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When it comes to domestic violence, a victim could be anyone

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Editor's note: This is the first story in a new series on domestic violence. The second installment will publish Friday morning online, looking at how New Jersey's legal system handles domestic violence.

Martina Singleton slid to the floor, thinking about her baby in the crib.

All she could think was: “I’m going to die. I’m going to die here in front of my child.”

Her ex-husband had cracked a pool stick over her head, and when she tried to stand, he punched her in the face.

Singleton fought to get back on her feet, seeing the look in his eyes: You aren't dead yet?

She eased up the wall to where the phone was, but he pulled it from the wall and smashed her in the head with it, sending her back to the floor, praying now.

"Oh God, please. Let me live."

Singleton got up again. Once he left, she grabbed her daughter and ran out of the house and down the street, zigzagging like she "was drunk," to her sisters' house.

When they opened the door and saw her, they screamed.

Domestic violence is prevalent in every part of the world, with one in four women experiencing severe physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner in her lifetime, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. One in seven men have experienced the same.

It transcends race, age, gender, economics and education levels, and can manifest in any number of criminal acts, from trespassing, stalking and burglary to homicide.

Anyone can become a victim of domestic violence, said Claudia Ratzlaff, CEO of the Women’s Center in Atlantic County.

“All citizens need to weigh in,” she said. “They need to be educated on how they can impact violence because we all know a victim and we all know a perpetrator.”

In New Jersey, domestic violence-related restraining orders are on the rise. A 2015 report from the state courts showed 32,691 domestic violence complaints filed in Family Court for the entire state — a 950-case increase from the previous year.

Among Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Ocean counties, more than 5,000 new domestic violence complaints were filed in Family Court for the year.

Last year, there were about 52 domestic violence-related deaths in the state. In 2013, the state ranked 21st in the number of intimate-partner homicides, according to the New Jersey Domestic Violence Fatality and Near Fatality Review Board.

Despite these alarming statistics, domestic violence cases are extremely difficult to prosecute: Nearly eight out of 10 municipal domestic violence complaints end up not being prosecuted, often because victims don't want to follow through with their complaints.

In Atlantic County municipal court, 1,586 complaints were disposed, but of those, 1,461 were dismissed in 2015.

In response, the state Supreme Court formed a task force to look at domestic violence. The report, published last year, says the state needs to revamp domestic violence laws, courts need to change policies, police officers and lawyers need to be better trained, and more resources are needed to fight domestic violence.

Meanwhile, the violence keeps happening, including the recent slayings of Tara O'Shea-Watson, of Cumberland County, and Jacqueline Hoyle and Bessy Blanco, both of Atlantic City. All were allegedly murdered by former partners.

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Martina Singleton CARA

Martina Singleton has been the sexual abuse program coordinator for CARA, (Collation Against Rape and Abuse) in Cape May County for 20 years. Tuesday March 28, 2017. (Dale Gerhard / Staff Photographer)

Singleton is 61 now. She keeps her black hair cropped and rounded off to her chin. For the past 20 years, she has worked at the Coalition Against Rape and Abuse in Cape May County, where she is the sexual assault program coordinator and counselor and works with women who are survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence.

“That is my purpose in life. That’s why I survived. I survived to help others,” she said. “I survived it, but you might not.”

To this day, she is not sure how she made it to her sisters' home, other than through "the grace of God."

She had run away from a sheltered upbringing by her grandmother at 16 and straight into the arms of the man who would end up abusing her.

When she first met him, though, she thought she had found her "knight in shining armor."

At 20, she got married. The marriage fell apart quickly. It started with name-calling, putting her down, having affairs — even getting another woman pregnant — to pushing, shoving and cursing.

Singleton said she didn't know much about the world and was raised Christian, where marriages were "until death do you part." But the abuse continued until the day she feared she might die in front of her child.

Even after the attack, Singleton went back to her husband, because she believed a child needed a father. But she also had another fear — that if she left, he would take their daughter.

It wasn't until her daughter was 2 years old that she secretly moved some of her belongings out of the home they shared, and left.

On average, it takes a woman seven times to leave a domestically violent relationship, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Fear, embarrassment, financial dependence or religion can factor into why a woman may stay.

Leaving isn't always easy and a restraining order isn’t always a one-way ticket to freedom.

“A restraining order is only as good as you feel your significant other is law-abiding, if you feel law enforcement impacts him or he has something to lose,” Ratzlaff said.

For women who have children with their abusers, it can be hard to fully liberate themselves legally, she said.

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Marie's battle with her ex-husband has moved from their home to the courts, but if you ask her, she doesn't feel any safer, even with the thick stack of legal papers that tells a story of custody disputes, restraining order violations and other accusations.

She called The Press of Atlantic City in January. While she said she fears her ex will retaliate against her, she still wished to talk about her experience with abuse. The Press is not identifying her because of her concerns for her safety.

Marie said she felt pressured by family to marry her ex-husband because they were having a child and he was wealthy.

Before long, her ex-husband told her to leave her job, get rid of her car and put her cellphone bill in his name — making her financially dependent on him, she said.

Her ex-husband had affairs, which she said they tried to work through with therapy, but he eventually became emotionally abusive. Later, she said, he choked her in front of their children, but she was afraid to call police.

A 2008 study found choking is one of the strongest predictors of homicide in domestic violence, with 43 percent of women murdered by a partner who choked them previously.

The final attack, which did not involve choking, led Marie to calling the police. Her attacker was removed from the home, but Marie said her divorce proceedings were marred by lawyers telling her to drop her temporary restraining orders to move into civil proceedings.

With children in the mix and no money or job to continue to pay her lawyers, her ex-husband received partial custody. Marie has a final restraining order now, but she said her ex-husband finds other ways to harass her. She said she feels like a prisoner in her own home.

“That’s my constant life, watching over my shoulder,” she said. “I want the full custody of my children. This joint legal stuff is killing me. I can’t put them in counseling. I can’t do anything.”

Marie said she feels police and judges have not taken her seriously, and said at one point she was accused of abusing her restraining order by reporting him all the time.

Some domestic violence cases, such as Marie's, boil down to only two witnesses: the abused and abuser.

If the system is overused, Ratzlaff said, it’s because "of how it’s set up as a referee.”

Marie is navigating the system as well as family courts alone, and said she's in desperate need of legal representation. She wonders if by the time she gets help, it will be too late.

“Is something going to happen to me? One of my kids?" Marie asked. "And everyone is just going to say, 'Sorry'?"

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