Harford Silent Witness event held to raise domestic violence awareness

"Together, we can move mountains," the congregation at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Harford County sang as its closing affirmation Sunday morning, led by Pastor Lisa Ward.

Instead of standing between pews in the sanctuary, they were standing outdoors in front of thin, wooden figures facing Churchville Road on a cloudy, chilly and at times rainy morning. The figures are shaped like men, women and children, and on each "person's" chest, a metal plaque tells the story of a victim of domestic violence in Harford County.

The event was held in October to recognize Domestic Violence Awareness Month and is part of the Silent Witness National Initiative, a program founded in 1990 to address domestic violence in local communities.

"It's for citizens of Harford County, neighbors and friends to be aware that domestic violence exists and that we need to pay attention to our lives and how we treat each other," Ward said. "The cycle of abuse damages our society and brings unnecessary pain to our lives."

The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Harford County's own Silent Witness Initiative began in September 2001, when the wooden figures were constructed with the help of volunteers from the congregation and a grant from Harford Community College. Since then, additional statues have built, courtesy of additional grants from the college. Each silhouette represents a specific victim of domestic violence in Harford County.

One figure shaped like a little girl represents Jessica Elaine Morgan, a 5-year-old child shot and killed by her mother's boyfriend, a Baltimore City police officer, in 1998. One member of the congregation broke down in tears upon seeing the wooden figure, as she had escaped an abusive situation only one-and-a-half years before and has a daughter who is the same age.

"You still have flashbacks," said the Harford County woman, who asked not to be named, out of fear for her and her children's safety. "[The figure] was just enough to trigger it and have me break down."

The woman's ex-boyfriend was addicted to drugs and alcohol, and she was trapped in an abusive relationship with him for more than eight years, she said.

"There was so many different kinds of abuse: mental, verbal, sexual, physical," she said. "He kept [her and her children] from doing so many things, like seeing friends and relatives."

The woman managed to leave her ex-boyfriend last year, but only after many attempts.

"I tried to get away so many times, but it got sabotaged by him or his friends, or by him bribing [her sons]," she said. "There are so many places to get help [for abuse], but they trick you into thinking you're helpless."

"If you stay, you could die, and that was how things were for us," she added. "It got really, really scary."

Even today, she said that she fears for her family's safety, even more than when she was with her ex-boyfriend.

"The moment someone leaves, they are in more danger than when they were in the relationship because they are mad you got away and they can't control you any more," the woman said.

Sunday's event was the first Silent Witness program the woman had participated in. Since leaving her ex-boyfriend, she has started studying psychology in college and talking to people about how to recognize abuse. For the person being abused, she says, "tell someone so you can get help or you can get out."

"[Abuse] can start as something as simple as taking your possessions, and not being remorseful," the woman said. "These things can lead to something more serious. People need to know how bad you are in that situation."

Ward said the problem of domestic abuse can be solved only if people who aren't affected by abuse help those who are.

"This is not something to be kept behind closed doors, and we need to intervene when we can," Ward said. "It can be a matter of life and death."

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