Photos Cameron Flaisch

UNCONCERNED

We all know someone who doesn’t care for something, or maybe that someone is you. Let’s take the subject of sports, or watching anything on the tube that revolves around a ball, and use them as an example.

Regardless of what the score is or how excited everyone may be about the big game, those who could care less turn a blind eye to the fuss and revelry. Oftentimes, people aren’t concerned about things that barley peak their interest or impact their lives in a meaningful way. For issues that have little impact or would not put others in grave danger, blowing the subject off may be considered a harmless social norm.

For the issue in which the fledgling organization Lips UnChained was developed for, everyone should be concerned. Lips Unchained is a non-profit organization started by Balerie Byars that has set a goal to make reporting domestic abuse easier and safer. Getting help when in an abusive relationship seems cut and dry to most of us, but in reality the numbers are staggering and paint a very different picture.

As a matter of fact, it is probably happening to someone close to us according to the statistics, and this scary subject could be plaguing homes and people are blind to what the problem looks like.

All must speak up if you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, even if staying in that relationship is by choice. Some of us may have been raised on that old adage that “what goes on in the house stays in the house.” It is common, but how detrimental and deadly is that rule to all others involved?

Statistically, Nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. During one year, this adds up to more than 10 million women and men over a 12 month period. Nearly one in four women and one in seven men have experienced severe physical violence at the hands of a partner during their lifetime. 85 percent of domestic violence victims are female, and 15 percent are male.

All abuse is scary and the ripple rocks the boats of entire families. These next two stats are the most troubling because they affect our most precious resource, our kids. Approximately five million children are exposed to domestic violence every year. Children exposed are more likely to attempt suicide, abuse drugs and alcohol, run away from home, engage in teenage prostitution and commit sexual assault crimes. Sadly, most cases of domestic violence are never reported to police.

Those who grew up witnessing domestic violence will tell you that the trauma follows youngsters throughout their life. It effects who they are as an adult and they can develop tendencies and habits from living through it. Just like growing up in a healthy household, children learn through what they see and hear.

Imagine navigating childhood with an incessant fear of weekends in an abusive household and hating knowing that those days were coming. Fear is just one issue that causes problems mentally and emotionally, and the research shows that a plethora of other social issues can develop over time. What if there was a way to decrease the millions of children who have their own lasting issues from witnessing and living through domestic violence as they transition into adulthood?

As that thought sinks in, let’s now hear the story of an actual victim of domestic violence who will never be able to tell her story.

"I was driven to do something about domestic violence, and to do something to honor my sister’s name."

UNLOVED

“She was infatuated with him,” says Ms. Balerie Byars, founder of Lips UnChained as she stretches out the phrase for emphasis. “It was sickening how much she loved that man. We could be talking about tacos and she would figure out a way to bring him into the conversation. My friend was a beautiful person, inside and out.  She was such a wonderful, amazing friend. She was a great listener and she gave great advice. She would do anything in the world for people in need at the drop of a hat and not complain a bit.”

Byars was passionate when describing her friend and sister-at-heart of six years, Ms. Crystal Vega.

“She was crazy in love with her boyfriend. Her face lit up, she had a constant smile and was just the happiest person ever because of him. It was an adult puppy love.  However, we never knew what was happening behind closed doors.” Byars says, her voice cracking with emotion.

    For the purpose of this story, we will use a false name for the abuser, Mr. John Doe.  Doe knew exactly what she liked and loved. He loved her as well; in his words he loved her a lot. They had two children together, a three-year-old and a two-week-old. Doe also helped Vega with her other three children when needed, as she was a mother of five, all under the age of 12. Outside of the standard relationship issues everyone struggles through, to most they appeared to be a fantastic couple.

    On a balmy night in June, some of the darkness that had been locked behind Vega’s door came creeping over the threshold and the ugliness of abuse took the place of the love everyone thought was so very strong.

Byars recalls a phone call. “They were saying Vega had been shot, so I rushed to all of the hospitals but they said they didn’t have a record of her,” Byars says with a shaky voice.

One of the hospitals was placed on lockdown for security reasons so she was very confused. “I didn’t know if it was real or what. I was just lost and I could not get her or her boyfriend on the phone.”

When everything was sorted out, the worst of her fears had become a reality and was in stark contrast to the stories she had heard Vega tell so many times during their talks about her man.

“My best friend, my sister was dead,” Byars sobs.

Everyone wanted to talk with John Doe to see what had transpired, and to make sure he and the kids were safe. Doe was nowhere to be found, and a horrible rumor was spreading. His absence gave reason for Vega’s friends and family to believe that things were not as they seemed for the happy couple.

  “When we were allowed inside her house, we saw brain and skull fragments on the floor and blood everywhere. She had been in the kitchen cooking dinner when it happened,” says Byars.

The story shared by a neighbor was that Doe knocked on their door in a panic asking for help. “He told them she had shot herself and needed to go to the hospital.” Doe then drug Ms. Vega’s limp body to the car they shared, grabbed a bag and fled, leaving the children behind.

He never answered phone calls. He never showed up to the hospital. He never returned to the
residence.

“I was in disbelief. The rumor was that he shot her, and the scene indicated that it happened in front of two children. They had just had a 10-day-old baby that was in the neonatal unit at the same hospital holding her body. There’s no way he did this. They were so in love,” Byars recalls thinking with her eyes filling with tears. “It was unbelievable.”

After a week or so later, warrants were issued for Doe’s arrest. Another week later, on the day the family gathered to mourn her passing and celebrate her life, he was captured. Every person, no matter what they are arrested for, is presumed innocent until proven guilty and the case remains the same for John Doe. Besides, no one wanted to believe her death was at the hands of her boyfriend, the person she couldn’t even talk about tacos without mentioning. Her true love was looking more and more like her worse nightmare.

A few stories started going around about things bystanders had seen suggesting that life wasn’t right behind closed doors. People saw the signs while sitting in traffic; people heard banging around their house. Vega would become distant from her friends and family. Doe even stopped Byars at the door three days before the tragic event, promptly letting her know that, “She is sleeping. She’s very tired.”

“I really wish I had insisted on seeing her that day,” Byars recalls solemnly.

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Crystal Vega’s family members noticed emergency room visits that did not quite add up. Injuries from falling down the stairs, dressers falling on her, running into walls and other incidents were a clear sign that maybe someone should have spoken up and investigated the well-being of the young mother of five. She even showed signs of abuse leading up to the birth of her last baby, an infant who was still in neonatal care at the time of the tragic events.

“We never heard about any of the horrible things until after she passed,” Byars says.

While this story had a fatal ending, how often do parts of other people’s stories of domestic violence line up perfectly with the story of Crystal Vega?

Balerie Byars

UNSURE

“After the tragic event, a lot Crystal’s friends came to my house. A few of the ladies were shaken, and we talked about how the incident scared us. We talked about how it could have been us. They started to admit that they were going through similar struggles with their men. I was driven to do something about domestic violence, and to do something to honor my sister’s name. After thinking hard about it, I realized that the silence of her abuse is what provided me the perfect name. I wanted to call the organization Lips UnChained,” says Byars. “It’s time for people to speak up and speak out against domestic violence.”

With October being Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Byars decided that this would be the perfect time to kick start her movement. She started by designing a T-shirt and then having it printed with a picture of Crystal Vega on the front along with a number to call a domestic violence hotline.

The shirt sales took off and people started
asking questions.

“People started contacting me thanking me for taking a stand and trying to raise awareness. They also thanked me for giving people someone to talk to about a very scary and sensitive issue, problems in their lives and lessons learned from the abuse of others,” says Byars. “The T-shirts bring a lot of attention to what we hope to accomplish using the Lips UnChained platform.”

For obvious reasons, domestic violence is hard to detect because the crime isn’t reported. Victims don’t feel like they are victimized, so there is no witness to report the wrong doing. Murder, robberies and other deadly crimes are usually easier to detect and viewed less through taboo lenses by the witness.

Domestic violence occurs with women, children and men. Yes, men are victims of domestic violence also. Most victims won’t report domestic violence for fear of being judged or being embarrassed, especially the men. Men are afraid they will be seen as weak, fragile or not manly.

“Men fear the judgment of people and fear looking like they are not masculine,” says Byars. “Because of this, many men live their lives being abused, and some even commit suicide due to feeling helpless; a feeling that they can never make their partner happy or love them properly.”

Domestic violence can happen in the most sober of homes, but many cases can be linked to substance abuse. While this is not the case for all domestic violence crimes, it is for the overwhelming majority. Mind altering drugs can bring out an aggression in people, and when added with outside stressors, the substance becomes a spark in the powder keg.

Byars, through her experiences helping abused people and hearing from victims and survivors, advises that others learn their partner. “You should be able to identify what behaviors and what kind of personality you are sharing a space with,” she explains. “Tell-tale signs will be there and if it quacks like a duck, it is a duck.”

Don’t miss patterns and tendencies in people. If things get violent, don’t forget the potential repercussions for a repeat performance.

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UNAFRAID

If a person wants to be freed from domestic violence immediately, the number on the back of the Lips UnChained shirts can have a rescue team to a victim and their children within minutes.

Their job is to get you out of your current location and to a new location, as well as help you gain employment and reconnect the pieces needed to start a new life.

“We can get them to a new city and get them going again. But they have to be sure it is what they want and that they are willing to follow through. If someone is not sure they are ready to let it all go, they create a dangerous situation when we try to help them. We hope the person is ready to go when they call,” says Byars.

Fear of a fresh start and new struggles is what stops some from reporting the violence or leaving the relationship. “It’s all a control thing,” says Byars. “If he or she pays all of the bills, and by leaving all you will have is the shirt on your back, it is worth being away from the beatings.”

Another reason is shared children.  Byars explains that some people stay in relationships because of the kids. Some have been told that they won’t ever see them again and that scares them. There are many angles concerning the level of control that places someone in fear of losing something they really love, so they remain on the leash of their abuser.

Balerie Byars started Lips UnChained in early October and she says that she has seen, heard and learned so much in the last few months. She wants to go further; she wants to help more people in abusive relationships. “I want a Lips UnChained shelter for battered people. I want Lips UnChained group meetings. I want Lips UnChained therapists and counselors. I mostly want people to do what the group’s name says and UNCHAIN your lips and speak up and speak out! UnChain those Lips for those who are going through it; UnChain those Lips and speak out against those people you know that are abusing someone. Unchain those Lips and speak out!”

In today’s society there are more instances of domestic abuse being highlighted in the media which has, in turn, started a meaningful conversation. More people are outraged and disgusted by the face of domestic violence, and rightfully so. With one in four women and one in seven men having experienced some type of domestic violence, it is likely that someone is suffering right under your nose. Speak up and speak out, UnChain your Lips!

24 Hour Crisis Hotline

1-800-799-SAFE