DENVER — As fatal cases of domestic violence make national headlines, many of the victims were killed in the same manner - strangulation. This dangerous form of abuse is something survivors say does not get the attention it deserves.
Before reading this article, it is important to note some of the details may be triggering for some people.
Andrea Martinez is a survivor of domestic violence. Originally from Denver, Martinez says the abuse occurred in her past marriage around 12 years ago. She says the relationship started out as loving, but moved to manipulative, and eventually turned violent.
“Within about five years, it turned physical and I was very, very surprised when it did," Martinez remembered. "He held me down, strangled me and didn't let me up.”
Martinez says that was the first time she was strangled by her partner. She estimates it happened around 20 times over the course of the abuse. Sometimes, she lost consciousness when strangled.
“All I remember during those times was that it hurt. It hurt in every way possible," said Martinez.
As a result of the violence, Martinez says she suffered a traumatic brain injury. She believes the strangulation, on top of the injury, led to issues like short-term memory loss.
“It took me even a long time to even admit to myself that I was being abused," said Martinez. “I had to keep finding out about [domestic violence]. And I don't remember once even reading that strangulation was a part of it."
At Denver Health, Michelle Metz, RN is the forensic nurse program manager. She began her career in healthcare as a paramedic in 1993, and in 2006 trained to be one of the first sex assault nurse examiners at Denver Health.
“Basically, we help to take care of patients who have been impacted by violence, so be it sexual assault, domestic violence, strangulation, child abuse, elder abuse and human trafficking," said Metz. “Part of what we do is collect evidence, we document injuries, we talk to patients, because a lot of times they're more comfortable talking to us and giving us more information than somebody who's really busy in the emergency department.”
Since the program began, Metz says they have always trained on identifying signs of strangulation. Unfortunately, she sees it often.
“If somebody is strangled, they are 750 times more likely to be subsequently killed by their partner," Metz said. “It only takes about 10, 11 pounds of pressure for about 10 seconds to cut off enough oxygen to the brain that causes somebody to lose consciousness... What we worry about is there might be small little injuries to the vessels. And those injuries can cause a little clot to form that could break off and cause somebody to have a stroke later on.”
Metz says strangulation can be so problematic because, in many cases, there are no external signs of injury.
"Patients can have swelling that's delayed up to about 36 hours. So, maybe a little bit of soreness goes away, and then a day and a half later, they're unable to really drink anything or eat because their throat is swollen and it hurts so bad," Metz explained. “There's a couple of different studies out there that talk about stroke, but stroke can definitely be delayed up to a couple of months, potentially.”
More than anything else, Metz wants anyone who is strangled to seek medical attention.
At the Adams County District Attorney's Office, Stephanie Fritts is the chief deputy district attorney of the Special Victims Unit, which handles all the adult sex assault cases. She has worked on domestic violence-related cases for around 15 years, and understands why a survivor may decide not to press charges.
“There's a myriad of reasons why people cannot engage with the criminal justice system. And sometimes engagement makes the victim less safe, because the private is now public," said Fritts. “It feels like they're on trial more than a defendant at times, and that's really hard for victims.”
Fritts says it may be difficult for first responders to notice the signs of strangulation when responding to an incident.
“There's not a lot of signs or symptoms, so a victim could be strangled to a loss of consciousness and the police come and she has no marks, and she may have defended herself. And so, then the defendant might have marks and he has more visible injury. But you're losing oxygen to the brain. It's can be near fatal very quickly," Fritts explained. “Seeing a victim might be clearing their throat, a lot and spitting, and we train officers to kind of look for that, because they're having difficulty swallowing, there's voice changes, they may suffer headaches, memory loss.”
Strangulation is considered so serious by Colorado's state legislature that it was placed into it's own category of felony assault crimes in July 2016. Since then, those with the Colorado District Attorneys' Council (CDAC) report 538 cases have been filed with charges of first-degree assault related to strangulation, and 10,434 cases have been filed with charges of second-degree assault related to strangulation.
The majority of strangulation crimes are a result of intimate partner violence, according to CDAC.
The numbers show an increase in case filings related to strangulation year after year since laws were passed on the state level. The only year not showing a gradual increase is 2020-2021, but CDAC says that does not mean there were fewer instances of the violent crime. Instead, the pandemic likely led to fewer reports of strangulation, according to CDAC.
Those figures from 2016-2019 do not include complete data from the Denver District Attorneys' Office because they did not contract with CDAC software used to compile the data until 2020.
If you or someone you know is suffering, you are not alone. Here are resources that can help:
You can call 1-800-799-7233, or if you’re unable to speak safely, you can log onto thehotline.org to chat online or text LOVEIS to 22522.
Services are available in English and Spanish.
Highly trained advocates offer support, information and advocacy to young people who have questions or concerns about their dating relationships. Information and support are also provided to concerned friends and family members, teachers, counselors, service providers and members of law enforcement. Free and confidential phone, live chat and texting services are available 24/7/365.
Start a chat with a peer advocate here
Text LOVEIS to 22522
All services are available in English. Calling is available in Spanish 24/7 and online chat is available in Spanish every day from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
If you need to talk, the National Sexual Assault Hotline is available at 800-656-HOPE or you can chat online at online.rann.org. Services are free, confidential and 24/7.
All services are available in English and Spanish.
The crisis line is available 24/7 and can be reached at (303) 688-8484 or toll-free at 1-888-247-7472.
All services are available in English and Spanish.
You can reach out to their 24-hour crisis hotline at 303-343-1851 to speak with a trained staff and volunteers who offer support, referrals, counseling and crisis intervention.
Their 24/7 safe line is available to anyone experiencing domestic violence at 719-633-3819.
If you or someone know you is a victim of domestic violence and would like to access their remote services, they are available by phone at 720-337-4400 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every Monday through Friday.
Call Colorado Crisis Services at 1-844-493-8255, or text "TALK" to 38255.