Left to right: Court Watch Montgomery Board of Directors President John Ford, author Leslie Morgan Steiner, Court Watch Montgomery Executive Director Leslie Hawes, Senior Assistant State’s Attorney Debbie Feinstein and Montgomery County police Capt. Gerald McFarland at Thursday's event. Credit: Court Watch Montgomery

Leslie Morgan Steiner is an author and a nationally recognized speaker who also has written for publications such as Seventeen magazine and The Washington Post. But she is also a victim of domestic violence, Steiner told a packed room Thursday night at River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Bethesda.

“Victims are everywhere …  domestic violence tends to hide in plain sight,” Steiner said during the event hosted by the nonprofit Court Watch Montgomery. 

Steiner, who lives in Washington, D.C., said she thought domestic violence was not something that could ever happen to her. But over the course of time that she knew her abuser and eventually married him, he turned her from “an independent young woman” to “someone who was completely dependent on him.”

Court Watch Montgomery hosted the event to raise awareness about domestic violence occurring in the county and elsewhere. The nonprofit aims to advocate for “ongoing systemic change for domestic violence survivors through [its] court monitoring program,” according to its website. The nonprofit also uses data to monitor “staggered exits,” a practice to protect victims of domestic violence in which a victim is allowed to leave the courtroom first after a protective order hearing, with their alleged offender leaving no sooner than 15 minutes after they depart.

County Council member Sidney A. Katz, chair of the council’s Public Safety Commission and former chair of the Domestic Violence Coordinating Council, and county police Capt. Gerald McFarland of the department’s Special Victims Investigations Division attended the event as well as other county and law enforcement officials.

According to the Montgomery County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council, one in four women and one in seven men will experience domestic violence in their lifetimes. 

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John Ford, president of the Court Watch Montgomery Board of Directors, noted that 3,000 domestic violence protective orders have been filed in county courts so far this year, which is about the same number of orders filed each year since 2019. 

“That’s about 250 people in our county every month [who] are going to go through the system and try to get some kind of domestic violence protective order,” he said.

According to Court Watch Montgomery Executive Director Leslie Hawes, the nonprofit has monitored more than 11,000 protective order hearings in the county since its inception over a decade ago.

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Katz thanked Court Watch Montgomery’s volunteers for their advocacy for domestic violence victims through the nonprofit’s court-monitoring program.

“We’re very sorry that you have to do all this work. It’s not something that we’re pleased about but we sincerely appreciate the work that you do, and that you help families during perhaps the worst moment of their life,” he said. “That’s exactly what we need people to be doing, to help each other.”

Steiner told the crowd she met her abuser after college in New York City. She pointed out that abusers tended to pick their victims carefully and that through all of her interactions with fellow victims over the years, she found that they tended to have “big hearts and were really forgiving, generous people.”  

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Describing how a relationship can become violent, she noted that her abuser made the beginning of their relationship “feel like a fairytale” and then ended up isolating her from everyone she knew by moving with her away from friends and family to a small town in New England shortly before their marriage.

Steiner said her abuser beat her, strangled her until she couldn’t breathe, and held a loaded gun to her head several times. She tried to leave multiple times but would return because she loved him and believed he was “a troubled man who needed help,” Steiner said, noting her abuser had also been abused while growing up.

After one particularly harrowing incident in which she thought she might die, Steiner ended up leaving her husband, filing for divorce and a permanent restraining order. 

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Since then, Steiner said, “I’ve had a life that is completely free of violence of anybody controlling my life and terrifying me, and I have that because so many people helped at a time when I couldn’t help myself and I was as weak as I’ve ever been — not just my friends and family but even more so, the complete strangers in my life.”

Steiner described the experience of sharing her story and connecting with other victims of trauma as “very healing.”

“One of the worst things about being a domestic violence victim is that you feel so alone, and you feel that’s never happened to anybody else in this way, and that no one can understand, and no one can help you, so it is very healing,” she said.

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Steiner also thanked Court Watch Montgomery and those involved in helping victims of domestic violence. 

“I’m so grateful that so many of you are here tonight. And that all of you are really, in your own way, dedicated to helping people like me who just fall in love with the wrong person and get trapped before we know it and need a lot of help in getting out and rebuilding,” she said.

Apps Bichu reports on growth and justice. She can be reached at apps.bichu@bethesdamagazine.com