Special to South Florida Times
Jennie Carter thought she was sending her two young children to the store with their father for an hour or so. They’d been preparing for a trip to Georgia to see snow for the first time but their father, her ex-husband, begged to see the kids before they left. Carter was hesitant but allowed him to take them.
Instead of going to the store, their father took Nelson, 10, and Crystal, 8, to his house and set it on fire, killing them and himself.
He did it, Carter, 41, of Lake Worth, said, to get back at her for leaving their abusive relationship.
“I handed my kids to a killer,” Carter said, choking up as she recalled the 2006 tragedy before an audience at New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in West Palm Beach on Oct. 16, as part of the observance of Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October.
The issue was already at the forefront in Palm Beach County, after the worst murder-suicide in the history of the county in September when Patrick Alexander Dell, 41, shot and killed his estranged wife Natasha Whyte-Dell and four of her children in their Riviera Beach home. The couple had a long history of domestic violence.
Carter said she wanted to put an end to such tragedies and four years after she lost her children, she continues to speak out against domestic violence. Then state Sen. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, was so moved by her advocacy that he sponsored a domestic violence bill in honor of Carter.
The law requires judges to consider charges of domestic or sexual abuse, involving either parent, when granting custody or arranging visitation. Carter believes if her ex-husband had supervised visits with their children, they might still be alive.
“I am so proud to have passed this legislation… While there is no doubt that children benefit from spending time with both parents, it is always necessary to determine how best to protect the child,” Deutch said upon passage of the bill.
Carter said she became an advocate to honor her children. “It doesn’t take a lot of people to change a law. It takes one person,” she told the audience.
While passing laws is important, changing the mindset regarding domestic violence in the black community is an altogether different challenge, especially when it comes to the black church, said the Rev. Johnnie Ray “J.R.” Thicklin, senior pastor of Kingdom Harvest Ministries of West Palm Beach and president of Destiny By Choice.
Thicklin has held several positions in the past 20 years related to domestic violence and is regarded as a trailblazer in breaking the silence in the church. He organized the session, titled, “Domestic Violence and Faith in the African American Community – Barriers and Bridges Community Forum,” bringing together Carter and other domestic violence victims, experts and citizens to raise awareness of the prevalence of domestic violence in the black community and the role that faith plays in the lives of victims and perpetrators.
Thicklin is writing a book, Hush: What the Church Didn’t Tell You about Domestic Violence, due out next year. His company helps the faith community deal with what is regarded as a sensitive subject. He said the church, which is usually a safe haven in the black community, hasn’t dealt with the issue well in the past.
Ivanah Thomas of Orlando agreed. Today, she is a successful business owner, but when she was 19 she was married to an abusive man 21 years her senior and a minister. The church, including the pastor, “turned a blind eye” and no one would help her, she said, and her husband was allowed to continue as a minister.
Thicklin said it was not uncommon to find preachers, among other powerful men, dealing with domestic violence in their own lives. “Research will show you that there’s a lot of domestic violence in positions such as pastors, law enforcement, lawyers and athletes,” he said. “People who are in empowering positions often have a problem with power themselves.”
The Rev. Antoinne “A.J.” Wright, senior pastor of Shiloh Family Worship Center Ministries in Riviera Beach, said even helping victims in the church can be a sensitive subject. He encourages his parishioners to get away from their abuser. But he told of an instance where he suggested a woman leave her abuser. She reconciled with him and was upset with Wright, saying he was wrong to tell her to leave her relationship.
Debi Stewart, of West Palm Beach, understands why some women stay. The longtime television host in Palm Beach County said at the forum that, years ago, she stayed in an abusive marriage because she was “determined to fix it.” She had been ashamed to admit that, as a well known reporter, she was suffering abuse at home. She recalled putting on heavy stage make-up to cover up a black eye before conducting an on-camera interview.
But she stayed two years after the first incidence of violence, because her family frowned upon divorce. She eventually left when her young daughter unwittingly shared a startling revelation: The 3-year old equated the violence of another pre-schooler toward her with the little boy “liking” her.
Witnessing abuse in the home had resulted in her daughter’s confusion regarding love – even at such a young age, she said. Stewart said at that point she left her husband, refusing to allow her daughter to grow up with such psychological scars.
“I could’ve been killed trying to stay and make it work,” she said.
Statistics support that possibility. According to destinybychoice.org, every six hours a woman is killed by domestic violence, a domestic violence act occurs every 12 seconds, resulting in more than four million victims per year.
Also, African-American women are disproportionately affected by domestic violence, but the issue is hushed in the black community. The reason, Stewart said, is that African Americans have been taught, “You don’t air your dirty laundry.”
Photo: Jennie Carter and children, Crystal and Nelson.
IF YOU NEED HELP
Abuse victims needing help should call Palm Beach County Victims Services at 561-355-2418. The agency also has referrals for Broward and Miami-Dade residents. For more information: On domestic abuse, or Destiny By Choice, log on to www.destinybychoice.org.