Toney’s story: family speaks about domestic violence
Published 12:10 am Sunday, October 25, 2015
It’s been almost a year and a half since Toney Johnson died, stabbed by her ex-husband Rodney Wallace in the side yard of the Fourth Street home in Spencer Toney shared with her young son and her parents.
“You never think that it would happen to you,” Toney’s mother, Emilia Johnson said, “it’s the same old story.”
Toney’s family — her son, her mother, father, two sisters, and nephews — are still trying to process their grief, but Johnson says they don’t intend to stay that way.
“We hope to, at some point, to help these women in a mighty way,” she said.
Johnson says the family wants to make a difference, and to have a positive impact on other women who are in abusive relationships. But the pieces are still coming together. As she sits at her dining room table holding a cup of tea, Johnson tries to puzzle it out. But there’s a lot missing.
When Toney and Wallace were together, Toney never told her mother about the abuse she experienced or the fear she lived with. Most of it Johnson has had to put together herself, after the fact.
“Where do you begin with such an enormous task?” she wondered.
Wallace and Toney met at a halfway house in Wilmington where Toney worked. Wallace was just released from a 14-year prison sentence for trafficking cocaine. Toney had a degree in psychology and a master’s degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. During Wallace’s trial, Rowan County District Attorney Brandy Cook said that one of Toney’s dreams was to open her own rehab facility. Johnson said her daughter was a person who believed that no obstacle was insurmountable.
“She thought she could save the world with her love,” Johnson said.
She thought she could save Wallace. The two married in 2009 and had a son. Johnson learned later that by 2010, Toney was already in fear for her life. In 2011, Wallace was told not to have any contact with Toney or her family, and Toney and her son went to live with her parents.
But she never told them what happened — not fully.
“I had no idea,” Johnson said.
Johnson thinks Toney blamed herself, felt ashamed and stayed silent. Over the years, Johnson said, Toney tried to patch things up with Wallace more than once. Finally, the two separated in 2012 and divorced in January 2014. Johnson believes that was the moment her daughter’s fate was sealed.
By June 11, Toney was dead.
Afraid and alone
“The most dangerous time for a victim is when they decide they’re going to leave their abuser,” says Renee Bradshaw. executive director of the Family Crisis Council of Rowan, a United Way agency.
Bradshaw says many women, and men, living in a domestic violence situation — violence or abuse between intimate partners — feel afraid and alone. They keep quiet, isolate themselves or are isolated by their abuser. It’s one reason the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence says that nearly half of all domestic violence incidents go unreported.
People experiencing physical abuse from an intimate partner are also experiencing mental and emotional abuse, Bradshaw says. They are guilted, gas-lighted, and shamed.
“They don’t talk until it’s too late,” Johnson said.
Johnson found out about the death threats just after Toney’s funeral, and that Wallace had threatened the rest of the family, as well.
She recalls one Thanksgiving that Toney left her young son with his babysitter and ran. Johnson doesn’t know what was going through Toney’s mind that day, but she thinks that maybe Toney didn’t want everyone she loved to be in one place.
Unlike Toney, many people don’t leave. Bradshaw says that, on average, women will return to their abusers five to seven times before leaving for good. They stay for reasons ranging from economic dependence to fear, and sometimes, love.
“You don’t stop loving someone just because someone beats you,” Bradshaw says.
Every day in America, three women are killed by current or former partners, says the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
In one year’s time, between April 2013 and March 2014, the North Carolina Council for Women reports that 1,147 people in Rowan County sought relief from a domestic violence situation.
Domestic violence cases account for 15 percent of all violent crime in the United States, says the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. An average of 20 people are physically abused by an intimate partner every minute, and every nine seconds one of those victims is female.
“I know God didn’t intend women to be killed like this.” Johnson said, “It’s like Cain and Abel. We’re back to square one.”
Many people facing a domestic violence situation choose to leave quietly, Bradshaw said. A restraining order, a 50-B in North Carolina, provides protection under the law, but it has some hang-ups. For one, it’s not in effect until it’s delivered to the abuser. For another, it lists the complainant’s county of residence. And it can spark terrifying retribution.
Victims know their abuser better than the police, better than the courts, Bradshaw explained. If someone is afraid that a restraining order will push their abuser to seek them out with the intent of taking their life, no one will make them sign it.
“It’s just a piece of paper,” Bradshaw said.
While it affords protections under the law, a restraining order is not a physical barrier to prevent an abuser from seeking the complainant out at their home or their workplace. If an abuser violated a restraining order, the woman would have to be able to call law enforcement and wait for them to arrive. In the meantime, they’d be in danger. Bradshaw estimates that a fourth of people who come to the Family Crisis Council chose not to take out a 50-B.
“They are in fear,” she said.
Toney did everything right. She sought to charge Wallace on multiple occasions and took out a restraining order. But it didn’t help. Johnson remembers that Wallace would show up at Toney’s work, and that sometimes while Toney was living with them, they’d see Wallace standing on the edge of the property.
“Haunting her, just waiting for her to come out.”
Sometimes, Bradshaw said, the best option is to disappear.
A woman on the run
Toney tried to leave, Johnson said. She tried to leave the state, and even looked into leaving the country. But nothing worked out.
Johnson feels that if her daughter had succeeded, Wallace would have followed her. Toney told her mother that she knew several women who were running from ex-husbands and ex-lovers, moving from place to place, looking for somewhere safe.
“How many more are on the run?” Johnson asked, “How many women don’t have any place to go? Just running.”
There have been several improvements to the court process in North Carolina including the July 2015 House 59 Bill which speeds ex parte hearings for an emergency restraining order to provide immediate protections to people seeking relief from their abusers.
But sometimes, Johnson says, the law is too little, too late.
“Now we can’t raise the dead,” Johnson said.
She does hope, however, that new laws will help save other women like her daughter.
Healing the hurt
For Bradshaw, one of the solutions for ending domestic violence is education. Bradshaw talks around the county, wherever she can, about abuse and domestic violence and helping women in need. She says she works with programs that intervene with young men in high school and in college and educate them on abuse.
Bradshaw says that things are changing. People are talking about abuse. And people like Johnson are sharing their stories.
For Johnson, the solution lies in the community and in systems.
“What kind of society is this,” she asked, “that women are in hiding and afraid?”
Johnson says that she knows the police and others helping victims of domestic violence do all they can, but she wishes that there was a structure, a system in place to support women like Toney.
“If someone needs life support, you put them on life support,” she said. “We need life support for these women.”
Domestic violence destroys families, she said. Like the old saying, “it takes a village to raise a child,” Johnson believes that the “village” should step up and embrace victims of domestic violence.
In particular, Johnson looks to the churches. For her, looking after your neighbor is what being a Christian is all about. If a woman is trapped in an abusive relationship and no one in her community or her church notices it, Johnson believes that is a failing on the part of the community.
“Nobody sees,” she said.
And she has a point. Bradshaw says that many devout people who experience domestic violence feel pressure to stay in the relationship because divorce may be against their religion, or frowned upon.
Johnson says people in churches don’t speak out or offer help because it makes them uncomfortable. But they have to take the initiative — especially if women are too afraid or isolated to ask for help themselves. Throwing out ideas, Johnson mentioned retired men with good reputations offering to help women they know are having a hard time, or couples with grown children offering shelter.
“So, we have to enter the dark side of life,” Johnson said, “We have to take our light.”
Johnson says her family is healing. It’s been hard, but they’ve had their faith to help them through.
“God has never left us. He never deserted us. He never gave us up for lost,” she said.
While they’re still trying, in many ways, to process what happened, the family — particularly Johnson and her two remaining daughters — want to do something big. She says they want to help other women like Toney, to make sure that something good comes from her death. They want to make sure they’re safe and don’t need to be afraid. She wants to make sure that they, too, receive justice, and that none of the women who lost their lives to domestic violence — Toney included — died in vain.
“It’s going to take time,” Johnson said, “but we are going to make a difference.”
If you are experiencing abuse or domestic violence, you can call Salisbury Police Officer Annice Chunn at 704-638-2092, or the Family Crisis Council at 704-636-4718, extension 1.
- Have the following items hidden in a place where your partner can’t find them:
- At least $50 in cash.
- A small bag with extra clothing
- Important Papers including: Bank account numbers, check book, social security numbers, insurance policies, marriage license, birth certificates, a list of important phone numbers (family and friends), sentimental valuables and photos, medication, and extra house and car keys.
- Make sure you have your abuser’s social security number, birthdate, and workplace.
- Don’t let yourself be alone with your abuser.
- Don’t enter a room with no exits.
- Don’t tell them where you’re going.
The Family Crisis Council can help you construct a safety plan.
The Family Crisis Council offers:
- A shelter stay of up to 90 days
- Counseling for you and your children
- Job skills training
- Employment assistance
- Court advocates
- Support groups
- Assistance getting a restraining order.
- Help receiving compensation for missed work and monetary compensation for doctor’s bills.
- Help relocating anonymously or going to family.
All services are free to victims of domestic violence, courtesy of the United Way.
Reasons women may stay with their abusers:
- Because they are economically dependent on them
- They feel they have no job skills
- They fear being alone
- They are afraid of losing custody of their children
- They don’t want to take away a father’s right to his children.
- Community pressure
- Determination to make a relationship work
You may be in an abusive relationship if:
- You, or your children, are afraid of your partner.
- You lie to others to cover your partner’s abuse
- You cannot express opinions or feelings without fearing your partner’s reaction.
- You feel pressure to ask your partner for permission to see family and friends, spend money, or go somewhere.
- You have to be careful what you say and do when you’re with your partner for fear of them becoming angry.
- You feel like you are walking on eggshells.
- You have nightmares of your partner attacking you.
- You are not sure what is real anymore, and are beginning to believe the terrible things he or she says about you.
(From Family Crisis Council)
Domestic violence includes:
- Physical abuse: physical attacks or aggressive behavior.
- Sexual abuse: forced sexual intercourse or unwanted sexual activity
- Psychological abuse: constant verbal abuse, harassment, excessive possessiveness, isolation from friends and family, deprivation of physical and economic resources, and destruction of personal property.
(From Family Crisis Council)
24 Hour Crisis Line 704-636-4718
Court Advocacy Program 704-754-5999
Officer Annice Chunn, Community Relations Officer 704-638-2092
Child Protective Services 704-216-8499
Rowan County Sheriff’s Office 704-216-8700
Salisbury Police Department 704-638-5333
Legal Aid of North Carolina 1-800-951-2257 ext. 1713
Rowan Helping Ministries 704-637-6838