Jody Gostas, past president of the Zonta Club of Cheyenne, goes through the domestic violence workshop activity on Tuesday at the Kiwanis Community House. On average, in the United States, it takes a woman in a domestically abusive relationship seven attempts before she is actually able to leave the relationship for good, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Rhianna Gelhart/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – What would you do if you were living in a domestic violence situation?

That’s the question Zonta Club of Cheyenne wants community members to grapple with during a series of events this week. Using an experiential program called “In Her Shoes,” created by the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, those who take part are tasked with putting themselves in the place of someone living through domestic violence.

“In Her Shoes” follows a format comparable to the “Choose Your Own Adventure” book series. An attendee is given the identity of someone who is or who will soon experience domestic violence, and based on their circumstances, they must choose from options that lead them on a winding, and often frustrating, path.

Participants should not act on what they, as an outsider, think the person should do in their situation, Zonta Club’s Denise Parrish advised. Rather, participants were told to examine the life circumstances of the person in their assigned scenario and make choices based on that person’s background and experiences – things like religion, family support or lack thereof, and their ability to navigate the criminal justice system or obtain resources.

The goal of this type of experience is to give people, especially those who haven’t lived with domestic violence, tools to recognize the signs of abuse and the patterns abuse often follows, said Carla Thurin, director of Safehouse Services in Cheyenne. Safehouse provides shelter, resources and support for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, elder abuse and trafficking.

“You’re going to be able to help those people because you’re going to understand why they may not be able to leave,” Thurin said.

About 10 people, including City Council member Pete Laybourn, attended Tuesday evening’s event at the Kiwanis Community House in Lions Park. Another event will be held today from 6:30 to 8 p.m., and on Thursday from noon to 1:30 p.m., at the same location.

In Wyoming, 33.9% of women and 30.5% of men experience physical violence, sexual violence or stalking perpetrated by an intimate partner in their lifetimes, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Nationally, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner. More than 10 million adults in the U.S. experience domestic violence each year.

For Debbie Richardson, the drive to help others understand what victims and survivors of domestic violence go through when making choices is deeply personal. Richardson, who attended Tuesday’s event, lost her daughter to domestic violence after she was shot by her estranged husband in 2013. She is also a survivor of domestic violence, and she said she watched her mother go through it, too.

During the debrief session following the exercise, Richardson described how the experience Tuesday night was a struggle between her state of mind as someone on the outside who has survived domestic violence and her experiences as someone inside that situation.

“They should report it right away, but they don’t. They keep going back,” she said. “So for me, it was really hard ... I knew what the right thing was, but I knew what they were going to do.”

It’s also hard, Richardson said, for her to tell people that they’ll automatically be safe if they leave a domestic violence situation. Her daughter had filed for divorce and moved in with Richardson before she was killed.

“But I still wanted to be able to help them by telling them what not to do and try to help people through it – that maybe I could save somebody else’s life,” she said. “If I could save just one person’s life in a domestic, it’s worth everything to me. ... I just want to help people learn to get out and save themselves.”

The discussion also included reflections on attendees’ characters’ experiences trying to seek help from law enforcement and being rebuffed because of a lack of evidence, or when officers may not know which partner to believe.

In cases like this, Thurin said, it’s important for law enforcement to have training in identifying the primary aggressor in a violent incident.

Participants also offered some ideas about what could be done to better protect victims in Wyoming, such as putting a law in place that would create an automatic protection order when someone is charged with a domestic violence related crime.

Parrish said that, following the “In Her Shoes” events, the Zonta club would try to identify some actionable items like this to advocate for going forward.

Hannah Black is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s criminal justice reporter. She can be reached at hblack@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3128. Follow her on Twitter at @hannahcblack.

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