SWEETWATER COUNTY– YWCA of Sweetwater County and The Center for Families & Children hosted the 25th annual Candlelight Vigil & Silent Witness Memorial on Monday night, remembering, honoring, and celebrating victims and survivors of domestic violence.
The vigil and memorial was complete with statistics about domestic violence, personal stories from guest speakers, a candlelight vigil service, and a poem reading from Rock Springs City Councilman Tim Savage.
Since 1985, an estimated 78 individuals in Wyoming have been murdered as a result of domestic violence- 66 women, seven men, four boys, and one girl.
In Sweetwater County, 11 individuals have been killed as a result of domestic violence since 1991. These victims are:
- Heather McWilliams was killed in 1991 at the age of 22 from a gunshot wound to the chest by her boyfriend, Michael Raybon. Her brother was also killed.
- Adam Douglas Franklin was killed in 1992 at the age of 7 from “several blunt impacts to his head” by his step-father, Alan James Suliber.
- Laura Bossa was killed in 1994 at the age of 20 from a gunshot wound to the head by her husband, Grant Bossa.
- Liana Mae Davidson was killed in 1996 at the age of 22 when her husband, Bob Duke, pushed her and their son, Eric Robert Duke, age 5, off of a cliff.
- Keri L. Ryan was killed in 1996 at the age of 22 from a gunshot wound to her neck by her husband, Roy Dale Ryan.
- Debra A. Mott was killed in 1997 at the age of 40 from several stab wounds by her husband, John Reinhold.
- Leysa Michelle Bernal was killed in 1999 at the age of 21 from two gunshots to the face by her ex-boyfriend, Lawrence “Duke” Howard.
- Cheryl Ann Ward was killed in 2002 at the age of 41 from a stab wound to the chest by Robert Siler.
- Dawnita Elizabeth Evans Brandon was killed in 2007 at the age of 32 from multiple stab wounds by her husband, Timothy Brandon.
- Cara Mia Bonsell was killed in 2010 at the age of 42 from a gunshot to the face by her husband, Terrance Hayes.
These victims are now known as Silent Witnesses, and they are honored with life-size red wooden figures that have shields on them, displaying their names and their domestic violence stories. Their wooden figures were lined up on the Broadway Theater stage last night as the community commemorated their lives.
There are also 11 trees on Dewar Drive that have been decorated with purple lights to honor these victims.
The Silent Witness Initiative
The Silent Witness Initiative is a not-for-profit grassroots organization that was founded in 1990 in Minnesota. A group of artists and writers joined forces with women’s organizations out of anger and frustration with the growing number of women being murdered by their partners.
To commemorate the lives of these women, they created the first ever red wooden figures, 27 in total, and called them the Silent Witnesses. Within 10 years, the initiative became international, reaching all 50 states and several countries.
Wyoming’s Silent Witness Initiative began in 1997 with an exhibit featuring 38 wooden silhouettes.
To learn more about the Silent Witness Initiative, visit www.silentwitness.net.
Suppressing Childhood Trauma
At the vigil and memorial, guest speakers and authors, Annette McGivney and Carine McCandless, spoke about what it was like growing up in turbulent households, and how they have found the courage to speak out about those experiences.
McGivney, author of Pure Land, suppressed her childhood trauma up until she started writing an article about the murder of Tomomi Hanamure, who was killed at Havasu Falls in 2006 from 29 knife wounds.
Randy Wescogame, a native Havasupai man, was charged in December 2006 for the murder of Hanamure.
McGivney decided to write an article about the murder, and while researching Wescogame’s roots and behaviors, she discovered he had been brutalized as a child, including being whipped with barbed wire and TV cables.
Through her research, McGivney said, ” I was unknowingly triggering my own childhood trauma.”
McGivney went to an emergency psychologist while in the midst of a mental breakdown, and she was asked the simple question, “Were you abused as a child?”
She had been repressing and dissociating from the violence of her childhood for years, and she said she did not remember much from her childhood. However, when she told the psychologist, “yes”, she said, “It was like a dam collapsed.”
All of the memories of her alcoholic father beating her every day as a kid came rushing back. Unfortunately, her childhood is not rare in the United States.
Domestic Violence is Not a Rarity
According to McGivney, in 2015, 3.4 million US kids were deemed at risk for being victims of domestic violence.
In addition, half of all female homicides in the United States are perpetrated by domestic partners. One fourth of US women are victims of severe physical violence from their domestic partner.
According to the Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, Wyoming regularly ranks as one of the states with the highest per capita rates of domestic violence incidents in the country.
In 2014, there were 2,592 domestic violence incidences reported to law enforcement, with many other incidents going unreported.
In 2016, Wyoming had 6,914 total referrals for child abuse and neglect. Of those, 2,916 reports were referred for investigation.
In 2016 alone, 977 kids were victims of domestic violence in Wyoming.
McGivney noted that children’s brains are shaped by traumatic experiences, which can lead to problems with abuse in adulthood.
Healing Through Nature
McGivney found healing in nature, and she describes nature as her lifeline when she was a kid.
“Going out in nature is a really powerful medicine,” she said. She added that it affects a person’s cortisol and adrenaline levels, thereby reducing the symptoms of trauma.
Through writing her book and facing her own trauma, McGivney created the Healing Hands Project, which is meant to “interrupt the cycle of family violence by incorporating the healing power of nature and the community of a wilderness trip into the support services provided to child victims,” she said.
She said that while Wyoming has a high rate of domestic violence, it also has the advantage of lots of beautiful public lands. Wyoming offers opportunities for healing.
The Importance of Speaking Out
McCandless, author of The Wild Truth, and sister of Chris McCandless, the subject of the book and film, Into the Wild. Chris went into the Alaskan wilderness and survived over 100 days living off the land before passing away.
McCandless said she and Chris grew up in an abusive household, her dad beating them and their mother, and their mother blaming McCandless and Chris for trapping her with their existence.
McCandless worked closely with Into the Wild author Jon Krakauer and director of the film, Sean Penn. However, she said she wanted to limit the amount of their childhood that was included in the story.
However, twenty years after the death of her brother, she decided to visit her childhood home. Immediately after the visit, she started writing The Wild Truth, telling the truth behind her and Chris’ childhood.
She said that the blame their parents put on them was mostly put onto Chris’s shoulders, as he was three years older than her. As the abuse lessened as they got older, Chris’s pain was never rescinded, but was rather ignored.
However, the outdoors was Chris’s way of escaping. He found peace in nature and was able to challenge and prove himself.
Ten years after Chris’ death, McCandless started speaking in schools that were teaching Into the Wild, answering questions and telling more of the story. The longer she spoke about it, the more comfortable she felt telling the truth about their childhood.
One of Chris’s favorite quotes was, “the greatest inspiration can only come from the truth,” and McCandless said her silence for all those years was a “disservice” to Chris, herself, and anyone who reads the book.
McCandless emphasized the importance of speaking out in the face of violence.
“The power of abuse is in the silence its perpetrators demand,” she said.
She said her mother had the ability to leave, but her father’s belittling of her mom led her to stay. Reaching women like her mother should be a priority, McCandless said. And if we can’t reach the parent, we need to find the children and get them out.
McCandless credits writing her book, and finding her voice, as the road to her recovery.
A Community’s Responsibility
After years of providing services for victims of domestic violence, Melinda Baas, YWCA Executive Director questioned why it is still an issue. Baas has been working in crisis centers for 25 years, and the issue still exists.
Her answer is prevention. Baas said they too often study the victims, and they need to be focusing on the perpetrators.
Part of prevention includes speaking out and putting an end to silence. Taneesa Congdon, YWCA CFC Director, said healing is possible, but everyone needs to speak with “one resounding voice and say, no more.”
Baas outlined ways to prevent violence stop the silence, which includes:
- wearing the purple bracelets that the YWCA is handing out for domestic violence awareness, and be able to explain what it is for
- Talk to daughters about healthy relationships and what they look like
- Teach young men to be leaders in their friends groups and have the courage to point out inappropriate actions and comments
Baas said it is everyone’s job to put an end to domestic violence. It is a community effort.
“We have to step up,” Baas said.