Victim seeks to change state laws
What started as a collection of random thoughts composed on Post-It notes by a survivor of domestic violence is now on its way to becoming a law – Celena’s Law.
At first glance 33-year-old Celena Roby, who stands 5’2” tall, appears to be an average woman – meek and mild – but when it comes to battling domestic violence, she has not only proved herself to be a survivor, but a force with which to be reckoned.
Married at 19, Roby thought she had found the love of her life, but over the years a gradual escalation of abuse ultimately led to violence and permanent emotional and physical scars. Now, Roby is speaking out against domestic violence in an effort to raise awareness and change the way domestic violence cases are prosecuted in West Virginia.
“I lived in an abusive situation for 11 years,” Roby explained. “And then, in September of 2008, I made the decision to end the relationship.” This decision, though brave, did not sit well with her abuser.
Held hostage in the bathroom of her home, Roby found herself in a fight for her life, as her children stood on the other side of the door. “He (my abuser) wanted me to answer a question,” she said. “But to this day, I still don’t know what the question was. He kept demanding over and over that I answer him. He degraded me. He threatened to harm me more if I didn’t answer him. He looked down on me and when he realized I wasn’t going to fight, he smiled and walked away.”
Though battered and beaten, Roby’s thoughts were for her children. “I heard them crying out, ‘please don’t hurt my Mommy.’ I remember that I focused on their cries, because I wasn’t sure if I’d ever hear that sound again.”
That night, Roby suffered severe head trauma and an injury to her eye, but her abuser’s attempt to teach her a lesson only strengthened her resolve.
With $12 to her name, Roby left her home for a fresh start. She was able to support her children during this difficult transition by working odd jobs like construction and cleaning houses and depending on help from friends.
She settled into a small apartment, but being on her own would prove to be both exciting and frightening. “It was kind of strange living on my own because I had my freedom,” she commented. “When I was with my abuser my day was scheduled from the time I woke up until I went to bed. I always felt like a puppet and that he was the one pulling the strings.”
To keep her abuser at bay, Roby filed a domestic violence petition which prohibited him from making contact with her. “I kept thinking the protection order would be enough, but when my youngest son looked at me and said ‘Mommy, why didn’t you answer his question,’ I realized he thought it was okay, that I could have prevented the injuries if I had just done what I was told. I never wanted him to think it was okay.”
So, one year after she left the relationship, Roby filed charges. The only crime on the books that fit the situation was domestic assault.
Roby’s abuser stood trial for domestic assault, however, the magistrate court judge found him not guilty in spite of his confession in open court to holding her against her will.
Stunned by the verdict, Roby remarked, “This is why women don’t leave.”
Persistent in her pursuit for justice, Roby researched the West Virginia State Codes and other state codes pertaining to domestic violence.
While coming to grips with her newfound freedom, Roby kept busy giving speeches for various state organizations on domestic violence. She has used this platform to thank the officers who helped her and those who have encouraged her to speak out. “They helped me get out of my situation, but they also helped me regain my life,” she said. “They went the extra mile.”
Her first speech was given in front of the West Virginia Sheriff’s Association, an opportunity that opened doors for other speaking engagements around the state.
She also helped lobby for and pass a measure which would provide domestic violence petitions to protect victims for a period of one year, by addressing the matter during a session of the state legislature on behalf of the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Armed with a better understanding of the legislative process, Roby began to brainstorm. One day as she was taking a break from pouring concrete, Roby collected her thoughts on Post-It notes. She had no idea she was laying the foundation for the formation of a new law. “I started jotting my ideas down on Post-It notes. I took the sticky notes, with concrete and mud on them, to the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence.”
The organization took the Post-It notes, put the ideas on paper and formed a committee. After a year of drafting, Roby presented the proposal to other organizations in the hope of garnering their support for the measure.
The resulting Celena’s Law is supported by the West Virginia Sheriff’s Association, the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and the West Virginia Association of Counties.
Currently, 38 states, including Virginia, have codes addressing unlawful restraint, a provision which could have benefited Roby in her situation. “I want to make it 39,” she said. “A loophole was found to benefit my abuser. I’m looking to close that loophole with this new law.”
To this end, Roby will present “Celena’s Law” to the West Virginia Legislature in January. The proposed bill will amend the Code of West Virginia by adding a new section, designated as section 61-2-14g, relating to the creation of a misdemeanor crime of unlawful restraint. Under this provision, any person who “without proper legal authority, intentionally restrains another by use, attempted use or threatened use of force, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor offense of unlawful restraint in the first degree and, upon conviction thereof, shall be confined in a county or regional jail for not more than 12 months, or fined not more than $500, or both.”
Unlawful restraint in the second degree will be defined as any person who, without proper legal authority, intentionally restrains another by use of deception or threat other than threat of force. Upon conviction, the accused will be confined in a county jail or regional jail for not more than six months, or fined not more than $100, or both.
Angie Rosser from the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence added, “Adopting Celena’s Law, which involves creating a misdemeanor crime of unlawful restraint, would close a loophole in West Virginia’s current laws that address domestic violence. Restraining, confining or holding someone against their will is a common tactic that domestic violence offenders use to control, dominate and terrorize their victims yet that behavior is not clearly identified in our criminal statute.”
Aside from filling a gap where the West Virginia Code is lacking, Roby and others believe the law would provide the court system, law enforcement officers and prosecutors another tool to hold abusers accountable and offer more victims the protection needed to be safe from further abuse.
Tyler County Sheriff Bob Kendle, Jr. agrees. “We’ve had several cases of domestic violence in Tyler County that could not be prosecuted because there was not a code pertaining specifically to such domestic altercations. Celena’s Law could’ve been utilized in these situations.”
Celena’s Law has garnered the support of other Tyler County officials as well.
“I would support such a law,” stated Tyler County Prosecuting Attorney D. Luke Furbee. “A similar recommendation was made to the legislative committee of the West Virginia Prosecuting Attorneys Association last year. I would only add that I would like to see it amended to include a felony level of the offense because the facts have a way of varying between extremes in these cases. However, our kidnapping law is broader than just abduction. It covers certain situations where persons are confined against their will for unlawful purposes. It is a matter of degree.”
Tyler County Victim Advocate Toni VanCamp remarked, “Such a law would be a great help because some situations are hard to fit into the existing law on domestic violence. Abusers often turn the home into a prison for their victims, and because it does not always involve expressed threats or actual violence, it is sometimes difficult to address.”
The tragedy and triumph of Roby’s journey has taught her valuable lessons. “In my years with my abuser lessons were learned, just not the ones he thought he was teaching. I learned to hold my head up high. I’ve learned that every trial and every scar only makes us who we are. I have learned to take the dreams that I held within me and let them fly. Every time those dreams seemed out of reach and the pursuit to obtain those dreams knocked me to the ground, I learned to get back up. This puppet will continue to fight. This puppet will always dream. I will take every opportunity to dance in the rain. I will carry on and sever strings one at a time until I have the one thing I want more than anything – my freedom.”
“I want to thank the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the West Virginia Association of Counties, the West Virginia Sheriff’s Association, the Mineral Wells Baptist Church, and family and friends who have helped and provided support throughout the journey,” she concluded.
Nearly two years after an act of violence forced her to leave her home, Roby and her boys, Daniel (age nine) and Ryan (age 13) are safe and getting back on their feet. No longer a victim, Roby balances motherhood, volunteer work, and a full-time career. Going from steel-toed work boots as a concrete worker to high heels as a volunteer lobbyist, it’s a new journey, with new strings for a puppet turned champion.
Editor’s Note: If you or anyone you know is a victim of domestic violence, call the national domestic violence hotline at 800-799-7233 or contact your local law enforcement agency.