In 2007, when Irma Avelar and her then five and two-year-old sons moved into Family Service Agency’s Care Cottage, she felt like she was in her favorite television show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. “When I first got the apartment we had nothing,” she explains, “And when we walked in and it was furnished, I remember feeling like the luckiest person on the planet.”
Avelar’s infectious energy and gratitude helped get her to where she is today, a survivor of domestic violence who has made a career out of helping both victims and perpetrators. “I realize the importance of paying it forward,” says Avelar, “So many people helped me along the way and I know that my personal experience can make a difference for other people who are facing really difficult challenges.”
The road was not an easy one, but Avelar wants victims to recognize that there is hope and there are resources available to help. She’s been there so she knows.
When her husband tried to strangle her, she grabbed the closest thing she could get her hands on a broken child’s toy and stabbed him in the arm. She called the police but when they arrived, the bruises on her body had yet to reveal themselves. Officers saw her husband bleeding and arrested her, failing to look in the apartment where furniture was toppled and holes were in the wall. “He was a six-foot-tall bodybuilder,” says Avelar, “Had they looked, they’d have known a 4-foot 11-inch woman couldn’t have done all that.”
Avelar hadn’t told her family or coworkers what was going on. No one could corroborate the abuse she’d endured. But when the bruises showed up on her body while she was in custody, the charges against her were dropped. She had to tread lightly, though, because her young son was in her husband’s custody. She knew the police were picking up the case against her husband, but she didn’t let on when she went home to get her son. “I led him to believe I was still considered the perpetrator,” she explains, “He promised to give me my car and my son if I didn’t press charges against him.”
Her family and friends were surprised as she began to reveal her story, “My husband was the charmer type of perpetrator, the one you could never think would even break a glass,” says Avelar, “He was helpful and kind, but when you lived with him, he was a monster.”
The abuse had gone on for years. At first, it was just verbal abuse. He’d yell at her. Tell her she was worthless. But three months after she became pregnant, he started hitting her. The women she worked with thought he was the nicest guy because he’d always bring her flowers at work after a fight. “They’d say ‘He’s so nice, why are you so mean to him?’ but one day I’d had enough,” says Avelar, “I lifted up my shirt and showed them the bruising on my pregnant belly and my coworkers wouldn’t even look at him the next time he came in.”
He said, “You told them didn’t you?”
And Avelar responded, “Yeah, well I’m tired of everyone thinking you’re Mr. Nice Guy when you’re nothing but an abuser.” The beatings didn’t stop but he never came back to her work.
During the next incident, her husband tried to strangle her. This was too much. Avelar spoke with her husband’s ex-wife, expecting hostility, but quickly learned that the abuse was a pattern. Avelar feared for her son. She feared that the cycle would never be broken if she didn’t take steps to end it.
Avelar’s father had died when she was three-years-old and her mother had a string of boyfriends, several who abused her. “I realized I’d blocked that out,” she explains, “I was so worried about my child growing up without a father and having to be bounced around among relatives, like I was, that I didn’t think about the effects of him witnessing abuse.”
But the day her husband strangled her was a turning point. “I felt like either he was going to kill me or I was going to have to kill him and I didn’t want my son to have to live with that either.”
Some of the guilt she had to work through in therapy was cultural, “You’re taught in the Latino community that when you get married, what goes on in your house is nobody’s business,” she explains, “I realize we have to change that perception.”
Like many victims, Avelar didn’t want to go to a shelter. “I’d gone to my mom’s for a week, but she still didn’t understand the severity of my situation,” Avelar explains, “When I returned from a job interview, my husband was there with my son. Because we had a DCSF (Department of Children and Family Services) case going, I feared I’d lose my son if they found out my husband had violated the restraining order.” She realizes that her family may not have understood how the system works. She vowed to take every step necessary to protect her son. That included briefly living in a shelter and even renting a garage in Pacoima. “It was cold and my husband kept trying to get me to come back, but I was determined.”
Leaving can be complicated. Perpetrators can be manipulative. In the midst of her separation and eventual divorce, Avelar had a second child with her now ex-husband. She had, even more, to fight for. “I’m not going to lie, starting all over with children and working full time is hard,” she says, “But I know I am setting a good example for my sons, and that makes everything I’ve gone through worth it.”
Avelar struggles to find stability for herself and her sons. “I was upset because I never wanted to use the welfare system, but it ended up connecting me to all of these other programs that helped me and my children through the aftermath of domestic violence.” That was how she learned of the Family Service Agency of Burbank (FSA).
At FSA, Avelar and her older son entered counseling and she joined the victims’ support group. The agency was in the process of developing the CARE Cottages Program to house survivors of domestic violence with the support of Burbank Housing Corporation. Avelar interviewed and became the first resident in the new community.
That was when she had her Extreme Makeover experience. “I was so lucky, and for the first time I realized I really might be able to make it.”
The experience not only gave her hope, it inspired her to makeover the direction of her life. While living in her Care Cottage, she studied addiction and substance abuse at Glendale Community College. Intensive counseling helped her deal with her own childhood trauma. She took parenting classes to ensure she could help her sons break the cycle that plagued both of their parents.
Eleven years later she uses her life experience to help others. She now works three jobs, each using different components of her hard-earned knowledge. From FSA’s comprehensive support services, she uses her abundance of compassion helping veterans and other battered women.
“I remember what it is like to have nothing except one diaper so I’m sensitive to what they are going through and appreciate their courage,” she says through tears of both memory and empathy. It is clear that some of the emotions she felt over a decade ago are still a bit raw. “I left my clothes, my money, my son’s crib and now when I talk to victims, I tell them how important it is to have a safety plan and to make sure you have access to your important papers, to start keeping small important things with a trusted friend, including evidence, family pictures and documents,” she explains, “You have to do it slowly so he doesn’t see that things are missing, but you must do it to take care of yourself.”
Avelar also works with Spanish speaking perpetrators. “I never ever thought I’d work with the perpetrators, but I’ve learned that many of them were experienced domestic violence as children. If we can help them become better men and learn how to deal with family dynamics differently by giving them the tools to be better parents, we may save a child’s life and end the cycle of abuse for the next generation.” Often she says they come in wanting to blame the victim. “A lot of the work we do is holding them accountable.”
She realizes that working with both victims and perpetrators makes her a better counselor overall.
Avelar says she received so much support that she wants to pay it forward. Her inspiration for such work came from FSA’s Christine Ramos, the agency’s former Director of Family Violence Services and Residential Programs, who was once a victim of domestic violence herself. Ramos now serves as FSA’s Assistant Executive Director and remembers the first time she met Avelar, “Irma was all over the place getting things done,” says Ramos, “She had a lot of energy and determination.”
Like Avelar, Ramos’ children were also her catalyst for getting out of her abusive relationship. “The odd part was not that he was controlling me and eventually physically assaulted me, but it was the effect that he was having on the kids that prompted me to leave,” she says, “Once you recognize that it is beyond just you who is being harmed, you can build the courage to get out.”
Also like Avelar, she didn’t know where to look for help, but Ramos was fortunate to have the family she could live with. “I was a stay-at-home mom with no skills,” she says. She called countless service agencies seeking counseling for herself and her children and couldn’t find a place that would help. Though she was living in Arleta at the time, FSA said “Come on in” and she and her children began a year of intensive therapy and healing.
Transitioning out of her domestic violence situation also involved going back to school. Ramos attended Pasadena City College, Los Angeles Valley College, and later went on to UCLA. She completed Domestic Violence Advocacy training and provided volunteer victim assistance through the Domestic Abuse Response Team assisting the LAPD on domestic violence calls.
“I got into this work because at the time I felt that so many of the counselors, emergency personnel, attorneys and judges don’t understand the dynamics and manipulative aspects of domestic abuse,” says Ramos. She now has a deeper understanding of how those systems work. FSA works to assist victims through that process, educating and working with other service providers along the way.
“It is probably impossible for everyone to know all aspects of domestic violence,” says Ramos, “But is we all know our own systems and work together with caring hearts, we can best assist victims and families.”
When Avelar crossed paths with Ramos in 2006, she was grateful to be working with someone who understood what she was going through. “I so admire Chris because she took a horrible situation in her life and turned it into a way to support others,” she says, “I knew pretty early on that once I got on my feet, I wanted to do the same.”
Both women say that if they were able to get out of their abusive situations, so can other victims. The first step is to call the Family Service Agency of Burbank at 818-845-7671 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.
In a victim’s first visit to FSA, counselors will assess the lethality of the situation, determine what resources are available, and develop a safety plan if needed. “If they need shelter, we’ll sit with them as they make phone calls,” says Ramos, “We let them know the importance of answering questions that accurately express their need because so many victims are accustomed to downplaying what has happened to them and minimizing the severity of their situation.”
“At the end of the day, it is often women helping other women that makes the difference,” Avelar says, “When you’re going through an abusive situation, you don’t know who you can trust because sometimes when you share your story you are judged for your choices. You have to seek professional help and find a support group that will give you an understanding of the truth.” She further explains, “A lot of women minimize their experience saying ‘But he never hit me’, yes but does he do A, B or C? Yes? Well, then you are a victim.” Physical violence is not the only form of abuse. Victims may experience emotional, verbal, sexual and financial abuse. They experience threats, isolation, and control over their lives.
“It is hard to reach out when you’re always wondering what is wrong with you or you think you can help fix him,” Ramos adds, “For me, I wanted a complete family. I did not want to be divorced or have my children in two homes, but in the end, that was the healthier thing for all of us.”
Avelar is grateful to live in Burbank because of how people here take care of others in their community. “I love the schools, the counseling available to children on the campuses and the continuing support of FSA,” she explains, “I still call them sometimes when we could use some additional support.”
At FSA’s Care Cottages, survivors of domestic abuse stay with their children an average of three years. Since 2007, twenty-two families have successfully completed the program and none of the victims have gone back to their abusers.
Avelar is grateful that the program gave her time to spend in counseling and to find a job. “When you leave after three years you’re like “I can fly now!” she says, “It motivated me because I learned that if I really want something, I can work toward it. This wasn’t just about escaping domestic violence, it was about empowering women and obtaining the tools to be a better parent.”
“I just want victims to know that there is light at the end of the tunnel,” says Avelar.
“And people who care, “ adds Ramos.