Charmaine Thomas admits she was young when she married her husband in 1986. At 16, she was barely old enough to drive a car.
Everyone told her the marriage wouldn’t last, but that only fueled her desire to square the circle and make it work. Even as her new husband’s temper flared to flashes of violence, she stuck with him.
The outbursts “gradually progressed into more physical stuff,” she said, although the violence didn’t bother her too much at first. She tended to minimize it, she said.
“I can look back, and there were red flags all along the way,” said Thomas, who is now a victims advocate with the Glynn Community Crisis Center, a domestic violence prevention agency.
She left a few times, but always came back. When a car wreck in the late 1980s left her husband paralyzed, Thomas stayed with him in a rehabilitation center in West Georgia. She cared for him and nursed him.
While the wreck took her husband’s ability to walk, it wasn’t enough to strip him of his anger and violence. The abuse, control and threats remained.
“Even with him being in the wheelchair, he was still having his violent outbursts,” Thomas said. “I decided I was too young to live the rest of my life like that.”
She was ready to be rid of him, but he remained in the background of her life. He loomed on the fringes, and she allowed it — but not because she was foolish, or dimwitted, or delusional.
“For me, it was fear,” she recalled. “I knew one day, he was going to kill me. I came back because when I would leave, he would constantly call my family, or I would be staying with my family and he would show up there. For me, my family was threatened. It was a way of protecting my family.”
Thomas’ loved ones didn’t know she was in danger, she said. She carefully hid it from them, until one evening in 1991 when the violence erupted dangerously out in the open.
The night before, Thomas’ husband called her mom. He said he wanted to have a cookout with the family. The evening of the cookout, Thomas went to her mother’s house, wanting nothing more than to pick up her daughter and leave. The husband was there. He was drunk, and looking for a fight, she said.
“He came in, and he was talking,” who was 10 weeks pregnant at the time. Thomas said. “I was kind of ignoring him. He told me I had a month to come back, and if I didn’t, he was going to kill me.”
For Thomas, it was the final straw.
“At this point, after going through so much, I was either at the point of being in fear, or saying, ‘let’s do this, let’s get it over with. I guess you’re going to kill me, because I’m not coming back,’” Thomas said.
Her husband was quick to oblige.
As Thomas wrapped her young daughter in a coat, he pulled a gun from a bag and shot her twice. One bullet pierced her back, narrowly missing her unborn child — who, is now 24 and living in South Carolina — and another struck her arm.
“I can remember my mom and my sister struggling with him to get the gun from him,” Thomas said. “If not, I’m sure he would have killed me.”
Thomas survived the ordeal, and her now ex- husband was charged with one count of aggravated assault and sentenced to 13 years in state prison, almost all of which he served, Thomas said.
As harrowing as it may be, Thomas isn’t alone in her story. According to a 2015 report by the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, half of domestic homicide victims were killed by partners they met between the ages of 13 and 24.
In Georgia alone last year, there were 139 domestic violence-related deaths, all of which were perpetrated by men, the report adds. And that might not be the full count, because children killed as part of an ongoing pattern of abuse, homicides mistaken classified as suicides and same-sex relationships aren’t tallied.
Dottie Bromley, executive director of the Glynn Community Crisis Center, said the people impacted by domestic violence are more than statistics.
“(The abused) are from all walks of life, without exception,” she said. “Whether you’re so-called high-class, low-class, educated, super-wealthy, poor as a pig, can’t read, Ph.D. It doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, purple or green. It’s across the board.”
The crisis center provides residents of Glynn and McIntosh counties with a variety of services to escape abusive relationships, Bromley said.
“We operate a 24/7 crisis line, and a 24/7 emergency shelter,” she said, referring to Amity House, which was founded in 1982. “We’re certified for 15 beds and can house 18 people.”
Amity House shelters victims of abuse — both men and women — and their children, Bromley said, but right now, it’s empty.
“We think that’s a terrible thing,” Bromley said. “That means there are people out there that need us, and aren’t getting to us.”
Temporary housing and a crisis hotline aren’t the only services the center provides. The agency can help with financial burdens, legal help, transportation and even provides outreach services for people who need help, but not necessarily housing.
“Here, we make a difference in people’s lives,” Bromley said. “We give them a chance to have an opportunity again, believe in themselves and take control of their world again. Control of their world is really important for someone coming out of an abusive situation, because they’ve had no control.”
Bromley and others at the crisis center don’t disclose the location of Amity House. It’s a safety measure to prevent exactly the type of situation that happened to Thomas, but that doesn’t mean the center doesn’t want to be visible.
On Saturday, the center is hosting its first-ever Trot-the-Block in Her Shoes event, during which men from the community are invited to come to the Glynn Place Mall and literally walk a while in the shoes of women. Registration begins at 10 a.m. and the walk starts at 11 a.m.. Registration is free with $25 in pledges, or $10 without pledges. During the walk, men will strut their stuff in high-heeled shoes to raise awareness of domestic violence prevention. Information is available by calling 264-1348.
Elizabeth Dunn, an outreach coordinator with the crisis center and organizer of the event, is hoping it will turn some heads — and the timing is no accident.
“We really just wanted to do something, to have an event for October to raise awareness,” she said. “ A lot of men find it hard to get involved in domestic violence prevention. This is a good way to get involved. It’s a funny, more relaxed atmosphere.”
Dunn is even planning to hand out prizes for the highest heel, best walk and overall first place.
“We’ll have some messages displayed, some statistics, we’ll have a booth,” she said. “Hopefully, it’ll get people’s attention. And raise some money for us.”
Although the event is meant to be fun and lighthearted, everyone at the center knows it’s serious business, especially for people trapped in abusive relationships and preparing to escape.
If a partner is showing signs of abuse, such as trying to control behavior, friendships, finances or other aspects of life, help is available. Call the Glynn Community Crisis Center’s hotline at 264-4357, or 800-334-2836 toll free.
Making a plan before leaving is important, said Thomas.
“That’s the most critical time, when someone is getting ready to leave,” she said. “What I tell a lot of my clients now is to seek help, have some support. You can’t convince someone to leave if they’re not ready. Sometimes they’re ready but they don’t have the support or know what steps to take next. My main thing is to have a support system and to have a safety plan.”