Sharon Harley is part of the Stay In Touch program designed to help those who’ve survived domestic violence. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

July 31, 2017

Sharon Harley is eager to share her experiences surviving domestic violence, saying she finds strength in the voice that reminds her each day that she deserves better.

But when she’s in the middle of talking about how long she stayed in a relationship fraught with physical abuse and emotional manipulation that shrunk her self-worth, those listening often stop her to ask, “Are you not ashamed?”

Harley said she used to be, but not anymore.

The 52-year-old mother ascribes her newfound confidence to her faith, and also to a community of women she has found through a Prince George’s County program called Stay In Touch.

The program, launched in the spring, is a support group designed to help those who have survived domestic violence rebuild independent lives and prevent them from falling back into toxic relationships.

Harley outside the Prince George’s County Family Justice Center. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

For Harley, it’s a place where she can talk about her experiences, challenges, and struggles without fearing judgment.

“They’re not looking down their noses at me,” Harley said. “The last thing a person needs in this situation is somebody looking at them funny.”

Leaving an abusive relationship is difficult work, but what people often overlook are the challenges that remain long after someone escapes, said Denise McCain, director of the Family Justice Center in Prince George’s.

“So many women stay in abusive relationships because they’ve never been independent,” McCain said. “Now that you’re out, what can you do to stay safe?”

Women in the Stay In Touch program attend weekly sessions, with meetings exploring topics from why women stay in abusive relationships, to creating safety plans, to the importance of an occasional bit of pampering. The program also helps women gain economic freedom, with discussions on how to hone résumés or prepare for job interviews.

People tend to get into certain relationships because they thought they were feeling attention and love, only to discover that “affection” was overprotective behavior from a manipulative partner, McCain said. They then find themselves in situations where they think they can’t leave because of children, finances, or fear.

Without the right support, people return to their abusers, McCain said. On average, it takes seven attempts to leave an abusive relationship before someone successfully leaves, McCain said.

“We want them to regain some of that control and self-esteem so they have the hope to move forward,” McCain said. “After you get the protective order, you need much more.”

“Once a victim goes through domestic violence and they’ve left a relationship, they think they’re on the other side,” Harvard said. But “they still need that support.”

The Stay In Touch program is one of the new offerings at the Family Justice Center that opened last year in Prince George’s. In recent years, the county experienced high-profile domestic homicides and murder-suicides. It also led Maryland in protective orders filed in its courts, though the number has been decreasing this year.

The center is meant to be a one-stop-shop of services to help those navigating domestic violence. They can obtain help in filling out a protective order, getting housing, and, in the case of Stay In Touch, finding emotional support, all in one place.

“We want to tell women, ‘You can do this, and you can do this together,’ ” McCain said.

Harley said she suffered social, emotional, and physical abuse in one of her former relationships, with the man she was with at one point trying to ruin her reputation by falsely reporting to police that she had abused him.

Harley said it was difficult to leave because mental illness was involved and she loved the man, but she finally realized she couldn’t fix the relationship.

The advocates at the Family Justice Center helped her navigate the court system. And the support of the Stay In Touch program reminded her that she is not alone, doesn’t have to settle for just any partner, and “to put safety first,” Harley said.

But recovery is possible, she said, with the help of Stay In Touch.

“I’m encouraged and treated not as if I’m a victim,” Harley said, “but as if I’m an overcomer.”