Opioid crisis compounds rising domestic violence cases

Former Montgomery County Sheriff’s Deputy Douglas Gearhart grabbed his stepdaughter by her head and neck and shoved her into a door, prosecutors say. He then shoved his wife to the ground when she tried to stop the attack, causing her to hit her head on the kitchen island.

Gearhart, 44, of Franklin, then pulled his wife into the garage.

“When the children found their mother, she was on the garage floor semi-conscious next to a puddle of blood, and three of her front teeth were on the garage floor,” said Warren County prosecutor David Fornshell.

Gearhart was sentenced Wednesday to four years in prison. The high profile case illuminates an increasingly prevalent problem of domestic violence in the Dayton region and in Ohio. From July 1, 2016 to June 30, 2017, at least 115 people were killed in domestic violence cases in Ohio.

The YWCA Dayton has seen a “stark” increase in the number of women helped out of domestic violence situations and compounding the problem is the rise in opioid addiction, according to Shannon Isom, YWCA Dayton’s president and CEO.

» RELATED: YWCA Dayton raises funds to renovate housing units, domestic violence shelter

“I would say within the last five years, there has been a stark increase in the women or families we’re serving,” she said. “The family sizes have definitely gotten bigger. Likewise, the needs have become more complex and multifaceted.”

Opioid epidemic

As domestic violence cases evolve into more complex scenarios, it’s been difficult to keep up with every woman who needs help in Dayton, Isom said. Compared to even three years ago, the shelter is seeing more domestic violence victims struggling with drug and opioid abuse. Isom said there has been an increase in deaths by overdose in the shelter.

“That then produces trauma to other women in shelter, but then also causes a lot of trauma and burnout much quicker to our staff. Our turnover has increased, which has also burdened the organization financially,”  Isom said.

YWCA Dayton, which has annual operating budget of $3.1 million, provides the only shelter services for women involved in domestic violence cases in Montgomery and Preble counties. In 2016, the crisis support hotline received more than 4,000 calls and 355 new shelter clients — women and children — were served. That’s an increase from the 348 served in 2015, and clients typically stay in the shelter for 60 days on average.

» RELATED: All-female group to build house for single mom in Fairborn

The number of domestic violence arrests in Dayton between 2012 and 2016 increased 33 percent, according to Dayton police. This year, 915 people have been arrested on domestic violence charges.

The domestic rates for both Dayton and Montgomery County exceeded statewide averages, which is typical for larger cities and counties.

More than 76 percent of domestic violence victims in Dayton were female, and 73 percent of victims were female in Montgomery County. And the victimization rate was higher for black individuals than white individuals across all age ranges in Dayton and Montgomery County.

Paula Dudley, 54, of Kettering, came to the YWCA in November 2015. An abusive boyfriend would choke and verbally degrade her, and she decided to end the relationship. As she tried to move on, he aggressively stalked her and she feared for her life.

“He’d degrade me. He called me a loser and a bum. I knew it wasn’t me, but I didn’t want to impose on anyone,” she said. “My church family and my friends recommended I come here.”

Dudley said she felt like God sent her to the shelter, and that it’s saved her life in many ways. After struggling with addiction on and off for years, she’s clean now but still confronted with the opportunity to use drugs — even in the shelter. In the spring, one of her close friends died in the shelter of an overdose.

“It was a lot to deal with,” she said.

The connection between drugs and violence against women has becoming increasingly difficult to treat in Dayton. The YWCA is constantly looking for available drug and alcohol treatment beds for clients who have also been through domestic violence. About 80 percent of the women served by the YWCA have “intersections between drug and or substance abuse, mental health and violence” issues, Isom said. The rate of drug-addicted and struggling clients is much higher than it was even five years ago, she said.

» RELATED: Conference aims to inspire Dayton women to lead

About 26 percent of domestic violence survivors reported using alcohol or drugs as a way to reduce pain from domestic abuse, and 27 percent said a partner or ex-partner pressured or forced them to use alcohol or drugs more than they wanted, according to a survey conducted by the National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health.

Who ultimately suffers when women struggle with violence and drug abuse? Children, Isom said. In September, an 8-year-old boy from South Lebanon calmly called 911. “Can the ambulance come?” the boy asked as the 911 operator.

The boy witnessed a deadly domestic violence attack in his family home, which left Deborah Power, 63, dead. Her husband, Ronnie Power, was also reportedly bleeding badly from a head wound after allegedly being beaten by his wife’s adoptive brother and the brother’s wife. The alleged robbery was designed to raise money for heroin, according to Warren County authorities.

“The opioid epidemic in women shows up in a couple different ways,” Isom said. “Because women are the primary caregivers of their children, children are exposed more than before. It also can unmask mental health issues that may not have been unmasked if not for this addiction. Because of the financial constraint, it also pushes some sexual behaviors that would then attract men that produce violence or certainly move them through a cycle of power and control.”

» Colleges, employers want female engineers: Where are they?

Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley said it’s important to make sure women suffering from drug or alcohol addictions while dealing with domestic violence have access to treatment programs and centers. She said it’s important the community understands and recognizes the effect these issues have on families, particularly children. It’s never the child’s fault she said.

“The difference with opioid use is that it kills you faster and that has been part of the community quietly for some time now,” she said. “The benefit is that it’s out in the open now.”

Serving rural, urban communities

YWCA is strategic about the way they serve survivors in Montgomery and Preble counties — regions split by urban and rural communities that require different approaches to service. YWCA’s shelter in Preble County has 14 beds and five rooms.

Women in rural communities like Preble County face a multitude of different issues than women who are abused in urban areas. One study found that nearly 23 percent of women in small rural areas reported being victims of intimate partner violence, compared to 15.5 percent of women in urban areas, according to the National Advisory Committee on Rural Health and Human Services. Additionally, women in rural communities who have experienced domestic violence are more likely to be murdered.

Drug use has increased in women in both urban and rural communities.

“We’ve definitely seen a huge increase of clients who have addiction, past or current,” said Courtney Griffith, Preble County YWCA manager. “Addiction is part of the abuse cycle. Also we hear that the abusers will get these women hooked on drugs or alcohol so they’re dependent on them. So they can’t leave them.”

The shelter doesn’t turn away women who are actively using, and they help them find the resources to overcome the addiction. Abused women in Preble County deal with isolation, lack of transportation and social stigmas that reinforce women’s fear to leave the situation.

» RELATED: Hope’s Closet at YWCA needs women’s and children’s items

Griffith said domestic violence isn’t just physical harm — it can manifest in a man’s control over a woman’s finances, and it can look like verbal and emotional abuse. Why don’t women leave sooner? One in four women and one in seven men will be abused by an intimate partner during their lifetime, and a victim will try to leave at least seven time before finally leaving for good, according to nonprofit For Families Free of Violence.

More than 70 percent of domestic violence murders occur after the victim has left the relationship. It’s an issue with economic consequences for employees and communities too. Domestic violence costs the U.S. economy $8.3 billion in expenses annually — $5.8 billion in medical costs and $2.5 billion in lost productivity, according to National Network to End Domestic Violence.

State lawmakers are trying to protect survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking. Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted and state lawmakers introduced legislation in October that allows survivors to have their addresses withdrawn from public records databases.

The confidentiality program would prevent attackers from using public information to hurt or stalk victims, and the legislation would allow Husted to run the program through his office. Husted’s office would refer survivors to a domestic violence counselor or program, and then would assign the person an address confidentiality program number that would be used for identification purposes at public agencies like the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

“If you get to the point you need to use this, there’s a bad, bad problem going on in your life,” he said during a press conference.

Investing in the future

For the YWCA, it’s been the pillar of strength and support for women in need since the 1800s. In early 2018, the YWCA will break ground on a full renovation of its shelter, costing more than $15 million. Planned updates will provide increased privacy for clients, confidentiality, and security.

“With the changing environment, with the changing needs of our clients, we are definitely ready for it,” said Tia Lurie, operations and shelter manager.

The renovations come as staff members celebrate the anniversary of the shelter’s opening in 1977, as the Battered Woman Program. It was one of the first 25 shelters to open in the country, and now provides three on-site programs: emergency shelter and crisis support, affordable housing and life skills training, and youth services.

Staff members are now focused on providing tailored support to clients. The shelter started using its larger, centralized hotline call center space earlier this year, where staff members handle thousands of emergency crisis calls every year. Each station is equipped with two monitors: one to collect data from calls and another to research resources and communicate with callers.

Staff members remain steadfast in the ultimate goal — to assist women and to “meet them where they’re at.” Dudley, who has been at the YWCA for about two years, is readying to transition to the next phase of her life — applying for an apartment lease and finding a job. She’d like to work as a greeter at a Walmart some day.

“I want to make people smile,” she said.

Isom said she hopes in the next 40 years, the need for a functioning domestic violence shelter will be obsolete.

“I would like to see us out of the business of domestic violence. We’d no longer shelter women and children and we would no longer have a waiting list of families yearning and begging and longing to get into our shelter,” she said. “That somehow we will be able to morph ourselves into an organization that really is promoting peace, freedom, justice and dignity for all.”


• 115 fatalities in 83 cases of domestic violence in Ohio

• 23 percent of domestic violence cases involved children at the scene

• 24 out of 25 homicide/suicides were perpetrated against female victims

Source: Ohio Domestic Violence Network, data from July 1, 2016 to June 30, 2017


YWCA 24-hour hotline: 937-222-7233

YWCA Preble County hotline: 937-456-6891

Artemis Domestic Violence Center: 937-461-5091

About the Author