USA: No easy way out: Domestic violence strikes all kinds of families

23 August 2010

A recent tragedy involving an educated, successful couple is a reminder that domestic violence can hit home anywhere. When Dr. Chukwudubem Okafor fired one bullet into his wife Cheryl's head and two more into her chest - then put the handgun in his mouth and again pulled the trigger - the murder-suicide seemed to defy all logic.

This was a successful Berks County couple, after all.

So how could it end like this?

How could Chukwudubem, so educated and respected as a teacher and poet, do such a thing?

And how could Cheryl, having survived a brutal first marriage, be involved with another violent man?

But while many were stunned by the Exeter Township couple's deaths last Sunday, those who work with domestic abuse victims in Berks say the tragedy is typical in several ways.

It shows that violence can occur in any type of household.

"We see abuse involving every kind of person," said Christine Gilfillan, prevention education director for Berks County Women in Crisis. "This can happen to anybody."

It also demonstrates just how difficult it can be for women to avoid, and eventually escape, abusive relationships.

"There are no easy answers," Gilfillan said.

Tragic relationships

Cheryl Okafor knew just how dangerous it was to be involved with a violent man.

That tough lesson came during her first marriage, when her husband, Alfred S. Philmore, battered her repeatedly, hit her with a baseball bat and threatened to kill her.

After Cheryl left Philmore, he fatally shot her boyfriend, Osmond D. Walker, in Reading in 1998, forcing her to flee to Canada.

Surviving that relationship seemed to embolden her, though.

Cheryl, 37, spoke out publicly against domestic violence, steering victims away from abuse and into better lives. She even used her talents as a painter to drive home the message.

Her new life seemed to be a success story, but at some point she left Chukwudubem, 64, an associate professor of English at Kutztown University, whom she had accused of abusing her for years.

It all came to a terrible end last Sunday when Chukwudubem lured her to a relative's house where he killed her and himself, leaving behind their three sons and a daughter, police said.

Complications abound

While some women seem more vulnerable to abusers, it's not that they seek out such men, Gilfillan said.

So to say women should avoid abusive relationships, or leave once things turn violent, oversimplifies the issue, she said.

Things are often rosy when a couple begins dating, as both partners try to show off their best sides, making it difficult to know who might become an abuser.

Once the violence begins, the woman may be too heavily invested in the relationship to leave or optimistic that they can turn things around.

"We want to believe that we can put the relationship back together, and we want to believe their promises that 'this won't happen again,' " Gilfillan said. "Sometimes things get better. Sometimes they don't."

Abusers can isolate victims, reducing their power to leave, said Grace Hill, associate director of the Women's Center at Kutztown University, which counsels students regarding dating violence.

The women may not know where else to go, may not be able to afford to leave or may have children with the abuser, she said.

The women also might be scared to break things off, and sometimes with good reason, Gilfillan said.

Danger in leaving

Most of the women killed by their partners in Berks in the past decade had recently left them or were preparing to do so, she said.

"Leaving can be the most dangerous time," she said, as Cheryl Okafor's murder shows.

In some cases, though, leaving a violent relationship is still the best option, said Peg Dierkers, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

"Many women are better off after leaving abusive men," she said.

The key is for the victims to first speak with an advocate, such as a Women in Crisis counselor, to plan a safe departure, she said.

"Leaving may or may not be the best option, but if it is, it has to be done carefully," she said.

Friends and family of domestic violence victims should not push victims to take a step they aren't ready for, but they also shouldn't be silent, said Dr. Edward B. Michalik Jr., administrator of Berks County Mental Health/Mental Retardation.

"Sometimes families tend to think this is something for the couple to deal with, but we have to let the victims know we support them, and encourage them to seek help," he said.

Class not factor

The Okafor tragedy shows it is a mistake to assume that because a couple is educated and appears to be successful, that the wife and husband will work things out.

It's difficult to predict which relationship might turn deadly, said Daniel P. Billings, director of security at St. Joseph Medical Center, a former Wyomissing police officer and domestic violence expert.

"I know from investigating these crimes that socioeconomic status has zero connection to domestic violence," he said.

The Women in Crisis hot line gets calls from women of all races, religions, ethnic backgrounds and income levels, Gilfillan agreed.

A number of the 36 domestic violence killings in Berks over the past decade were committed by men who had led successful lives, she said.

They include:

Miguel A. Torres, who owned a mortgage company, is accused of fatally shooting his wife, Barbie, during a busy afternoon in a parking lot near the Berks County Courthouse in 2005. He remains at large.

Veterinarian Kent D. Leiby killed his wife, another man and himself in Lenhartsville in 2002.

John G. Marasco, who owned a city dry cleaning business, smothered his children - Vince 9, and Julia, 8 - before killing himself in 2000.

The only demographic that increases the risk for domestic violence is age, since 16- to 24-year-old females are more likely to be in abusive relationships, Gilfillan said.

Gun availability ups risk

The presence of a gun increases the risk as well, Dierkers said.

She noted that 63 percent of the 124 domestic violence fatalities in Pennsylvania in 2009 were shootings. And women in violent relationships are five times more likely to be killed if the abuser has access to a gun, she said.

"An abusive partner and a gun are a lethal combination," she said.

Above everything, it's important for victims to know help is available, and for the community to be available to those who seek it, Hill said.

"There are other situations out there (like the Okafors') that are simmering," she said. "This is something that you think can't happen, yet it happens all the time."

Originally published on 8/22/2010 by Mike Urban in Reading Eagle

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