Domestic Violence Survivor Driven by Past to Create Change

February 19, 2014
by Susan Shimotsu
Amanda Tenorio, left, with Col. Gregory D. Gadson, base commander at Fort Belvoir in Virginia, after she spoke at the base's Domestic Violence Awareness Month proclamation kick-off ceremony in 2012.

A single mother of two separated from her husband, Amanda Tenorio thought she found her “Prince Charming” – a new man who immediately swept her off her feet. Little did she know that the next 13 months would be filled with pain, abuse, hospitalizations and more at the hands of an abusive boyfriend.

Tenorio thought dating had started out well, but before she knew it, her boyfriend began controlling her every move, including what she did with her car, her phone and her money. After three months of this control and verbal abuse, Tenorio’s boyfriend began physically assaulting her, including shoving her against walls, spitting at her and grabbing her so hard her arms would bruise from his fingers.

“While in hindsight I should’ve left immediately, I had become emotionally attached to this man and was beginning to fall in love with him,” said Tenorio, a graduate student in the Virtual Academic Center of the USC School of Social Work. “Because I had already been married and didn’t want to keep playing the dating game, I was determined to do whatever it took to make the relationship work.”

That would turn out to be an ill-fated decision, but not an uncommon one for victims of domestic violence. That’s one of the many reasons why Tenorio decided to turn her traumatic experience into a positive one and help others in similar situations. She started working as a victim advocate before enrolling in the School of Social Work’s web-based MSW@USC program, which allows her to earn a Master of Social Work while continuing her advocacy work at home in Virginia.

“Being a victim of domestic violence has given me a perspective that only someone who has lived through abuse can truly understand,” Tenorio said.

In May 2009, Tenorio and her abuser were set to celebrate their birthdays—only two days apart—when they began arguing. That argument turned into him beating Tenorio for 14 hours while her two children were in the next bedroom. Finally fed up, Tenorio packed her boyfriend’s bags and told him to leave her home, which triggered a brutal assault with a metal towel rack, after which her abuser nearly broke her hip bone, broke her nose from trying to suffocate her and then strangled her until she lost consciousness.

“I really thought asking him to leave would’ve been that simple,” Tenorio said. “This would be the beginning of a long series of assaults, each with me trying to find a way to safely escape, but being unsuccessful every time.”

Terrified to tell anyone what was happening to her, Tenorio lied on the witness stand when her boyfriend was arrested for domestic assault, testifying that he was not the person who had hurt her. The charges were subsequently dropped and a week later, her boyfriend beat Tenorio into a coma.

“At that point, I decided it was safer for me to stay in the relationship than trying to leave him because it would just result in more beatings,” said Tenorio, who was convicted of filing a false police report once she was discharged. “It broke my heart to send my daughter away to live with my mother, but I knew I had to stay strong for my son, who remained with me and eventually became a punching bag, too.”

Eight more months of almost daily beatings and seeing her son tortured, as well culminated in a hospitalization in February 2010, when Tenorio’s abuser attacked her with a mop, nearly paralyzing her. But Tenorio, again very much afraid, decided to leave the hospital when the police came to take her statement.

When she returned home, her abuser was waiting with a baseball bat to punish her for leaving the house and trying to get help. Tenorio spent the next two weeks locked in her home, her every move monitored, and was unable to use the phone.

On Feb. 22, a concerned domestic violence investigator left a card on Tenorio’s door, and her boyfriend once again brutally assaulted her because he thought she was working with the police. Around this time, local Det. Melissa Wallace began to reach out to her by phone to see if she could convince Tenorio to leave and get help.

“I had actually met Amanda in the summer of 2009 after an attack left her hospitalized,” said Wallace. “She minimized the incident, called it a big misunderstanding and took most of the blame upon herself. The officer who responded to the February 2010 hospitalization was appalled at her injuries and asked me to follow up with her, but she still refused to turn in her abuser.”

Tenorio’s abuser actually heard part of this conversation and beat her once again after hanging up on Wallace. On Feb. 23, Tenorio was finally able to flee her home, running as fast as she could to a neighbor’s house and immediately calling 911.

She never returned to her abuser after that.

Shortly after the 911 call, Tenorio returned to the hospital and began working with the police department’s domestic violence investigators and was taken to a safe house until her abuser was arrested. Convicted in both Maryland and Virginia, he is currently serving up to 55 years in prison for malicious wounding, second-degree assault and kidnapping. His sentence in Maryland (40 years) is the longest in state history for a domestic violence crime.

While Tenorio credits Wallace with saving her life, Wallace is quick to commend Tenorio for her bravery once she decided to tell the truth about her abuser.

“This was the worst case of domestic abuse I had ever seen,” said Wallace. “I pushed hard for her case because I knew that she was finally ready to move forward and would need help in doing so because she had no access to any resources, such as a job, money, family or place to live. She saved her own life when she finally had the courage to come forward.”

Tenorio wanted to help other victims of domestic violence and began volunteering with these programs and agencies in 2010. By 2012, she began working in the field, first as a victims advocate in the military.

“I know what it is like to be victimized by a person who claims to love you and by a system that fails you,” Tenorio said. “Because of my experience, both with my abusive boyfriend and with the legal system, I wanted to make a change for other victims.”

Just a few months into working in social work, Tenorio decided to further her education and pursue an MSW at USC. With the Virtual Academic Center (VAC), she found the perfect solution to getting a quality education without uprooting her kids and leaving her advocacy relationships behind in Virginia.

“USC is one of the best schools in the country, and a top social work school,” said Tenorio, who is now in her third semester of the part-time program. “When I heard about the VAC, I knew I had found the perfect MSW program for me. Working full-time, having two very active kids, and doing all of the speaking that I do on my own time meant that I needed something with some flexibility.”

By focusing her studies in the school’s Community Organization, Planning and Administration concentration, Tenorio hopes to advocate for policy change around domestic violence. She has begun meeting with local, state and national political representatives to talk to them about the gaps that need to be filled in domestic violence policy.

Harry Hunter Jr., who taught Tenorio’s class on social policy analysis, said he can see her moving into a legislative role, advocating for effective services and resources for vulnerable women and children.

“Amanda is such a talented student who not only is passionate about her career choice but also wants to learn and engage in critical thinking to expand her skill set,” said Hunter. “She has previously shared to my classes how she has found her niche as an advocate for changes to laws and other institutional barriers that are ineffective in helping women leave their abusers. I believe that Amanda will be an excellent social worker and will have a tremendously positive influence on the lives of her clients or constituents.”

In addition to speaking at events, Tenorio recently appeared on “Let’s Talk Live,” a talk show in the Washington, D.C., area to tell her story, show people how domestic violence victims do not have any universal traits, and encourage victims to not stay silent.

“Going on live TV to share my story was a huge stride for me and for the cause,” said Tenorio. “There are so many stereotypes about what a domestic violence victim looks like or who they are, that many victims go unnoticed because they don't fit this image. I want people to see my face, hear my story, and remember that when they think about domestic violence. Because I was silent for so long, I want other victims to see what can happen—a potentially happy ending—when you finally speak out.”

One of the lingering issues from the abuse that remained with Tenorio was her conviction for filing a false police report. With a criminal record looming over her head, Tenorio decided to fight it. An attorney offered to take her case pro bono and has filed a petition with the governor of Virginia to ask for a pardon, which was granted earlier this year.

While Tenorio is making her way through the MSW program, she continues to work full-time and raise her two children. In January 2014, she became the case manager of the new Domestic Violence Supportive Housing program in Virginia. She also presents at many different fundraisers, galas, charity events, conferences and trainings.   

“I never realized how comfortable I am speaking to any size audience until I first tried it,” said Tenorio, who has trained judges, lawyers, clergy leaders and more on how to treat domestic violence victims in the Washington, D.C., area. “Domestic violence is such a personal issue to me. My goal is to make a large cultural and social change on how society perceives it and how they deal with it. Ultimately, I want to see domestic violence eradicated.”