SOUTHERN COLORADO — According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, around 20 people are physically abused by an intimate partner every minute in the United States.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and News5 sat down with three Pueblo women to discuss the complexities of the devastating cycle.
Before reading this article, it is important to note that parts of the piece may be triggering for some people.
Victoria Esquibel said she was involved in an abusive relationship for just under two years. She found herself asking for permission or forgiveness every day with her abuser, and said she had to change everything about her life in order to escape. Now, she has new electronics, a different car, and has moved homes. "You are groomed through threats more than anything that you have to be quiet. And now that I'm no longer under that control, I think it's so important to share your voice," said Esquibel.
Esquibel told News5 she was physically, sexually, and emotionally abused. "After a while, you start to believe that you are all the things that they call you, and you kind of forget who you are," Esquibel said.
The fear never truly stops while dealing with domestic violence, Esquibel said. "Even when you're asleep, it doesn't end. Because you can get woken up in the middle of the night, like I have, being sexually assaulted. There is no out for us, and it doesn't turn off at the end of the day."
She said her abuser would choke her, and one time she blacked out but managed to kick the perpetrator and call 911. However, she said he ended up taking the phone from her. That made the next three months the toughest of her life because he retaliated, according to Esquibel. "I was 98 pounds of just... existence. And he came in upset one night, and flipped me completely out of the bed with a mattress, and drug it down the hall. That's when I said, okay, my family already kind of knows that there's something, and I called them and they took off back from New Mexico, packed up my stuff, and that was it," Esquibel remembered.
Esquibel said she went through the criminal justice system following her escape from the abuse. She said it took around a year, and it ended with a permanent civil protection order and a temporary criminal protection order. The perpetrator now lives in another state. "I am 100% prepared to protect myself and not rely on a legal system anymore. Because I do not feel protected by them," said Esquibel.
Know that you're not alone. You have more of an army than you actually think.
Esquibel has found a community of people who understand what she went through in Nicole's Army, a Facebook group dedicated to Nicole Stephenson. Stephenson was seriously injured after an assault in late January of 2020, and succumbed to her injuries a few weeks later in a Denver hospital on February 19. Nathan Turner took a plea deal and was charged with manslaughter in Stephenson's death. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
Gabrielle Skubal has lived in Pueblo her entire life, and has been an outspoken friend of Stephenson's since her death. She would like to see the focus on domestic violence stretch far beyond a month. "Things aren't getting better, they're getting worse... All of the city officials, the police department, the sheriff's department, the district attorney, they'll all admit that there's an issue, but there's nobody to fix it," said Skubal.
Skubal also said she is currently going through her own domestic violence situation, where she did not instantly realize how the power and control dynamics were creeping into her life.
Skubal mentioned a petition she believes is important in changing how domestic violence crimes are handled. The petition aims to create a publicly accessible registry for abusers, and was started online by Kate Ferguson. The goal is to reach 10,000 signatures, and as of Tuesday evening, there were over 9,500 names recorded.
I was a shell of myself when I was in that relationship.
Ferguson said she escaped from a domestic violence situation a couple of years ago, and had to overcome countless obstacles to do so. She said it took around nine attempts to get out of the cycle. "During the time that I was facing everything with my abuser, he knew where all of my family lived, he was constantly stalking me, I had to change my phone number several times, everything about my life... I gathered the money together to flee the state, and I bought a ticket, a train ticket, which was the cheapest at the time, and I left," remembered Ferguson.
Her abuser was arrested on outstanding warrants, according to Ferguson. Now, she has been back in Colorado for a handful of years. "I was a victim. I'm now a survivor... I'm trying to do whatever I can to help other people," Ferguson said.
Ferguson said through therapy, she is once again learning how to love herself. She stressed it is possible to escape a domestic violence relationship. "It's almost like psychological warfare. And, for someone to tear another person down and almost take complete control of them, it's devastating... There's resources in town. Although there are few, there are resources. And it's possible, you just have to pick a day and go," said Ferguson, who believes there needs to be more resources available.
A 2020 report that examined domestic violence programs in Colorado found that, on the day of the survey, nearly 1,300 victims were served. However, there were not enough resources for more than 200 other requests.
Esquibel, Skubal, and Ferguson said going through the criminal justice system following intimate partner violence is another challenge in itself. News5 spoke with members of the Colorado District Attorneys' Council (CDAC) to find out why these cases are so difficult, from both the plaintiff's point of view and for the prosecutors.
Jessica Dotter is the sexual assault resource prosecutor at CDAC. She said the position was created around four years ago. "It became obvious that we needed more support in the prosecution community, to help teach prosecutors how to try complex cases. When you have sexual assault victims, there are issues such as a lack of physical evidence, a lack of witnesses, emotional and trauma responses that might result in victims acting differently than one might expect," explained Dotter.
Dotter acts as a resource for prosecutors throughout Colorado by answering questions and conducting training to assist in difficult areas regarding sexual assault cases. She also does policy work at the legislature each session. "Most of society does not understand the complexities of sexual assault... Sexual assault is so prevalent, and yet so underreported, and so under convicted," Dotter said.
She called victim blaming a defense mechanism, saying it is an active way for someone to "guard against being victims of those crimes, in our minds." One of her goals is to combat victim blaming, and ensure their voices are heard and believed.
Victims are obviously feeling distrust of the system, feeling a lack of support, and a lack of belief.
Dotter said there is a huge crossover between sexual assault and domestic violence cases. She called domestic violence cases some of the most difficult ones to prosecute. "When I talk to victims, I make sure they know their ability to come forward, and speak in their truth, and speak to what happened, is the most important part. And that can be a huge healing process for a victim," said Dotter.
Still, Dotter said the criminal justice system may not be the final step towards healing. "The penalty and what the justice system can ultimately provide never matches the harm that is done to the victim," said Dotter, who added they always strive to make communities safer.
Down the hall from Dotter is Linda Johnston, the project director for the Ending Violence Against Women (EVAW) program at CDAC. The program was started 25 years ago, and consists of a team traveling across Colorado to provide free training for the disciplines that would respond to domestic violence and sexual assault cases. Johnston estimated they conduct 15 sessions a year. "Violence against women is a public health crisis. And it was made worse by the pandemic, because people were especially isolated... All cases have to be taken seriously, even if there's not physical abuse at the time," said Johnston.
Johnston wants to build a coordinated community response, saying when people from different disciplines work together it results in better outcomes for the victims of domestic violence. "People often tend to minimize the conduct of the person who's abusive, or they shift the blame to the person who's being abused. And that is a big hurdle, to come forward and disclose that you're in an abusive relationship, all the way through to juries who minimize the conduct of what's happening," said Johnston.
She said there is a sexual assault response training in Limon on Wednesday and one in Lakewood in November.
There is no excuse for abuse.
On Johnston's desk was a copy of the Colorado Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board's report with data from 2019. The board found Colorado had at least 60 instances where domestic violence ended in a fatality, and 70 people died in such incidents.
To find help for those in a domestic violence situation in Colorado, Violence Free Colorado has an interactive map that shows resources available by county.
If you or someone you know needs immediate help, call 911.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline is (800)799-SAFE (7233).