FORT WORTH, Texas — Audria Maltzberger was homeless with three children. More than 13 years ago, she left her abusive husband with only her car, a laundry basket full of clothes, and her kids. The South Texas native first stopped at a shelter in Corpus Christi, but staffers there wanted to enroll her children in school — a move she knew would lead her husband right to her.
Her sister, who lives in Fort Worth, recommended that she come to Safe Haven of Tarrant County, a nonprofit that assists families healing from violent relationships. Safe Haven’s program brings teachers from the school district to the nonprofit’s facility. Maltzberger said the move to Fort Worth changed her life for the better — and possibly saved her from a grim fate.
“I needed somebody to kind of direct me,” she said in a phone interview. Safe Haven of Tarrant County, she added, “literally has every piece in place to put your life back together. I can't even imagine where we would be without the program. They help you establish housing, help you with Medicare and Medicaid, provide food and clothing, and help you get back on your feet.”
Maltzberger sees herself as lucky. As she talked to a reporter about what abuse victims must be dealing with during the pandemic, she broke down.
“It breaks my heart,” she said. "I cannot imagine how hard it is being at home with your abuser 24-7, because it was hard enough with him having to go to work. I was an at-home mom, and at least when he was at work, I had a break.”
Last year, according to a report recently released by Safe Haven and several other partners, eight women were killed by their domestic partner. That number is half the amount of women who were murdered in 2016 after the nonprofit created a domestic violence high-risk team that identifies potential deadly domestic situations and intervenes. Ever since the team was created in 2017, the number of domestic violence homicides per year has either declined or held steady. Then the pandemic hit.
Since March, when COVID-19 first appeared on our shorelines and prompted stay-at-home orders around the country, 17 women have been killed by domestic violence.
Safe Haven Tarrant County President and CEO Kathryn Jacob said that the isolation brought about by the pandemic has allowed abusers to further control their victims, while removing social safeguards that might ordinarily give an abuser pause. Safe Haven uses a tool called the Power and Control Wheel to illustrate the tactics abusers use to gain power and control over their victims.
“One of the biggest issues in the power control wheel is isolation — controlling what she does, who she sees, who she talks to, limiting her outside involvement, and things like that. If you're an offender, you use [the pandemic] to further isolate a victim. The idea that victims were not going to church, going to the grocery store, going to drop off their kids at school … they weren't seen by anyone.”
An example, she said, was an Arlington woman whose husband recently murdered her, wrapped her in a tarp, and laid her on the couple’s bed where she sat for weeks. The murderer eventually confessed to a family member who called the police. Had he not told someone about the crime, the victim might still be there.
“If you haven't heard from someone in a while, make sure you check on them because, sadly, I think when this is over, we will realize there are more cases like that,” Jacob said.
Another factor in the rising number of murders is that jails are allowing abusers to leave after paying a bond, in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
“That's a dangerous time for a victim because the offender is kind of a lame duck,” Jacob said. “He doesn't have much to lose if he's pretrial.”
The Adult Fatality Review Team was born out of a county commissioner’s statute that was reaffirmed in 2016. The local district attorney’s office took the lead on the partnership, including the Fort Worth and Arlington police, John Peter Smith Hospital, and others.
The team reviewed the eight deaths that occurred in 2019 and released the data earlier this month. The report includes details about the crimes, the victim/abuser’s demographic information, and any interactions the perpetrator and victim might have had with community agencies prior to the homicide.
“I think the most stunning piece of this report is that we always get the question of, ‘Why doesn’t the survivor just leave the relationship?’” Jacob said. “Truth be told, seven of the eight cases had done just that. Those relationships were over, and she died anyway. I think we need to stop asking that question, because leaving doesn't always equate to safety. Sometimes, it is safer to stay, especially if the offender has said things like, ‘If you leave, I'll kill you.’”
According to the Texas Council On Family Violence Honoring Texas Victims 2018 report, 174 women were killed by their male intimate partners in 64 Texas counties in 2018.
Jacob said Safe Haven, which is the only state-accredited domestic violence organization in Tarrant County, and which runs the area’s only two domestic violence shelters, uses a tool called the Danger Assessment to measure an abuser’s risk for homicide. An abuse victim is asked to answer a 20-question survey, which includes key indicators like, “Has your partner ever strangled you?”
“Strangulation has very real ties to a future homicide,” Jacob said. “If you’re strangled by your partner, you are 700-times more likely to be strangled by them a second time — and you are 800-times more likely to die at the hands of that offender, typically by gunshot.”
Maltzberger, who is now happily remarried, said she took a similar survey and checked “yes” in all but one of the questions about her ex.
“I needed to see that to understand how bad it was,” she said. “I really needed to see what domestic violence was and to understand the severity of the situation and how dangerous it was.”
Jacob encouraged people to call the national Safe Haven hotline if they or someone they know is experiencing abuse. The number is 1-877-701-7233.