Krystal Ryan was tired. Not work-tired, when your eyes start to burn. Or mom-tired, when your shoulders ache and your neck feels hollow. The 34-year-old mother of two was tired in a way she couldn’t sleep her way out of. She’d tried, but her 5-foot-7-inch frame had stopped doing what she wanted it to. Her nose ran constantly. Her teeth ached. By that fall day in 2009, her whole being just seemed to belong to someone else.

She padded around her Houston townhouse touching things—clothing, furniture, makeup—and leaving them all exactly where they were, seemingly undisturbed, so nothing looked amiss. She didn’t dare look at herself in a mirror. Although she normally grinned a lot, a smile that stretched across her mocha cheeks, it never seemed to light up her almond-shaped eyes, which always remained somber, worn, and wary. She thought about taking her journals but decided she’d like him to read them—just after she was far, far away.

Earlier that week, she’d sat on the couch with her children, 14-year-old Jay and 11-year-old Adara, and repeated a conversation they’d had many times before. If we left, where would we go? By then, Adara was so withdrawn she couldn’t bring herself to meet people’s eyes, and she rarely spoke up. This time, she was unusually self-assured.

“Denver,” she told her mom decisively.

“Denver, Colorado?” Krystal asked. They’d never been there. Didn’t know anything about it.

“Yeah, let’s go to Denver,” Adara said. After about six years in Houston’s swelter, she longed to see snowflakes.

With their destination decided, they now had to determine what to pack once they were ready to leave their entire lives behind. Krystal told her kids to take only what they couldn’t do without. She knew the more they left things looking normal, the longer it would take him to figure out they’d gone. Leave the toys. Leave the pictures. Leave the Mercedes. Leave the lease, the report cards, the Xbox, the medical records, the money. Leave the dogs.

A day earlier, Krystal had stuffed some shoes in a suitcase and pulled pants and shirts out of her closet before taking the luggage to a trusted friend’s house. She shuffled the remaining hangers to make it look like nothing was missing. I want it to look like he’d expect it to be. The next night, after dinner, she told him she was taking the kids for ice cream. She gave him every indication she’d be back in a moment. On their way out the door, she stole one last glance at the puppies, and thought, Man, I’m leaving.

Not long before she fled, Krystal had $650 to her name. Not his. Not theirs. Just hers. She’d been squirreling it away for a month, knowing he’d ask for it when the bills came. Make that demand it. If she didn’t have it, he’d know something was up.

She used it to buy bus tickets to Denver, just like Adara asked, even though the purchase ate up $585. It left the three of them with $65 to start a new life. For shelter. To eat. Of course it wasn’t enough; she couldn’t think about that or she’d turn back.

She led the kids to the Houston bus station’s loading zone, where only ticketed passengers could sit. She’d already turned off her cell phone so he couldn’t call her. Their bus didn’t leave for hours, though, and Krystal was getting nervous. She told a police officer standing nearby they were running away. “Don’t worry,” the cop said. “If you don’t have a ticket, you can’t get back here.” Could he see them through the terminal windows? Could he buy a ticket and try to stop her? Though he’d menaced her countless times, she’d never been so frightened as when she stared at the bus station clock and watched the seconds creep by.

Finally, they boarded the bus. Krystal didn’t stop worrying until the doors closed behind the last passenger. Adara quickly fell asleep. Jay couldn’t stop smiling, a wide grin that softened his eyes and made him look more like the boy he used to be than the man he was becoming. At last, Krystal slept.

Every dozen or so seconds in the United States, a woman is beaten, assaulted, or strangled. Domestic violence is the top cause of injury for American women between the ages of 15 and 44. Many of these victims know their assaulter: Nearly 30 percent of all murdered women are killed by husbands, exes, or boyfriends. (Less than five percent of males are slain by wives, exes, or girlfriends.)

You also know these women. One in four females will be the victim of domestic violence. She could be your mother, sister, friend, or co-worker, stuck in a controlling relationship in which her partner uses manipulation, humiliation, violence, and other means to maintain control over her. (Ninety percent of all victims are women and most of the perpetrators are male.) Most shockingly, domestic violence is so vastly underreported, you may never actually know.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that many states finally agreed a wife could be raped by her husband. Until then, the law and conventional wisdom said a wife could not refuse her husband sex, or that once she’d given consent after the wedding day it couldn’t be retracted. Thanks in part to the women’s liberation movement, the law caught up with the reality of wives who were being assaulted by the very men they vowed to stay with through sickness and in health. What seems intuitive now—that a wife and husband each have equal legal power over their bodies—was an ideological nuclear bomb in the ’70s.

In 1986, domestic violence was finally identified as a “public health issue”—one costing $5.8 billion a year in the United States. Four years later, then-Senator Joseph Biden first proposed the Violence Against Women Act. It took four years to pass. (In 2012, conservatives stalled VAWA’s renewal over ideological differences about extending the law to include same-sex couples and some provisions to aid illegal immigrants. After months of squabbling, VAWA was renewed in February 2013.)

The laws remain difficult to enforce, partly because the term “domestic violence” is a misnomer. Abusive relationships often are less about actual violence than about control and power, which makes abuse even harder to define, enforce, and convict. Domestic violence involves a warped dynamic that—whether or not a criminal act has been committed—is often misunderstood by people outside the relationship. Still, as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once quipped about porn: “I know it when I see it.”

This wasn’t the first man Krystal left. Her former husband, a Gulf War veteran, could never escape his mind. When the PTSD became too much to bear, he’d drink. And drink. Krystal endured her husband’s behavior until Jay started understanding why his mommy begged for his daddy’s car keys. When he’d grabbed her throat and wouldn’t let go. When Jay yelled, “Get off my mommy!” That’s when Krystal left him.

She was just 23 and a single mom, but she’d been on her own for much of her life, anyway. In her home state of Virginia, her mother abandoned her at social services when she was nine months old. Her paternal grandmother adopted her—and then died when Krystal was 15. Krystal became a nomad, moving from home to home, just trying to finish school. She married at 17, had Jay at 19, then Adara when she was 22. It wasn’t until her husband almost strangled her that Krystal decided she’d had enough.

By the time Terrance* landed in Krystal’s life, she wasn’t looking for a man. She was 27, raising her children, paying the bills, and getting a licensed practical nurse (LPN) degree. She worked as a night auditor at a Ramada Inn in Virginia. He was an engineer from Houston who stayed there a few months while working on a job. He showed up, and he kept coming back, night after night.

She tried to ignore him as she’d been doing with all men for the previous four years. She rarely dated and never brought anyone home to meet her children. She figured it might be like that forever: Jay, Adara, and her in their home, making do.

Terrance proved to be too good to ignore. At 6 feet 3 inches, with powerful arms that he’d wrap around her, he quickly convinced her he was wonderful. Safe. He wanted to meet her kids. After three months, she agreed. “I am going to be the father figure,” he told them. “I love you guys. We’re a family now.”

Krystal had one thought: “This is it.”

Maybe she saw a few warning signs. Terrance could be intensely protective. Didn’t like her stepping out without her man. Didn’t like men talking to her at clubs. But that’s because he was worried about her, right? He loved her and didn’t want to share her with anyone else.

Krystal thought about how quickly he’d waltzed into her life, wanting to take care of her and be a dad to her children. She concluded that after nearly three decades in a world that didn’t seem to care if she was alone, someone wanted her, even with all her baggage. So what if it seemed like too much, too soon? She deserved this.

So when he asked her to leave school early to join him at his new work site in Chicago, she agreed. It would be a honeymoon, a test to see if they could live together in his hotel room. She packed her suitcase and left the kids with her half sister for a little while so she and Terrance would have some time alone.

Krystal was finally letting go and allowing herself to trust someone. For a while, it was fun. There were parties. Nice cars. Dancing in hotel rooms. High heels. New clothes. But one night he thought she danced too close to another man, and Terrance hit her. Another time he saw a guy at a club approach her. Even though she was careful to point out her boyfriend, he slapped her on the drive back to the hotel. “I saw you in that man’s face,” he raged. She hit him in the forehead with her shoe’s heel. It drew blood. She wasn’t a pushover. She’d fight back.

Her moment of self-defense didn’t stop the violence. One night, they were at a cookout at the hotel and Terrance wanted to leave. Krystal wasn’t ready yet. “I’m going to sit outside for a while,” she said. “It’s nice. I don’t want to go back upstairs.” He hit her, grabbed her hair, and yanked her head back. When she woke up the next morning, she wouldn’t leave the room. She’d been in Chicago less than a month.

A woman she’d met there kept calling; Krystal didn’t answer. Finally, the woman came to the hotel and made a manager let her into Krystal’s room. “Oh my,” she said when she saw Krystal’s face. “What happened?”

“I had a seizure,” Krystal lied.

She couldn’t stop lying to herself, either. He was so different most of the time. That wasn’t the man she met. Every day wasn’t bad. Something had gone wrong those times, and it wasn’t his fault. He was the man she wanted, the father she hoped her kids would have.

If there was a moment to escape, it was when she flew back to Virginia. She hugged her kids and faced a choice: Keep them in the same school. Finish her classes and start working as an LPN. She’d make good money, there would always be work for her, and she could start forgetting Terrance. She could heal.

Instead, she packed their bags and moved her family to Houston.

Domestic violence research has yet to pinpoint a definite predictor of why one person and not another becomes a victim. They don’t look or act a certain way. Some live paycheck to paycheck; others never worry about the rent. Some have Ph.D.s; others never made it through high school. Some are outspoken; others are wallflowers. Their one commonality: They gravitate toward men who want to control them. This is why falling in love can turn out to be the most dangerous thing a woman ever does.

It is nearly as difficult to anticipate who will become an abuser as it is to predict who will be abused. Still, there are signals. A partner may seem too good, too perfect. What begins as flattery turns commanding. You’re too beautiful. You’re flirting. You’re slutty. You’re a whore. And so on. A disconnect emerges between actions and words. Inevitably, it gets worse.

There is one semireliable way to tell if someone might become a victim: Children who grow up around domestic violence are 15 times more likely to be abused themselves. Even worse, boys who witness abuse at home are twice as likely to become abusers because they’ve been rewired to think it’s normal. Living in a violent domestic environment also can slow sensory growth in the brain and increase depression, suicide risk, and problems such as withdrawal, criminality, and sleep difficulties. Even if these children aren’t actually hit, they rarely escape the abuse at the time—or later in life.

For those unable to flee, the abuse and the make-ups develop a cyclical quality. After a crisis, an abuser may start to resemble who they at first seemed to be: caring, apologetic, changed. Then another violent episode happens. Then another vow to change. This is why many domestic violence victims aren’t identified until they land in the hospital. They come in complaining of bruises on their neck, broken ribs, or black eyes. They usually have an excuse, claiming to be klutzy or accident-prone, which can fool the untrained eye. Unfortunately, less than one-fifth of domestic violence victims get hospital care.

Moreover, the psychological impact of domestic violence in the United States accounts for $18.5 million in mental health care visits each year—and that’s just the victims who do seek help. Those who don’t may slip into something akin to Stockholm syndrome, in which a hostage feels sympathy for her captor and starts doing things simply to make her abuser happy and fend off the inevitable next attack for just a little longer.

It’s easy to wonder: Why didn’t she leave? Why didn’t she pack her kids up in the middle of the night and run? He wasn’t holding a gun to her head. She had a choice.

Most abusers don’t raise their violence or abuse beyond a certain level. They are shouters or slappers, not killers. Legal methods often work; most restraining orders are effective. Once they’re confronted with the legal and personal risks, abusers usually back down. But absent any outside pressure to stop, abuse can—and will—escalate.

So as many victims do, Krystal stayed. Because she loved him. Because she thought having this man as a dad was better than her kids growing up without one. Because she was afraid. Because she thought he’d stop. Because no one ever asked the key question: Why did he hit her?

Krystal became clever about hiding the clawlike fingernail marks on her neck. The bruises on her face. But makeup didn’t always cover the welts, so she wore turtlenecks until the Houston summer made her sweat too much. When she couldn’t hide the injuries, there was always an excuse for her co-workers and friends: I fell. It was an accident.

Even though she made the same excuses to Terrance’s friends and family, she figured they had to know. The two had that fight in the parking lot, when she sent everyone back into the restaurant once he started yelling. He’d berated her at a party for fixing his plate wrong. He routinely tore her down. She was too black. Too fat. Too ugly. “Who is going to want you?” he’d ask. “No one is going to want you but me.” She thought other people saw. Why didn’t they do anything about it?

She began to doubt herself, to wonder if she was the only one who viewed him like this. When they went out, she says she felt like Beyoncé with Jay-Z—glitz, glamour, and perfection. When they were alone, he became someone else. His mood swings were their secret; it was up to her to decode his demeanor and deflect his anger. She could sense the vibe as soon as she walked in the door. If he was smiling, she worried. If he had a beer in his hand, her back started tensing against the assault that was sure to follow.

Verbal, physical, it didn’t really matter. She was already hurting—tired—before the abuse would even begin; so weary it became almost mundane. She’d hand him dinner knowing what was next. “Boobie, this shit is nasty,” he’d say. “Your ass can’t do shit right. You can’t cook. Man, I see why I never fucked with no black girls. I promise your stupid ass I’m done with you. I wish I had left your ass in Virginia. I don’t want to be here with you or your damn kids. Fuck all y’all, for real.” Krystal would shout back until the slap came. She’d look up to see Jay and Adara watching—again.

“Go in the other room, guys,” she’d say. “Mommy’s OK.”

There were moments when he seemed like the man she’d met in Virginia. He’d stroke her back. Wrap his big arms around her. Even if those same hands had hit her the night before, she wanted him. Wanted him to be everything she’d planned out in her head. Which is why, when his visage darkened, she was always a little unprepared for the wrath.

She stumbled upon a new way to delay his anger on the night of her 29th birthday. They were partying again, with friends, and Krystal was drunk. Terrance pulled her downstairs and out to the car. “This is what I do,” he said, showing her how to take a bump of cocaine off a key. “I want to introduce you to it because you’ll still be drunk, but it’ll help you sober up. Here.”

“What do I do with that?” Krystal asked.

“You snort it.”

She didn’t want to, but she did anyway. The next morning her nose was clogged, and she just didn’t feel right. She wasn’t the type to do drugs, and yet…. He was so happy with her. This was their thing; their love.

Krystal began to strategize. She’d finish her shifts as a nurse’s assistant with a lingering thought: If I could just keep him high…. If she called the dealer on her way home and picked up some coke, she could hand it over like a prize. He’d be pleased. Happy she was the good wife who understood and partied with him.

The more they partied, the more they spent. Between their two jobs, the family should have been flush. Instead, they always seemed to live month to month. Although they never could afford new shoes for her kids, they could always scrape together whatever it took to get high. Sometimes they’d invite friends over, throwing away $400 a night on drugs and booze.

Then Terrance lost his job. Krystal picked up double shifts to keep the lights on and the coke supply high. She was solely focused on making this man happy. If that meant she showed up to work high or drunk, so be it. She was starting not to mind so much, anyway. After last night’s party, she needed to stay high to stay awake. And she needed to get high again tonight to keep him happy. She never seemed to sleep.

Her boss started to comment on her persistent sinus infections. Her nose was constantly congested. Her teeth, her skin, everything just looked awful. She began suspecting all those things Terrance said—you’re ugly, you’re fat, you’re too black—were true.

What Krystal loved most about her work was the chance to help people. No matter what was happening at home, she could do her rounds with her elderly patients, smile as if nothing were wrong, and forget—for a minute or two—what a mess her life had become. She was exhausted, so much so that one day, she sat down in a patient’s room and didn’t get up. She hadn’t slept for three days. Now she did, while the patient she was supposed to be feeding lay helpless nearby.

She awoke to see her supervisor hovering over her. There were no excuses this time. She was fired.

In the next six months, she lost two more jobs. She’d never been fired in her life, but between the booze and the coke and him, she couldn’t hold it together during the day. She tried to lose weight by throwing on a plastic workout suit and running in the Houston sun. It was never enough. He’d call her at work to see where she was. He’d even call while she was in church. Lord, she thought. I can’t even talk to you without him getting jealous.

She tried to tell her biological mom about the abuse. Krystal had met her again when she was 18. Their relationship was touchy, a myriad of disastrous arguments followed by forgiving conversations. Her mom didn’t understand: “You’re going to leave this house and these cars? You’re going to leave all this?” Krystal talked to friends, to people at her church, and always heard the same responses. It can’t be that bad. He’s just struggling. He’ll change. Don’t leave him. Maybe some couples counseling would help.

She started searching the Internet and found a list of 10 things that may mean you’re in an abusive relationship. She checked off all 10. She looked at Terrance’s ex-wife—a single mom raising two kids—and marveled at how great she was doing. The children dressed well. She always seemed to have money. How could Krystal be doing so much worse with a man in her life? If it ever occurred to her that maybe the problem was him, not her, Krystal didn’t dwell on it.

She convinced herself she could stand it. After all, her perceived alternative was homelessness for herself and her kids. This didn’t keep her from threatening to go away. “It’ll be a cold day in hell when you leave me,” he’d say. She’d repeated her threats so many times he probably didn’t worry about it anymore. He did show concern once, in the fall of 2009 while they were getting high in the garage. After she warned him again, he said, “I love you, don’t say that. Before you leave me, let’s just talk about it.”

“OK,” she said. “You’re right.”

Hitting rock bottom can be abrupt—a free fall followed by a thud. For Krystal, it was a slow crawl. She knew it was all going so wrong. But she didn’t know how to stop. Couldn’t imagine how she’d get the energy to make a change. Didn’t think that anyone would believe her or help her.

That all changed one day when a social worker visited her house, looking for Krystal.

“That’s me,” Krystal said.

“I’m from Child Protective Services,” the social worker said.

Krystal wanted to laugh. She almost couldn’t help herself; it was funny. The social worker began reading from a report. Everything she said was true. The children had recently spent the night sleeping on a neighbor’s porch. Krystal had checked into a hospital that evening to recover from anemia and depression after yet another fight with Terrance. Before she left, she’d told the kids to stay at a nearby friend’s house. When the neighbor wasn’t home, Jay and Adara decided that sleeping outside—Terrance never hit the kids but was verbally abusive to them—was better than returning home without their mom.

The social worker read on. They knew about all of it: the fights, the drugs, the parties. But Terrance was home and came to the door, so Krystal lied. “No, my children were not outside,” she said. “They were in the house, and I don’t know who reported this.”

Jay and Adara seemed to understand, too, because they quickly echoed the lies. We were at a neighbor’s house. Nope, we weren’t outside. Weeks later, social services called and told Krystal the case had been dropped.

Her fear intensified. She’d saved her kids from foster care, but for how long? What would she do the next time Child Protective Services knocked on the door? She thought about killing Terrance. She sat in the medication room at her latest job, staring at the drugs. It would be so easy to stop the abuse. As quickly as these dark thoughts arose, she chased them away. Then she sobbed. She had no way out. 

If she was a mess, her kids were even worse. Adara walked around with her head bowed, timid and withdrawn. Sometimes at night, Krystal would find her daughter stuffing food in her pockets, just in case there suddenly wasn’t anything to eat. The dogs would trail after her in a pathetic parade. Jay was failing in school and stealing from just about everyone except his mom. Although Terrance seemed to tolerate Adara, Jay pissed him off. He constantly berated the teenager, warning Jay that he’d soon be in prison. After seeing the anger grow in her son, Krystal couldn’t disagree; Jay was out of control.

Over the six or so years the violence took place, Adara had devolved from a spunky girl to a sunken teen, and Jay, once small and frail, was now over 6 feet tall—and increasingly angry. How long before he fought back? Too many nights, Krystal wondered: Am I going to die here? Who’s going to take care of my children? He doesn’t care about them or me. I am going to lose my children over this.

There seemed to be no end, so when it finally came, it surprised her, too. Terrance hit her one night and when Jay shrieked, the sound was unlike anything Krystal had heard before. It was primal, and it told her something had changed in her little boy.

When she left her first husband, it was to protect Jay. Why was Terrance so different? On the night after she’d stowed the luggage with her friend, Terrance ordered Jay to go upstairs and take a shower. Before another argument could ensue, Krystal said no, she was taking the kids for ice cream.

Her friend was waiting for them outside the house. “Are you ready?” she asked. Krystal couldn’t stay and wait for Jay to turn into everything Terrance thought he would. She couldn’t spend another day choosing him over her kids.

“Yeah, I think I am.”

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.”