LEWISTON — Domestic abuse doesn’t take holidays.

Not even on Valentine’s Day, says Jane Morrison, executive director of Safe Voices, an advocacy group working to end domestic violence in Androscoggin, Franklin, and Oxford counties.

The experiences of the women who attend a weekly Safe Voices support group for victims of domestic abuse are proof of it.

“Most had had something really emotionally abusive or physically painful happen around Valentine’s Day,” said Julia Hausman, Safe Voices Justice Project advocate and a facilitator of the support group.

To share their experiences, and in hopes of increasing community awareness, each woman took a heart-shaped piece of paper and wrote about one of her past Valentine’s Days.

“Your worthless,” reads one.

“You should be grateful your arm’s not broken,” reads another.

“’Don’t make me do anything we’ll both regret,” quotes a third.

The women “were talking about Valentine’s Day and sharing their stories about what happened to them at a time when it’s supposed to be romantic and sweet,” Hausman said. “And either it’s none of that, or it’s chocolate early and beatings later. In a sense, they wanted to share their hearts, if you will. And they wanted others to know the danger signs.”

Domestic violence is “a huge problem,” Morrison said. “It’s all about control of one person over another. Unfortunately, it’s also a learned behavior,” often passed from generation to generation.

In Maine, a domestic assault is reported to police every 96 minutes, and about half of all murders in the state are due to domestic violence, according to a Maine Department of Public Safety statistic from 2005.

Most abusive relationships don’t start out that way, Hausman said. “Abusers have two sides. The side that’s wonderful — beyond normal wonderful. Then there’s the side that’s scary, chaotic, dangerous.”

Abuse isn’t always physical, she said. Emotional, sexual, psychological, spiritual, and financial abuse can all be tools used by an abusive partner. Nor is it directed exclusively at women: About 7 percent of domestic abuse victims nationwide are men, Morrison said.

Many victims stay with their abusive partners because leaving is “scary and difficult,” Hausman said. “Abusers threaten to harm the women, to harm the pets, or take away the kids.” Often, a victim starts to believe the negative things their partner says, and tries to hide what is really happening. Victims may stay home from work to hide bruises, tell friends they fell down the stairs to explain black eyes.

“After a while, it becomes routine and they don’t realize they’re lying,” Hausman said. “It’s almost like they’ve been brainwashed.”

The women in Safe Voices’ support group cannot be named, for reasons of confidentiality and safety. Some have left their abusers. Others have stayed, or are planning a safe way to get out. All are working through trauma. They want others to recognize the warning signs, and to know they’re not alone if they do find themselves in an abusive relationship.

“It’s very empowering for these women to be able to talk about it in a way that’s safe,” Hausman said.

Safe Voices was previously known as the Abused Women’s Advocacy Project. The new name met with heartfelt approval from its clients, Morrison said. “They said, ‘We had no voice. Now it’s safe to have a voice.’”

Safe Voices offers a range of services to victims of domestic abuse, including emergency shelter, legal assistance and a 24-hour hot line.

If you answer yes to any of the questions below, Safe Voices encourages you to call its free hot line at 1-800-559-2927

Does the person you love:

*Often ask where you’ve been?

*Accuse you of being unfaithful?

* Say you can’t see family or friends?

* Prevent you from working or going to school?

* Criticize you for little things?

* Make all money decisions?

*Destroy personal property?

* Hit, slap, kick or bite you?

* Threaten to hurt you or your children?

* Use or threaten to use a weapon against you?

* Make you have sex against your will?

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