This is the second in a series of IGNITE articles that addresses the increasing rate of domestic and sexual abuse/violence in Marion County, FL and beyond.
Story by Pat Jocelyn
- If you have six female friends, statistics reflect at least one of them has been or will be a victim of sexual violence in her lifetime.
- During a 12-month period in 2017/2018, The Ocala Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault Center reported that 575 rapes were called in to their center.
- During that same timeframe, 334 women and children called the center’s safe house their home. On average, two-thirds of the house’s residents were children. Recently, forty-three of the children staying there were only 0 to 23 months old – one was born in the center’s parking lot.
- In one year, more than 2,600 people called the center’s hotline. Two of the most frequent appeals for assistance concerned safety planning and crisis intervention.
There are currently 43 safe shelters in Florida.
“Women who come to us usually have two kids, no money, no access, her credit cards are gone, and she may not have any friends because she’s been recently relocated.”
– Dr. Judy Wilson
Dr. Judy Wilson painted this picture when she was just 16 years old.
The young woman in the painting is plummeting into a dark, swirling, bottomless abyss. She has no feet to run, no hands to protect or slow her fall – no hope for salvation. On the right side of the painting, one can depict the cold profile of a man impassively watching the woman’s descent into oblivion.
Follow Dr. Judy Wilson’s decades-long journey as she describes the challenges that are ever-present in the region’s battle against domestic violence and sexual assault:
If anyone in the region knows a thing or two about domestic abuse and violence it’s Dr. Judy Wilson. She has degrees in both psychology and counselling and has been actively involved in the domestic abuse and violence arena for more than 40 years. The South Florida transplant’s lengthy resume includes but is not limited to numerous counselling-related jobs, public speaking and individual and group therapy.
The well-versed doctor said she also “learned from the bottom up” by counselling batterers who were required by the court to attend batterers’ education sessions – something that gave her a unique and insightful perspective about domestic violence from the inside out. She was also frequently asked to be an expert witness for law enforcement and the court system.
The idea to assist local women at risk took shape after Dr. Judy volunteered for the Gainesville Domestic Violence Shelter when they first opened in the early ‘70’s. “Putting together a domestic violence shelter (here) wasn’t really that unusual an idea for me – (but) it was a very unusual idea for Ocala.”
“My husband and I and 11 volunteers started out as a rape crisis center (in Ocala) in 1975,” Dr. Judy continued. “Back then we had a 24-hour hotline; but we had so many phone calls from battered women we added what was called then, spousal abuse.”
Later, when a little house near the hospital was donated to their cause, their safe house was born – 10 beds strong. “Then my husband bought a second house and the (combined) number went up to 28 beds,” Dr. Judy explained. “Later in 1979/1980 this (current) property became available and we moved everything here.”
The center now has 88 beds, up from 52 last year and the beds are rarely empty.
Dr. Judy said the need in Marion County and surrounding area is huge. “We have at least twice as many domestic abuse and violence incidences than the counties around us including Alachua County,” Dr. Judy reported. “But that has always been true for rapes and I’m talking about the ones that have been reported to us.”
Dr. Judy added that the number of rapes reported to the center is often higher than the official number reported to law enforcement because some women refuse to report their rape to the authorities for a variety of reasons.
According to criminal justice system statistics, some women refuse to report to authorities because they fear retribution from their perpetrators. Others believe it’s a personal matter, while some feel the police won’t do anything to help.
Traditionally, women between 18 and 28 years old who were pregnant or had newborns were often at a higher risk for domestic abuse and/or violence. Why? Because their husbands or partners felt they weren’t getting the attention they deserved. Frustration morphed into anger and then physical and mental abuse or violence.
But according to the good doctor, the demographic of the women who request help from the center is shifting. “Now with our homeless population going up, a lot of those women (at risk) are actually in their 40’s and 50’s,” Dr. Judy explained. “The kids are out of the home and the women have been beat up and abandoned.”
Dr. Judy will tell you the decades-long journey to provide assistance to women facing domestic abuse/violence hasn’t been an easy one.
Back in the ‘70’s, the oftentimes confrontational process of providing a much-needed safety net of resources for abused women was a significant and sometimes precarious challenge. Even with multiple degrees and numerous years of hands-on work experience, it seems the region wasn’t receptive to the likes of Dr. Judy – a highly educated, albeit resilient woman who was prepared to air the region’s dirty laundry by both speaking out about domestic abuse/violence and working to eradicate it.
“I had death threats the first 10 years,” Dr. Judy explained. “They tried to burn my house down twice and killed all my animals.”
Not one to be easily intimidated, and one might guess fueled on by the extreme challenges placed in her path, Dr. Judy continued to pursue her mission to help women at risk. Today there are hundreds, if not thousands of women who are grateful she wasn’t deterred by those very real threats. Her ongoing determination and dedication to help other women in desperate need has resulted in a growing network of assistance – but she’s not sitting on her laurels. There’s too much work left to be done.
“We’ve had 11 domestic violence murders so far this year in Marion County,” Dr. Judy reported. “That’s more than we had all of last year.”
“There are a lot of murder/suicides that happen around domestic violence,” Dr. Judy continued. “Unfortunately, all of us psychologists, counsellors and therapists are not real good at figuring out who might kill and who might not kill. There are tests out there but they’re not really good at predicting who might blow up at any moment and what would tip them over.”
To meet the growing need within Marion County and beyond, The Ocala Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault Center is expanding. “We bought Cloud 9 (what was once a local night club) and are renovating it so we can move all of our administrative staff over there,” Dr. Judy explained. “Then, the offices we currently have here can be converted to additional shelter beds. That will give us a total of 100 beds.”
Observing this woman in action as she dares to stand in her own power, one has to believe it’s not just seeing the results of Dr. Judy’s hard work that motivates those around her to get involved. It’s her determination, her bravery, her passion and her fearless “can do” attitude that other women want to replicate. Women from all walks of life are observing, learning and growing. Women who think to themselves, ‘but for the Grace of God go I’, find themselves participating in our region’s ever-expanding network of social conscience by following Dr. Judy’s lead – by being a part of the solution.
- If you’d like to be a part of the growing network of women helping women by volunteering for Ignite (a 501c3 in support of the Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault Center), please go to our website at igniteforocala.com/ or visit us on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/igniteforocala/.
- If you know someone who has survived domestic abuse or has a relevant life experience that would be willing to share their story to help others, please have them contact Pat Jocelyn at firstname.lastname@example.org. We can’t promise we will write and publish all of the stories but we do promise to get back with each person who has contacted us.
- If you are experiencing domestic abuse/violence know you are not alone. Call the Marion County Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault Center at 352-622-8495 or 352-622-5919. You can also visit their website at https://ocaladvshelter.org/.
Ocala Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault Center assistance includes:
- Emergency shelter for survivors and their children
- 24/7 crisis hotline
- Counseling and safety planning
- Referral for legal services, medical aid, and other community agencies
- Children’s counseling and advocacy
- Victim/court advocacy
- Public education to help victims understand the justice system and feel more comfortable reporting