- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
While she was at a church retreat in 2011, Teena (Weaver) Umphries got a call from one of her sons, who said his father had choked him. She didn’t know the exact nature of the act, but she knew she had to put a stop to the violence — all of it.
So, she separated from her now ex-husband, leaving behind her a 20-year marriage to a man she had been with since she was in high school, a marriage characterized by abuse that was mental as well as physical.
“He’s punched me in my face, on the eye, pushed me, verbally called me names, mentally just messed my mind all up,” Umphries said. “And I basically just kept dealing with it thinking it will all get better.”
It didn’t. During the marriage, Umphries supported her family financially (her husband worked sporadically, but his mental problems, major depression and substance abuse kept him from holding down a job, she said), and became consumed with dealing with her husband’s violent behavior and trying to help him get better.
It culminated in her husband’s attempt to kill her almost two years ago. Since then, Umphries has become a victim advocate at the Calvert County Crisis Intervention Center. She works directly with victims of domestic violence, helping to guide them through parts of the legal process, and doing some office work, she said. She also said she hopes to go to school to become a counselor.
Umphries said her ex-husband displayed many of the classic characteristics of an abuser: He was obsessive, controlling and manipulative; he wanted to read her text messages; he wanted to know where she was all the time; and he didn’t want her to be around friends or family.
Once, with their daughter, now 12, who was about 7 at the time, in the room, he beat Umphries so badly that “blood was just going everywhere just from getting punched in the face.”
Still, when he tried to murder her in June 2012, just months after their divorce, she was “shocked.”
“Yes, he’s beaten me before. Yes, he’s hit me. Yes, he verbally cussed me out and everything,” she said. “But I never thought he would actually, like, stab me, try to kill me.”
Now, when she remembers that night, Umphries remembers feeling no pain throughout the duration and the immediate aftermath of the attack, despite having been stabbed with a steak knife in the arms, throat, neck, chest, face and hand. She endured more than 20 wounds that night, she said.
She had met with him to pick up some child support money he owed her, money she said she needed for her kids.
As Umphries drove from Calvert County to Berwyn Heights in Prince George’s County, where her ex was living at the time and an area with which she was unfamiliar, she felt inexplicably scared. She said she felt she should not go. She even made a U-turn, pulled over and started praying.
But she picked him up anyhow, and from the passenger seat, he instructed her to drive this way and that, telling her they were going to pick up the money. All the while he was arguing with her, Umphries said.
Eventually, at a stop sign, he told her to turn right. She felt the same feeling she had on the drive to meet him, she said, and turned left instead, into what she later learned was a populated housing project. She believes that God told her to turn left — and that the decision to do so saved her life.
“He got angry because I did not go toward the park,” Umphries said. “And if I did not turn left, I would not be here today because I would have been in an abandoned park, nobody around or anything, and I would have bled to death there.”
When she disobeyed his direction, Umphries said, her ex-husband pulled out the steak knife and began what later appeared to have been a premeditated attack.
When her ex ceased, apparently believing he had killed her, Umphries was able to free herself of her seat belt and fall into the road before he took off in her car. He was arrested and now is serving a 40-year prison sentence for attempted first-degree murder. He was sentenced to serve 80 years in prison, but the court suspended 40 years of the sentence.
Now that her wounds have healed and she is living in a new house in another part of the county with her children to escape the memories of years of abuse, Umphries uses her story to help others.
Umphries, along with others at the Crisis Intervention Center, is doing her part to break the “cycle of violence,” which buoys spousal domestic violence, CIC Director David Gale said.
The first phase of the cycle is that of the “honeymoon,” Gale said. Everything is fine between the two. Then comes the “attention building” phase, in which one partner doesn’t know what to expect from the other, and he or she feels threatened. These threats then lead to the “violent episode” — some sort of “explosion” and assault.
That’s when the abuser tries to make it up to the other partner, when the flowers are bought, Gale said. The honeymoon blossoms again.
“What we see is that as the violence progresses, phase 1 gets shorter, the attention building gets longer and the violent episodes get more severe,” Gale said. That’s why the center — which comprises resources like a 24-hour helpline, sheltering services, crisis counseling for victims, licensed therapists, anger management and an abuser intervention program — aims to act fast in getting victims connected with the right programs and resources.
When responders from the Maryland State Police or the Calvert County Sheriff’s Office arrive on a scene related to a domestic violence dispute, Gale said, they ask the victim a series of questions and assess the situation with the goal of getting the at-risk victims on the phone with a counselor at the CIC’s helpline and into services as soon as possible.
“If the person gets back into the honeymoon phase, they minimize what’s happened to them,” Gale said.
Despite the existence of these support systems, Gale said, on average, it takes a person six attempts to leave an abuser before doing so successfully. Factors that make leaving difficult include concerns about children, financial reasons, social stigma and religious pressure.
“One of the reasons that I never got the divorce is because I’m Christian, and I always thought that God was going to punish me,” Umphries said. “And that’s one of the things that I got over over the years, is realizing that God’s not going to punish me.
“If anything, he’s going to bless me.”
Victims of domestic violence can call the CIC’s 24-hour crisis helpline at 301-855-1075 or its teen helpline at 410-257-2216. They can also turn to the Safe Harbor Domestic Violence Shelter, which is operated by the Calvert County Health Department and provides accommodations for women and children, Gale said. The shelter can be reached at 410-257-7225.
These resources come together to form a network of support with the goal of saving lives — and to turn one-time victims, such as Umphries, into survivors.
“To me, that one person saved is like a million,” she said.