Editor’s note: October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The following is a story about Toni, a Stephenville woman who has faced a lifetime of pain. Since none of her alleged abusers ever faced charges for the crimes, we are protecting her identity while sharing the story in hopes that others living in similar circumstances will find the courage to seek help and overcome the horror.

Her mother’s boyfriend

The abuse began when she was just a toddler, only four years old. She was thrown into a non-traditional relationship following her parents’ separation.

“My mother and I lived with a couple, a man and his wife. My mother was their girlfriend,” Toni said.

Almost as quickly as they moved into the home, the terror began. The man sexually abused her and his wife beat the young girl.

“The physical abuse was frequent, the sexual abuse was nightly,” Toni said.

The abuse spanned six years and nobody, not even her mother knew. In addition to living in the shadows of abuse, she was caring for her ailing mother, who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Until she was nine, she cooked for her mother, fed her and bathed her daily. And, every night, the monster would enter her room.

“My mom was so sick, I couldn’t tell her,” Toni said.

The first abuser was a military man and the family was always on the move. Looking back, Toni said it seemed like every time a light would begin to shine into the dark reality of her life, he was relocated to another post.

There was the time in Washington when Child Protective Services was called after the children were bathed in scalding hot water and there was another incident in Austin that raised eyebrows.

“I don’t remember why CPS came in Austin,” Toni said. “But there was never any follow through.”

Toni admits she never made a cry for help.

“Kids don’t know how things work, how things are supposed to be,” Toni said. “I remember being terrified. I was afraid if I told I would pay the price.”

Her terror grew the day she watched her mother die.

“I realized I was there alone, with no escape, trapped with those people,” Toni said.

But help arrived a week later when her father, with whom she had little interaction with over the years, arrived to take her away.

It wasn’t until later that Toni discovered the couple’s two younger children were also abused. Neither of the abusers faced justice for their crimes.

“When I was 14, I got a letter. It said the man had committed suicide. I was angry I never had a chance to confront him, that he never had to face justice,” Toni said. “At the same time, he would never get a chance to hurt anyone else.”

In 2001, she was informed the woman was very ill and was being cared for by her daughter.

The Cinderella years

Although her father arrived to take her out of hell, she said, “I always felt, always knew I wasn’t wanted.”

She moved in with her dad and his wife.

“My stepmother always told me they were going to send me away,” Toni said. “She would always say I looked and acted like my mother, and she had a real problem with that. She was very emotionally abusive.”

But the “wicked stepmother” did have a purpose for the girl. She quickly became the caretaker of her younger half-siblings and her list of chores grew daily.

“I never had the opportunity to be a kid,” she said. “‘Do your chores,’ she would always say. I felt like Cinderella.”

When her father and stepmother separated, the abuse turned into neglect. Her father started dating, was rarely home and left Toni and her sister alone.

“There were no groceries at the house. I ate at a friend’s house or ate whatever I could find,” Toni said. “He was taking my social security check and spending the money on women and partying. He wasn’t even paying the bills.”

Soon her dad was married again and ready to move his daughters in with their new mom. Toni had already found ways to cope and methods for making money.

“I was selling and doing drugs, whatever I had to do,” Toni said.

One day, at 16, her life took a turn when she walked in on her stepmom beating her stepsister - she had enough. The teen soon found herself confessing the truth about her drug sales and use and her father’s neglect to a court appointed advocate. The truth about the prior abuse never came out.

“I told Brown County Judge Ray West that nobody was taking care of me,” Toni said. “He asked me what I would do if he emancipated me and declared me an adult.”

She said she would straighten out her life, complete her education, continue working and get a roommate. The emancipation was granted and the teen worked to make a life of her own, on her own terms.

The stranger

Toni now admits her choice in roommates was a bad one. She moved in with an older friend, a woman in her 40s.

“I sold drugs to her,” Toni admitted. “That was how we met.”

Although Toni was ready to leave drugs behind, the roommate was a frequent user and had men in and out of the home.

“I woke up one night and one of those men had come into my room. He was on top of me,” Toni said. “I got up and said, ‘This is enough. I have to get control of my life. I have got to find a good situation, a safe place for me to live and survive.’”

And that safe place wasn’t hard to find.

“I was dating a boy, whose mother Karen Deal (of Brownwood) has to be an angel. She moved me into their home and I lived with them until I was 18.”

It was her haven and is still a safe place when times are tough.

“That is where I go on Christmas,” she said. “Karen is who I call on when things are bad.”

Her husband

Toni moved to Stephenville in 1996, quit dealing and doing drugs. About three years later she met the man who would become her husband.

“He was very attentive. We traveled, went places. He would show up with flowers for no reason. He would bring full meals to me when I was on my 30 minute lunch break,” Toni said.

It was the little things that convinced her she had met Mr. Right. Still cautious, she decided they should move in together to “test the waters.”

After about two years, they were married and Toni had her hands full.

“I was working on my bachelor’s degree, had a full-time job and we were running a business,” she said.

But soon the light began to fade.

“I started noticing that something was wrong,” Toni said.

She soon discovered her husband was doing drugs, something she said she never suspected.

“I was too busy trying to be a normal person and live a normal life and I trusted him completely. I needed to trust him, he was the only person I had, outside of Karen,” she said.

But the situation continued to get worse. Her husband was failing to show up at job sites. He wouldn’t answer her calls. She began asking questions and when she demanded answers, he became abusive. She turned to law enforcement for help.

The couple had purchased a home in Lingleville and moved their storefront to the property. In the final days of their relationship, she said there were daily confrontations as she fought to keep everything she had worked to achieve.

“Through it all, I saved the business. The house was in my name. I had worked my entire life to not worry about my next meal and a roof over my head,” Toni said. “Maybe I should have left, but I was not willing to let go of it all.”

Sheriff’s deputies visited the property frequently.

“He could have killed me,” Toni said. “The cops would tell me to go a shelter. I was not going to lose it all, so I refused to leave.”

Finally, Toni went to Cross Timbers Family Services and found a friend at the agency, Beth. She eventually sought the assistance of an attorney and obtained a restraining order, which kept him out of the house but allowed him to visit the business - just feet from the home.

“The restraining order enraged him. He came to the house with two shotguns and stood outside the house screaming,” Toni said. “I picked up the phone and dialed 911. He ripped the wiring off of the house, so I reached for my cell phone.”

She said after waiting on law enforcement for an hour, she grabbed her handgun. Moments later she saw two patrol cars approach. Deputies disarmed her husband. She said he was not taken to jail.

She finally decided to leave town while the divorce was “being ironed out.”

Eventually the house was hers and “just two days later it went up in flames” - she suspected it was no accident.

Healing

Finally, at 33, she has started to heal. Although they still hurt, the physical and emotional wounds have finally scabbed over, but the scars are still visible. The neglect of her father has faded into disappointment.

While the memories are fragmented and certain events of those dreadful days have been shoved into the deepest recesses of her mind, she has found the strength to resurrect the demons and face them head on.

“I blocked the childhood memories for so long,” Toni said. “But I have finally started to piece those years back together.”

Just five years into the healing process, she said, “There is no way I have grown, healed enough.”

Toni recently started volunteering at Cross Timbers Family Services. She shares her story and hope with other women and children faced with similar horrors.

“I was suicidal before I reached out, but I decided I could not kill myself. I could not let those circumstances destroy me,” Toni said. “It is important that other victims know they are not alone. There are places for you to go, people for you to turn to.”

Toni admits she will never have children of her own, although she loves kids.

“I have struggled so hard to take care of myself I don’t think I could live up to the responsibility of taking care of a child and being a good mother,” she said. “I have a fear of making a child feel the way I felt. In my mind, those uncertainties are not worth the risk.”

Still she has moved on. Toni owns her own business, is working on her master’s degree and will continue to heal and offer that same hope to others.