Celebrating 20 Years – Client Amy Thomas
“You know a guy is a dirtbag when he steals money from his children’s piggy banks,” cracks Amy Thomas. When you meet Amy, her sense of humor is one of the first things you notice about her. You would never guess that she’s had 22 surgeries to repair injuries to her face and body inflicted by her former partner (and the previously mentioned piggy bank thief). You would never guess she’s been anything but a bright, confident woman who believes in herself and knows she deserves kindness and respect.
But that wasn’t always true. When she came to Legal Aid of West Virginia nine years ago, she was terrified and confused. Her partner and father of her two young children had recently been escalating his abuse against her. She explains, “When the kids were really little, it was easier to hide the beatings from them. I blamed my injuries on this and that—basically everything but their dad. But it was harder once they became more aware and mobile. I thought about leaving so many times, but I had no idea how to do it since I had no car, no money, no family, and no home without my partner. All I cared about was my kids, and I just couldn’t stand the thought of possibly losing them—so I stayed.”
That was until the day her ex took a baseball bat to her head and body—in full view of her children. She says, “He had been trying to start a fight all day, and I knew it would probably end up getting physical. But all of the sudden, he just picked up the bat and began hitting me. I could hear my skull crunch as he beat me, and I knew if he didn’t kill me today, he would kill me some day. And if I were dead, that meant my children would only have him. So I got a protective order, even though I was afraid of what might happen—there was just no other way to go on.”
Problems began brewing immediately, as her ex began breaking the terms of the protective order by contacting her, following her, and parking his car just outside the bounds of her “protected space” so he could watch her and the children. “He would get a few days or weeks in jail and a fine, but violating a protective order is a misdemeanor and he just didn’t care,” she says.
That became obvious when, roughly 5 months after she received her protective order, she heard a noise at the door, and suddenly her ex was next to her, beating her with his fists until she fell to the ground. He dragged her and the children to the back bedroom and locked them all in together. What followed was a horrifying ordeal where she was held captive and beaten. He told her and the children that none of them would leave the home alive. He made her look up male friends on Facebook so he could interrogate her about them, accusing her of being unfaithful. In a moment of incredible clarity and bravery, she quickly texted a neighbor “CALL THE POLICE” while pretending to search Facebook.
The police were there in minutes, and her ex was immediately taken into custody and charged with numerous felonies. After that, she called Legal Aid of West Virginia, desperate for legal help that would help her keep her home and secure full custody of her children. Former Legal Aid attorney Mark Toor took her case. Looking back, Amy says, “I credit a handful of people for saving my life— the police officers who came to my home the day my ex broke in, and Mark.”
Mark began working immediately to untangle the ties that bind couples with children, working out the custody and property issues that she knew she couldn’t have faced on her own. He also supported her as the criminal case against her ex moved forward, a process that ultimately ended with a 10-year jail sentence. Amy says, “Mark made sure my kids would always be safe from my ex and his family members, and that we had a home. That didn’t mean things weren’t hard going forward— my kids and I walked everywhere for three years until I saved up enough money to buy a used car. And they still go without things that their friends have. But we are safe, we are together, and we are happy—that’s what really matters.”
While Amy believes the legal work done on her behalf was critical to rebuilding her life, she also points to the humanity and kindness of her attorney and the supporting staff at Legal Aid as a huge factor in getting her where she is today. She explains, “I didn’t have anyone when I met my ex. My mom had died when I was young, and my dad left when I was only seventeen. I was on my own and felt lonely and scared. I think that’s why I got sucked into that relationship. And over time, he slowly isolated me to the point where I really had no ability to build an outside support system. He told me I was worthless, and no one wanted me. And I believed him, because at that point, he was the only person in my life.”
She says, “When I went to Legal Aid, it was the first time I ever really felt that there were people who cared about me and believed in me. I began to think, ‘Maybe I’m not stupid or weak. Maybe there are things inside of me that I could use to help other people.’ “She credits her decision to go to college to this newly acquired confidence. Over time she has earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and is halfway through a doctorate in social work, though she rolls her eyes and laughs when she talks about it, saying she’s not sure if it’s going to prove the right path— she’s busy enough with two teens, being a volunteer advocate for survivors of domestic violence, and her full-time job with Child Protective Services.
“I don’t think any of this would’ve been possible without Legal Aid,” she says. “What I think people don’t realize is that Legal Aid attorneys not only help you with your legal issues, but they put you in touch with other resources, they encourage you, they treat you like a human being. This is so important, especially for women like me who have been brainwashed into thinking they deserve punishment. With their help and their belief in me, I was able to go from being a domestic violence victim into a domestic violence survivor.”