’s mother, she said it “put fear in her heart.” The 51-year-old Detroiter said she has seen a lot of women affected by domestic violence but never children.

“People are getting out (of jail),” Eddings said, “and they’re committing even more heinous crimes, and our kids are paying the price for this.”

She encouraged anyone in a similar situation to ask for help and tell someone.

“I know it’s hard,” Eddings said. “You might feel like you’re going to be judged, or it might be embarrassing, but the kids come first.”

Once it starts, threats of harm to family members and children can prevent survivors from leaving an abusive relationship, said Chéree Thomas, deputy director of the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence, a nonprofit that serves all the domestic and sexual violence organizations in the state. Survivors may have to parent with an abuser even after their relationship has ended, she said.

The most dangerous time for a person experiencing domestic violence is when they leave the relationship, Thomas said. Wilson was fatally shot allegedly by her boyfriend just after finishing a shift at Detroit Receiving Hospital. Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said the alleged killer “would not let her go.”

“When we talk about domestic violence, only the perpetrator knows how far they’re going to go,” Thomas said. “That person utilizes as much as they feel (is) necessary to maintain that power and control, and death is the ultimate act of control in those relationships.”

Mistrust of police
A mix of factors helps explain why African Americans experience domestic violence more than other racial groups. Some of them are cultural.

Oftentimes Black survivors follow an unsaid rule that “we don’t talk about what goes on in our house with our Black men … because we’re supposed to protect our Black men at all costs,” Mays said.

Sometimes there are generational or religious factors, she added.

“I was taught, you stay with your Black man, you endure, you endure, you struggle because that’s how you show that you’re a good godly woman,” Mays said. “That’s not something I want to pass on to my daughters.”

Another factor is the large distrust among Blacks of public safety and police officers, Thomas said.

“If I’m experiencing domestic violence, and … I feel like my partner or the person who’s harming me may be harmed by this system, I may be less likely to report,” Thomas said. “But then that also leaves me more vulnerable. That also leaves me unprotected.”

If police officers make an arrest, the case report is turned over to the local prosecutor’s office to authorize charges, said Ron Wiles, deputy director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police. The case then moves through the court system.

Domestic violence calls are some of the most dangerous situations that law enforcement officers respond to, and fear of escalation makes Black survivors more reluctant to report abuse, said Sharman Davenport, president and CEO of Turning Point, the only shelter and comprehensive service agency for domestic violence in Macomb County.

“Just because there’s abuse doesn’t mean that you necessarily want that person to be harmed,” Davenport said.

Heightened emotions, mental health concerns, alcohol or drug abuse and a lack of information contribute to the dangerous nature of domestic violence calls, Wiles said. De-escalating the situation and collecting information are usually law enforcement’s top priorities.

“When the aggressor or the abuser finds out that law enforcement is en route or has responded…, (sometimes) they resist or fight with the officers, or flee the scene in general,” Wiles said.

Law enforcement agencies across the state are trying to build trust with the communities they police, Wiles said, referencing the Michigan Advocates and Leaders for Police and Community Trust (ALPACT) program.

“The more officers can get out and interact, not in an enforcement aspect… it’s a great way to build relationships, trust and understanding,” Wiles said.

Finances are another reason survivors may be reluctant to contact law enforcement.

“If you’re in a domestic violence relationship, there’re still kids involved a lot of times; there’s economics involved,” Turning Point’s Davenport said. “Maybe that’s the breadwinner, and you don’t necessarily want them to go to jail.”

Calling for help from the police may also involve Michigan Child Protective Services. Women may be scared to lose custody of their children, even temporarily, said Lachetta Johnson, founder of the House of Kadence, a grassroots community group in Detroit that provides culturally specific case management services for victims of domestic violence.

“Instead of providing the mother with some services and help and protection, she’s punished for now leaving an abusive relationship, when in fact, she probably didn’t have the tools,” Johnson said.

Victims can also seek help without police involvement, she said.

Getting more shelters
Domestic violence disproportionately affects Black women, but there aren’t enough shelter beds available for them, said Thomas with the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence. Domestic violence shelters are designed specifically to protect survivors from intimidation, stalking and physical threats.

The shortage is particularly evident in Detroit, a majority Black city, where there is only one domestic violence shelter, Thomas said.

Metro Detroit shelters often operate at capacity and are working to expand. In June, Pontiac-based HAVEN housed 29 children, the most in the organization’s history at one time, Kinal said.

“We’re often full,” Turning Point’s Davenport said. “A lot of the shelters now are trying to expand their capability of taking in more survivors by using hotels.”

But there aren’t enough resources within Black communities, Thomas said. The needs of Black survivors may differ from the traditional support services.

“(Survivors) want the harm to stop but need to be able to go somewhere that actually understands that nuance,” Thomas said. “The need for culturally specific programming and … financial assistance to those programs is high.”

The state of Michigan recently allocated $30 million to victim services in the 2023-24 budget, the first for the state, Thomas said.

Culturally specific organizations
Community healing is one example of a resource for survivors outside of the criminal justice system, Thomas said.

Kalimah Johnson, a clinical social worker, founded the SASHA Center (Sexual Assault Services for Holistic Healing and Awareness) in Detroit 13 years ago to provide support group services for members of the African American community that have experienced sexual assault.

“A lot of times, sexual assault goes hand in hand with domestic violence,” Johnson said. “We try to gather and get Black women together to lower the isolation of being sexually assaulted or domestically abused.”

Among the services provided are therapists, educational workshops and “conversations between and with Black men,” she said.

The House of Kadence received its first-ever grant financed by federal American Rescue Plan dollars through Ujima, a national resource center for domestic and sexual violence in the Black community. In the last year, they helped over 40 survivors and are looking to expand, Johnson said.

“We would just help them find safe, secure and temporary shelter, while teaching survivors the daily necessities needed to obtain and maintain their long-term safe and affordable housing,” Johnson said. “We do focus on autonomy. Want to make sure that the survivors get all of their own power back.”

Since leaving her abusive partner, Mays has started working with HAVEN’s survivor’s speakers bureau to share her experiences and help others feel empowered.

“People are starting to have conversations now,” Mays said. “This work is starting to move forward, but it’s still … not enough, and we need to be doing more.”

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