Domestic abuse survivor and 73-year-old widow, Sheila Jones, has experienced a variety of abuse throughout her life but along the way helped others find their own survivor skills.
When Jones was 5 years old, she experienced her first encounter with sexual abuse by the hands of her alcoholic father, but it was not until age 11 she ran away from home.
“The first time I ran away, I got picked up by the police and was brought to the station. I remember wanting to stay there because I felt safe, but of course, I was picked up by my dad, not my mom,” she said.
According to Jones, the sexual abuse continued throughout her childhood, which led her to run away again.
“The second time I ran away I was 13. This time the police came to our apartment, and they searched my belongings because they could tell something was wrong since this was the second time I ran away. I told the police about my dad, and they told my mother. She said she would never forgive me for telling the police what my dad had done,” Jones said.
Jones and her mother did not have a close relationship, and she got little help from the police to get out of the situation.
“Growing up, child abuse was pretty much kept under the roof. It had to be really severe for the police to step in and do anything,” Jones said.
Jones explained that circumstances were so bad at home, she moved out at age 16 and later got married. She and her husband had two children, but the marriage did not end well when Jones discovered his multiple adulteries and confronted him on it.
“A few times he tried to get violent with me, so I faked a seizure. He didn’t try again,” Jones said.
As time went on and the infidelity continued, Jones said she decided she wanted a divorce, which intensified the situation.
“He came to my doorstep drunk and put a gun to my face,” Jones said. “I told him he better make the shot count because that was the only one he would get. He never fired the gun.”
Jones attributed her little knowledge of how to get out of the abuse as a child and young adult to her passion for helping people out of abusive relationships and situations.
“Going forward in my adult life, I knew I wanted to get involved with domestic abuse. I opened my home up to be a safe house (an emergency shelter) for women and families who were abused with the domestic violence shelter, LACASA, in Howell, Michigan.”
Even when Jones began to get involved helping families in the 1980s, she witnessed a lack of assistance from the police.
“A lot of times we would be asked to sit in the courtroom. I heard officers tell men to make sure to take the woman or child to the basement next time, so the neighbors wouldn’t call the police.”
Although she experienced setback from the legal system, Jones learned a lot about abusive relationships as a safe house host.
“It takes a domestic violence survivor seven times before they will leave their partner,” Jones said. “My home was open to the victim for four days. If they stayed all four days with me, they would be transported to LACASA’s larger facility for 30 days, where they would get professional help and back on their feet financially.”
At LACASA, Jones explained employees and volunteers would assist survivors in applying for public assistance programs since LACASA helped many people with low income. Volunteers would also often help the survivors find jobs, which was important especially when children were involved.
“One family I housed, the father had been violent with his 6-year-old daughter and broke her leg,” Jones said.
Jones explained she was able to help a lot of hurting people, but not everyone was ready to receive help.
“I had one woman leave my house and not tell me, but she left a note. Everyone who stayed with me were picked up by state police, brought to my house and knew they weren’t supposed to tell anyone who I was or where they were, but this woman called her husband and had him pick her up,” Jones said. “Her brother was an escaped convict who had murdered someone, so at his point my immunity was broken, and I could no longer have my home as a safe house.”
At this point, Jones was a single mother of two teenage sons, worked a full-time job and was taking college classes, but she didn’t want to quit helping people. She started small groups for women she knew, who were abused and helped them process their emotions by talking openly together about their experiences. Jones also worked at a domestic abuse hotline called HelpLine in Marion, Ohio, as a sexual assault first responder.
“I would go to the hospital and process what happened with the survivor. I would introduce myself, ask them if I could enter the room, ask them if I could sit down and ask them if I could stay. Asking questions about permission would help the survivor regain the power they lost and help them feel safe. If they accepted the help, I would stay with them through the police interview and the forensic examination,” Jones said.
Jones explained first responders like herself were thoroughly trained to help the survivor, file a report about what they observed and communicate to HelpLine what steps the survivor wanted to take next. They were also trained to be wary of human trafficking situations because sometimes the “handler” would enter the hospital room posing as a family member.
“You had to discern whether or not a family member was who they said they were,” Jones said.
While many of these situations were dangerous, she said it felt normal to her to help.
Despite her past, Jones remarried. After a couple years of a happy marriage, her second husband was diagnosed with cancer and dementia. She said the sickness affected his mental health, and he began to be verbally abusive. When her second husband died, she said she wanted to focus on caring for herself and continuing to help other survivors.
“I’ve always been a survivor. To me, that’s important when you’re trying to help someone else find their own survivor skills. Once you find that, you’re not going to be defeated. You might be broke physically, emotionally and financially, but you’re not going to be defeated,” Jones said.
Jones doesn’t volunteer at HelpLine anymore but still considers herself to be an advocate and likes to remain educated on how she can help survivors.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline defines domestic abuse on their website as “a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship.”
There are many domestic abuse shelters and hotlines throughout Ohio for those experiencing verbal, physical or sexual abuse. The Cocoon in Bowling Green offers a 24-hour hotline for those experiencing abuse seven days a week. They also offer emergency safe shelters, safety planning support, support groups and medial advocacy, including rape kit exams, court advocacy, emergency food, clothing and care items.
Nicole Cater, BGSU student and advocate at the Cocoon, said working in the advocacy community for the last three months has opened her eyes to how often domestic abuse occurs.
“I wanted to have a job that I knew would make a difference and not just a job that doesn’t change anything. I know my job is helping change people’s lives for the better,” Cater said.
The Cocoon appears to have not only made an impact in the lives of the survivors they help but also the lives of its volunteers.
“Every day I see the Cocoon helping people who have nowhere else to turn or anyone else to go to, and we get to provide them with life-changing and lifesaving resources. Pretty much every time you interact with someone, you can just tell you are making a difference,” Cater said.
BGSU students can also seek help at the on-campus Counseling Center. Pre-doctoral psychology intern and counselor Shannon Henry said students can receive individualized or group therapy, including a group for sexual assault survivors.
“It’s really gratifying to see someone grow into themselves and change their view of themselves because a lot of times abuse will change the way a person views themselves, in a negative way, and what they come to expect from other people. Being able to help people see themselves as worthy is really rewarding,” Henry said.
Helping others work through their past was a way Jones worked through hers, she said. Becoming an advocate for other people experiencing domestic violence could help others as well. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is always looking for volunteers.
Ebony Smith, a National Domestic Violence Hotline volunteer, explained the hotline’s mission is to shift the power back to the survivors of abuse.
“What we do is very empowering. It is really validating for myself to help others have a shift in their minds to believing they can get out of unhealthy situations,” Smith said. “Most people who call don’t know how to get out. Being able to help is really motivational for me.”
According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline website, if someone is passionate about stopping the cycle of domestic abuse, acknowledging the abuse in his or her life or someone else’s life is one place to start.
Jones explained throughout her journey, the hardest person to forgive was her mother, who knew about the sexual abuse going on between Jones and her father but did nothing to stop it. She said having the abuse she experienced be acknowledged by her friends and therapist helped her become the advocate she is today.
“I believe in passing it on. I’ve had people in my life who have stood with me in the worst times of my life, so you have to pass it on, and you hope that the people you help will find their opportunity to help others,” Jones said.