We hear about it, and on occasion, we witness domestic violence with our own eyes.
But behind the men and women caught up in physically or emotionally abusive relationships, there are often children hiding in dark corners, their stability shattered by uncertainty and the tranquilness of what should be a peaceful home drowned out by violence.
Their scars are real and they are lasting.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and every year the E-T shares stories of survivors. We have written about men and women who have escaped abusive relationships, but we have never written about how domestic violence affects a child.
Today that’s changing.
We sat down with Dublin resident Jennifer Sieperda who grew up watching her mother live through an abusive relationship that culminated in a shooting death, time in prison, and finally, redemption. It’s a story of hope, and perhaps more importantly, awareness.
Jennifer Sieperda doesn’t remember what her parents were like as a couple. They divorced when she was just a child, but she remained close to both while growing up.
She spent part of her childhood in Huckabay, then moved to Burleson to live with her father when she was in the fifth grade.
Jennifer’s mother Phyllis Rife lived in Van Zandt County and struggled with addiction as well as an abusive relationship.
“My mother was abused, not by my father, but by another man,” she said. “I saw her on the weekends and I saw her with black eyes and a busted lip.”
She also remembers her mother fleeing from the abuse on occasion, and ending up on her father’s doorstep.
“My dad would do anything to help her,” Jennifer said.
As she watched the emotional and physical assaults on her mother escalate, Jennifer did her best to cope.
She recalled the time when her mother was taken to a hospital after she was beaten with the butt of a gun.
Her mother’s boyfriend never laid a hand on Jennifer, but she witnessed the abuse.
“I remember him beating her because she didn’t have sweet tea made,” Jennifer said. “I wasn’t terrified for myself, I was terrified for my mother. I watched her fight for her life.”
FROM BAD TO WORSE
Phyllis Rife says she remained in the abusive relationship for three years before her final escape.
Phyllis said she left the home she shared with her abuser in the middle of the night, taking with her an air compressor and gun she planned to pawn the next day.
“He told me that if I ever tried to leave again, he would kill me,” she said. “I went to my friend’s house and hid my car in the back. I put a bullet in the gun and took it inside with me.”
At 6 a.m. the next morning, her friend woke up to a noise.
“She said, ‘Phyllis, he is here,’” Phyllis recalled. “I grabbed the gun and told her to call 9-1-1.”
Phyllis said she ran down the hallway and rounded the corner to the front door just as her abuser barged through.
“I pointed the gun and shot him in the abdomen,” she said.
He died immediately.
It was April Fool’s Day 1998, and the story was far from over.
‘THE JUSTICE SYSTEM FAILED US’
The district attorney in Van Zandt County wanted to try Phyllis for premeditated murder.
“She was scared. She was looking at 20 years to life,” Jennifer said. “The DA came to her at the last minute and offered a plea deal for involuntary manslaughter with a deadly weapon and she took it.”
Phyllis served the entire six-year sentence.
“You talk about cruel and unusual punishment,” Jennifer said. “The justice system failed her and us as a family.”
Jennifer was 16 when her mother went to prison, and her life moved forward without any clear direction.
She dropped out of high school in the ninth grade, and started working at a grocery store in Dublin.
Jennifer never sought counseling, and instead, turned to alcohol and prescription medication to dull the pain.
At 20, Jennifer became pregnant with her son, and that’s when she turned her life around.
“I had to take a long, hard look at myself and make the decision that I will not allow my child to live through what I lived through,” she said.
HEALING AND REDEMPTION
Today, Jennifer lives in Dublin where she is happily married with two kids. She and her mother remain close.
After Phyllis was released from prison, she moved to Burleson and went to cosmetology school.
Today, she owns All Star Clips in Stephenville and Granbury.
“My mother is an overcomer,” Jennifer said. “She is living her best life.”
Phyllis doesn’t hide her past, and in fact, openly shares her stories with others.
“I am an open book,” Phyllis said. “I share my story hoping it will help others.”
And as for her abuser? Phyllis has forgiven him too.
“He was abused as a child,” she said. “Abuse is a cycle. We need to talk about it and get the word out so people can get the help they need.”
LIVING AND LEARNING
Jennifer’s story is a reminder that children are often the forgotten victims in homes where physical and emotional abuse occur.
“Don’t fool yourself,” she said “Children are probably one of the best gauges of an environment. They are more aware of what’s happening than you think. If a mother and father aren’t loving toward each other, children see that.
“This isn’t emotional for me anymore. I have already dealt with it. It’s devastating that it all happened, but it taught me what I didn’t want in my own life.”
Jennifer is reminding parents about the importance of providing a stable environment for children.
“My advice to parents who might be dealing with abuse and who are reading this article is to be aware of your children,” she said. “Be aware of what you are doing - and not doing. All of that will play a major role in who they become, and if you don’t help foster the spirit of a child, then you are not fulfilling the most crucial role you play as a parent.”