By Amy Geiszler-Jones
The troubling calls from Pat and Linda O’Donnell’s only daughter often came in the middle of the night.
Prompted by her boyfriend, then 23-year-old Patricia would blame her parents for her failings. The O’Donnells, who were then in their 60s, believed their daughter was being controlled and intimidated as part of an unhealthy relationship. They even met with Patricia and her boyfriend to tell them so. Returning to Wichita from Kansas City without their daughter “was extremely hard,” Pat said.
“You never know if you’re doing the right thing, especially for fear that things might get worse. And they did,” Linda said.
Finally, in 2005, Patricia left her boyfriend and filed for a protection from abuse order, following the advice of her parents and the staff at Safehome, a Johnson County women’s shelter program.
Her story ended happily, but not all do. Parents and grandparents are often drawn into domestic disputes involving their children and grandchildren, sometimes with tragic results.
In December, a Wichita man fatally shot his mother-in-law in her Riverside home, where his wife had taken refuge after their separation. The man, who was fatally shot by police, also wounded his wife in the incident. Their two young children, who also were present, were not injured.
Of 52 criminal homicides in Wichita in 2020, 13 were related to domestic violence cases, according to police.
“We’ve seen an uptick in domestic violence cases, especially aggravated domestic violence, since around the time of COVID, in March (of last year),” Officer Charley Davidson said.
According to the Wichita Family Crisis Center, one in three women experience domestic violence or sexual assault at some point in their lives. Last year, the WFCC, one of three Wichita shelter programs for victims of domestic abuse, provided services to about 2,000 women, according to its website.
Domestic violence isn’t limited to physical abuse, said Keri McGregor, program director with Catholic Charities’ Harbor House, another Wichita program that works with domestic violence victims. It’s also about intimidation, control and power over one’s partner and can extend to the victim’s children, other family members and even pets.
“It’s sad what happened in Riverside,” McGregor said. “It’s not common, but it can happen.”
Parents and other family members who see a loved one in an abusive situation often want to help them, McGregor and others said.
“Our crisis line is not just for victims but anyone who is impacted by domestic violence,” McGregor said.
Last year, Harbor House received about 90 calls from individuals who were not victims but wanted to know more about what they could do to help their loved ones in a suspected abuse situation.
Karla Armbrister, outreach coordinator for the Wichita Family Crisis Center, formerly the YWCA Women’s Crisis Shelter, said she recently fielded a call from a mother who was calling on her daughter’s behalf to get information. The daughter had been reluctant to call herself but was willing to listen in.
Calls from parents tend to run along the lines of identifying signs of abuse, trying to understand why the victim may be reluctant to leave and figuring out how they can help, said McGregor and Armbrister.
Helping a loved one leave an abusive relationship can be a long and difficult process. Victims may stay in situations for various reasons, ranging from fearing more harm if they leave and lacking financial means to support themselves to lacking self-esteem or even feeling guilt.
“If you are a family member and you see someone in an abusive relationship, don’t be judgmental, but try to be compassionate,” said Carol Munsell, the senior victim/witness coordinator in Sedgwick County District Attorney’s office.
“It’s important to let the survivor know that you are there to listen, and your main concern is to keep them safe,” Armbrister said.
Loved ones also can help document incidents of abuse. Those records can help in providing evidence to support a domestic violence case, Munsell said.
Pat and Linda O’Donnell said one of the things that helped their daughter was to tell her in every call that they loved her.
Parents need to realize that when a victim leaves, that’s when the risks for both the victim and even extended family are highest, McGregor said.
“It can go from zero to 60 so fast when the abuser realizes that the person has left. When that person loses control in the relationship, they become very irrational, and the risk becomes very high,” McGregor said.
According to news reports about the Riverside shooting, the daughter had moved into her mother’s home in November, and her husband had been served with a protection from abuse order shortly before the fatal incident. The husband shot out a front glass window to gain entrance to the home.
In 2018, a Wichita mother of six was shot to death by her husband, who also wounded his father-in-law before taking his own life. The murder prompted passage of Kristin’s Law, named for the victim, which requires police to notify victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and other crimes when their abusers are released from custody.
In the past several years in Sedgwick County, there’s been a concerted effort to provide more help to domestic violence victims. Now when victims file protection from abuse orders, they do so through community advocates employed by one of the shelter programs in the courthouse rather than having to negotiate that process with court clerks. The advocates also help them connect to resources for other services.
The Wichita Police Department also has reinforced its sex crimes and domestic violence division thanks to an $850,000 Department of Justice grant, said Lt. Christian Cory, the section’s commander. Last year, the division started doing concentrated domestic violence offender pickups for those with active warrants. Wichita police also use what’s called a lethality assessment, a set of questions to determine a victim’s risk and immediately get them in touch with an advocate depending on the situation.
Pat O’Donnell said intervening in their daughter’s relationship was “the most uncomfortable thing ever,” but he is glad he and his wife did. Today they live in Kansas City near Patricia, who volunteers for a woman’s shelter.
Contact Amy Geiszler-Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org
Ways to help
If you suspect a loved one is the victim of domestic abuse, here are some ways to help:
Call a shelter or victim’s crisis hotline to find out about available resources, including shelter programs and legal ways to help get them out of the situation.
Listen without judgment.
Work with domestic violence programs and law enforcement to create a safety plan for when the victim leaves the situation. Inquire about creating a plan for yourself, too, as offenders may extend abusive actions to family members.
Help document instances of abuse, intimidation, stalking and other such behavior.
Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence: 888-363-2287 and kcsdv.org
Wichita Family Crisis Center: 316-267-7233
Harbor House, Wichita: 316-263-6000 or 866-899-5522
Stepstone, Wichita: 316-265-1611
Wichita Area Sexual Assault Center: 316-263-3002 or 877-927-2248
Safehope, Newton: 800-487-0510 or 316-283-0350
Family Life Center of Butler County: 316-321-7104 or 800-870-6967