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Today's word on journalism

Monday, January 29, 2007

Words as weapons:

"When he had a pen in his hand it was like giving a kid a machine gun."

--Peter Hall, theater director, on "Angry Young Man" playwright John Osborne (1929-1994)

Domestic violence all too common at holidays, leaving Christmas scars instead of presents

By Ranae Bangerter

December 27, 2006 | Children sleep under the tree at Christmas awaiting even a glimpse of Santa Claus, the jolly happy man, who comes to bring presents December 25 to every little girl and boy.

This was not the scene that 8-year-old Thomas Valletta saw on the eve of Christmas.

* * *

He was up reading Christmas stories with his three siblings -- brother, 10, and two sisters, 5 and 3 years old. They had all fallen asleep except Valletta. Around 10 p.m. he heard a noise in the kitchen and slowly crept in, thinking it was Santa. He scared the person in the kitchen, his stepfather, who then stumbled, making pots and pans clang to the floor. Soon the children were up, wondering what happened and hoping that it was Santa. They wanted to get the milk and cookies out to be ready for Mr. Claus.

"I guess we just pushed him over the limit," said Valletta. Their stepfather said he wanted to give them a present they would never forget, teach them not to be selfish. And so he ripped off his Navy belt.

* * *

Around the Christmas and New Year's holidays, it's easy to forget that many families in Utah have domestic violence in their homes once or twice a year. Twenty-six percent of those surveyed in a 2005 domestic violence study said they experience domestic violence once a year or less. Five percent reported daily violence, and 7 percent reported monthly.

In most households with domestic violence, abuse occurs only once or twice a year. And for those families the abuse doesn't end on the last day of domestic violence awareness month, October. Many victims experience abusive relationships and they continue for many years, according to the study. And many experienced abusive childhoods.

But what about unreported family beatings that occur almost weekly? What about victims, who do not report it because it could hurt their family?

"The first thing to do is to tell one person, to break the silence for the first time," says Brandy Farmer, a survivor of domestic violence and domestic violence specialist for the state of Utah. Farmer said breaking the silence could be just telling someone, a friend, a family member, a neighbor or even calling a hotline such as the Utah Domestic Violence Council hotline 800-897-LINK.

But breaking the silence can be hard and dangerous. Farmer said about telling others about her husband was hard.

"I never wanted anyone to know because he's supposed to be the one that loves me the most," Farmer said about being abused by her husband. She wanted to run away but had no where to go. She thought she would have to live on the streets and she did not want her children to live like that.

Domestic violence comes in many forms, physical, emotional, verbal and sexual that may be linked together in some cases said, Keeley Mendenhall, domestic violence case worker.

* * *

Young Thomas Valletta's father was an alcoholic and worked at a bar. Sometimes he got violent after coming home from work.

"Whippin's" (being beaten on the back end with a belt) were common enough that Valletta and his siblings would shove comic books down their pants for padding. They would even prepare ahead and store the books on a table leading into the front room for easy access. But on Christmas Eve 1958 it was a different situation than most for young Valletta.

The once-silent house was filled with noise as their staggering stepfather told the children to line up for whippin's. Their father started off oldest to youngest, as usual, and they all made sure to grab some comic books on their way in.

Valletta's older brother was first and would scream loud to pretend it hurt even though he was well-padded and didn't feel much. But when it was Valletta's turn he wasn't as good at pretending.

* * *

Some people who do not understand all the types of abuse may justify physical abuse because of alcohol or a controlled substance, but Farmer disagrees.

"There's just no excuse for abuse and no one deserves to be abused," Farmer told a class of students. She said if a person is violent without a controlled substance, the substance can either make it worse or subdue the violence.

"It's a learned behavior," she added. She said she thinks that violence and abuse are choices. She gave a scenario: a person may become very angry, enough to hit, but can choose not to.

* * *

It was Valletta's turn to be "whipped." After a few whips, it wasn't so bad. But his stepfather realized the children were padded and he pulled out his belt.

"He doubled up the belt and reared back," Valletta said about his stepfather. But when Valletta refused to cry his stepfather put down the belt and punched his back.

Soon, young Valletta fell to the side, but when his stepfather asked the next child, his 5-year-old sister, to come for her turn, Valletta, as hurt as he was, could not take it. He got up, made a fist, and punched his stepfather's stomach, as hard as an 8-year-old could, and then he ran out of the house in to the night.

He thought his stepfather was still following him so he ran and ran. He ran until the tie between him and that house was so distant that he was free. He was excited to be free. Then he thought of Santa.

He realized that Santa only came to where he was sleeping, so he thought to run back home but he had ran so far that he was lost. He knocked on neighbor's doors but no one recognized him, he then sat on a curb and started to cry.

"I cried forever it seemed like," he said. "I didn't have any feeling and that's when I looked up and saw many stars," he recalled. Then he shook his fist at the sky and thought.

"My mom left me, my dad beat me, and Santa doesn't' have a clue where I'm at," he thought.

Then he said he heard a voice say, "I love you, you're not alone no matter what you do I'll always be there." He thought that voice was his natural father, who had died. After that, he became happy and started singing Christmas songs. His attitude had changed.

Later, he got tired and crawled under the bumper of a car and hung his two small socks up for Santa to fill.

* * *

When he woke up the first thing he did was check his socks. Then he found a police officer and "turned himself in."

"I never saw my dad again," he said. Not many victims in Utah call police, but when police were called the report said they respond in about 30 minutes on average.

The domestic violence study said, some victims would call the police but the police failed to take action - unless it was a severe injury. Also, those who called reported the police would not normally arrest the abuser or try to prevent the abuse from becoming worse.

Although that is true with the study, Mendenhall, a case worker for Utah State University's SAVVI (Sexual Assault and Anti-Violence Information) office, said she disagrees.

"The police usually do refer people (to SAVVI)," she said.

"That's how we get a lot of our contacts."

Valletta ended up in many foster homes and when he was about 12 years old he saw his brother, who gave him his mother's address. He went back there to see her. She had re-married and he took on his new father's name of Valletta.

Now, Valletta is different. He joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and is not afraid to share his story. He has since seen his sisters again, decades after that Christmas Eve.


Copyright 1997-2005 Utah State University Department of Journalism & Communication, Logan UT 84322, (435) 797-1000
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