Carmen George

How to help a victim of domestic abuse – from an Olympic gold medalist who’s been there

Ruthie Bolton is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, former WNBA basketball star and first lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserves. She’s also a survivor of domestic violence.

Years of beatings from her ex-husband finally ended when she left him after he threatened to kill her, Bolton says. Now she’s on a mission to help others get out of abusive relationships. She’ll continue that work in Fresno on Oct. 13 as the keynote speaker for the Marjaree Mason Center’s annual Top Ten Professional Women and Leading Business Awards luncheon.

There were 5,351 domestic violence calls received by the Fresno Police Department last year. Of those, 424 involved a weapon, including someone using their body to inflict harm, such as punching, kicking or hitting. So far this year, Fresno police have received nearly 4,000 domestic violence calls. The Fresno County Sheriff’s Office, which investigates in areas not covered by police departments, reported 1,029 cases of domestic violence last year and 772 so far this year.

The nonprofit Marjaree Mason Center, a leader in supporting victims of domestic abuse in Fresno, helped 5,700 adults and children last year. Since October 2016, the center provided more than 50,350 nights of emergency and transitional housing for 359 women, 558 children and 16 men fleeing abusive relationships.

Bolton, the former Sacramento Monarchs’ player known by many as “Mighty Ruthie,” shared with The Bee about how people can help victims of domestic abuse.

1. Try to understand

Bolton says people often have a hard time understanding why victims of domestic abuse don’t immediately leave their abusive relationship. For Bolton, guilt was a powerful factor keeping her with her husband.

She felt like it was her fault, that she was failing at making him happy.

She felt confused about whether the right decision was to fight for her marriage or leave it. “I grew up in a Christian home: You’re obedient to your husband. Whatever he says goes. As a faithful woman, you’ve got to forgive, but when do you walk away?”

She didn’t want to be a quitter. “I was trying to prove to everyone that we were meant to be together, that he was my dream husband. Every time someone said, ‘It’s not going to work,’ I said, ‘Watch me.’  That’s what I did in my basketball career.”

She also didn’t want to have a failed marriage. “I didn’t want to be a statistic of divorce, I really didn’t.”

2. Be a friend

Don’t be angry with someone for not immediately leaving an abusive relationship, Bolton says, because that person already feels guilty, like they are letting down their abuser.

Bolton says one friend helped by encouraging her to seek professional help from a counselor, which she did, and by just listening. She said, “I love you, I’m here for you, I’m just a phone call away.”

Bolton wishes she’d told more people about the abuse, and that she had more support. “I wish they had come together as a team, as a group, and said, ‘I know what’s going on.’ … I think that would have helped.”

And, Bolton says, don’t just talk with a victim about the abuse. “What things make you soar? Focus on those things. … Remind her of her greatness.”

3. Share information

Bolton wishes she had received information about domestic abuse before she divorced her husband of 10 years in 2002. “I had zero clue how unhealthy my situation was. If he didn’t hit me, I thought, ‘OK cool, my life is great.’ 

Now she’s working to educate others as a motivational speaker and author. She puts a lot of emphasis on educating teenagers about healthy relationships. Now she is in one – Bolton has remarried and has two children.

“As women, we have to join forces and we have to stick together. We have to help our next generation so we can break the cycle.”

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge

Report violence

Call 9-1-1 to report violence. Marjaree Mason Center staff also have a 24-hour crisis hotline, 559-233-HELP (4357), where tips can be made anonymously.

Hear Ruthie Bolton speak

Ruthie Bolton will be the keynote speaker of the 34th annual Top Ten Professional Women and Leading Business Awards hosted by the Marjaree Mason Center at 11 a.m. Oct. 13 at the Fresno Convention Center. Tickets are $60 and support the center. They can be purchased at Nicole Linder, executive director of the center, calls Bolton “one of the most inspirational speakers I’ve ever met.”