Social media makes it harder for Idaho domestic violence victims to disappear

Amy Allred puts clean dishes away on Sept. 22 at her Filer home. Allred is creating a new life for herself after leaving a relationship riddled with domestic violence.
Amy Allred puts clean dishes away on Sept. 22 at her Filer home. Allred is creating a new life for herself after leaving a relationship riddled with domestic violence. Times-News

EDITOR’S NOTE: Some of the names of the women in this story were changed to ensure their safety.

The blows to Blossom’s head came out of nowhere — popping open the flesh on her forehead and exposing pieces of skull. She raised her arm to deflect the blows, but his baton shattered the delicate bones in her hand.

“It felt like someone was pouring water over me, but it was blood,” 33-year-old Blossom said, her soft brown eyes dulling as she stared at the wall in her Twin Falls living room.

Blossom sat in the passenger’s seat of the car, her 2-month-old boy strapped to a car seat. His lashings continued as she clambered into the back seat. She shifted her baby’s seat to shield him from this father’s manic blows.

That day in October 2016 was the last time her boyfriend beat her. It was time to leave.

But leaving wouldn’t be easy. She had a newborn, no money and nowhere to go. She knew if he ever found her, he would kill her.

According to Donna Graybill, executive director of Voices Against Violence in Twin Falls, Blossom was at the most dangerous time for a woman in a violent relationship.

In today’s ever-shifting world of technology, safety for victims of domestic violence is more elusive than ever. Safe houses can be found with GPS devices, and smartphones track a person’s every move. If victims are immersed in social media, it acts as a beacon for the very people they’re trying to escape.

While cellphones and the internet can provide victims the means to contact authorities, all too often that technology is used against them, according to Lynda Brennen, director of Mini-Cassia Shelter Advocates Against Violence.

Technology makes relocating victims of domestic violence complicated, and also provides an outlet for the victim and abuser to stay in touch.

“It keeps that connection,” Brennen said.

A watchful eye

The Twin Falls shelter became a place of peace for Amy Allred of Filer after she left a six-year, abusive relationship with her boyfriend.

Once they moved in together and he knew she could not easily leave, he began to tear at her self-esteem.

“He would tell me I was a bad mom. I took it to heart because I was a drug addict, and I was not providing for my child,” said Allred, now clean for seven months after being addicted to methamphetamine for 11 years.

He would scroll through the call log on her phone to monitor her conversations, and he kept tabs on where she went and with whom. He beat her for the first time after discovering a number in her phone that he didn’t recognize.

“The shelter was my safe haven,” said Allred, who now has a full-time job and apartment.

Allred and her boyfriend shared custody of their 3-year-old daughter, so cutting ties was complicated. After exchanges of the child, she would often drive around aimlessly to ensure he was not following her back to the shelter.

The extra time was worth the peace of mind she gained.

Abusive partners often use GPS locators placed on a vehicle or in their partner’s purse. Some GPS devices even provide turn-by-turn directions to a location, and spyware is available for every type of electronic device.

If the GPS system is turned on in a victim’s phone, “they are very visible,” Graybill said.

That can endanger more than just the one victim.

Once a person seeks safety at a shelter, using apps like Facebook, where people often check in at a location, or SnapChat, which gives the exact location of a person, can put all of the victims at risk.

Women entering the Twin Falls shelter agree to keep its location in strict confidence, and they are instructed to turn off the GPS in their phone. Taking pictures in a common area at the shelter can also cause problems, depending on who is in the photo.

“They are told not to tell anybody the location, even their friends or family,” Graybill said.

In the past, people have been asked to leave the shelter because of those kinds of breaches in safety.

The shelter house in Rupert has sparred with a national telephone company, according to Brannen. The shelter doesn’t want its address published, but the company has been slow to comply.

One of the biggest battles to keep the shelter house safe, Graybill said, came from Google.

“We’ve really battled with Google to get our shelter location removed,” Graybill said.

Gone for good?

The first time Blossom’s boyfriend hit her was just a few months after they became a couple. She was walking through the living room at their home and kicked over his 40-ounce bottle of Olde English malt liquor.

She told him if he hit her again she would leave. But the more she expressed a desire to end the relationship, the more intense his scrutiny became.

And the abuse took on a new tone.

“He would not let me out of the house,” Blossom said. “If I literally put my hand on the doorknob, he would hit me in the face with full-blown force.”

One of five siblings, Blossom grew up in foster homes and in the care of a strict aunt.

When her aunt disciplined her, she said, it was always because she had done something wrong. That same thought transferred to her relationship with her boyfriend.

“When I got beat, my thought was that I had done something wrong,” Blossom said.

One time, with the couple’s child watching, he nearly beat her to death with a baton, then refused to let her go to the hospital.

For Blossom, that was the beginning of a shift in mindset. It was time to leave.

A few days later, when a friend came to visit, her boyfriend left the house. She grabbed her baby and a few child care items, and fled with only the clothes on her back.

The next day, she contacted the victim’s assistance program in her city, which persuaded her to report her boyfriend to the police. One week later, he was arrested and charged with attempted murder.

“Exposing him like that was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever had to do,” Blossom said.

For women like Blossom, safety often means reinventing themselves in a new city.

The domestic violence shelter moved Blossom to Twin Falls, where no one knew her. The move gave her a chance to build a new life with her son.

“There is no more looking over my shoulder,” Blossom said. “It’s like a breath of fresh air.”

On average, a woman leaves a violent relationship seven times before she leaves for good. It’s a difficult process of unwinding their lives from an abusive partner, and that process can be hard for others to understand, Graybill said.

Allred left her boyfriend several times, but each time he would beg her to come back. Eventually, she would relent.

“In his head, it wasn’t that he was abusive. It was that I couldn’t do the right things,” Allred said.

At the end of the relationship, he didn’t even bother to beg. He forced her to return instead.

He often used her phone — her connection to the outside world — as part of his abuse of psyche.

Once, at her dad’s house, he threatened to kill her and their two children if they didn’t leave with him, then broke her phone so she couldn’t call the police.

Another time, he became enraged when he found out she had texted someone who was not on his approved-of list.

“He held me by the neck and wouldn’t let me out of the car. He was driving down the road, and the passenger’s side door was open, and my legs were hanging out of the car,” Allred said.

He was charged with kidnapping and attempted strangulation, but the charges were amended to misdemeanor false imprisonment.

When she was arrested for drug possession, it turned out to be a blessing.

The drug court staff told her she had to leave the abusive relationship to continue the program. Her alternative was years in prison.

“Drug court was the first time anyone cared about my well-being and didn’t just look at me as a piece-of-crap mom,” Allred said. “They saw me as a human being, and not that many people in my life have done that.”

Allred and her boyfriend both continue to see their child, but she has filed for custody in an ongoing case.

Though she had to block his number in her phone for a few months after leaving, he eventually quit trying to contact her after he got a new girlfriend.

“This is the first time I’ve been on my own,” Allred said, “and it feels pretty good.”

A new day

Today, Blossom holds a job as a cashier, her son is in day care, and she has a place of her own. She plans to start college classes in the spring.

Sometimes, though, the past is not easy to erase.

Her boyfriend’s criminal charges are still pending, and he is in jail, but that doesn’t extinguish the fear of what could happen if he’s released.

If he pleads guilty to the charge, for Blossom it will be over. If he doesn’t, she’ll have to go back and testify against him.

“I was really scared at first about that, but I figure everything happens for a reason, and I get more determined as time goes on,” she said.

She has also been plagued by depression and confounding episodes of sobbing triggered by mundane daily chores. Counseling for post-traumatic stress syndrome, she said, is helping.

She has a Facebook account, but she rarely uses it. She understands that it could jeopardize her new sense of peace.

Her ex-boyfriend kept her secluded from friends and family, so staying off social media is easier for her than for some others.

“I’m not on Facebook all the time. I only use it for work,” she said.

When she was living at the shelter, she was harshly reminded of how an innocent post can turn into danger for someone living in secrecy.

An acquaintance once tagged her in a sobriety post, setting her case worker on edge.

“My case worker brought up my friend’s post. She had already erased it, but I got an earful. She said, ‘you can’t do this anymore,’ ” Blossom said.

She dreams someday of speaking out against domestic violence to other women.

“I want to push forward, be happy and raise my son to be a respectable man,” Blossom said. “And I don’t want to live in terror anymore.”