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VOL. 45 | NO. 40 | Friday, October 1, 2021

‘Casey, he was seconds away from killing you’

Family Justice Center VP introduced to its services at scary moment

By Nancy Henderson

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Casey Self had been dating a former University of Tennessee classmate for a couple of months when he began stalking her, acting possessively and threatening to hurt her roommates and even her dog. The physical violence soon followed.

“He would get angry and he would choke me,” says Self, at the time a UT graduate student who also was working at the university. “He was very careful not to hit me in places where it would show.”

As the months passed and she tried to figure out a way to get out of the relationship, her boyfriend’s control tactics escalated. One day, she returned from her campus job to find him waiting at her house. Somehow, she talked him into leaving so she could finish her homework.

But nightfall brought a barrage of relentless texts and phone calls that didn’t stop until she went to the man’s apartment the next morning. Immediately, he pulled her inside and locked the door.

“And he choked me to the point where I almost passed out,” Self recalls. “This was more scary than it had been previously because I had never come that close to losing consciousness.”

On the way to work, she called her therapist and described what happened. “Casey, he was seconds away from killing you,” the counselor said. “Whether he means to or not, he’s going to kill you.”

“It just really stuck with me that that was very possible,” Self says. “And I didn’t want to die that way.”

A city police officer drove her to the Knoxville Family Justice Center, where she met with an advocate who helped her secure an order of protection, sent her to the hospital for an examination and arranged for her to temporarily stay with another friend.

That was 15 years ago, not long after the FJC opened its doors. Self began volunteering there two years ago and was recently elected vice president of the nonprofit organization, which serves domestic violence and sexual assault victims.

Casey Self stands, as a survivor, in the “living room” waiting area where she would have come when she was in crisis. Self is a survivor and now serves as the board vice president of Knoxville Family Justice Center.

-- Photo By Michael Patrick |The Ledger

Part of a “one-stop shop” initiative introduced by the White House during the George W. Bush administration, the Knoxville facility was one of the first 15 to open.

“One of the very important parts of [selecting the cities] was that there had to be good agency buy-in,” says Kathryn Ellis, an attorney who became executive director of FJC last fall. “You had to have a good network already of agencies – both governmental and nongovernmental, law enforcement and non-law enforcement – that were already working well together.”

Eight on-site partners, from prosecutors to social service professionals, operate offices inside the Harriet Tubman Street building. Forty additional off-site agencies are on call to provide further assistance.

One of the greatest benefits of the FJC is that it gives the victim control while helping her with pressing needs, such as food, a gas card or a cellphone. “The victim might need temporary shelter or they might have their own place but need their locks changed,” Ellis explains. “If there’s a longer-term housing issue, they can get a referral to KCDC (Knoxville’s Community Development Corporation) to hopefully get them a Section 8 voucher for housing.

“One of the biggest parts of being in an abusive situation is that you don’t get to make decisions about pretty much anything in your life because you’re controlled,” she adds. “The goal of the Family Justice Center is to give victims a voice, not to say, ‘You have to work with law enforcement’ or ‘You have to go into a shelter,’ but to give them all their options. When they’re able to choose, then there’s more investment in the decision and they’re also able to have a feeling, finally, of not being completely out of control of their own lives.”

Kathryn Ellis, executive director of Knoxville Family Justice Center. The stuffed animals in the basket were made by her mother and donated to the center for children.

-- Photos By Michael Patrick |The Ledger

Before the FJC opened, victims had to navigate multiple resources at different locations, from the police department to the courthouse to Legal Aid of East Tennessee. “People were doing a lot of it on their own, making their own phone calls, driving to and from if they had vehicles,” Ellis says. “A lot of times when you flee a situation, you may not have your phone with you or your phone may be something that your abuser is using to track you or monitor you. So it was a lot of work and it was something that took a lot of time and a lot of energy that, when you’re fleeing an abusive situation, you don’t necessarily have.”

Before joining FJC, Ellis spent more than eight years at Legal Aid, half of them representing victims of domestic violence in orders of protection and divorces. She also spent a good deal of time at the FJC, coordinating with various partners. Even so, in her new role she is often amazed by the sheer resolve of victims to leave their abusers. On average, it takes seven attempts to break free.

Ellis remembers one woman who, with no access to the family car, rode her bike to the FJC from West Knoxville, pulling her two children and a bundle of clothes behind her in a trailer. “She had reached that point where she knew she needed to leave and she was going to do whatever she had to do to get here.”

Although the issue of domestic violence is no longer considered merely a “private family problem,” misconceptions still exist.

Exterior of the Randall E. Nichols Family Justice Center in Knoxville. The center houses several agencies working together to help families in crisis.

-- Photos By Michael Patrick |The Ledger

“People are constantly shocked when they find out that somebody they know is a victim,” Ellis says. “They’ll always say, ‘Oh, I thought you guys were such a good couple’ or ‘I didn’t ever think that would happen to somebody like you.’ Even to this day, when Hollywood wants to depict a domestic violence victim, a lot of people have this immediate view of Farrah Fawcett in “The Burning Bed,’’ the fragile white female, blonde hair. And that’s just not how it always is.

“And it’s not always that level of physical abuse. There is a lot of mental abuse, emotional abuse, a lot of manipulation. Children are quite often used as tools for the abuse. Domestic violence is something that is not gender-specific. It is not race-specific. It is not income-specific. It is not religious-specific. It’s human. Nobody is completely immune to it.

“Somebody in your life is a victim whether you know it or not.”

Self began volunteering on the FJC VOICES committee right after Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing in the fall of 2019. “I recognized myself in Dr. Christine Blasey Ford when she was telling her story, and I was disgusted at the way that she was being treated as a victim of trauma,” she says. “The questions that she was being asked when she would testify were things that I wouldn’t have been able to answer about my own situation. You actually can develop PTSD. When you get out of a situation, that’s just sort of the beginning. There’s still a lot of healing that has to happen.”

Through VOICES, survivors like Self who are “in a safe space” offer support to more recent victims; share their experiences with panels, the press and the general public; and put a face to the often-hidden problem of domestic violence. They also advise the FJC on procedures and operational matters. Self now chairs the committee.

“We lift each other up,” she points out. “It’s not a support group. But it is quite empowering to be surrounded by other people that have been through the same trauma that you have.”

Ellis explains how they fill and give out “busy bags” for children from families in crisis who come to the Knoxville Family Justice Center. Ellis is the executive director of the facility.

-- Photo By Michael Patrick |The Ledger

Over time, she has learned to tell her story to larger groups. “I’m alive. A lot of people aren’t,” she says. “I survived, and my abuser does not live in town, to my knowledge. And I don’t have children that I have to drop off at his house, or we’re not going through a divorce. I can actually talk about what happened to me when there are so many people that can’t.”

Unfortunately, technology has given abusers more ways to abuse, Ellis says. An Apple tile can be dropped in a purse or attached to a license plate to keep tabs on a victim. Computer software can manipulate ordinary photos, turning them into nude shots and exposing a victim to harassment and humiliation. Email accounts are easily stalked and hacked.

What’s more, the pandemic has poured fuel on an already dangerous fire. Many of the usual safety checks have disappeared, and the isolation – a common strategy among abusers – is even more pronounced. “A lot of times victims’ co-workers or friends will start to notice signs that there’s something going on and they might be able to intervene,” Ellis says. “But when you are no longer going out and you’re no longer going to the grocery store or the office, people aren’t seeing you. So they’re not going to be able to see the bruise that you couldn’t quite hide with your sweater.”

The financial and emotional stress triggered by the coronavirus shutdown, as couples spend more time together and some lose their jobs, has made matters worse. Says Ellis, “A lot of those relationships have now tipped the scales and are in a really bad place.”

As if these factors weren’t enough, COVID-19 has made it more difficult for victims to leave. Shelter spots are at a premium due to coronavirus precautions. And friends are sometimes reluctant to harbor a friend who’s being abused, especially if elderly relatives or those with compromised immune systems live in the home. “So many things that were already hard to do are even harder to do because of COVID,” Ellis explains.

For these reasons, Domestic Violence Awareness Month, which aims to shed light on the issue each October through radio interviews, social media and other venues, is more critical than ever. (A full list of this year’s local events is posted at fjcknoxville.org.) The FJC staff is also working to strengthen connections with faith leaders since parishioners in danger may suddenly seek food or clothing for unexplained reasons.

The Center is also trying to educate the community about the signs of domestic violence. On the organization’s website, for example, a Power & Control Wheel illustrates some of the ways abusers take over.

“A lot of times, people will say that they didn’t realize that their friend or family member was in a bad situation but that when they think back, they realize that when [the woman] started dating a new person they stopped coming over for the weekly family dinner or stopped responding to text messages or never wanted to come over for girls’ night,” Ellis adds.

Just because a friend asks if something is wrong doesn’t mean the victim will admit it. “But when somebody knows that you’re paying attention and that you care and that you’re aware,” Ellis says, “then it’s hopefully going to be a little bit easier for them to let you know what’s going on.”

And, Self points out, it’s essential to shed assumptions about why domestic violence victims fall prey to abusers. “One of the things that I get asked a lot is what my parents’ relationship was like,” she says. “My parents had a beautiful, respectful, loving relationship for 40 years, so I didn’t see this at home.

“The only thing I wish that they had done differently is educate me from an early age on what dating violence looks like and how you can get help.”

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