A survivor's story: Joy Lovato

........................................................................................................................................................................................

(The Valencia County News-Bulletin and Valencia Shelter Services are partnering to commemorate the 25 years of service VSS has provided to domestic violence victims and to the community. In the coming months, 25 articles recounting the history, highlighting the services, telling survivors' stories and profiling those who have contributed to VSS's history and continued success will be featured. The series will conclude in October, when VSS will officially recognize its 25th anniversary during Domestic Violence Awareness Month.)

(The Valencia County News-Bulletin and Valencia Shelter Services are partnering to commemorate the 25 years of service VSS has provided to domestic violence victims and to the community. In the coming months, 25 articles recounting the history, highlighting the services, telling survivors' stories and profiling those who have contributed to VSS's history and continued success will be featured. The series will conclude in October, when VSS will officially recognize its 25th anniversary during Domestic Violence Awareness Month.)

One day, not long after they were married, Joy Lovato's husband ordered her to stand up. Then he told her to sit down.

"That was to show me he was in control. He said, 'I own you now,'" Lovato remembers.

After a six-month romance, Lovato, then 19, married her first boyfriend, who was a year younger.

"Within a month of being married, he was very controlling," she said.

Young and newly married, Lovato said she became pregnant almost immediately. Born and raised in Belen, Lovato had moved away when she was 17 and became involved in what she describes as a charismatic church. That's where she met the man she would marry, have two children with and come to fear.

In the nine years they were together, Lovato said he repeatedly threatened to kill her, harm her family and at least once, choked her while asking if she had made her peace with God.

She left him once while pregnant with their first child and sought advice from her church's pastor. He told Lovato she needed to get back to her husband.

The couple lived in Oregon for a while, living where they could — hotels, friend's houses, his mother's house. Eventually they moved back to Belen and stayed with her mother.

Lovato was able to see a doctor for prenatal care for the first time at eight-months pregnant.

"I didn't tell my mom. I knew I shouldn't stay but I didn't know how to leave," she said.

Lovato believes part of the reason she found herself in an abusive relationship was due to her religious upbringing.

"I was used to doing what I was told to do," she said. "It didn't seem weird this idea that God had chosen a man for you. It was very comfortable doing what I was told, rather than deciding what rules I wanted for myself."

They moved back and forth between Oregon, Las Vegas, N.M., and Belen, and Lovato tried to leave several times. At one point, she went to a women's shelter in Texas.

"I didn't tell my mom I was being abused. I just said I needed him to straighten up," Lovato said. "I knew he was going to get worse."

The control and violence escalated, especially when they were living in her hometown.

"Being in a town where people knew me was hard. If a guy I knew saw me and said 'hi,' it was bad. I didn't feel like it was my town," she recalled.

Eventually, Lovato began seeing signs — literally, signs with the 24-hour hotline for the Valencia Shelter Services. One day she went to the doctor's office with a virus she couldn't shake.

"He was waiting in the car and said, 'Don't take too long.' I saw the fliers for the shelter and started crying in the waiting room. I memorized the number," she said. It was around this same time that her husband was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

"And he was escalating," she said.

"He threatened my family, told me if I ever left, he would find me and slit my throat. Violent things," she said.

One day, it came to a breaking point.

"I knew he was going to hit me," Lovato said.

She ran to a neighbor's house and called 911. Her husband and the police showed up at the same time.

"The cops took his word that everything was OK," she said. When they returned home, he began choking her.

"He stopped, but I thought, 'If I don't leave now …'"

So she ran. Without her two children, she fled to Walmart and called the police again. They arrived but didn't see her, so Lovato made her way to the shelter's offices by herself.

"I cried and cried. My husband had my kids. Nine years of abuse piled on to a counselor in one night," she said.

Lovato was able to get a restraining order against her husband and an order to get her children.

"We went back to the shelter and I knew we were never going back" she said. "When we went in, someone asked me if I wanted a glass of water. I knew then that I would never have to do anything for him again. I was finally free."

Despite being a woman who desperately needed the shelter's services, Lovato said she didn't know it was there.

"I saw the information at the library and doctor's office, but I didn't know how to reach out," she said. "I think women are afraid and embarrassed. It's embarrassing when you're with someone who hurts you."

Since leaving her husband, Lovato has moved back to Oregon and finished a degree in women's studies and social science. She needed 160 hours of practicum for her degree. She came back to Belen and did those hours at the domestic violence shelter.

"Now I am a stronger woman than I was then," she said. "Reaching out is so important, but as important as getting away is, aftercare is critical. I think if I had stayed longer at the shelter and gotten more counseling, I would have been better."

But reaching out comes with risk.

"Now I know about a lot of services. They might have had them then, but it's very risky to contact a woman. Having the shelter there helped me out so much when I left him," she said.

And for women who are in the situation Lovato once was, she told them to keep looking for those signs.

"The shelter puts them up in different places. Bathrooms, dressing rooms. You'll see it when you're not looking for it," she said.

To reach Valencia Shelter Services, call 565-3100, or the 24-hour hotline at 864-1383. The office is located at 303 Luna Ave., in Los Lunas. Visit the website at www.valenciashelterservices.org.


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.