When Houstonian Layla Steele met Zacchaeus Gaston, the 24-year-old was hoping for happily ever after, especially after she became pregnant. But the relationship quickly soured and on the same day their baby boy, Zeus turned 1 year old, police say Zacchaeus, who was out of jail on seven felony bonds, gunned Layla down – with Zeus in her arms.
Layla died later at the hospital. Zeus was also hit, but survived. The family says the shooting was the culmination of Layla trying to escape a domestic violence situation. And like so many victims, even a protective order couldn’t keep her safe.
“We would say the only way we could get him away from her is if he’s in jail,” her sister, Jazz said. “She was scared of him. She was in love with him, but she was scared of him. There’s no way that that should’ve slipped, where seven felony bonds, a person was out, and I feel like, my sister’s blood is on their hands.”
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and tragically, Layla’s story is all too common.
For 19-year-old Maylasia Levy, she simply wanted her relationship with her boyfriend to work. The Thurgood Marshall High School graduate had just given birth in August 2020 when she was shot by her 18-year-old boyfriend, Yates basketball star Antwon Norman. Norman was arrested and charged with manslaughter, though he said the shooting was an accident. The family says it was murder.
“I was not aware of any physical abuse in her relationship,” said her mother Quin Levy, who has started a foundation [M.Arial Love Foundation] in her daughter’s honor. “I was aware of the relationship being toxic and the verbal abuse and the bullying online. I tried to warn her, but it was her first love. She saw all the signs, but she was pregnant, and she wanted it to work. She wanted to have a family for her baby. She just kept hoping and it cost her her life.”
The statistics on domestic violence in the United States are disturbing. One in three women and one in 10 men will experience domestic violence in their lifetime. Each year, domestic violence is estimated to affect 10 million Americans.
For Black women, the numbers are even more stark. More than 40% of Black women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime, according to the Institute of Women’s Policy Research’s Status of Black Women in the United States.
Black women are 2.5 times more likely to be murdered by men than white women. In the overwhelming majority of cases — 92% — the person who killed them knew their victim, and 56% of such homicides were committed by a current or former intimate partner. Nearly all — 92% — of the killings were intra-racial, which means that they were committed by a Black man against a Black woman.
With statistics like these, the Black Women’s Health Project determined that domestic violence is the number one health issue facing Black women.
In Houston, domestic violence related homicides were up 78% from the same period last year.
The Houston Police Department said domestic violence is the most unreported crime and in the last two years, the number of reported incidents have increased exponentially. HPD reports from Jan. 1 to Sept. 30, there were more than 25,000 domestic violence cases, which are up by 74%. According to its data, domestic violence murders account for 17% of the city’s homicides and domestic sexual assaults account for 15% of all reported sexual assaults.
Combatting the problem
What can be done about the epidemic of violence facing Black women? The first and perhaps most important thing that we can all do is address the root causes of domestic violence, such as the objectification and degradation of women in media, rape culture, harmful gender norms, the pay gap, and other forms of inequality.
The underlying causes of domestic violence are the same for all women and are often more pronounced for Black women. By taking on such issues directly, we can reduce the incidence of domestic violence for all women — and in particular, Black women who are even more impacted by these factors.
A new non-profit organization is working to reach more survivors of domestic violence in Houston’s minority communities. The Empowered Survivor began as a pilot project with 35 survivors and in three months time grew to more than 300 clients.
“What we’ve always known is minorities are disproportionally impacted by domestic violence,” said Carvana Cloud.
Cloud is the former head of the Harris County District Attorney’s Special Victims Bureau. She is now the founder and executive director of The Empowered Survivor.
“As a child survivor of domestic violence myself and growing up in a very underserved community where there were not a lot of resources for families that looked like mine who were experiencing those traumas, I knew that I had to do something different,” she said.
“I had a comprehensive vision where I bring a survivor perspective, a prosecutorial perspective, a law enforcement perspective, having worked and learned and continue to learn from law enforcement, as well as experience from the healthcare and social services side. We not only provide resources, but we help to change the narrative of what domestic violence is and how to combat it in our communities.”
Cloud acknowledges all of the efforts being made in the city to combat domestic violence, but she says there is huge need and a lack of a coordinated response in the community that focuses on women of color.
“No matter how we slice it, how we look at the numbers, it continues to come back as women of color continue to be disproportionately impacted by domestic violence. And so it made sense to me and so many others that we would start an organization that met their needs in a culturally specific way and met them where they were not passing judgment, not making it difficult for them to get the help. Simply making it easy for them to access, because just admitting you’re a victim of domestic violence is a huge, huge deal.
“It’s a big deal,” Cloud said. “People, a lot of times are in domestic violence situations that don’t even realize it. So once they realize it and they overcome that hurdle, they want to get help. I wanted to make accessing the help as easy as possible.”
Cloud’s organization works to rebuild lives, helping survivors access legal services, food, clothing, housing, mental health services, jobs and education.
“The response from the survivors especially has been absolutely remarkable,” she said. “We work together to get the help they need. I can cry, laugh, share with them. They can share with me. And then we connect them to resources and whatever they need to be better. And then they come back and not only do they say thank you, but they want to know how they can help the next person.”
Local officials face the problem
The Texas Council on Family Violence has established high-risk domestic violence teams in 13 Texas counties — including Harris County — to coordinate with local law enforcement and advocacy groups to support victims of domestic abuse, with a strong focus on violent cases.
The group’s 2020 report, which gathered data from teams in 10 counties, found that:
- 70% of offenders abuse their victims again.
- Victims and offenders in reported domestic violence cases ranged from 14 to 73 years old.
- Most high-risk domestic violence incidents occurred in relationships less than a year old.
- Assault causing bodily injury and strangulation were the most common types of violence used against victims.
- Abusive partners had access to a firearm in 46% of cases.
In Harris County, the high-risk domestic violence team consists of HPD, Harris County Sheriff’s Office, District Attorney’s Office and local advocacy groups. A coordinator works with the team to connect them with victims of domestic violence.
They often work in conjunction with Crime Stoppers, which blames the rise in domestic violence include the pandemic and “a revolving door at the courthouse,” as well as unemployment benefits disappearing.
“These numbers are a microcosm of what’s yet to come, and that’s the harsh, stark reality,” Crime Stoppers of Houston’s Andy Kahan said. “This is not going to go down. We have organizations that work 24/7 helping domestic violence victims. We need you to reach out, there’s help available, there are trained professionals available. Contact your local law enforcement’s victim’s services.”
By the numbers
Domestic violence crimes
In Harris County
Domestic violence deaths
Black women who experienced psychological abuse
Black women who experienced physical abuse
* National Center for Victims of Crime
National Domestic Violence Hotline