Abuse victims go back—again and again. Once they finally decide to leave, it takes an average of seven attempts to be successful. “Most victims will reach out to family and friends or their church,” says Kathleen Schoen of the Colorado Bar Association. “A small percentage will go to a shelter. Others will file criminal charges. Some file civil restraining orders or divorce papers. They may not even mention the abuse in the divorce because they are worried it will complicate things.” Initial attempts to leave often fail because the woman may have financial insecurities, the presence of children can complicate custody issues, or well-meaning people try to resolve couples’ problems. They’ll offer a temporary room but can’t provide a long-term solution. Sometimes they encourage the victim to return—and stay.

The hours and days after a woman leaves are often the most dangerous times. Each year in the United States, there are about 16,800 domestic violence–related murders, suicides, or “collateral deaths” (in which a friend, family member, bystander, or police officer is killed)—in 2011, there were 39 such fatalities documented in Colorado.

On a routine day in fall 2009, Barbara Galicia, a petite Latina in her 50s, picked up the hot line call at SafeHouse Denver, a nonprofit that shelters and assists domestic violence victims, and found herself talking to a woman from Houston. It was a standard call, one of hundreds Galicia would field that year. (SafeHouse received 18,618 such calls in 2012.)

A five-year SafeHouse veteran, Galicia was used to hearing Krystal’s story. She ran through an assessment checklist, getting general information from Krystal (name, how many kids, if she’d been to a shelter before). Then she talked about the safe house, which is in an undisclosed Denver location and can house up to 31 people, invariably women and children. The staff are mandatory reporters, meaning that if there is child abuse or neglect, they’re legally compelled to report it. Galicia laid out the terms: Physical or verbal abuse was strictly forbidden, as was drug or alcohol use. There was a two-bag luggage limit.

Galicia understood Krystal’s mental state. She’d dedicated her entire career to assisting people, first as a teacher, later as a school administrator, and now as a bilingual advocate for domestic violence victims. She also empathized with Krystal because Galicia knows that fear. When she was 13, she called the police after her stepfather beat her mother. Her mother soon left him, and ever since, Galicia has marveled at her mother’s strength. It’s why she’s devoted her professional life to helping fragile people unearth that same fortitude within themselves.

Krystal and her kids arrived in Denver a few days later, after midnight. Adara and Krystal slept much of the way, until the Rockies rose from the plains. They finally saw Adara’s snow near Colorado Springs. Jay couldn’t stop smiling, that ear-to-ear grin that split his quiet face in two and turned his eyes into soft caramels, just like when he was a boy. Krystal scanned the powder-white landscape, remembering how Terrance once said it would be a cold day in hell before she left him. Well, she thought, he got that right.

The three stood under a small lamp at the safe house in their too-light jackets, shivering. “This is nice, guys, right?” Krystal asked. “Yup, this is wonderful,” her children answered. “We’re sold.” The trio settled into their upstairs room, still numb from the excitement. The next morning, Krystal asked Adara how she was doing. “Mom, I am OK,” Adara said, as she lay in her mom’s lap. “I am just afraid that you are going to go back.”

Adara was right to be scared. Krystal was quickly cooking up reasons they should return. They didn’t have any clothes or money. They couldn’t lock the door on their room. She didn’t have a job. Galicia helped talk her down. Here’s the shelter’s store of coats, help yourself. Would the kids like to go to a Nuggets game? Here are some tickets. The kids—dressed in their new-to-them winter gear and talking excitedly about hoops—soothed Krystal’s doubts.

She might have gone back right away if they had been a little closer to Houston. The more miles that were between them, the clearer it became: She loved him; she just needed him to change. The past didn’t matter. They were a family. She wanted the abuse to end, not the relationship. Although she realized it was a bad idea, she called him.

He asked where she was and said he’d been looking everywhere. Although he never alerted authorities to her absence, he had reached out to the kids’ school and Krystal’s job, looking for answers. “I will come and get you,” he said. “I am so sorry.” Krystal lied about where they were, just like she lied to everyone, even to her best friends, when she told them she was back in Virginia.

“You left me with everything,” he begged. “I don’t know what I am going to do. I can’t make it without you.”

“I want you to know that I love you, but I just can’t take it anymore,” Krystal said. “I just can’t.” She hung up the phone and kept moving.

Her first step was to get sober. It didn’t require anything so formal as a 12-step program; with Terrance gone, she no longer needed to get high. She moved her family from SafeHouse to transitional housing and enrolled the kids in school. Next, she found an apartment and a job as an elder-care assistant. At first, all the family had was a sofa and a TV someone from the shelter had given them. The three of them would lay on the living room floor and watch it for hours. For the first time she could remember, Krystal felt peaceful and content.

She was starting to feel normal again when she received an email from Terrance. He’d moved on. He’d met someone new, and she was pregnant. It hurt Krystal because she still loved him. Even though his news should have been a relief—now he’d have less reason to track her down—she wrestled with jealousy. Terrance was with another woman who was carrying his child. She was snuggling against him on Krystal’s old couch. He was stroking her back and wrapping his thick arms around her.

And if she was really being honest with herself, he was probably slapping her around, too.

Would she ever stop loving him? Krystal knew it was messed up. She knew she’d done the right thing for her kids and herself by running away. Still, she missed him. Or maybe just the idea of him.

One day, Adara said, “I sure miss my friends.”

“Well, let’s go back,” Krystal said.

Adara looked at her mother with that new unflinching gaze of hers, her spunkiness restored, and cracked a wry smile: “I don’t miss them that much!”

Not everyone supports SafeHouse Denver’s goal because the group doesn’t automatically try to extricate every domestic violence victim from her home. Its aim is to keep women as safe as possible wherever they choose to be. Sometimes that’s at the shelter; other times it may mean returning home. SafeHouse workers realize a crisis doesn’t end quickly. The organization measures success by whether a victim has been armed with information and coping mechanisms—and if she’s able to survive. “The work we do every day is lifesaving, even if they are still with their abusers,” says Victoria McVicker, SafeHouse’s CEO. “The fact that she’s getting services and she’s still with her abuser, that’s OK. We’re keeping her alive.”

In the early 1980s, women’s rights advocates threatened to sue the city of Denver for the way its police department handled domestic violence calls. At that time, Denver District Attorney Norm Early pushed the city to change the way domestic violence was addressed. In 1984, Denver implemented a probable cause mandatory arrest (any evidence of domestic violence results in an arrest). It was the first city in Colorado to do so, and by 1992 the law was in place throughout the state.

In 2006, Denver created the Triage Review Team—a police detective and staff from the department’s domestic violence and victim’s assistance units, representatives from the DA’s office, and community advocacy groups—to review domestic violence cases as they occur. On any given day in Colorado, about 1,300 domestic violence victims seek help. “Today, I think we have a better relationship with [our city’s] police department than most anywhere else in the country,” says DoraLee Larson, executive director of the Denver Domestic Violence Coordinating Council, one of the groups on the Triage team. These efforts still haven’t stopped domestic violence or greatly changed the public’s often-negative view of victims. “Most of the prosecutors I’ve worked with say if [a case proceeds to] a jury trial, we are dead in the water,” says Larson, because jurors tend to wonder: Why didn’t she just leave?

Part of the trouble is that getting help depends on the victims’ initiative: They must hop from service to shelter to police department to another service, and so on. A shelter may provide short-term housing but not job counseling. A detective can work with a victim but can’t provide daily support. Each agency is a little piece of the puzzle; it’s up to the victim to collect and assemble them.

This complicated process may soon be a lot easier. In 2014, Denver is planning to open the Rose A. Andom Center on Fox Street, a one-stop domestic violence prevention shop designed to make it much easier for these families to find help. Access to police, DAs, shelters, and medical care all will be available under one roof. There will even be people from the Denver Dumb Friends League in case families have left a pet behind and need someone to retrieve it. So far, about eight government agencies and 20 nonprofits have signed up, and the center is fund-raising to meet its deadline.

Sitting near the courthouse, Denver Health, the police department, and the DA’s office, the location is ideal. It’s what Larson calls the “missing piece,” the collaborative system Denver needs—now. Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey agrees. He remembers a time when many domestic violence cases were dismissed before they ever reached a courtroom. It’s easier to get convictions now, but Morrissey says he hopes the center will help more victims in the early stages of abusive relationships—it’s expected to assist more than 3,000 women per year—which could mean fewer cases will escalate to felonies that reach his desk. “We believe there is a path out of domestic violence, and we want Denver to know we won’t tolerate domestic violence,” Morrissey says.

Krystal moves around the south Denver elder-care center where she’s the activities director. She works with patients who suffer from dementia. They ask her—repeatedly—to do things like synchronize their watches or stand at the door with them. She does so eagerly, as if the same request hadn’t arrived five minutes earlier. Her job requires supreme patience, a gentleness of spirit that was so lacking in her life in Houston. Every day, she must be the essence of calm.

Her job enables her and the kids to live in their very own house through Section 8 assistance. She makes about $15 an hour, decent enough money, but she doesn’t have insurance. “I have days [when I realize], I’m a single woman again. I’m almost 40 years old,” Krystal says. “How did I get to this point in my life?”

They each have a bedroom, but Adara has dragged a futon mattress into her mom’s room and sleeps there every night. Although her timidity sometimes returns in the dark, during the day she’s barely recognizable from her old Houston self. None of them are. Adara is sharp-witted yet kind. She only holds her head down now when she’s scared—“Not very much!” she boasts. She thinks about her future, hoping to be a professional basketball player in Europe. Or a chef. Maybe both: a traveling chef who shoots hoops.

Jay, the son who Krystal once feared would end up in jail, is a high school senior on track to graduate this month. Then he’s off to community college. Hopefully, he’ll transfer to CSU after a year. He’s got the grades. He’s interested in studying journalism and hip-hop fashion, and he’d also like to travel.

Krystal is still unpacking. Recently, she uncovered the mirrors in her house. She had thrown sheets over them when they moved in because she couldn’t bear to look at herself. She’d do her makeup quickly, using a compact. Now in her living room hangs a full-length mirror that she has to pass every time she walks through the front door. She catches her reflection sometimes. It used to make her cringe; now it only brings her joy.

Most nights, Krystal is home with her kids. They eat dinner on TV trays and watch movies. After the big house and the Mercedes she had in Houston, she’s now earning a modest working wage and making do in a cozy and humble home.

It’s heaven.

The kids sometimes bicker, like teenagers do, but there are no cutting words. No screaming. No hitting. All in all, life is a bit boring. Krystal likes it that way. She speaks occasionally at SafeHouse to other victims to show them that there is another life to live. Because, at long last, she’s able to leave the lies behind and find solace in the truth. “I left for a reason,” she says. “I can do this. But being a single parent was the scariest thing because I never wanted my children to be like I was, so I vowed that, as hard as it is sometimes, we would do this together—and we are going to keep doing it together.”

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