KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Being with horses is one thing that Courtney Thomas said immediately comes to her mind when she thinks of peace.
"There's just this connection deep in the soul," Thomas said. "When I have the opportunity to ride, just being in the saddle with them, it just feels so free."
It's that freeing feeling that Thomas didn't always have as a child.
"I am a childhood survivor of domestic violence," she said. "I was raised by my grandmother because of the circumstances that I experienced with my mom."
Thomas' mother and grandmother are both survivors of domestic violence.
"It was right before Kindergarten and I gotten one of my shots, I think it was the tetanus shot and I couldn't get my clothes off that night to put on my pajamas," Thomas said. "I asked my mom for help and her husband at the time said 'no, she has to do it on her own,' and my mom didn't heed to his advice and she paid for it that night. She helped me take my clothes off and put on my PJs on and I remember hearing the bodies hit the wall that night."
Thomas was just five years old.
"And for children who are forced to be in that environment, we don't have a choice to leave, we're there," Thomas said. "I woke up so many nights alone, by myself."
It's a feeling Thomas said she knew she didn't want any child to feel: alone.
"We know that children who grow up in domestic violence environments, that generally speaking, they're 18-24 months behind their peers in school," Thomas said. "They have trouble connecting with people because the very people they're connecting with that they thought they could trust, they found out they could not."
She experienced domestic violence until the age of 13, when her grandmother took full custody, a saving grace from dark memories in her childhood.
"Domestic violence is a thief of your of your childhood. It's a thief of your self confidence and your happiness as an adult," Thomas said.
Thomas is now the CEO of Newhouse KC, a domestic violence shelter, where she's instilling that hope for other survivors.
"I'm so grateful for organizations like Newhouse for people to understand you're not alone, that there are resources and most importantly there's hope," she said.
"I don't want people to feel that way," Thomas said. "One in three women has experienced some violence in their lifetime. So that means someone in your family, one of your coworkers, someone you go to school with or graduated college with, someone you know and love and it may even be you who has experienced right now."
According to the National Coalition of Domestic Violence, NCDV, one in four men have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner.
NCDV also states that one in 15 children are exposed to intimate partner violence each year. 90% of those children are eyewitnesses to the violence.
According to KCPD's homicide analysis, in 2019 there were seven homicides related to domestic violence. In 2020, there were 11. So far in 2021, that number sits at 12.
"It does surprise me," KCPD Sgt. Tammy Hinck said. "I know what we have found, I don't want to say a number, but there are DV related homicides that occur where there are no previous documented incidences between those two parties. So it could be that the victim never reported it, never called police; that's very much a possibility."
DV related 911 calls are all too common.
"Our shifts are eight hours and there's times when our phones rings nonstop," Hinck said.
KCPD provides compensation to those who have sustained traumatic injuries from violent crimes through the Crime Victim Compensation program. The department also partners with local domestic violence shelters including Synergy and Rose Brooks Center.
Greg Smith is the police victim advocate for the Rose Brooks shelter in Kansas City, Missouri. He works with KCPD to help victims with resources and plans to help them get back on their feet and process what happened.
"And that's you know, that's one of the sad aspects of the job is when children are brought in and children become part of the incident," Smith said. "We treat them, we also have therapy services for children." The center also provides resources for survivors who want to take their pets with them.
For those who are in domestic violence situations, Thomas said the question for survivors should never be "why don't you just leave?"
"It's such the wrong question to be asking," Thomas said. "On a surface it looks easy ... just leave. Well, where does she go if her spouse has control of the bank account, if the spouse controls her circle of friends, her employment?"
Instead, Thomas hopes to flip the narrative to help people understand the difficult decisions that go into leaving.
While Thomas said she cherishes moments that bring her joy, she also remembers those childhood memories, and will make sure no child or adult she's in contact with has to endure what she did alone. Thomas said she wants to make sure to remind others "you are worthy of love, you are worthy of opportunity, you are worthy of happiness."
Statistically, it can take a survivor seven to 10 times to leave their abuser. The National Domestic Violence Hotline number is 1-800-799-7233. For the Kansas City region, that hotline number is 816-468-5463.
Two Americas is part of a KSHB and Scripps signature issue to help introduce our community to the America you know and the America you might not know. Our role as the media is to share the news of the day, but we also seek to give a voice to people we don't hear from often.
Of course, there are many parts that make up our community, so we’re not just showing you two and we’re not pitting two sides against each other. Instead, we’re hoping to highlight solutions and showcase different perspectives to help us all better understand our area's culture, our area's past, and why our community feels the way it does today.