On any given day there are between 50-60 victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking in residence at the YWCA Oklahoma City’s shelter for battered women and their children. They’re families torn asunder, victims of violence forced to flee as urban refugees. Approximately 500 women a year stay in the shelter and an additional 20,000 individuals receive services provided by the YWCA. Men receive services from the agency as well.
Some have better days ahead, with new lives and opportunities waiting to be found with the help of the advocates, counselors and economic empowerment program; help provided through trauma informed processes that assist them in maneuvering court proceedings, obtaining clothing, employment, childcare, housing, medical care, a safety plan and the ability to obtain self-sufficiency. Others will walk back into the situations they once escaped, believing the abuser that he will change, that “it” will never happen again. They go back with a little bit of extra knowledge about the dynamics of abuse, the knowledge that they deserve to be respected and the right to live a life free of violence, they have a safety plan, and they have the knowledge that there is a safe place to come back to if they need to escape again.
“Sometimes an individual will return ten years later,” says the YWCA’s Chief Support Services Officer, Deb Stanaland. “It may be the same abuser or a different relationship. But each time they come to us, they leave armed with knowledge and resources that makes them stronger.”
Most days, Stanaland is visible around the facility. She’s kind of a hummingbird, bouncing from one task to the next. One second she’s attending a partner agency meeting, the next she’s at a computer working on finances, meeting with employees or talking to donors. She oversees the fundraising for the agency, the facilities, including project manager for the new shelter that will be completed this month, and the resale shop which provides clothing for the clients and generates income for the agency. Later she might be found giving a presentation on the links between domestic violence and animal abuse or as the Keynote speaker for a community event. She serves as Chair of the Oklahoma State Victims Compensation Board, appointed by two Governors, consecutively, and as a member of the Oklahoma State Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board, appointed by the Attorney General.
Deb knows the situation well because she’s been there before. 25 years ago she was in the same shoes as many of the YWCA clients. She took a self-made opportunity to escape from an abusive situation – or, more accurately, a lifetime of it.
And now, her life is dedicated to people who are where she once was: trapped in abusive relationships, with a lifetime of violence both behind and ahead, if nothing changes.
She’s a ray of sunshine, a burst of bright energy, trying to bring some light to an otherwise bleak situation. It’s her passion, and it’s why American Mothers chose her as the National Mother of the Year.
She left home at 16. She was just 19, and had only one semester of college before realizing she couldn’t work enough hours to support herself and take enough course hours to carry a full load. Her need to work full time led her to leave her studies, believing she would someday complete her degree.
Her new boss was a charming man who took a clear and decisive interest in her. “We were engaged within three months and married two months later, which was really him pushing to move so fast,” Deb said. “He immediately moved us several hundred miles away from my family. He would control what I wore, my schedule, and I wasn’t allowed to work outside the home.”
The first of three daughters came a year and a half later. All the while, the man she loved grew more and more controlling, more aggressive and forceful. Sometimes, that forcefulness would reveal itself in violent surges.
However, as with many abusers, his typical mode of operation was far more subversive. A battered women isn’t always identified by black eyes and bruises. The wounds are often deep and buried in the psyche, and have a much longer lasting effect than a punch or kick.
“There was some physical abuse, but most of it was verbal and emotional,” Deb said. “Abuse is about a systematic pattern of behaviors that are used to control another individual. It was designed to get me to comply, to be afraid to say anything or speak out.”
“Abusers get the victims to believe that there isn’t anyone out there to help them. They get them to believe that it’s their fault.”
Bringing children into the world to love didn’t fix the situation. Over time, Deb realized that if she stayed, she could not provide the environment where her daughters could flourish and learn that they deserve to be loved, respected and honored.
Escaping isn’t as easy as just walking out the door. As she’s quick to note, 75% of domestic violence homicides occur after the victim leaves the relationship, or is suspected of planning to leave.
For 18 years Deb lived in fear and inadequacy. Along the way, however, she gained footholds. First it was a job. Then it became an education. Then it became a plan.
“I kept telling him that I was going to go, and I gave him an opportunity to turn it around,” she said. “He didn’t believe I would do it.”
Despite her husband’s opposition, Deb earned her degree in Family Studies from Southern Nazarene University. The completion of her education gave her an important advantage over her abuser in a critical area: an opportunity for financial independence.
“Abusers will use the kids as leverage, and because they’re usually the ones earning more money or the only one working, they are often able to get the children in a divorce,” Deb says. “many victims have no financial independence.”
“My gift to myself for finishing my degree was to leave,” she says now.
It wasn’t just the end of 18 years of abuse and torment: as with many domestic abuse victims, the mistreatment started long before adulthood.
A Childhood Stolen
People who grow up in an abusive home are 700 times more likely to be in an abusive relationship as an adult. The same applies to the perpetrators – it’s an endless cycle of abuse that, to both victim and abuser, represents normalcy.
Deb was raised in an abusive family. Her father was a controlling bully at best, taking a physical and emotional toll on her mother and siblings.
“When you grow up with that, when that’s what you learn, you just accept it as an inevitable part of a relationship,” she noted. “I didn’t know I had any choice but to stay when my new husband ground an ice cream cone into my face the first week we were married.”
When Deb walked away from that 18 year marriage, she thought she was leaving the abuse behind.
Two years into her separation, a visitation with the kids turned into an argument. The argument escalated, at least on one side, and Deb found herself with a broken nose and broken vertebrae in her neck.
Thankfully, that was the last time she was a victim.
Today, life is good for Deb Stanaland. She’s married to Brian Stanaland, a Battalion Chief for Oklahoma City Fire Department.
“Brian is a sweet guy, my daughters adore him,” she said. “He came into my life at just the right time, and he has been such a blessing.”
Like so many other abuse victims, Deb was skeptical at first. At some point his true colors had to show, right?
“I was shutting myself off from being happy,” she said. “It really took my own twin brother to convince me that it was okay for me to be happy, that Brian loved me and it was okay for me to let my guard down.”
20 years later, he loves her daughters as his own. They adore their four grandsons, and enjoy nothing more than spending time with family. “The highlight of the week,” Deb says, “is cooking and enjoying Sunday dinners together.”
As Deb eases into her sixties, life finally feels like it’s supposed to.
Just don’t tell Deb that “normal” means “slowing down.” She’s got a lot of work to do, and she’s getting to it.
From Victim to Advocate
“Victims need to become survivors first, and once they learn healthy coping skills and earn independence, they can help other victims,” Deb said. “24 years ago, when I left, I didn’t know there was a place to go for help. Now, the YWCA is known for providing a safe place and resources people need to know about.”
She has her work cut out for her. Oklahoma is third in the nation in women killed by men in domestic homicides – that’s the third most, the bad third, for those keeping score.
She’s up for the challenge. Over the course of several years, Deb has been instrumental in the charge for a new shelter that will more than double the capacity of victims the OKC YWCA can house at any given time. The project involved over $15 million in fundraising, providing funds for the new facility, renovation of the current facility into an extended stay, and an endowment. The new shelter will open in September.
Try and get her to talk about being named the National Mother of the Year, and mostly you hear about other people. Her daughters, her friends, her colleagues. The Mothers of the Year from other states, the American Mothers leadership team, and so on.
“There were so many incredible women that could’ve been chosen for this, who are doing so many amazing things,” she said. “I feel honored to represent all of them. Their work is just as important as mine.”
While the spotlight is fixed on her, she hopes to utilize her position as National Mother of the Year to share the message that there is hope and help for those caught in the devastating state of domestic violence.
Ending domestic abuse isn’t just a noble cause for the sake of the victims. Abusive spouses and family situations are the genesis for many of the ills plaguing society:
- Over 80% of female prison inmates have experience domestic violence or sexual abuse
- The cost of domestic violence to businesses exceeds $5.8 billion a year, $4.1 billion of which goes directly to medical costs
- In 70% of the cases in which an abused child dies, there has been a pattern of abuse against the mother
- Male children who witness the abuse of their mothers by fathers are three times more likely to become men who batter in adulthood
- Youth who witness domestic violence are more likely to attempt suicide, abuse drugs and alcohol, run away from home, drop out of high school, become sexually active at an early age and commit other delinquent behavior
- In Oklahoma, 1/3 of all female homicide victims were killed by an intimate partner.
The benefits of ending domestic abuse, or at least maximizing the number of victims who are extricated from the grips of violence, are countless. It’s a messy, dark world to live in.
That’s why we need the bright spots, the endless sources of light. That’s why we need people like Deb Stanaland.