Fighting Back:  ‘I have to still work to get stronger’

  • Lizabeth Velez takes her children, Alex, 11, and Abigail, 13, to a supervised visit with their father, her ex-husband, at the Merrimack County Visitation Center in Boscawen. They see their father once a week inside a monitored room. Elizabeth Frantz / For the Monitor

  • Lizabeth Velez spends time at home with her children in Tilton before leaving for work. Elizabeth Frantz / For the Monitor

  • Lizabeth Velez and her children, Alexander and Abigail, walk back to their car after grabbing a quick dinner in Belmont during a two-and-a-half hour period Velez was able to spend with them after school before leaving for work on Sept. 27, 2018. (Photo by Elizabeth Frantz) Elizabeth Frantz—For the Monitor

  • Lizabeth Velez records a video of her children running a three-legged race during a New Beginnings event in Laconia on Aug. 23, 2018. (Photo by Elizabeth Frantz) Elizabeth Frantz—For the Monitor

  • Lizabeth Velez runs errands with her children, Abigail and Alexander, in Belmont on Sept. 27, 2018. (Photo by Elizabeth Frantz) Elizabeth Frantz—For the Monitor

  • Lizabeth Velez shares her story of domestic violence during a New Beginnings event in Laconia on Aug. 23, 2018. (Photo by Elizabeth Frantz) Elizabeth Frantz—For the Monitor

  • Lizabeth Velez spends a few minutes at home with her children in Tilton before leaving for work on Sept. 27, 2018. (Photo by Elizabeth Frantz) Elizabeth Frantz—For the Monitor

  • Lizabeth Velez spends a few minutes at home with her children in Tilton before leaving for work on Sept. 27, 2018. (Photo by Elizabeth Frantz) Elizabeth Frantz—For the Monitor

  • Lizabeth Velez hugs her son Alexander before leaving for work from their home in Tilton on Oct. 17, 2018. (Photo by Elizabeth Frantz) Elizabeth Frantz—For the Monitor

Monitor staff
Published: 2/4/2019 4:00:26 AM

Lizabeth Velez is often at war with her thoughts. Self-doubt and fear set off tiny tremors in her mind and reopen old fault lines not yet healed from more than a decade of marital abuse.

The battles, though, wage for shorter spans of time and are far less paralyzing than in years past.

“The person you were before, it’s really hard to get that back,” said Lizabeth, a resident of Tilton. “Yes, I went through this and, in some ways, it made me stronger; in other ways, I have to still work to get stronger.”

Almost eight years ago, Lizabeth’s husband, Jose Velez, grabbed her by the neck and held her firmly against a wall after she declined his demands for sex. Jose had struck his wife before but the night of Feb. 27, 2011, was different.

“I thought I was going to die.”

As Jose released his hand and threw Lizabeth to the bed, her focus drifted and her body weakened under his control. But then, she heard ever so clearly the voice of her son, 3-year-old Alex, who had opened the bedroom door.

” ‘Momma, let’s go to Walmart and leave daddy here,’ ” she recalled him saying. “At the time, I didn’t understand why he said that. But every time the fighting escalated, that’s what I’d do – I’d go out with the kids so they wouldn’t be in that negative environment.”

Lizabeth safely made it out of her family’s Manchester apartment that night with Alex and 6-year-old Abigail in tow. At that moment, she was focused on doing what was necessary to survive and to keep the situation from escalating. In the months after her husband’s arrest and then conviction, she realized how dangerous that night truly was and how that assault cemented her decision to leave after months of thoughtful preparation.

Through her participation in a victim support group, Lizabeth’s eyes opened to the realities of domestic violence and her own situation, which she realized wasn’t unique. Like so many domestic violence victims, Lizabeth thought she was responsible for setting off Jose, and that if she only did better by him, the taunting and the physical violence would stop.

“I wanted to make the marriage work so I did a lot of things to see if it was worth saving,” said Lizabeth, now 44. “It’s all about psychological control to the point you don’t see it as the problem. You think you’re the problem; therefore, if you’re able to change yourself, you can change the situation.”

Lizabeth loved her husband and she stayed with him for more than 13 years. For much of that time, she didn’t see herself as a battered wife but as a mother trying to keep her family together. She believed he was a troubled man who needed help and whose behavior might be explained by an undiagnosed medical condition.

“So many people ask, ‘Why doesn’t she just leave?’ ” she said. “Why didn’t I just leave? I heard from one woman in my support group – she wanted to leave and he almost killed her. Another woman said she wanted to leave and he killed himself so she blamed herself. I knew I needed to do this a certain way.”

Seeds of abuse

Their relationship was perfect in the beginning. Jose would bring her lunch and dinner at the beauty salon where she worked with her mother. He would give her roses – first, one for every week they were together and then one for every month. He would also write her poetry.

A few months after they started dating, he proposed.

“I said, ‘Can I think about it?’ and he said, ‘No, you have to tell me now.’ That was the start of it all but I didn’t get it at the time.”

Their marriage in February 1998 was tested early on. Lizabeth’s mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and Lizabeth wanted to spend as much time with her as possible, knowing their days together were limited.

“He got jealous to the point that he was unfaithful,” she recalled of those early years. “I left him and slept in the car for days. I didn’t want to involve my friends, because if he knew where I was he’d show up.”

But in time, Jose convinced his wife to return home. He knew she wanted children and after more than five years of marriage, they agreed to try.

Abigail was born in early 2005. And to their surprise, the family soon grew to four with Alex born two years later.

Lizabeth lost her job during her second pregnancy and had tried unsuccessfully to find another job that would fund childcare for two so she became a stay-at-home mom. Although Jose picked up a second job at the United Parcel Service, the financial stress quickly took a toll.

The emotional abuse escalated and the physical abuse began. It started as small pokes and shoves but gradually worsened over time, she said.

“There reached a point where the simplest thing would set him off like crazy. If I didn’t give him enough of my time, he’d threaten to hurt the kids. He didn’t want the dog we had any more, so one day he threatened to throw it out the car window.”

Lizabeth said there were many times she could have gone to the police but chose not to for fear of retribution and her children’s long-term safety.

The abuse in the home prior to 2011 is not detailed in the public record; however, court documents illustrate a violent home environment where the children lived in constant fear of their father, resulting in long-term damage to their emotional health and well-being. A Massachusetts Department of Children and Families-led investigation opened in October 2015 against Jose further shows how fear, intimidation and control had long dominated his relationship with his children. The Bay State was Lizabeth’s temporary home at the time, while Jose had unsupervised visits with Alex and Abigail every other weekend in New Hampshire.

The children reported that “the father is yelling, punching walls, throwing shoes, and making them fearful,” a caseworker documented. Further, the worker said, “the father has threatened to hit them with a baseball bat in the past and used to use a belt to discipline them.”

Jose denied the allegations and told state workers “he does not raise his voice or hit walls,” according to a DCF intake report. Further, he called the claims a byproduct of the pending family court battle with Lizabeth, who had a restraining order against him. He accused Lizabeth – who now has full custody of the children – of trying to limit his parenting time.

In family court records, Lizabeth noted on several occasions that Jose expressed anger in front of the children and repeatedly asked them for their Massachusetts address. Jose, however, contended Lizabeth moved out of state with the children without explanation or prior notification. A judge ultimately ruled in Lizabeth’s favor, finding that she was not in contempt of court and did not violate the parenting plan.

DCF also ruled against Jose and issued a finding of neglect. The department recommended that Jose participate in batterers intervention or anger management following an assessment and attend parenting classes to learn how to appropriately discipline his children.

Soon after, a New Hampshire judge granted Lizabeth sole decision-making with respect to the children and ended Jose’s unsupervised weekend visits. He sees Abigail, now 13, and Alex, 11, only during supervised visits monitored inside a room each Wednesday afternoon at the Merrimack County Visitation Center in Boscawen.

A way out

If not for her children, Lizabeth said she would have left Jose long before that winter night in February 2011.

“Even when he pushed me down the stairs and hit me, I wouldn’t dare say anything because he had already threatened that I would lose the kids.”

When Alex and Abigail got older, Lizabeth enrolled in a nursing assistant program, hoping to pursue her dream and one day earn an income outside the home. But her home life was increasingly making that difficult, and one instructor took notice.

“She said, ‘Liza, this is not a healthy relationship. You need to get out.’ But I told her everything was my fault. I said, ‘If I hadn’t started school, there wouldn’t have been issues,’ ” she recalled.

The conversation could easily have ended there, she said, but her instructor offered her something more. She handed her a pamphlet with information about a domestic violence support group which offered free child care.

“I went for the first time and started hearing the women talk about their situations, and couldn’t believe what they were saying. I began to realize that all abusers do the same thing, by the book.”

When Lizabeth went home that night, she was on heightened alert. She was starting to learn about the warning signs of abuse and the tactics used by batterers to keep their victims within their control – and she was afraid Jose would catch on. She had thought about leaving before but now truly understood she was a victim and wanted out.

“I was so fearful of dying that I would write emails to myself – and to a friend of mine – using an email he didn’t know about, so if something ever happened to me there would be a record and someone would know the truth,” she said.

She also told her children that “if they ever saw daddy hurt mommy to call 911.”

But as much as she prepared to leave, she still struggled with the prospect of one day having to report Jose to police.

After the report

The abuse she suffered on that final night in her family’s Manchester apartment on Feb. 27, 2011, broke the cycle after 13 years. At his daughter’s pleading, Jose let his wife and children walk away that night after a several-minute assault that left red marks on Lizabeth’s neck.

She recalled dropping the children off at a friend’s house before making her way to the Manchester Police Department to file a report.

“He had told me that if I ever reported him I was going to pay, so I was freaking out. I felt guilty like it was my fault and I shouldn’t have been there.”

The police officer – who had welcomed her into the station that night – told her she was doing the right thing.

“It’s not your fault,” she recalled him telling her.

Jose was later taken into custody on six counts of simple assault and two counts of false imprisonment, all misdemeanor-level charges. He agreed to a plea bargain with prosecutors in Manchester’s district court that May. He made no admissions of guilt by pleading “no contest” and avoided jail time.

He was prohibited from contacting Lizabeth per a restraining order, initially granted by a judge for two years and later renewed for five.

Still, Lizabeth remained in constant fear of Jose. Instead of staying with a friend, she drove around until her children fell asleep each night and then rested at a gas station until morning.

When a room at a Claremont shelter finally opened, Lizabeth drove on gas fumes to get there. She called the shelter home for nine months before moving into a rental space in Sunapee.

Jose would later find her there, too. She said Alex and Abigail told their father the address after he repeatedly asked during a weekend visit where they were living with their mother. Once he dropped by in violation of the restraining order, he refused to leave for a couple of days, she said.

“I was afraid to call the cops because he said he forgave me for the first time he went to jail but he wasn’t going to forgive me the second time.”

Before she went to sleep each night, she moved her clothes dresser against the door so he couldn’t open it. She said she was on so much medication for anxiety and depression but still hadn’t slept and knew she needed to protect herself.

The nightmare ended the day he picked up the phone and a social worker was on the call. Lizabeth told him the woman would likely call the cops so he better get out while he still had time.

“What so many people don’t realize is that it doesn’t all just stop after you leave your abuser,” Lizabeth said. “I want people to really know how scared we are. Even in front of other people, you can appear so secure with yourself, but that internal fight is real. It’s a constant struggle of the mind.”

Her future

Now, more than seven years separated from her husband, the family court battle still wages on, including over Jose’s history of non-payment for child support owed to Lizabeth. She has found the family court process to be further revictimizing as she fights for basic protections without an attorney and before judges unfamiliar with the dynamics of domestic violence.

In March 2018, a judge new to the case denied Lizabeth’s request for another five-year restraining order, ruling she failed to establish “good cause.” The protection had been in place since her early-2011 assault.

Lizabeth filed a motion asking the judge to reconsider, but it was also denied.

Jose told Judge Polly Hall that he has had a “friendly relationship” with Lizabeth during the last five years. Further, he reported he has not acted with the intent to harm; to the contrary, he said he “simply wants to be civil and spend time with the children,” Hall summarized. Jose also told Hall that he is “happily divorced.”

The court previously ordered Jose to participate in batterers intervention and counseling, and he said he has since met those requirements.

A phone call to Jose for this story was not returned.

Lizabeth said the judge’s decision set her back in her recovery for a time but did not break her resilience. She has her sights on a nursing degree and is just one school year away from achieving it. She also dreams of fostering children and is thankful for the freedom to be spontaneous with Alex and Abigail, whom she loves to take on day trips to Six Flags and on weekend camping adventures.

“My kids tell me that they’re proud of me,” she said. “Around the time we left the shelter, I remember them saying, ‘You look so beautiful and so happy. We haven’t seen you like this in a long time.’ ”

Listening to other survivors share their stories in a support group, she first learned she was not alone – and she gained the strength to come forward, too. She also grew to realize her ability to help others in similar situations, if she could find her voice beyond that confidential circle.

“If I’m able to be vocal about what happened to me, maybe someone else can benefit. I understand now what happened to me, and I want to work to make sure others are saved from a similar situation. If my story resonates with victims, then the problems were worth going through to reach this point.”

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319 or at adandrea@cmonitor.com.)

If you or someone you know has experienced domestic violence, advocates are available 24/7 to provide free and confidential support through the statewide hotline at 1-866-644-3574. You don’t have to be in crisis to reach out.




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