Domestic abuse survivor Kate Reyes Sam says a victims' rights counselor helped her see the various ways her abusive partner was trying to control her. It empowered her to leave the relationship. (Photo by Jym Wilson)


Part of a series on domestic violence in Springfield and Greene County. Need help? See related story.

Kate Reyes Sam had been in an abusive relationship for about five years — but like many victims, she didn’t realize it was domestic violence. That phrase, in her mind, didn’t apply.

Sam, who was living in Texas at the time, shared what she was experiencing with her counselor. 

“I finally got up the courage to tell her I’m really scared when I go home,” Sam recalled. “I don’t feel like I can sleep at night. And I don’t know what to do.”

The counselor encouraged Sam to reach out to an agency that helps victims of domestic violence, very similar to the Greene County Family Justice Center, a one-stop shop for victims of any kind of abuse. 

“She said, ‘It’s free. It’s anonymous. If you don’t want to do anything with it, you don’t have to,’” Sam said. “That was also really scary to even call up there, make an appointment and go there was very daunting. I was afraid he might see my car in the parking lot.

“When I was in that initial meeting with them, they had shown me this wheel of domestic violence about all the different ways that somebody engages in abuse,” Sam said. “I recognized that all of those things are happening to me.

“That’s when I knew that I had to do something.”

That wheel of domestic violence is commonly called the power and control wheel, a tool used to educate victims about the dynamics of domestic violence, that their relationship is not normal or healthy and that they are not to blame or crazy, despite what their abuser tells them. 

Prosecuting attorney Emily Shook, head of the Greene County Domestic Violence Unit, said power and control involves an ongoing history and pattern of abusive behaviors. 

“It’s not just losing your cool in the heat of the argument,” Shook said. “The problem is that the abuser wants to control the victim. 

“And they’re doing that through all these different things, whether it’s emotional abuse, isolation, verbal abuse, financial abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, abuse in terms of using somebody’s family relationships and access to their children and all that,” Shook said. “It’s just controlling every single aspect of a person’s life.”

Jamie Willis, director of the Greene County Family Justice Center, talks about the power and control wheel during a presentation in 2022. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

Diagram helps victims visualize — and realize they are not alone 

The power and control wheel explains and gives examples of the range of abusive tactics that are either reinforced by violence or the threat of violence. Agencies sometimes modify the diagram to be inclusive for the clients they serve, using specifically gendered or gender neutral pronouns. 

Locally, advocates and professionals with the Greene County Family Justice Center, Harmony House (a domestic violence shelter), the Victim Center (another Springfield resource for victims of any kind of abuse) and the Greene County Prosecutor’s Office all use the diagram to help victims understand the dynamics of domestic abuse.

Examples from the power and control wheel (click to expand)

The power and control wheel explains tactics abusers use: 

  • Isolation: Controlling what you do, who you see and talk to, where you go. Limiting access to phone, transportation or money. 
  • Emotional abuse: Putting you down or making you feel bad about yourself, calling you names. Making you think you are crazy. Mind games. 
  • Economic abuse: Trying to keep you from getting or keeping a job. Making you ask for money, giving you an allowance or taking your money.
  • Sexual abuse: Making you do sexual things against your will. Physically attacking the sexual parts of your body. Treating you like a sex object. 
  • Using children: Making you feel guilty about the children. Using the children to give messages. Using visitation as a way to harass you. 
  • Threats: Making and/or carrying out threats to do something to hurt you emotionally. Threatening to take the children, commit suicide or report you to “welfare.”
  • Using privilege: Treating you like a servant. Making all the “big” decisions. Acting like the “master of the castle.”
  • Intimidation: Putting you in fear by using looks, actions, gestures, loud voice, smashing things or destroying your property.

— The “Power and Control Wheel” was developed by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs in Duluth, Minnesota. 

Victims find comfort in realizing the control tactics their abuser has been using are actually typical, that the victims are not crazy or to blame (as they’ve been told by their abuser) and that they are not alone, Shook said. 

“I’ve had experiences with people where I’m talking to them and they say, ‘Yeah, he put that gun to me or that knife to me, but this is the only time anything like that has ever happened. He’s never been abusive before. And I really think he’s sorry and we can just go about our lives,’” Shook said.

Emily Shook, lead prosecutor for domestic violence cases in Greene County, says domestic violence often involves an ongoing history and pattern of abusive behaviors. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

“I say, ‘Okay, well, you know, here are the concerns: Do you have the pamphlet that the police officers gave to you? ‘No, he threw it away.’ Did you get the things that we sent in the mail? ‘No, I don’t have access to the mail.’ 

“Or ‘I’m sorry for being emotional right now. I’m not on my meds.’ And I say, ‘why aren’t you on your meds? If you need medication, is there something we can do to help you get connected with the service provider?’ 

“‘Because he takes my meds. He can’t get them prescribed for him. He takes mine and his.’

“And I say, OK, those things are abuse,” Shook continued. “You’re coming in and saying he’s never been abusive before, but financial abuse, isolation, that jealous sort of stalking behavior that people see, not allowing you access to information or mail, not allowing you communication, taking your meds from you, denying you medical treatment or access to things that you need to be well, all of those things are abuse, but people don’t necessarily identify it that way.”  

Tim Stillings is a Harmony House employee who works as the lead navigator at the Family Justice Center. When someone seeks help at the center, they are screened and paired with a navigator who explains what services and resources are at the center and helps them through the process. Stillings is often the first person to sit down and talk to victims and share with them the power and control diagram. 

“The abusers take parts of their autonomy,” Stillings said. “A lot of times that looks like cutting (them) off from friends and family, cutting off financial resources. So the more points of control that person has over an individual’s life, the harder it is to leave.”

Kristen Snell, community outreach director at Harmony House, and Tim Stillings, the Harmony House lead navigator at the Greene County Family Justice Center, say people underestimate the danger victims face when trying to leave an abusive relationships. (Photo by Steve Pokin)

Why don’t they just leave? 

It’s a common question that causes professionals in the field to cringe.

“It’s really easy from the outside to be like, ‘Why don’t you just go?’” Stillings said.  “Well, you’ve got two young kiddos, no money, no car, no place to go, your family doesn’t talk to you anymore because of the dynamics that existed in that relationship.”

Domestic violence — specifically intimate partner violence — is a complicated, pervasive and sometimes deadly issue.

To “just leave” an abusive relationship can put everyone involved at risk.

“These are extremely dangerous situations,” said Brandi Bartel, executive director of the Victim Center.

According to Kristen Snell, community outreach director at Harmony House, the first 72 hours after a victim leaves an abusive relationship are the most dangerous. 

“The abusive partner is losing that power and control that they had,” Snell said. “And so that’s when things start to escalate and get a little more dangerous.

“Abusive partners can sort of throw caution to the wind and they might not stop until they can locate the victim,” she said, “whether that is physically locate them or just figure out where they are — a lot of stalking, harassment, contacting friends and family members.

“Something else victims have to weigh is the safety risk to their own friends and family,” she said. “If they go with a parent or friend, is the abuser going to potentially show up at this place and put more people in harm?”

It’s not uncommon for abusers to threaten or attempt suicide to control their victims and make them stay in the relationship. One of the questions on the lethality assessment used by law enforcement and service providers is: “Has he/she ever tried to kill himself/herself?”

“It’s a big point of power and control, making the victim responsible for the abuser’s life,” Stillings said. “The victims and clients that we serve, their abusers are most often romantic partners, somebody they’ve been with for a long time.”  

Brandi Bartel, executive director of Victim Center, says she worries most about the situations that are never reported to police, or where there is not enough evidence to bring charges of domestic violence against an abuser. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

In Missouri, family law commissioners must consider domestic violence in determining matters of custody and visitation. But a conviction for domestic assault in Missouri — even a Class A felony conviction, the most serious — does not disqualify a parent from having custody or visitation. Convictions on several other crimes, such as having sex with an animal (a misdemeanor), do lead to revocation of custody or visitation rights.

The most dangerous domestic abuse cases, in Bartel’s view, are those that are never reported to law enforcement or there isn’t enough evidence to bring charges, Bartel said.

“Those are the cases that keep me awake at night — the homicides, suicide situations that happen and nobody in the criminal justice system was aware of that case,” Bartel said. “That data is hard to measure and track. There isn’t an entity out there that can measure what isn’t being reported.

I’ve been at the Victim Center for 18 years and I don’t know how to solve it … Those of us in this field feel helpless somedays.

brandi bartel

“You have to realize for those of us who are working every day in this type of field, there is sort of this sense of collective heaviness or grieving that goes hand-in-hand with those victim fatalities. The victims that are murdered or commit suicide — for those of us who are in the field, we feel like we are not doing enough. Nobody is saying that to us, but those are the cases we are like, ‘Gosh, what more can we do? What did we miss?’

“I’ve been at the Victim Center for 18 years and I don’t know how to solve it,” Bartel said. “Those of us in this field feel helpless somedays.”

The conference room at the Victim Center includes displays providing support to victims of abuse. On average, victims of abuse return to their abusers seven times before leaving for good, according to the National Domestic Abuse Hotline. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

How to support someone you suspect is being abused 

Domestic violence is prevalent in this community and does not discriminate based on income or which side of town you live, said Cosette Grooms with Harmony House. Isolation from family and friends is a common warning sign.

“If you know someone who recently got into a relationship or has been in a relationship that is maybe coming across as a little bit turbulent in public, there may be more stuff happening behind closed doors,” Grooms said. “If they are starting to isolate themselves or acting erratic and maybe you are noticing that their partner is kind of coming across like, ‘Oh, I don’t know what is wrong. She or he is acting crazy’ — that may be signs they are in an abusive relationship.”

If you suspect abuse, Grooms suggests educating yourself on how to support this person. 

“Keep in mind that people have to be ready to leave and that can take time,” she said. “It’s a really big decision to make and it’s a very personal decision, because a lot of the time their whole life may be uprooted. They may not know who will take them in. They may have all of their money being controlled by their abuser. They may have children with their abuser.

“And oftentimes, even though somebody is being abused, there’s a lot of good in between their relationship that can keep them coming back and making them think maybe there is hope this person can change,” Grooms said. “It’s a really serious problem that requires a lot of ongoing support and patience. Part of that support is really trusting that survivors will make those decisions for themselves when they are ready, and you are just there to kind of empower them and give them a helping hand.

“If you try to force them to get help, it’s probably not going to stick. It has to be their choice.”

On average, victims of abuse return to their abusers seven times before leaving for good, according to the National Domestic Abuse Hotline. 

About Living in Fear

This special investigative report explores the far-reaching and insidious nature of domestic abuse in our community. Living in Fear is being presented in four parts over two months:

  • Part I: Black eye for Greene County, which was published May 8-11, looks at the depth and breadth of the problem here.
  • Part II: Obstacles to leaving, published this week, examines the dynamics and complications facing victims looking to leave abusive relationships.
  • Part III: Systemic issues, to be published in early June, puts a focus on the criminal justice system and potential shortcomings.
  • Part IV: Searching for solutions, to be published in late June, taps local, regional and national experts in search of ways to improve the system and reduce domestic violence.

Next in the Living in Fear series: How domestic violence impacts children, and how even pets are often collateral damage in abusive relationships.

Jackie Rehwald

Jackie Rehwald is a reporter at the Springfield Daily Citizen. She covers housing, homelessness, domestic violence and early childhood, among other public affairs issues. Her office line is 417-837-3659. More by Jackie Rehwald