Life after domestic assault: a survivor's tale

Doris Rivera-Black, a survivor of sexual assault and domestic violence, shared her story with cadets and Airmen Oct. 15, 2015 in Arnold Hall as part of the Air Force Academy’s efforts to highlight Domestic Violence Awareness Month. (U.S. Air Force photo by Jason Gutierrez)

Doris Rivera-Black, a survivor of sexual assault and domestic violence, shared her story with cadets and Airmen Oct. 15, 2015 in Arnold Hall as part of the Air Force Academy’s efforts to highlight Domestic Violence Awareness Month. (U.S. Air Force photo by Jason Gutierrez)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Doris Rivera-Black, a survivor of sexual assault and domestic violence, shared her story with cadets and Airmen Oct. 15 in Arnold Hall as part of the Air Force Academy's efforts to highlight Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

Rivera-Black had been a deputy sheriff for two years when on June 26, 2006 her then-husband kidnapped her at gunpoint, drove her to Boone, Colorado, and sexually assaulted her.

He was convicted of first-degree kidnapping and sexual assault with a weapon with injury involved, a Class 1 Felony in Colorado, and sentenced to life in prison.

"There are no demographics for domestic violence," she told her audience. "I was a good cop. I was tough, 'small and mighty' - but no one realized I was experiencing these issues at home. "I didn't feel strong or tough. I didn't want my coworkers to see weakness in me."

Rivera-Black said she grew-up in a loving family. Her parents were from Puerto Rico, and in keeping with Puerto Rican tradition, her father worked while her mother cooked, cleaned and took care of Rivera and her siblings. Rivera-Black understood her family's culture, but knew when she married, she wanted an equitable split between marital duties, she said.

All seemed well until her grandfather moved into the family home, she said. Rivera-Black was 6-years-old when she was molested by her grandfather.

"I was told I couldn't tell anyone about it. I was confused, but I tucked it away and didn't share it with anyone," she said. "My parents probably sensed something because [my grandfather] was there one day and then he was gone, but it was never discussed. Even though I decided to tuck the hurt away, it created a lot of issues. I became extremely insecure, I didn't like myself. I put on 'toughness' because I didn't want to show I was hurting."

'Prince Charming'
Rivera-Black married when she was 18 and gave birth to two daughters. Her husband joined the military to support the family, but the marriage collapsed. She was a single mother in Colorado when she met the man she calls "prince charming."

"He was perfect, he was handsome, had a good job and he told me such wonderful things," Rivera-Black said.  '"You're beautiful,' 'You should be treated like a queen,' 'Your daughters deserve to have a good daddy.' I had never been told those things before. I fell in love."

"Prince Charming" was persistent about getting married so she agreed - but after the couple wed, things changed and he used jealousy as a means to control her.

"First, [he said] I didn't spend enough time with him and then it was the interrogation," Rivera-Black said. "'Who were you with?' and 'I know you're cheating on me.' I couldn't go to the gym because he thought I was trying to look good for someone else. He still had his good moments. He would tell me he loved me and tell the world how much he loved me. His control worsened, but he never laid a hand on me - never."

Rivera-Black said the emotional abuse and sexual coercion she endured in her marriage triggered the 'little girl' inside of her who tucked away all the hurt. She told her husband about the sexual abuse she suffered as a child and he cried, telling her he was sorry and wouldn't do it again.

"I thought great, maybe we can make this work," Rivera Black said. "I didn't want to fail at another marriage. I wanted to fix him, but we all know we can't fix people who don't want to change."

It wasn't long before the abuse began again, she said.

Her husband tried to manipulate Rivera-Black by telling her she was crazy and needed counseling, she said. He relied on emotional and psychological coercion and was never physical, but that would change when the couple separated.

Rivera-Black applied for a restraining order against her husband after he threatened to burn their house down, but it was denied. She returned to the marriage for the final time.

'Enough'
Rivera-Black's oldest daughter approached her when her husband was at work.

"She was crying," Rivera-Black said. "She said, 'Mom, why are you still with him?' I was shocked and asked 'What do you mean?' [My daughter said], 'He's going to kill you.' I didn't realize [my daughters] knew what was going on. I thought we had hidden it, but they knew. They could feel and sense the tension."

The 11-year-old girl had been sitting outside the couple's bedroom door every night, waiting for them to fall asleep first so she could go to bed. She would hold the phone in her hand in case she had to call 911 if Rivera-Black was hurt by her husband.

This time, when Rivera-Black left her husband, she was serious.

"I said, 'Enough. I'm not doing this anymore,"' Rivera-Black said. "I won't let my daughters think this is what a relationship is supposed to be like."

She changed the locks and put safety plan together for her daughters, but her husband continued to stalk and harass her. Rivera-Black applied for another restraining order against her husband and prayed it would be granted. 

"It was, but I forgot a restraining order is just a piece of paper," she said.

On June 26, 2006, Rivera-Black returned from work to find a water-filled trashcan blocking the driveway and the exterior lights of her home turned off. It was 10:30 p.m.

"I stumbled out of the car because I had a sprained ankle, but he knew this because he had been stalking me," she said. "A black silhouette came toward me. He grabbed my arm and I pulled it away, but then he pointed his gun at me. He grabbed me again and said, 'you are coming with me.'"

Rivera-Black had a split-second decision to make: scream and try to get away or go with her husband. She felt there was a 50 percent chance she would be shot and he would go after her family if she struggled, she said.

"He put me in the car and drove me to Boone, Colorado," she said. "He took me to some train tracks and raped me. I couldn't fight him. I remembered those feelings of being a little girl. I became that little girl that night and I sobbed until I said to myself 'I can't let him kill me. I know this is not what God intended for me, I know my girls need me,' so I used my most powerful weapon -- my mind. I was able to manipulate the situation and escape, because he said he was sorry he did this to me, loved me so much, and didn't know how else he'd get my attention."

Rivera-Black said it is extremely difficult for domestic or sexual assault victims to speak-out because they often wonder if they will be believed or blamed.

"Can you imagine [the situation] for someone wearing a uniform?" she asked the audience. "I think you all can probably relate to that. The uniform you wear signifies strength and courage. That is what it means and I didn't want to tarnish that with my personal issues. That was my thinking then, but I had some great people who supported me along the way and told me it was 'OK.'"

Life after domestic violence
In the aftermath of her sexual assault, Rivera-Black was angry and embarrassed.

"I said it would never happen to me," she said. "I experienced 'victim blame,' - people asking me 'aren't you trained to fight?' I used to hate it, but now I welcome it because my goal is to educate people who obviously have no idea what it is to be in a situation like that. They are not familiar with the dynamics of domestic abuse and sexual assault."

Against her Sheriff's recommendation, Rivera-Black returned to duty two weeks after the assault but realized she wasn't ready. She had not healed and wasn't able to make informed decisions. She was still broken, she said.

"The night it all happened, I prayed like I had never prayed before," she said. "I wanted to live. I made a promise to God that if I lived I would spend the rest of my days helping people who are going through this. I had been so angry I had forgotten about that. After the trial I began this healing journey and started seeking my faith again."

Rivera-Black realized she was unable to deal with her pain by herself and got the help she needed.

"I couldn't tuck my pain away anymore," she said. "Believe people when they tell you about abuse and listen to them and allow them to cry. There is life after domestic violence; there is life after any encounter."

Lt. Col. Daniel Watola, an associate professor in the Academy's Behavioral Sciences and Leadership Department, said some people rarely hear about domestic violence and sexual assault.

"You don't really hear about it even if [the victim is a] close neighbor," he said. "This event gives us a first-hand account of what's going on and maybe it will allow us to observe different things in our neighborhoods, take action, and be more sympathetic and helpful when things like this happen."

Domestic Violence Awareness Month began in 1981 to connect advocates across the nation to stop violence, mourn victims and celebrating survivors. Domestic violence is an epidemic affecting individuals in every community, regardless of age, economic status, sexual orientation, or other qualifiers, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Rivera-Black has since remarried.

"I have my true 'Prince Charming now'," she said. "I was still not quite healed when we met, but he stuck with me, values me, respects me, and treats me like I should have been the entire time. My life is good, but that didn't happen without so many people who were there for me."