Special to South Florida Times

RIVIERA BEACH — Accountability and stiffer penalties for perpetrators of domestic violence may help stem the problem, experts said at a forum.

The city of Riviera Beach sponsored the meeting Friday at City Hall to inform residents of the serious nature of physical and psychological abuse and its effect on the community.

Mayor Thomas Masters said education and empowerment will lead to prevention. “We want to make sure people know what the early signs are so hopefully we can prevent it,” Masters said.  “I wanted to make sure the men and women of Riviera Beach know what domestic violence is and what leads to domestic violence.”

There are signs to look for before any violence ever takes place, said Jennifer Rey, a violence prevention coordinator whose agency, Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse, assists with resources, that may include up to $1,500 for an abuse victim’s relocation and runs a hotline (1-800-355-8547).

“Blaming the victim for their outrageous behavior.  Controlling cell phone usage.  Monitoring who [a potential victim] associates with are signs,” Rey said. “By the time they hit you, they already altered the way you think through brainwashing, fear and manipulation.”

Forum panelist Latheira, who did not want to give her last name due to safety concerns, said she was in a violent relationship at age 21 that lasted about ten years.

“I dated him for about six months to a year (before he became violent),” she said. “The first time he choked me. He put his hands around my neck and I almost became unconscious.  I was blue in the face.  I couldn’t breathe.”

Latheira said her abuser released her when he realized that he was seriously hurting her and she could have died.

There were signs leading up to that encounter, such as smashing objects, name-calling and putting her down, she said.

Victims are often reluctant to press charges even though domestic violence laws in Florida lean towards arresting the offender when there is an incident. But the laws need serious changes to include harsher punishments for offenders, said victims advocate Shandra Dawkins, executive director of the Florida Resource Center for Women and Children. Perpetrators, she said, get off too easy.

“There needs to be tougher penalties because there are many repeat violators.  And women that are victims of domestic violence are devalued,” Dawkins said. “Bonds are very low (for offenders). Many times, they don’t have to have a bond — and the victims safety is so important.”

Riviera Beach resident Adele, who also did not want to give her last name, told the panel that she was severely beaten about a year ago by her ex-boyfriend.

“He beat me for two days straight. He broke my jaw, kicked me, punched me,” she said. “When he went to bed, he had a gun in his hand. I had to pretend everything was OK.”

Adele, 42, said her ex-boyfriend threatened her life and the lives of her children if she left him. The breaking point came when the doctor told her that her jaw was broken in two places.

Adele gave investigators her abuser’s name, description and address, as well as any additional information needed for prosecution, and he is currently in jail, she said.

She credits a Riviera Beach police officer for helping her break free of the abusive situation and getting into a safe house.

Dawkins said domestic violence training for law enforcement officers should be extended, adding that even some law enforcement officers have been abusers.

Masters said Riviera Beach has a task force specifically for domestic abuse but learning how to aid victims should be ongoing.

It is vital to get help and get out of an abusive relationship because a woman’s mental and physical health are at risk, Latheira said.

“I went on (Web) sites on how to (safely plan to leave).  I got all my legal documents together.  I filed a restraining order against him,” she said.

After the restraining order was lifted, she relocated to another country. She now feels safe because of her faith and her husband whom she described as a non-abusive man who values, loves and respects her.

To reach the Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse hotline call 1-800-355-8547. For more information on domestic violence, call the Florida Resource Center for Women and Children at 561- 848 – 8383.