Local survivor sheds light on domestic violence
By Alicia Doyle
Every time Martha Venegas looks in the mirror, she sees the horrific abuse she survived at the hands of a man she once loved.
The burn scars on 95 percent of her body are a painful reminder of the night she was set on fire and given a 5 percent chance of survival.
“I hate looking at myself in the mirror — but for my kids, I put on a happy face,” said the 31-year-old mother of two daughters and two sons, who are now 2, 5, 8 and 15 years old.
“I don’t cry in front of them … so every day I’m pushing myself,” she said. “I want our lives to be normal again. I want my kids to see that I’m OK and we can be happy again. We gotta show him that no matter what he did, we’re still standing and we’re strong and we can do it without him.”
When she first met Juan Manuel Soria Hernandez in 2007, the two hit it off, moved in together and had two daughters and one son.
“In the beginning he was nice. If he was mean I wouldn’t have stayed with him all these years and I wouldn’t have had kids with him,” said Venegas, who entered the relationship with her firstborn child — a son whom Hernandez accepted as his own. “Anything I wanted I had. Anything my kids wanted they had.”
Over the years, the couple argued occasionally — but no verbal fight compared to the violence that occurred on Jan. 5, 2015.
On that night, they had a fight in the kitchen of their Moorpark home. They had recently separated because Hernandez was drinking too much and had started doing crystal meth in the seventh year of their eight-year relationship.
“I didn’t want that around my kids,” Venegas recalled. “And it wasn’t right for the kids to be watching us fight all the time.”
Weeks before the incident, the couple tried to work things out for the sake of their young children. But on that night, Hernandez was in a jealous rage and accused Venegas of infidelity. They fought about the subject often, even though Venegas was faithful to the father of her three children.
“He was always a jealous guy, but even though we’d get into fights, he never put a hand on me,” Venegas said. “Instead of hitting me he would hit the walls or throw stuff. He changed when he started doing drugs and drinking a lot — that’s when his jealousy was out of control.”
Their verbal fight on Jan. 5 came to a brief halt when the couple woke up one of their young daughters.
“She started crying and I told him to stop because I didn’t want to make her afraid,” Venegas said. “She asked if we were fighting, I said, ‘No, go back to sleep,’ and I went to lay down with her.”
After putting her daughter back to bed, Venegas returned to the kitchen, where Hernandez’s anger escalated to a point she had never seen before.
“He called me a fucking bitch and head-butted me,” Venegas remembered. “I said, ‘Leave me alone.’ I just wanted him to stop.”
Hernandez left the kitchen, went into the garage and returned with a 5-gallon container of gasoline.
“In my head I’m thinking, this guy is crazy. I asked him, ‘What are you going to do?’ ” Venegas recalled. “He said, ‘We’re going to die. If you’re not going to be with me, you’re not going to be with anyone.’ ”
Hernandez pushed Venegas against the kitchen door and proceeded to pour gasoline on her.
“I told him, ‘Think about the kids,’ ” she said. “And he said, ‘We’re all going to die.’ ”
Venegas doesn’t remember when he lit the fire.
“I just remember running away because in my head I was thinking, ‘If he does do this the house is going to blow up because we were in the kitchen,’ ” she said. “I ran to the bathroom and I went to the tub — and all I remember was I was in flames.”
Still, the fight continued.
“I went in the bathtub and he followed me there. I remember being in flames and still fighting with him. I would try to turn the water on and he’d turn it off,” Venegas said. “Then I heard my daughter telling him to stop — at that point my three kids saw everything.”
Somehow, Venegas managed to put out the fire, get her three children out of the house and scream for help. When the police and an ambulance arrived, she was transported to the Grossman Burn Center in the San Fernando Valley, where she remained for almost four months.
“I was in an induced coma for almost two months,” said Venegas. “I had a 5 percent chance of surviving.”
“We gotta show him that no matter what he did, we’re still standing and we’re strong and we can do it without him.”
— Martha Venegas, of Moorpark
What the data shows
The California Partnership to End Domestic Violence recognizes domestic abuse as a range of behaviors used to establish power and maintain control by one intimate partner over the other, said Jessica Merrill, communications and development manager.
“The range of behavior can include psychological, emotional, verbal, sexual, financial, spiritual and physical abuse as well as stalking and other threatening behaviors,” Merrill said.
According to the California Women’s Health Survey, approximately 40 percent of women experience physical intimate partner violence in their lifetimes — and 75 percent of victims have children under the age of 18 at home at the time.
In 2010, the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey showed 24.3 percent of women and 13.8 percent of men reported experiencing intimate-partner violence. Incidents are typically underreported, however, for a variety of reasons, including fear of losing the partner and concerns related to child custody.
In 2014, the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office reported domestic violence incidents for the following areas: 365 in Camarillo, 136 in Fillmore, 109 in Moorpark, 45 in Ojai and 400 in Thousand Oaks, as well as 78 in unincorporated areas in the east and 375 unincorporated areas in the west. In 2015, there were 387 in Camarillo, 131 in Fillmore, 157 in Moorpark, 37 in Ojai, 478 in Thousand Oaks, 63 in unincorporated areas in the east and 398 in unincorporated areas in the west.
Why not just leave?
“When people ask, ‘why doesn’t a victim just leave their abusive partner,’ we explain that what really matters is the role of the abusive partner to stop their behavior,” Merrill said. “The onus of stopping abuse should never be on the survivor.”
Survivors are in complex situations in which they try to ensure the safety of themselves and their families, constantly weighing the risks of being in an abusive relationship and trying to stay safe, Merrill said.
“In fact, when a survivor is trying to leave an abusive situation, it can be one of the most dangerous times,” Merrill said. “We should believe and support survivors. Abusive partners can choose to stop this kind of behavior, and communities should hold them accountable and guide them toward healthy relationship behaviors.”
Attempting to leave an abusive relationship can escalate the violence as abusers feel they are losing control, which can make the situation much more dangerous, said Nicholle Gonzalez-Seitz, director of family violence intervention services at Interface Children & Family Services in Camarillo.
The organization helps victims and their children fleeing domestic violence to be safe — and begin the process of healing and rebuilding their lives.
“Interface offers an array of supportive services to help someone in a violent situation, which include a 24/7 crisis response, emergency shelter, restraining order assistance and support groups,” Gonzalez-Seitz said. “We want victims of abuse to know that they are not alone and that there is help available here in our community.”
Domestic violence occurs in all communities
With domestic violence, the warning signs vary, Merrill noted. These signs can include “dictating who one’s partner is allowed to talk to, controlling what they wear, tracking where they go, sexual coercion, interfering with their ability to go to work, controlling their expenditures, threatening harm or putting them down, and physical violence.”
Abusers may also try to isolate the victim from family, friends or other social supports who may try to intervene, making it more difficult to leave the relationship, putting victims at further risk for serious injury, Gonzalez-Seitz noted.
“One myth regarding domestic violence is that it only occurs in poor, uneducated or minority communities,” Gonzalez-Seitz said. “The reality is that domestic violence occurs in all communities and can happen to anyone regardless of age, race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status and education level.”
The California Partnership to End Domestic Violence, which works at the local, state and national levels, has a long track record of successfully passing more than 200 pieces of legislation on behalf of domestic violence victims and their children, Merrill said.
“Through our public policy, communications and capacity building programs, we create systemwide change that supports survivors and invests in prevention,” Merrill said.
Domestic violence is 100 percent preventable, she added.
“Because it is a learned behavior, we can start early — in middle school and high school — with education and policies that reinforce positive and healthy relationships,” Merrill said. “This can prevent and correct abusive behavior and the damaging consequences that accompany it now and in the future.”
Gonzalez-Seitz agreed that violence is a learned behavior. “An abuser may have witnessed violence in the home as a child and learned that the way to get what you want in a relationship is to exercise power and control over their partner,” she said.
When children are raised in homes where there is violence — and the children need only witness the violence — they develop what is called an “internal working model” of a loving relationship that includes violence, said Mindy Puopolo, associate professor of graduate psychology at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.
“Once the internal working model has developed, these children grow up to expect and therefore tolerate some form of violence in the intimate relationships,” Puopolo said. “This explains a part of this complex issue.”
Another aspect is the physiological consequences of growing up in a home where children experience increased levels of emotional arousal on a regular basis, Puopolo said.
“As they develop, their systems learn to adapt to heightened levels of arousal. As a result, they seek arousal to maintain a homeostasis physiologically,” Puopolo explained. “To some extent, this explains why victims often move from one abuse relationship to the next.”
Without the increased arousal of abusive relationships, victims often experience a type of “deadness” with their partners, and will find ways to create drama that helps build arousal and return to what is “normal” for them.
“In addition, increased arousal levels can become addictive. Adrenaline and cortisol become the drug of choice,” Puopolo said. “Police and district attorneys are often highly frustrated by a victim’s refusal to testify against an abusive partner in court. The justice system wants to put these abusers behind bars.”
Like any addict, the victim will typically do anything or he she can to prevent that from happening, so victims are at odds with the justice system and are frequently re-victimized by the system that is trying to help and protect them.
“It is similar to a drug addict refusing to give up a drug,” Puopolo said. “For the victim, the abusive relationship provides an affect-regulating function, and victims will fight to protect the relationship.”
Distinct types of victims
Puopolo noted research conducted at California Lutheran University that revealed significant findings by a former student, Daniel Knauss, who completed a doctoral dissertation study.
Through conducting a discriminant analysis, Knauss discovered that there are two very distinct types of victims. Approximately 70 percent appear to function better, have better ego strength than the other victim group and engage in interactional violence more frequently; whereas 30 percent of the victims have very poor ego strength, do not fight back and are more closely described as “helpless victims.”
Additionally, “Victims who do not work and who are dependent on their partners for financial support for themselves and their children have a greater challenge in leaving abusive partners,” Puopolo said.
“These victims are often alienated from their families and friends, who do not understand why they would remain in an abusive relationship, so they lack the external support they need to leave,” Puopolo said. “If they do decide to leave, they typically move into a shelter or back with their family of origin, and these are the families who engaged in violence when the victims were children and being raised in violent homes.”
In an effort to address the issue of domestic violence, Puopolo developed the Intimate Partner Violence Program at California Lutheran University in collaboration with Dr. Morris Eagle, who received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from New York University. The program offers therapy services in both English and Spanish through California Lutheran’s two community counseling centers in Westlake Village and Oxnard.
“The program provides free therapy for victims and survivors of intimate-partner violence as well as their children and family members,” Puopolo said.
Another local resource, the Coalition for Family Harmony in Oxnard, operates a 24-hour bilingual crisis hotline to provide immediate assistance to victims. Other services include a 24-hour emergency shelter, crisis response intervention, a parenting program and counseling services for victims.
Additionally, “We offer a transitional housing program … where we assist victims after leaving the shelter to a safe and thriving residence,” said Caroline Prijatel-Sutton, executive director. “The coalition also offers a comprehensive and very successful teen dating violence program that provides a 10-week curriculum in over six school districts in Ventura County.”
The most common warning signs of domestic violence are isolation from friends and family, physical injuries of any kind, increased jealousy, constant put-downs and verbal assaults, pressure to have sex or use drugs or alcohol, controlling finances or ruining the victim’s credit score, Prijatel-Sutton said.
“The best way to address these is to reach out for help and make a plan to exit the relationship safely,” Prijatel-Sutton said. “Involve trusted friends and family to help you leave. If you see that a friend or loved one might be involved in a violent relationship, find a safe and discreet way to let them know there is help and someone to talk with.”
Coalition for Family Harmony www.thecoalition.org; 805-983-6014 or 800-300-2181
California Partnership to End Domestic Violence www.cpedv.org; 800-799-SAFE or 916-444-7163
Interface Children & Family Services domestic violence hotline, 800-636-6738.
Intimate Partner Violence Program at California Lutheran University Oxnard intake coordinator at 866-587-6685, ext. 700; Westlake intake coordinator at 866-587-6685, ext. 713.
Picking up the pieces
As for Venegas, she pulled through, but surviving meant months of excruciating pain while she endured more than two dozen surgeries.
“I need a couple of surgeries and then I want to go back to work,” she said. “I want to show my kids that even though this happened, even though inside it’s killing me, I want them to see I’m OK and we can have a happy life without him.”
On Feb. 22, 32-year-old Hernandez pled guilty to five charges: attempted murder and using a deadly weapon and three counts of child endangerment. On March 18, he was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
“I don’t think 15 years justifies what he did because I’m still struggling every day,” Venegas said.
She is going through counseling to cope with the aftermath. “My kids go to counseling, too, and my family helps me out a lot. I don’t know where I’d be if I didn’t have my family.”
Venegas and her children are now living with her parents in Moorpark. As she continues to recover, the community has launched a fundraising campaign to help her make ends meet at https://www.gofundme.com/marthavenegas.
Looking back on her survival, she is grateful to God and the doctors who cared for her.
“But my kids are the ones that keep me going,” she said. “If I didn’t have my kids I don’t know where I’d be at this point. For my kids, I have to be strong.”