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Healing touch

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The slide show includes powerful statistics: "1 in 4 women have been in an abusive relationship." "84% of those victims remain silent." But it's the photos that hit hardest.

The woman lies in a hospital bed, looking as if she had been in a car accident, then tumbled down a hill. Close-ups show her swollen eyes and slashed and bruised body. Other photos show the blood-splattered bathroom where she nearly died.

Three years later, 35-year-old Tara Loo speaks calmly about the attack that nearly killed her, although she admits she sometimes asks herself, "How did this happen to me?"

The short story is that Loo was going through a divorce when she reconnected with a high school friend. And over six months, their relationship changed. At first, the warning signs were subtle. Loo began noticing that the likeable guy was different when they were alone. He became verbally abusive, then it turned physical.

"He would cry and say, 'I'm so sorry, it'll never happen again.' And I'm consoling him, afterwards. He'd call and say, 'I want to kill myself.'"

Her friends and family didn't know the relationship was spiraling into darkness.

Protect and serve

On the night of Dec. 12, 2009, Loo told him it was over. Exhausted from fighting, she went to bed; her two daughters were with their father.

Apparently, he strangled her into unconsciousness, then carried her into the bathroom and began attacking her.

She regained consciousness and realized she couldn't stop the 6-foot-5, 250-pound man. "I knew all I could do was plead with him. 'Please don't. I'm going to die in here. Think about my children.'

"He was like a monster. I was trying to connect somehow, trying to snap him out of it. I was staring in his eyes, and it was just nothing. And he said to me, 'I've already done so much, I'll have to kill you and then kill myself.'

"I kept pleading and pleading and he just kept punching me — and then the knife. And then I remember waking up outside. Obviously, he carried me outside, and I was naked."

The man, who thought he'd killed her, went inside to clean up. Loo came to again and screamed for help — fortunately, it arrived in time.

During her week in the hospital, TESSA entered her life.

Though no one really knows why, El Paso County leads the state in domestic violence, and the rate of sexual assault is triple the national average. TESSA, founded in 1977, is the primary local agency offering confidential services to victims of those crimes.

Staff and volunteers help survivors and their families navigate the bewildering aftermath of a crime, through the justice system and beyond. The agency's collaborators include the Colorado Springs Police Department, Court Appointed Special Advocates and Colorado Legal Services.

According to TESSA, advocate visits to abuse survivors at Memorial Hospital increased by 23 percent in fiscal year 2012, which ended Sept. 30. Also in that year:

• 1,861 adults and children victimized by domestic violence or sexual assault received advocacy services.

• The 24/7 Crisis Line helped almost 7,000 callers.

• The Safehouse provided 9,395 nights of shelter, food, case management and counseling to 230 adults and 184 children.

It takes a $2 million budget and a staff of 21 full-time and 19 part-time employees, augmented by volunteers, to accomplish all this — and they need every bit.

"If you can give $1, if you can give $5, that will make a difference in someone's life," says Nancy Duke, TESSA advocacy program manager. "We got a letter last year from a survivor who donated $2 because that's all she had."

Trusting again

Loo's TESSA advocate arranged for a social worker to tell her daughters Madison and Isabella, then 9 and 6, that their mother was in the hospital.

"At first I told them I'd been in a car accident," Loo says. "Then I thought, 'God forbid that this ever happens to them. I would never want them to think this is something they have to hide or lie about.' So I explained it to them in a way that was the best they could handle."

A TESSA advocate was at her side when her attacker was found guilty in what the judge called the worst case of second-degree assault he'd ever seen. A plea agreement led to a 10-year prison sentence, to be followed by a six-year sentence for a similar attack in Gunnison.

As part of her healing process, Loo used photos of her broken body to create that slide show for presentations. She's even taken her message to the Dr. Phil show for a segment airing sometime this season. Both she and Duke are driven to help people understand the dynamics of abuse.

"When a woman leaves a relationship, that's the most dangerous time for her," Duke says. "So when people say, 'Why doesn't she just leave?' Well, she can stay in the relationship and attempt to manage that violence, or she can leave at the risk of death. Unless you seek out assistance from TESSA, you don't know what your other options are."

Loo's slide show concludes with photos of her with her daughters and the boyfriend who is helping her trust again. Their happy faces reinforce another slide's message:

See Tara's Slideshow Here.

"Victim by fate. Survivor by choice."

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