From abuse to advocacy
One couple’s story of the power to change
Going to jail was the best thing that happened to former Californian police detective Duane Minard. This sounds strange, especially coming from his wife of almost 10 years, Cesaria Hernandez. Even more remarkable is that they are still together, because it was her phone call to police that landed him in jail.
Minard had beat his wife so badly that she had a ruptured eardrum and fractured jaw, and one of her ribs was torn away from the muscle. It was the wake-up call that Minard needed to stop his abusive behaviour. “In other cases, there are no consequences, so the cycle of abuse continues,” says Hernandez.
A decade later, the couple is still together, with nine children between them (five from previous relationships and four of their own, ranging in age from 2 to 24). But Minard and Hernandez have not merely managed to survive. They educate and counsel victims and perpetrators of domestic abuse through VODA (Victory Over Domestic Abuse), which Hernandez founded in 2002.
VODA has garnered attention, including Oprah’s (the couple was featured on her talk show in 2003), through the couple’s decision to stay together and take a hard look at domestic violence, which many still consider a private matter, instead of the criminal act it is. VODA holds perpetrators accountable for their actions, and makes no excuses for them.
Although many have questioned the couple’s decision to stay together, they did so only after an eight-month separation to keep Cesaria and the children safe. “Never in good conscience can I say to women, ‘I think you should stay,’” says Hernandez. “If a couple is going to reconcile, there has to be a time of separation,” she says, adding, “It’s essential for both parties to put themselves together.”
“When I saw Cesaria for the first time after the incident, I thought she was going to want me back under my terms or we’d say goodbye,” says Minard. Instead, she asked him a very difficult question: “Why did you do this to me?”
The decision to stay together also came with serious, legally enforceable conditions. Minard signed a three-year notarized contract relinquishing all assets to Hernandez, including the house and car, if he abused her again. “This wasn’t just between Cesaria and me anymore,” says Minard. “It was a matter of public record.” For abusers, who often hide their abuse behind closed doors and use financial control to gain power over their victims, this “letting go,” was “excruciating,” says Minard. “Power and control is what domestic violence is about.” Minard’s career with the police also reinforced the notion that it was acceptable to control other people with force.
Many couples, says Hernandez, find this legal agreement to be a powerful deterrent. “Men have this sense when it comes to signing a legal document that this is the real deal,” she says. “The physical act of having it drawn up and signed solidifies its validity.” The contract also gives power back to the victims and places responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the perpetrator.
The incident of abuse against Hernandez, two years into their marriage, was the one and only time Minard had attacked Hernandez, but it was not the first time he had perpetrated abuse. His two previous marriages featured a longstanding pattern of abuse that went unchecked for almost 20 years until those marriages ended. Minard assumed this was the course his current marriage would take, too, but he was wrong.
Instead of taking back Minard, who in his previous relationships blamed the woman for bringing on the abuse, Hernandez challenged him. “When I saw Cesaria for the first time after the incident (two weeks later), I thought she was going to want me back under my terms or we’d say goodbye,” says Minard. Instead, she asked him a very difficult question: “Why did you do this to me?” After skirting the issue in his usual way, he finally replied, “I don’t know, but I’m willing to find out.”
Minard started finding out during the eight-month separation that followed that meeting. When Minard finally started to take responsibility for his actions, Hernandez saw it as his first step towards ensuring he never abused again. But it was going to take a lot of work. They read everything they could get their hands on about domestic violence. Both attended counselling, and Minard still sees a therapist. Minard took anger-management classes, and Hernandez joined a support group for abuse victims. If anyone asked if they wanted to talk about it, the answer was always a resounding “yes!”
Early on, Minard and Hernandez sought help from the medical community. “But they immediately wanted to drug us both – antidepressants for him and anti-anxiety medication for me,” Hernandez recalls. That was one approach they didn’t support. “We needed to feel the pain. We really wanted to help ourselves to heal with a clean state of mind,” she says.
For Minard, this meant facing his demons and owning up to his childhood and upbringing. As a Native American growing up on a reserve, some of Minard’s earliest memories were of abuse. “I remember my uncles fighting on the steps to our home,” he says. “It seemed to be part of everyday life, and it made violence comfortable,” he says. On top of this, he has experienced racism and internalized his perceived social position. “I placed myself as a second-class citizen,” he says. “I used violence to regain my status and feel powerful.”
In the early days of VODA, Minard stayed in the background while Hernandez set the agenda. But he gradually began talking to women about why men abuse. It was a challenge to explain what he had done and what he was doing to ensure he never abused again. But he knew he was “on the right track.” “The main reason this all works is my desire and determination to change my behaviour on every level, not just to be violence-free,” he says.
Educating herself has been an empowering experience for Hernandez, who says she was naïve about domestic violence before she experienced it. What she didn’t know and was surprised to find out was that almost all of her friends abandoned her. “It’s as if they didn’t want to feel my pain, or that somehow the violence might rub off on them,” she says. Rebuilding her life was lonely and hard. She came to understand why so many women feel trapped in abusive relationships – their partners hold all the financial cards; their peers shun them and they have nowhere to go. “We live in a violent society that continues to condone violence,” she says. As long as we continue to do that, abuse isn’t going to end.” A big part of making change is education. “In school, I was taught to use condoms, but domestic violence was never touched,” she says.
Hernandez and Minard are doing what they can to make sure their children don’t go through what they did. The older children had to face it, as they grew up immersed in their parents’ recovery process. Hernandez stresses to her daughters the importance of education and self-reliance. “The younger ones are reaping the benefit because we’re raising them differently,” says Minard. His old disciplinary tactics of violent outbursts, power and control have been replaced by reason and time-outs.
People have asked Hernandez how she could ever trust Minard again. That trust had to be earned, she says. It took two years and a lot of work before she regained her confidence in her husband and their relationship.
As for Minard, “You have to take responsibility for what you are doing,” he says. “Everything you say you are as a man – are you willing to take that energy and put in into your family?” he asks. “It never stops; the recovery process never ends.”
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