Using pain to heal

Officer who suffered abuse helps train others to deal with domestic violence issues

November 16, 2008|By Tyeesha Dixon | Tyeesha Dixon,

Bonita Linkins beamed as she lit the candles on the Disney-themed birthday cake she bought to surprise her son for his 21st birthday last month. As she sat with her children, Tony and 16-year-old Symone, she reminisced about good times and fond memories.

But behind the smiles and candle smoke lives a painful story that none of them will forget, one that helps remind them that not one day should be taken for granted.

Linkins is a survivor of domestic violence. As young children, Tony and Symone say they witnessed the physical and emotional abuse their mother endured, often becoming victims themselves.

Now Linkins, an officer with the Howard County Police Department, uses her experiences to help fellow officers and the community prevent domestic violence and lead victims to help - an opportunity she said has served as a way to help spread the word on a widespread issue, and to help her heal.

Since April, Linkins, 46, has presented her story at 19 in-service training sessions for the Howard County Police Department, she said. Often, speaking to fellow officers proves difficult.

"It's not hard for me because of what I went through, but it's like telling my family all over again because that's how I feel about the department," she said. "At times when I'm speaking, I do get emotional because of that ... but it's providing a service that we need.

"People need to understand that there's a lot of reasons why victims stay."

Last year, almost 20,000 domestic violence crimes were reported to Maryland law enforcement agencies, according to the state police Uniform Crime Report. In Howard County, 755 domestic violence incidents were reported last year, the report said. The Department of Justice estimates, however, that only about 25 percent of domestic violence crimes are reported.

It is a problem that transcends gender, racial and age barriers, statistics show. The state police guidelines define a domestic violence incident as one in which the victim is "an individual who has received deliberate physical injury or is in fear of imminent deliberate physical injury from a current or former spouse or former cohabitant." That includes incidents involving same-sex couples (357 statewide last year, according to the report).

Hearing Linkins' firsthand account gives officers a deeper understanding of the plight of the victims they encounter on calls, said Molly Gale, a detective in the department's domestic violence section.

"We've seen a huge difference in our response to domestic violence since she's been out speaking to our officers," Gale said of Linkins. "It opened up their minds."

During her presentations, Linkins tells how her relationship with her former husband devolved into one of violence and emotional abuse. She tells of how, when working as a patrol officer during her early years with the department, she often asked domestic violence victims the same questions she would later ask herself.

"I found myself asking these women, 'Why are you staying?,' knowing that when I left, I knew I would have to go home to the same thing," she said.

Linkins said that the only person who knew of the abuse was her sister, who has died.

"I begged and begged her not to tell our parents," Linkins said.

Devora Pontell, chief of the domestic violence unit for the county state's attorney's office, said Linkins' participation in the training sessions is one way officers have become more involved with domestic violence cases.

"It makes it more real for the officers," Pontell said.

Although Linkins is open with her story now, pride was the reason that once made it so difficult to reach out for help.

"I didn't want people to know what was going on," she said. "I didn't want to feel guilty for confrontation that I'm sure would have happened if I told people."

"I walked around an empty shell of a person," she said. "My spirit was dead. I put up a front for all those years."

She dabbed her eyes with the handkerchief that she carries in her purse as she described how she felt during the years she was abused.

Linkins said the final straw came when her abuser pushed her daughter against a wall as she tried to protect her mother, which led to Linkins seeking a protective order. She and the children left the home, and she filed for divorce, she said.

"With each passing day, I lost a part of my soul and became too emotionally depleted to find it. ... I was in such turmoil. Living without basic emotions was the only way I could cope. I felt guilty and unworthy as a mother because I could not protect [my children]. They deserved better than me. I didn't want them to know I died inside."

Now, although the journey has its bumpy points, Linkins said that what helps her continue is knowing that she can make a difference in even one person's life.

"Another thing that keeps me going is what my kids experienced. ... It's so important for me as a mother, as a woman, to let them know how passionate I am about this so they don't repeat it," she said.

Linkins uses different methods, including her speeches and a book she has started writing, to continue the healing process. Symone has used her experience to reach out to people her age, by working as a peer counselor for PAVE, or Partnership to Address Violence Through Education, a teen program.

"At the age I am now, I'm feeling like I'm starting to live again," Linkins said. "To be able to breathe and to laugh. To get angry.

"It feels good."


* Domestic Violence Center of Howard County


24/7 helpline: 410-997-2272

* National Domestic Violence Hotline

800-799-SAFE (7233)

800-787-3224 (TTY)

* National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline


866-331-8453 TTY

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