Jahlisa Ruggs was 18 when she found herself homeless with two children.
It was 2009 and Ruggs, now 23, had just gotten into an altercation with her then-boyfriend and father of her children.
“It was right after Christmas,” she says. “I don’t even remember what we were arguing about. We were just fussing and he attempted to choke me and he hit me in both of my eyes.”
Ruggs says she was forced to break the lease on her apartment following threatening calls from her ex. She and her children took sanctuary at the Julian Center, the largest family advocacy and domestic violence center in Indianapolis. They stayed there for roughly six months while Ruggs juggled school and, by spring, a job.
Ruggs says she had a poor attitude at the time, which caused her to be removed from the shelter.
From there, she alternated between sojourns at Family Promise of Greater Indianapolis, an emergency shelter operated by Interfaith Hospitality Network, and stays with her mother and sister.
She encountered her ex again in 2011 while living with her sister. They reunited temporarily under the pretense that perhaps they could be a happy family, but it was not long before the abuse began again.
But it wasn’t so much physical, Ruggs explains.
“It was still hard on me emotionally — fighting all the time, being stressed out — I couldn’t stay awake in school,” she says. “I was angry a lot. I loved him, but I hated him.”
Ruggs says she endured the abuse because she was still clinging to the romanticized ideal of a two-parent household.
“I didn’t want to raise my children alone,” she says. “I wanted their father in their lives. It was just like, I want that family. I want a family. That was his catchphrase too: ‘Oh, can I have my family back?’ I had some kind of blind faith that maybe – just maybe – he’ll get his stuff together. Maybe magic will happen, but no.”
Ruggs separated from the children’s father again after four months.
Now a sophomore at Martin University, a private, nonprofit university in Indianapolis, she says she has only one piece of advice for young women in abusive situations.
“Leave and don’t go back,” she says. “As much as you believe that it’ll change, that it’ll be all white picket fence, there’s an extremely high chance that it won’t be that way.”
Ruggs’ story is a harsh reality for many college students.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, women between the ages of 18 and 24 are at the highest risk for intimate partner violence. Nearly one quarter — or 21% — of college students report having experienced dating violence by a current partner. Thirty two percent report being abused by a former partner.
Jane Taylor, the clinical supervisor at Safe Alliance Domestic Violence Shelter in Charlotte, N.C., has worked firsthand with the individuals behind those figures.
“On one hand, it can be frustrating because some of the dynamics of domestic violence will play out in the fact that a lot of times they’ll go back to the abuser for various reasons and that’s hard to deal with,” Taylor says. “But it’s really very enlightening to help women and children, to give them resources so they can make serious changes and turn it around and become self-sufficient, earn a living, take care of their children and become independent members of the community.”
“So, it’s rewarding and heartbreaking at the same time,” she says.
Taylor, however, says that simply escaping an abuser — even temporarily — is a victory in itself. She explained a number of factors prevent women from leaving, including but not limited to a diminished sense of agency, a poor support network, financial instability, cultural and religious expectations, children and lingering love.
“There’s the fear too,” she says. “We can never underestimate the fear women and children go through every day living in abusive situations — not knowing what’s going to happen or what the abuser will do or what their next step is going to be,” she says.
Taylor also said the greatest misconceptions about abuse are that it is relegated to certain communities and that abusers are driven by extraneous factors, including drugs and alcohol, anger management issues and provocation on the part of a partner.
“It’s all purposeful,” Taylor says. “It’s caused by perpetrators choosing to be violent and do what they can to gain power. They can control their anger – they are masters of that. Someone that couldn’t control their anger would be doing it all over the place. Abusers come home to do it.”
Perhaps the most crucial thing to helping victims of domestic violence — across the axis of age — is steadfastness, Taylor says.
“We see a lot of what we do as planting seeds. It may be that the next time she comes to us, she can make further steps and get a little further than she did the last time,” she said. “Can’t give up on that.”