TAMPA — The video showing former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punching unconscious his wife-to-be sparked a national conversation about domestic violence this week.
But aside from the fame of the couple, and video record of the attack, the case sounds sadly familiar to local legal experts and advocates for domestic violence victims.
“It’s a problem everywhere and it’s a problem that’s affecting 25 percent of women,” said Mindy Murphy, president and CEO of The Spring of Tampa Bay, Hillsborough County’s state-certified domestic violence center and shelter.
The number of reported domestic violence incidents in Hillsborough County has slowly declined over the past 10 years, according to data from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. But advocates argue that the numbers remain misleading because abuse often goes unreported.
More than 15,600 people — most of them women and children — sought emergency shelter from domestic violence in Florida in 2013, said Leisa Wiseman, spokeswoman for the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The 187 people who died as a result of domestic abuse made up 19 percent of the homicides reported across the state last year.
Together, the Tampa Police Department and the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office have investigated more than 3,300 domestic violence cases this year.
“At the end of the day, this is one specific story and it shouldn’t be the only story that people think of when they think of domestic violence,” Murphy said.
Patty Perez of Tampa wants to spread the word of her own experience with domestic violence as a way to educate and encourage other victims to get help.
Perez stayed with her ex-husband for years — even though he beat her often and took away her car keys to keep her under control at home. In 2004, she decided she was done. She took her two children from the couple’s Northdale home, bought a townhouse with her own money and filed for divorce.
In October that year, Perez, her 13-year-old daughter Lauren and 12-year-old son Sean were on their way to the store when O’Mara ambushed them outside the townhouse.
He shot Perez in the head first, then shot their son and chased their daughter to a neighbor’s yard before he shot her, too. Then he turned the gun on himself.
Perez was the only one who survived.
After years of recovery, she remarried and had another son and daughter. Perez founded Means of Hope, a foundation that helps victims of domestic violence rebuild their lives. Her goal, she says, is to change the common refrain that domestic violence will stop if the victim just walks away.
“I want them to say, ‘Why doesn’t he leave?” Perez said. “A door opens both ways. In and out. Why doesn’t he walk away? Why doesn’t he stop beating her? Why doesn’t he change?”
The public has been too critical this week of Rice’s wife, Janay Palmer Rice, Perez said. She is a strong woman who is a victim and who deserves respect.
“I have been Janay Palmer,” Perez said. “I have been punched like her. I finally had enough.”
Women have a number of options available to them once they decide they’ve had enough.
Each of the 42 state-certified shelters in Florida — including The Spring and the Community Action Stops Abuse shelter in St. Petersburg — are required to provide a family shelter, a 24-hour help hotline and outreach programs that provide legal help for victims and training for law enforcement, said Wiseman with the Florida coalition.
The Spring is working to expend its 102-bed shelter to accommodate 128 beds by next spring, Murphy said. The Community Action Stops Abuse shelter, or CASA, is also expanding to accommodate 100 beds, said executive director Linda Osmundson.
Bay Area Legal Services can assist women who need help filing legal forms and sifting through court documents. Victims of domestic abuse can also call the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay for help and counseling.
Fear often prevents women from taking advantage of resources like these, advocates said. And too often, other people blame the victim for staying rather than the offender for abusing him or her on the first place.
“It just makes my hair stand on end,” Osmundson said. “They’re always blaming the victim and they’re always refocusing the problem.”
Wiseman said has heard stories about women who didn’t leave because their husband threatened to kill them or their children and about women who needed to stay with their husbands because they needed health insurance.
It’s hard for other people to understand why a woman, or a man, would be reluctant to leave their partner when they are being abused, Wiseman said. But that’s his or her choice.
“We seem to be having the wrong conversation over and over again,” Wiseman said. “And that’s about her.”
His wife’s defense of Rice this week, in a post at the social media site Instagram, was to be expected, said assistant state attorney Doug Covington.
The Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office has 10 lawyers who prosecute domestic violence cases, Covington said, and they often face the question of how to prosecute a case when the victim is afraid to testify.
It’s part of the “cycle of domestic violence,” said Covington, head of misdemeanors with the office.
The spotlight the Rice case brings to the issue may help others in the long run, he said.
“Hopefully, the discussion won’t die down. ... The more attention it gets, the better.”
TO LEARN MORE
• Patty Perez’s foundation: www.meansofhope.com
• For victims of domestic violence:
National hotline - 1-800-799-7233
Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence - 1-800-500-1119
The Spring of Tampa Bay - (813) 247-SAFE (7233)
CASA in Pinellas County - (727) 895-4912
Crisis Center of Tampa Bay - Call 211 to speak with a counselor
Bay Area Legal Services - (813) 232-1343 for Hillsborough County residents;
1-800-625-2257 in Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas and Sarasota counties