Pinellas domestic violence survivor helps lead other women to freedom

Asia's Tech News Daily

ST. PETERSBURG — When Zuleika Gonzalez sees the fear in her clients’ eyes, she sees her old self. When she tells them, “You will be vindicated if you stay the course,” she means it. She has been there.

Years before Gonzalez, 46, became the manager of batterer accountability services at Community Action Stops Abuse, she was a client of CASA, a Pinellas nonprofit that helps domestic violence victims find housing and helps them through the legal system. She went there, she said, because her ex-boyfriend had repeatedly punched her in the face and threatened to beat her sons.

In the months after Gonzalez first went to CASA, she said, she endured three more violent episodes, and then her abuser tried to kill her. He was arrested in 2011, convicted of domestic battery by strangulation and served almost three years in prison, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.

While she was recovering, Gonzalez created a six-part art series titled Bruised But Not Broken that was displayed for a while at CASA. The first piece shows a photo of her crying, surrounded by questions written in marker: “Will the pain fade? Will I trust again? Is this the end of me?”

Through therapy and time, Gonzalez, known by her friends as Zuly, would find answers to those questions.

And by returning to CASA as an advocate, she would help other women find their answers and their own paths to freedom.

‘Why didn’t you just leave?’

Gonzalez said her last violent encounter with her abuser was when he broke into her house in St. Petersburg. As soon as she walked in and saw him with duct tape, a rope and a painter’s tarp, she bolted.

He caught up to her, she said, hitting her while she was inside her car and then on the ground until a neighbor intervened.

Until then, she had thought domestic violence didn’t happen to women like her — a college-educated mother with a successful career.

But don’t ask a victim why she didn’t just leave, Gonzalez said.

The question stings the ear of every survivor who hears it, she said, “but you rarely hear the question to the batterer, ‘Why don’t you just stop hitting her?’”

Research shows that a victim endures an average of six violent episodes before successfully leaving an abusive relationship, said CASA CEO Lariana Forsythe, and the most lethal point is when they attempt to leave.

Gonzalez said she had fallen into the pit of blaming herself before she realized the emotional abuse she had endured.

“He would have these explosive fits of anger,” she said, “and then he would say, ‘It’s your fault. If you didn’t push my buttons, I wouldn’t have acted this way.’”

Almost all domestic violence also involves financial abuse, Forsythe said.

Gonzalez said her abuser would make purchases on her credit cards that she was unaware of until she saw her bank statement.

After he went to jail, Gonzalez said, she realized she owed $25,000. One company forgave her debt after Gonzalez showed that she was a victim of domestic abuse, she said, while another sued her for failing to pay.

The cruelest debts were for lavish dinner dates and gifts he had given her.

“When he would do nice things, I would say, ‘That’s why I keep giving him a chance,’” Gonzalez said. “Finding out those nice things was another form of abuse … I felt duped.”

Getting to the other side

After the yearlong abusive relationship, Gonzalez said, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“There were times when I was afraid to go to sleep because I was reliving what happened in my dreams,” she said. She took medication to manage the symptoms and met with a therapist.

Gonzalez was told she should dedicate two years to learning to set boundaries and healing her relationship with herself before dating again. So she focused on making art and caring for her sons, Kelmy and Isaiah.

Then Gonzalez’s best friend set her up on a date with her brother.

Gonzalez told him to call her when he approached the house and to wait in the car. And he should keep his hands on the steering wheel where she could see them.

“He understood and didn’t bat an eye,” Gonzalez said.

Four years later, in 2017, the couple married.

Early in their relationship, he would unintentionally trigger her earlier trauma — the first time by giving her a hug.

“It took me back to being in the car,” Gonzalez said, “and feeling the weight of that man who was attacking me and telling me, ‘I’ll kill you.’”

The couple created a plan for the next time she was triggered. He would take a step back, and when he saw that her legs had stopped shaking, he would say something to make her laugh.

“Then he would always say to me: ‘You’re safe,’ and I would say ‘yes.’ Then he would say: ‘I’m never going to hurt you.’ And I’m thinking: ‘You’re never going to hurt me.’”

Gonzalez said he doesn’t trigger her anymore.

“I feel very fortunate to be able to tell survivors who are very much in crisis that you can make it through to the other side,” she said, “and that there are good men out there.”

The intangibles

Gonzalez has a degree in sociology and criminology and had worked as a private investigator for eight years. In 2019, she joined CASA as a justice advocate.

Many CASA staffers have been touched by domestic violence, Forsythe said, but Gonzalez is the only one she knows of who was a client of the nonprofit.

When the two met, Forsythe quickly realized that Gonzalez’s legal expertise and experience as a survivor would make her an ideal advocate. Gonzalez spends most of her time at the Pinellas County domestic violence court, helping survivors.

In the 2018-2019 fiscal year, CASA received 182 referrals from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office to collaborate on domestic abuse cases, according to the nonprofit’s records. The number of referrals more than tripled in the past year, something Forsythe attributes in part to Gonzalez.

“A lot of people have a tendency to work in silos and focus on their jobs,” Forsythe said. “But she focuses on how do we create a system that’s a better environment for survivors.”

The nonprofit also has had a steep increase in calls during the pandemic, which are up 35 percent in the past year.

One survivor said she owes where she is in life to Gonzalez. They met in misdemeanor court for her first hearing against her abuser.

“She looked like a deer caught in headlights,” Gonzalez said. The Tampa Bay Times is not naming the survivor to protect her from her abuser.

The survivor, 35, said her abuser had broken into her friend’s house where she was staying and battered her. They had been in a relationship for nearly 10 years and share a child, she said. Gonzalez offered to stand at the front of the courtroom with her during the hearing.

“She gave me the courage to stand there and tell the god’s honest truth and not be afraid of repercussions from him,” the survivor said. “I will forever be grateful to Zuly for that.”

Over the next six months, she had a hearing almost every two weeks. The two spoke nearly every day.

“There was almost an instant bond,” she said. “This person has been through it and come out the other side. So it’s possible.”

Gonzalez helped her and her three kids schedule mental health counseling and join activities with other CASA survivors, including yoga and a family trip to Busch Gardens.

In June, her abuser was sent to jail for repeatedly violating his bail bond terms, according to state police records. He pleaded guilty to domestic battery a month later, in exchange for time served.

“The next survivor he does this to can get him sooner because he has already been convicted,” she said.

After he was released, he began calling her in the middle of the night and sending vile emails and messages, she said. She printed them out and brought them to Gonzalez, who highlighted the types of violations and gave copies to the state attorney, defense attorney and judge, who sent the abuser back to jail for violating probation, she said.

She returned to nursing school and graduated in 2019.

Two months later, Gonzalez was named CASA’s manager of batterer accountability services, overseeing 15 housing and criminal justice advocates.

Gonzalez stays in touch with the woman. She said every survivor who comes through CASA has helped her to heal from her own abuse.

“When you’re a victim of a robbery, tangible things are taken from you,” Gonzalez said. “When you’re a victim of domestic violence, it’s those intangible things that people don’t understand, and we are able to give back those things.”

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