Sandy Plaven was sitting at the edge of a bed in a central Aurora motel room the first time she called what was then the Gateway Battered Women’s Shelter.
It was summer 1992, and Plaven was at a Motel 6 along Aurora Interstate 225. As she had done many times before, Plaven had temporarily fled her southeast Aurora home and taken refuge at the motel to get away from her abusive husband.
Violence had been a way of life in Plaven’s relationship with her husband even before they married in 1981. But the abuse had escalated a decade into her marriage, and she knew she needed something, anything, to halt the cogs in the cycle of violence.
“I decided I’d had enough,” Plaven said. “I can still see myself sitting on the edge of the bed and being so upset and so scared and not knowing what to do and grabbing the phone book.”
She spoke with a hotline operator at Gateway — now known as Gateway Domestic Violence Services — who said she would be a likely candidate to enter the short-term shelter. It then offered a month of housing, counseling and other resources at a non-disclosed location in the metro area.
The idea of a shelter for women in violent relationships was born from the fact that, usually, women had little of their own. Their husbands controlled most of the family assets.
The number of people turned away from Gateway Domestic Violence Services in 2018 due to a lack of capacity. (Number provided by Gateway)
After telling her two young children that she would be staying with her brother for a while, she completed the Gateway program; staying at the shelter each evening and reporting to her job during the day.
“I was one of the lucky ones because I had money and resources … Many people have the clothes on their backs and that’s it,” said Plaven, who grew up in Las Vegas, Nevada but moved to Colorado in the 1970s. “I would go to my regular job every day and nobody had a clue.”
After a month, Plaven returned to her home and her family. She remained married to her husband for another eight years. Citing the widely publicized statistic that victims of domestic violence attempt to abandon a relationship seven times before leaving for good, Plaven said leaving her husband was anything but cut and dry.
“Every situation is different in why a woman will stay, and there’s no black-and-white answer to: ‘Why don’t you just leave him?’” she said. “We had been married 18 years, we had two kids and everything was so intertwined in the marriage. It was easier said than done.”
Plaven eventually filed for divorce in 2000, but she credited Gateway with providing her with the resources she needed to get through those years.
“Going through the Gateway program was really probably the defining moment for me because I felt for the first time in a very, very long time that I had some resources and a way to deal with it,” she said. “ … Gateway literally saved my life. That’s not me just saying that. That is a true fact. If I didn’t go through what I went through there, I wouldn’t be here.”
An Aurora call to action
Plaven’s story is not unique among the thousands of people who have received countless hours of counseling, nights of housing and pages of legal explanation from the Arapahoe County icon, which celebrated its 40th anniversary earlier this year. Gateway currently provides court advocacy, long and short-term housing and counseling services to approximately 3,700 people a year, according to the non-profit’s new executive director, James Gillespie.
The organization’s first male director — and believed to be the only male leader of domestic violence programming in the state — Gillespie has quickly started penning grants and meeting non-profit, city and healthcare lever-pullers to expand the agency as it enters its fifth decade.
The number of felony, misdemeanor and juvenile cases related to domestic violence filed in 18th Judicial District courts since 2014.
(Number provided by the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office).
“Gateway has always been a hidden gem in Aurora,” said Gillespie, who took the reins at Gateway about six weeks ago after steering fundraising efforts at Comitis Crisis Center for several years. “It’s time for it to come out of hiding.”
The need is great. In fact, it’s overwhelming.
Gateway turned away an estimated 20,000 people last year due to a lack of bed space at the organization’s two shelters, which can accommodate up to approximately 45 people at any given time, according to Tomeka Speller, deputy director at Gateway.
Gillespie said he intends to be more vocal about the organization’s needs in an effort to boost bed capacity and draw funds for victim assistance programs in the city. Such programs have traditionally provided domestic violence victims with money to change locks and post security deposits at new homes with concealed addresses. However, some of that city funding has waned in recent years due to cuts to programs like the photo red light system, which voters nixed last November.
“It’s concerning to see that domestic violence here in the City of Aurora is on the rise, and yet in many instances, funding is being cut in various arenas,” Gillespie said. “Now is the time for Aurora to double down on the issue.”
Gillespie got an encouraging response to his early calls last weekend, when Aurora City Council members allocated $252,136 for a specialized new Aurora Police Department unit that will specifically investigate domestic violence cases in the city. The unit came following a vocal push from outgoing Aurora Police Chief Nick Metz to combat rising levels of domestic violence in the city.
The average number of domestic violence-related cases filed in Aurora Municipal Court every year.
(Number provided by the City
“What’s happening in Aurora is not much different than what we’re seeing across the nation,” Metz told city lawmakers at a public meeting earlier this year. “ … Lots of people don’t want to talk about it, and it’s something that we really need to bring out into the open because people are losing their lives and people are victims of severe injury.”
At the same meeting, Metz lamented the pervasiveness of domestic violence in the state’s third-largest city.
“It crosses all ethnic lines, all economic lines,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who you are, it doesn’t matter what neighborhood that you live in — Ward VI, Ward I — it’s there and it’s happening at a very prevalent level.”
An epidemic of domestic violence
The number of domestic violence-related incidents across Aurora has ballooned in recent years, according to data compiled by law enforcement and advocates. Aurora police have responded to about 6,700 domestic violence calls annually in recent years, according to city documents. That’s double the number of annual calls local officers were making four years ago, according to statistics provided by Gateway. Over the same time frame, Aurora police have seen a more than threefold increase in overall responses to felony aggravated assaults as a result of domestic violence, according to Gateway data.
Across the metro area, there were an estimated 40 domestic violence-related homicides in 2018 alone, according to Speller. Of the 20 murders that have occurred in Aurora so far in 2019, five were domestic-violence related, according to Carole O’Shea, manager of the Aurora Police Department’s victim services unit.
1 in 4
The number of women who experience “severe physical violence” at the hands of an intimate partner.
(Number provided by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.)
Overall, violent crime has trended up statewide each year since 2013, and Aurora has mirrored that trend, according to Colorado Bureau of Investigation data. The Aurora Police Department opened nearly 3,000 violent crime cases last year, an increase of approximately 82 percent since 2013.
“The increase is likely because more people are reporting and perhaps not that domestic violence is actually increasing,” Metz told city council members.
Deputy City Attorney Julie Heckman agreed, saying groups that have been traditionally hesitant to report instances of domestic violence have slowly become more vocal.
“I think over the years people are becoming more open to coming forward,” she said. “And non-traditional domestic violence victims … not only male victims, but same-sex victims and the greater LGBTQ community. You’ve seen a larger proportion of reporting, but it’s still not everyone.”
Despite estimates from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence that 25 percent of American women and 11 percent of the nation’s male population have experienced severe violence at the hands of an intimate partner, only 25 percent of all domestic violence victims report incidents to law enforcement, according to Amy Pohl, associate director of Violence Free Colorado.
“Numbers are kind of elusive,” Pohl said. “But just because it isn’t reported to law enforcement doesn’t mean it’s not happening.
Lisa Gertzen, program director with Gateway’s court advocacy program, said the local Hispanic community is a contingent that has remained reluctant to report instances of domestic violence.
“I think maybe our biggest threat is our Hispanic community,” she said. “I think so many men and women are afraid to come forward because they may have issues with immigration. Their thought process often times seems to be: ‘I can’t reach out for help because if I do, we’re both going to be arrested and deported. I think that’s our most outstanding issue to date.”
Christine Foote-Lucero, forensic program manager at University of Colorado Hospital, said she, too, frequently has to assuage immigrants’ fears related to seeking healthcare and other services.
“We have patients who are undocumented and they are often very scared,” Foote-Lucero said. “We always want to reassure them that if they are a victim of a crime in this country, we have resources for them.”
The number of domestic violence-related homicides that have occurred in Aurora in 2019.
(Number provided by Aurora Police Department staff.)
Pohl said perpetrators of domestic violence against undocumented victims often use immigration status as a form of blackmail.
“We’re seeing it across the board and throughout the country,” she said. “ … Victims of domestic violence who either are undocumented, or have a temporary visa or are documented but unsure of their status … they can be really fearful of coming forward to law enforcement because they think they may then have to go to court and (U.S. immigration and Customs Enforcement) will be waiting for them at courthouses.”
That fear punctuated abuses experienced by former Gateway client Beatriz, who declined to give her last name out of fear a former abuser would locate her. Originally from Colombia, Beatriz fled an abusive relationship in her home country only to find herself in yet another abusive relationship in Colorado. Her former partner used her immigration status as a manipulation tactic, capitalizing on Beatriz’s undocumented standing.
She came to believe that the punishments were not only her fault, but that she deserved them.
“I was scared,” she said. “I thought that it was my fault, that this was how relationships worked.”
When she finally kicked her husband out of their home and secured a restraining order, he nonetheless returned and attempted to kick down a door.
After that incident, Beatriz recalled her husband saying, “Don’t worry, I will see you later” in front of a judge.
But when she met with a Gateway staffer at the courthouse, it kickstarted years of restorative therapy and group sessions with other domestic violence survivors.
“I can’t explain to you how great it is,” she said of Gateway. “It is amazing what they do. You can go there and cry and be safe.”
She married a rancher seven years ago and is happily raising her family, she said, now spending her days with the cows while remotely working for a domestic violence foundation in Colombia.
It’s the numbers, and they’re bad
Even as Aurora police have responded to more reports of domestic violence in recent years, the number of misdemeanor DV cases filed in Aurora Municipal Court has stayed remarkably flat, according to city attorneys. The city’s court has handled an average of 1,600 domestic violence cases — about 60 percent involving female victims and 40 percent male — a year in recent years, according to city statistics.
“That has been a fairly consistent number, which is kind of amazing,” said Heckman, who has worked in the city prosecutor’s office since 1991.
The consistency could, in part, be attributed to a novel fast-track program that has expedited domestic violence cases in the city for more than 20 years, according to Heckman. The first to be established in the state, the agreement stipulates that suspected domestic violence offenders are arraigned in municipal court the business day after their arrest, and an immediate pre-trial conference is held if the defendant so desires. Meanwhile, victims are summonsed to Gateway’s court advocacy program, also housed in the Aurora courthouse, to learn about charges their partner is facing and what options they have moving forward.
The contradiction between a rise in domestic violence incidents in the city and a steady number of municipal case filings could also, in part, be explained by looking to state court, which handles more serious domestic violence cases. The number of Aurora DV cases that involve serious bodily injury — such as a broken bone or permanent disfigurement — has crept up in recent years, according to statistics provided by the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office.
Felony cases with domestic violence indicators that were originally investigated by Aurora police have tracked up each year since data was first reliably tracked five years ago, according to the local DA’s office. The number of felony domestic violence-related cases based in Aurora jumped from 93 in 2014 to 218 such cases last year. Total domestic violence cases originating in Aurora — felonies, misdemeanors and juvenile cases — have tracked up in line with felony filings.
A 2016 change in state law that made all strangulations felonies is likely a contributing factor in the bump in felony domestic violence filings in the city, according to prosecutors. Aurora investigators have already handed 193 felony domestic violence cases to state prosecutors this year, which puts the city on pace to eclipse last year’s total, according to the state court data.
But statistics related to domestic violence only paint a partial picture, as umpteen cases will never be disclosed to law enforcement or healthcare providers, according to Foote-Lucero with University of Colorado Hospital.
“We’re not going to have good statistics because so many people do not report this to police, or even tell the truth,” Foote-Lucero said. “We are often times, unfortunately, dealing with a situation of people coming in and not being truthful about what happened, saying ‘I’m clumsy, I fell down the stairs.’ You know 20 and 30-year-old people aren’t falling down the stairs every day. Those definitely need to be investigated.”
Foote-Lucero said she has noticed an anecdotal increase in victims of domestic violence in her forensic program, which treats anyone injured in a possible crime, ranging from gunshot wounds to elder abuse.
The estimated number of patients treated in the forensic program at University of Colorado Hospital in September. More than half of those patients were victims of domestic
(Number provided by University of Colorado Hospital staff.)
“Intimate partner violence victims make up the largest portion of patients we see,” she said. “But the majority of our patients do not come in with police, so I don’t necessarily think this is an increase in reports to police, but there may very well be an increase in these patients seeking care.”
Foote-Lucero said her staffers treat between 80 and 90 total patients a month in the forensic unit at the hospital in north Aurora. She said the majority of the patients are from Aurora, and more than half are victims of what she calls intimate partner violence.
Pohl with Violence Free Colorado said increased national awareness of domestic violence, largely spurred by #MeToo and other social justice movements, has translated to a bump in the number of people receiving domestic-violence related resources.
“Even though we’ve seen an increase in activity, we’re not discouraged by that,” Pohl said. “We’re encouraged by it because people are accessing resources. That sounds a bit counterintuitive, but we want to folks to be accessing those services.”
Tapping into those resources is paramount, according to Democratic State Sen. Rhonda Fields, whose work at the state Capitol has largely focused on criminal justice issues.
“When people are trying to leave these environments of abuse, it’s important that we make sure they have a safe haven,” she said.
Those resources, Fields said, include job training, housing and other wraparound services that help victims to become more independent and live a life away from their abuser.
Fields’ colleagues at the Capitol have passed a slew of bills aimed at bolstering domestic violence-related statutes in recent years, including a measure that excluded healthcare providers from serving as legal mandatory reporters in 2017, and an increase in the statute of limitations for pursuing a civil suit against a perpetrator of domestic violence signed last year.
Fields said she doesn’t have any plans to run any domestic violence-specific bills in the coming legislative session, but believes that many of the bills she’s run that have focused on children and family safety help tighten protections for victims.
It’s a cultural problem
Resources are important, but changing the culture that leads to domestic abuse cases is critical, said Barbara Paradiso, director of the Center on Domestic Violence at the University of Colorado Denver.
Paradiso, who has worked in an around the subject of domestic abuse for nearly 40 years, said the recent shift in the national conversation has spurred an incremental evolution in the collective conscious.
“The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements and other campaigns and initiatives are reinforcing the power of women to define and set boundaries and what can happen and shouldn’t be happening, and (they are) speaking up when those boundaries are crossed. That’s an exciting new wave,” she said. “We’ve blamed victims for so long, they’ve hidden in shame. When there are others that are speaking out it gives permission to more and more people to speak out and that proves an opportunity for people who are survivors of domestic violence to take back their own sense of power.”
Even on the UCD campus, Paradiso said she’s noticed a shift in how young men think and talk about boundaries.
“The whole #MeToo movement is causing them to say, ‘What did I do? What is consent really all about?’” she said, highlighting that, to her, that questioning is a positive change.
“I’ve been doing this work for 37 years now,” she said. “ A lot of efforts come and go. We seem to have a particularly difficult environment in our country these days where forms of violence against women are being celebrated. We went down this path where things were getting better and better and there were higher levels of education and then they weren’t and we entered into this period where this didn’t seem to matter.”
Despite that regression, Paradiso said a wider understanding of the different forms of domestic abuse — physical, emotional, sexual and financial, among others — has propelled public awareness.
In a commemoration of National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Gateway Domestic Violence Services and civic leaders will hold a special presentation, Paint the Town Purple, from 8:30 a.m. – 11 a.m. Oct. 8 in city council chambers at city hall, 15151 E. Alameda Parkway. The event is free and the public is encouraged to attend.
“There are so many different levels to the experience of domestic violence and sexual assault,” she said. “It’s kind of like an onion.” When we first started doing this work, we were looking at physical violence, people who got hit, kicked, cut or burned. Then we came to understand more on the depth of emotional violence. It opened a door to a new level of understanding and services that could help survivors make it back to a healthy, self-sustaining place.”
That was a startling realization for Aurora resident Stacy Evers, who first sought counseling services at Gateway in fall 2009. She was more than a decade into her marriage when a co-worker, who also worked with her husband, encouraged her to contact Gateway. That initial conversation with the crisis services hotline, and an initial sit-down with a counselor, was an “a-ha moment,” Evers said.
“(Gateway) saved my life,” Evers, 50, said. “Even though I wasn’t getting beaten physically, I was getting beaten down I guess is a good way to put it … I didn’t realize I was getting emotionally and verbally abused.”
A 22-year-resident of southeast Aurora, Evers filed for divorce a short time later. She continued to see a Gateway counselor for four years and has continued her involvement with the organization through public speaking events and fundraising.
“I guess in my line of work, when I do the demonstration of all the safety equipment, I always say they were my oxygen mask because they allowed me to breathe,” said Evers, who has worked as a flight attendant for 30 years. “ … They were my church. They save lives.”
The path forward
Now, nearly two decades removed from her abusive relationship, Plaven still has triggers that bring her back to her marriage to her first husband.
“All of a sudden I’ll see something, or something will happen and it’s very upsetting to me and it emotionally takes me back,” she said. “Those things never go away. You just learn to deal with them.”
She’s been volunteering with Gateway for more than two decades, helping to fundraise and occasionally talking publicly about her experiences with fellow survivors. Reliving the details of her abuse can periodically open old wounds, she said.
“Sometimes I cry, sometimes I don’t,” Plaven, now 62, said. “It just depends on where I am at that particular time.”
That’s how many times the majority of abused spouses return home to the abuse before they finally separate from their attacker for good.
After moving out of her southeast Aurora home of nearly 20 years, Plaven moved to a small apartment near the corner of East Iliff Avenue and South Chambers Road. It was there that a next-door-neighbor asked her on a lunch date.
“I wasn’t going to go at first, but we had the best time,” she said of that meal. “We had a three-hour lunch and I thought, “Oh my God: This is so refreshing. It was, like, normal.”
The couple eventually married and moved to Strasburg. They’ll celebrate their 16th anniversary this month.
“I know it’s like, how could a story like this have a happy ending?” Plaven said with a chuckle. “But it really did for us. It’s turned out pretty well. It’s pretty cool to know that there are still good people out there; men and women who are good people.”