Kayla Crowson, a domestic violence survivor, at Joe Wheeler State Park in Rogersville, Alabama on Sunday, July 25, 2023. (Eric Schultz for Alabama Reflector)
This story contains a discussion of domestic violence. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-799-7233.
Every adult relationship Kayla Crowson had was abusive. And difficult to escape.
Her first experience with physical violence was with a partner she started dating at 19.
“I was with him for five years, and then it just progressed from there even after I left him,” she said. “I found relationship after relationship that was abusive.”
Women’s health: An Alabama struggle
Stories in this series:
- Alabama women’s health outcomes trail the nation. Systemic problems and a lack of access play a major role.
- Abortion is banned in Alabama. But Alabama women are still seeking abortions.
- Cervical cancer rates are unusually high in the state. These women are trying to raise awareness of it.
- Intimate partner violence is a problem in the state. And victims struggle to access resources.
- Why are maternal units in decline in Alabama?
- Heart disease hurts Alabama. Alabama women face major challenges.
- In a state with a near-total abortion ban, access to contraception is critical. Alabama makes it hard.
When she left that relationship with her eldest daughter’s father, she was two months into a lease with him.
“By that second month, I knew I didn’t want to live like this,” she said.
She would have had to wait ten months or would have to cover the rent by herself. When her tax refund came, she and her family packed up her daughter and left in the middle of the night, while her partner was working a night shift.
But this would not be Crowson’s last experience with intimate partner violence.
Intimate partner violence is a public health crisis that the pandemic only exacerbated. According to the University of Alabama Birmingham, domestic violence cases increased 25-33% globally in 2020. In Jefferson County, calls to the domestic violence hotline increased by 27% from March 2019 to March 2020.
UAB said that the pandemic heightened contributors to domestic violence, including alcohol use and economic uncertainty.
A report by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, drawing on numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention compiled between 2010 and 2012, estimated 37.5% of Alabama women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime. The CDC estimated about 8.7% of Alabama women — roughly 166,000 people — to be victims of intimate partner violence each year, based on 2010 to 2012 data. The NCADV said 30 women died as a result of domestic violence in 2017.
Difficulties getting out
Leah Heathcoat, a community engagement specialist at the Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said that the conversation around victims leaving their abusers is complicated. She said the best time to leave an abusive relationship is when the victim is ready. It’s important, she said, that no one makes anyone do anything.
“Nobody knows the safest, the best time to leave than a victim,” she said. “Nobody knows the abuser better than that person.”
That’s why it’s critical for communities to help women leaving abusive relationships with finances, and with no stigma. Domestic violence hotlines offer resources for housing and making a safety plan. Employers need to understand a person’s situation, especially if they experienced financial abuse.
Crowson is familiar with financial struggles. In her next relationship, which led to the birth of her son, her partner abused drugs and was verbally and physically abusive towards her.
“After I had my son, I quickly realized this was also not for me,” she said with a laugh.
For the next few years, she remained single with her two children and struggled to get by. Before leaving her son’s father, she worked at a childcare facility 35 hours a week for six days a week, but her rent was going to be more than her pay. She eventually found a job at a group home for adults with intellectual disabilities.
After those years, she began dating a new man.
“I just, I was so in love with him and we were gonna get married and all these things, and then I found myself pregnant a third time,” she said.
But she said he was the most abusive man she had dated, a man who would strangle her constantly, and hold her to the ground in front of her children.
“He would just stop me from breathing because he said he didn’t want to hear some of the words, some of the things that I said,” she said. “He said, ‘No.’ He would just rather just have me stop breathing than let me speak my mind.”
She said he threw her against the walls when she was pregnant.
“I had a home that time that just had holes in it,” she said. “I was trying to fix them from the abuse that he was putting me through.”
When she was six months pregnant, she decided that she couldn’t live like she was anymore. The police came and made him leave. She lost her job soon after.
“So, here I was with three children, no job, nothing, basically to my name,” she said.
“What does that say about community protections for pregnant women?” Heathcoat said. “Like that’s a double whammy when you’re in an intimate partner violence situation, and you already are statistically not in a good place, but then you add intimate partner violence as well, that’s a whole lot to handle when you’re pregnant. It’s a whole lot of risk.”
Alabama hotlines offer advocates to domestic violence victims. The advocates help them with legal issues, as well as advocate for them in the community,
The Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence lists 16 shelters on their website. Courtney Cross, a domestic violence advocate and lawyer, said that Alabama has shelters, but there are not enough to serve the state. She said it often feels “impossible.”
She said that some survivors find help. But as the months go by, it becomes even more difficult for that work to continue. Survivors can find help for three or six months in a shelter, but a year or more later, things become more difficult. Heathcoat said that she believes in extending victims 24 months of support.
“There just isn’t the help that you would need to sort of make this happen in the long run and often that abusive individual is still waiting in the wings,” Cross said.
Crowson made the decision to leave because she thought it would benefit her children. As she did, the father of her oldest child sued her for visitation. Her grandfather helped her find a lawyer. Her lawyer put her in touch with SafePlace, a domestic violence organization. She also received numbers for a therapist and a counseling group. That, she said, turned her life around.
At SafePlace, she learned that there were resources that would have helped her break her lease, which she could have used years ago. She also had access to child care with therapy, though that was eventually cut, Crowson said, due to funding issues.
Heathcoat said that therapy is important for everyone, but there are barriers, especially in rural areas. Not every person will receive a therapist well-suited to their situation.
“We need people who have all these different lenses,” she said.
Crowson said her therapist helped her trace her experiences back to certain childhood traumas. “I often said that they felt like home to me, it felt normal,” she said.
When speaking with a therapist, she had to learn why she was attracted to a certain kind of person, or, rather, why that kind of person was attracted to her. She said she now knows what red flags to look for.
“Looking back I just had so much going for me, and it’s like, ‘Why are you dating these crappy guys?’” she said. “You know, I had a lot going for me and I feel like I started dating him when I was 19. I had my daughter by the time I was 21 and I just think of all the time that I wasted, you know, and I wished I had gotten counseling sooner. And I wish that more women knew about the services that were available.”
Naming the abuse
Crowson recently saw a woman write about her own experience with intimate partner violence on Facebook. The woman ended her post by saying that she wasn’t going to call herself a survivor.
“And I thought, ‘But you are one,’” she said.
Yet Crowson knows the feeling. For a while, she said, didn’t think of herself as one of “those women.”
“I don’t really know what I thought those women were, but I was definitely one of those women,” she said.
Heathcoat said that it can be difficult for survivors to put a name to the abuse they received. People sometimes minimize their abuse or want to explain it away.
“They tend to want to name it everything but that,” Heathcoat said.
Support groups helped Crowson understand why she chose certain relationships. She’s still in a messenger group chat where people reach out and ask for help in the middle of the night.
She and her current partner have known each other for eight years, but, for a long time, she never saw each other dating. They’ve been together for five years now, and she said that they have a great relationship, and he would not hurt her. She said he plans to adopt her children.
People at SafePlace helped her get a scholarship to help her return to school. Crowson is now enrolled in college, studying to be a social worker while working in a retail store. She has two semesters left, and her counselor says that she is on track to graduate summa cum laude.
Her goal is to help other women survive intimate partner domestic violence. Recently, a woman came into her store and tried to buy shirts for herself and her son. The woman told Crowson she had fled an abusive relationship and had only $20. Crowson paid for the shirts and gave the women a number to SafePlace.
“I’m not bragging, I’m just saying that I feel that my heart has been led to help people that are in those situations now,” she said.
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
Editor’s Note: This story was updated on Jul. 3 to differentiate two quotes.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.