October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. People can show support by wearing a purple ribbon and using #DomesticViolenceAwareness to post on social media.
I have heard well-intentioned people say, “Education saved my life.” For the large majority of people, this is an empty statement—but not for Patricia Garcia (MPA ’11).
Growing up, Garcia witnessed her father beating her mother. He stumbled home drunk, hit his wife and children, knocked over the refrigerator so it crashed on the kitchen floor. “We grew up terrorized,” Garcia said. Due to her mother’s physical condition, as well and her own, she could often not go to school: “There were huge gaps in my education.”
But Garcia could read—and this changed everything.
She was able to escape the violence surrounding her by becoming immersed in someone else’s story. In a calm but lamenting voice, Garcia admits that she sometimes hid in books during her father’s violent attacks: “If you walked in, you would think it was the most horrible event you would ever witness … a mother being beaten while her child was curled up on the couch with a book.”
Garcia represents one of the hidden victims of domestic violence—the children forced to be witnesses.
Understanding how domestic violence affects children is just one of the topics explored at the Center on Domestic Violence, which is part of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver.
Domestic violence occurs in all cultures
Edith Okupa (MPA ’13) never witnessed her father hit her mother. In fact, she never even saw her father raise his voice. So when she started dating her ex-husband during college, she was flummoxed by his behavior. He belittled her, disrespected her, beat her. Sometimes, while he was teaching her to play chess, he would slap her because he wasn’t satisfied with the moves she made.
But when she became pregnant out of wedlock, tradition in her Nigerian tribe obliged her to marry him, since he was the father of her unborn child. Okupa recounts that even while she was pregnant, the abuse continued. One time, he brought another girl home. He even hit her in front of her own mother. “I didn’t like the abuse, I didn’t like what I was receiving, but I didn’t give it a name,” she said. “There wasn’t anything called domestic violence in Nigeria back then.”
Years later, Okupa’s brother, an attorney, said to her: “Look, Edith, in our constitution, there are laws, there are decrees that protect women.” Unfortunately, the few women who had come forward had been sent back home by the judges. They were instructed to have their parents call their in-laws and work it out.
Okupa eventually fled to the United States. The 3,000-mile distance, however, did not free her from her husband’s grasp. He did everything to make her return to him—including taking their daughter out of school. Ultimately, she arranged for family members to take her daughter away and send her to America as well. “If I was in Nigeria,” Okupa said, “I would still be in the situation. Maybe my life would have been ended.”
Okupa is a great example of how a country’s laws and culture reinforce power dynamics that allow domestic violence to exist.
The Center on Domestic Violence reviews the latest research on how the legal system affects victims of domestic violence and disseminates the information to students, communities, and practitioners in the field of gender-based violence.
Domestic violence escalates after the victim leaves
Ruth Glenn (MPA ’03) was married to an abusive husband for 13 years. She did not decide to leave until she realized that her son was beginning to be a target of her husband’s abuse. Although she didn’t realize it at the time, Glenn had been formulating an escape plan. So she left, which is when everything got worse.
Six months after she left, Glenn’s husband kidnapped her, despite the fact that she had a restraining order against him. He was arrested for felony kidnapping—but released.
A few weeks later, on June 17, 1992, he stalked her, following her in his car while she was driving. He forced her off the road that evening in Denver and tried to kill her. “I was shot twice in the head and once in the arm,” Glenn recalls. Somehow, she was able to get into her car and drive a few hundred yards to a gas station, where she screamed her son’s name and address because she was afraid her husband would try to hurt him too. “Once my son was brought to the hospital, then I went into shock,” Glenn said.
Glenn did not suffer lasting physical impairments from “the incident,” as she calls it.
The Center on Domestic Violence works to understand the dynamics of domestic abuse, educating people on what is often an escalating pattern of violence.
Why didn’t she just leave him?
“A woman fleeing is in her greatest harm in the days after she leaves,” Garcia explains. After earning her Masters of Public Administration with a concentration in gender-based violence at the Center on Domestic Violence (CDV), Garcia has worked for years to help underserved populations and advocate for survivors of domestic violence.
More than the general public, Garcia wanted to understand why her mother didn’t just leave her father. “Why did she allow him to continue to beat her and beat us?” she wondered. After studying the plight of domestic violence victims, she finally realized that her mother was in the process of leaving her father throughout the entire marriage. Her mother was being strategic: “I say this cautiously, but I don’t think it’s overdramatizing. A victim is being held siege; if you’re being held hostage in a war, it takes a lot of strategy and negotiating to get out.”
“That’s the beauty of the CDV,” Garcia said. The program, which welcomes domestic violence survivors who are ready for a two-year intensive study of gender-based violence, lets students put their personal experience into academic context. “It’s a cathartic experience; you begin to understand it from a different lens,” explains Garcia.
Domestic violence negatively impacts victim’s education
Given that a number of applicants to the graduate programs at the CDV are domestic or sexual violence survivors, applicants must undergo an interview with the center’s director, Barbara Paradiso, and/or other staff or advisors from the Center before being admitted. This gives the CDV a chance to assess whether an applicant is ready to delve into the topic.
It also provides an opportunity for non-traditional applicants to make their case for admission—because many survivors of domestic violence have not had the same educational opportunities as other students. For example, Okupa, who immigrated from Nigeria, had to study for the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) while working three jobs. Other survivors, like Glenn, are purposely kept away from educational opportunities by their husbands: “He made it a point to let me know that school was never going to be in my future.”
The interview process gives applicants, especially those negatively impacted by domestic violence, the opportunity to illustrate their potential value to the program. Paradiso felt it was important for the admissions committee at the School of Public Affairs to consider the whole candidate.
The results have proven Paradiso correct—as many graduates have excelled in their post-graduate careers. Okupa worked with Violence Free Colorado (VFC) and the Colorado Coalition against Sexual Assault (CCASA) to successfully pass two legislative changes for the rights of rape victims. Currently, she is the executive director of Project Restoration International, which works to end human trafficking. Glenn is president and CEO of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), a non-profit that educates people about the conditions that perpetuate domestic violence.
Domestic violence becomes a field of academic study
Paradiso has specialized in domestic violence her entire career—but she is not an academic. She was working as director of the Boulder County Safehouse when Doris Buffett, a former Safehouse volunteer, had the idea to start a foundation that would, in part, build leaders for the future of the domestic violence movement.
At a time when domestic violence was not considered a viable area of research in the academy, Paradiso and Buffett nonetheless decided to take an academic route to leadership development, believing that graduate studies were more likely to prepare and support students in attaining “positions of influence.” From its inception, the Center on Domestic Violence was not intended to be a program to prepare students to carry out direct services to survivors. Rather, its mission was to understand violence against women—“how it’s rooted in a culture that devalues women overall and values the use of violence as a way of establishing dominance,” Paradiso explains.
In the late 1990s, Paradiso and Buffett approached the University of Colorado Denver about housing the Center on Domestic Violence within one of their graduate programs. At the time, the President of the University of Colorado was a woman, the Chancellor of the Denver campus was a woman, and the Dean of the School of Public Affairs was a woman. They seemed to understand on a deeper level what the project was trying to accomplish: “the stars aligned,” Paradiso said.
The first group of students started in the fall of 2000. “We were the first academic institution as far as we know to offer any kind of concentrated study in domestic violence across the U.S.,” Paradiso explains. While other universities eventually integrated domestic violence programs (usually into departments offering a Masters of Social Work), the University of Colorado Denver was a pioneer. Incorporating the Center on Domestic Violence into the School of Public Affairs turned out to be a great choice, because public affairs has to do with leadership development, organizational management, and making social and systematic change—which was exactly the goal when Paradiso and Buffett developed the concept.
The Center on Domestic Violence offers two graduate degrees: a concentration in Gender-Based Violence within a Masters of Public Administration and a concentration in Gender-Based Violence within a Masters of Criminal Justice. The CDV also offers non-degree programs for people already working in health care, law enforcement, government, and non-profit sectors.
In 2020, the Center on Domestic Violence celebrates its 20th anniversary.
Graduate programs turn victims into survivors
Garcia refers to the CDV as “a think tank on domestic violence in a cohort model where you look at domestic violence from a sociological perspective—the psychology of battered women, the legal system, social change, and advocacy.”
The CDV also gives domestic violence survivors a chance to translate their past experience into future change. Okupa remembers that when she finally healed, she made a decision. “I’m going to go to grad school. I’m going to use my experience to better the lives of those around me,” she said.
Glenn believes the degree program, along with the students and faculty in the School of Public Affairs, directly led to her attaining her most important job: “I had the opportunity to study such a broad range of topics in public policy. I had some of the practical skills from my previous career, but things such as budgeting for non-profits, understanding policy and lobbying, and ethical leadership, for instance, were the game changers.”
The Center on Domestic Violence operates independently within the School of Public Affairs. It conducts trainings nationally—for everyone from K-12 teachers to healthcare professionals, police officers to family court judges. It conducts research on gender-based violence and offers classes that combine theoretical and practical knowledge about domestic violence and its sources. “Knowledge, Action, Change” is the theme for 2020.
Many Stars, One Universe
To kick off the 2020 anniversary celebration, the Center on Domestic Violence held a special event on Oct. 24, 2019 at the Carla Madison Recreation Center’s Rooftop Terrace. Speakers included Director Barbara Paradiso and CDV Leadership Council members, including Chief Deputy District Attorney Anita Drasan. Drasan spoke passionately about the Center, using her personal experience as a prosecutor to put domestic violence into perspective. She sees the victims every day, she said, including scared children, abused women, and remorseful attackers. Domestic violence is everywhere.