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She was stunned when she saw her 7-year-old son punch her 5-year-old daughter in the eye.

His explanation? "I told her not to change the channel, and she did it anyway. So I hit her."Before the woman could react, the little girl piped in: "He's right, Mom. He did tell me. I'm sorry."

The woman saw in her children a pint-size replica of her marriage. She loaded them into the car and headed for a battered-women's shelter.

Her story horrifies LeRoy Franke, but after years as a domestic violence program specialist, very little surprises him. He knows, for instance, that the average woman in an abusive situation leaves and returns eight to 12 times before she's finally finished.

He understands some of the answers to the most-asked question in abusive relationships:

Why doesn't she just leave?

It starts with "attitudes that tolerate and even reverse the blame to some degree," Franke said. "Many perpetrators are Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde - very charming to others, even her family."

When a woman says she needs help, that he's abusive, outsiders can hardly believe it. A typical abuser might even admit he was "mean" and apologize.

Experts call abusers "he" because in up to 95 percent of domestic violence cases, men abuse women.

"You get a collusion of church leaders, family and others who say, `The poor guy. Give him a break,' " Franke said.

Outside forces exert less pressure than what's happening at home - and in the woman. Violence in a relationship is not an event but a process. Society desensitizes people to it, Franke said.

"Before you harm someone physically, you turn them into an object. It's never your sweetheart you hit. It's that b - - - - . . . Turning someone into an object can be done by gender or race or whatever. Then you commit the abuse. Then you justify the abuse: `I had to hit her. She wouldn't do what she was supposed to do. If she had been a good mother (kept the house clean, cooked my dinner . . .)' "

Sadly, victims buy into the rationalization and take the blame, said victim advocacy specialist Diane Stuart.

"So much of what they have gone through reinforces their own guilt feelings about what has happened. They end up saying, `It was my fault. I started the fight. I shouldn't have nagged him about . . .'

"Perpetrators are very good at blaming the victim, and we as members of society tend to do the same thing by equalizing it out. `I understand why he did it.' `He had a childhood of abuse.' `He could have done something worse.' "

Traditionally, women have been responsible for the relationship and nurturing, while men have been providers, Stuart said. That reinforces abuse. He wouldn't have to hit her if she'd do her job right.

Caroline's descent into domestic "terrorism" is typical. Her husband started by eroding her self-esteem. Criticizing. Blaming. Verbal abuse, she now knows, always precedes physical violence.

She became isolated. He didn't like her friends or family, so she quit seeing them. She cut back on phone calls because they irritated him. She just wanted to avoid blowups.

"I didn't see it, didn't see that this man who was supposed to love me and be my best friend was controlling my life."

Children are a prime weapon. No matter how illogical it seems to people who haven't experienced family violence, abusers succeed at convincing women that if they leave they will lose their children or won't be able to support them. Some tighten the trap by threatening to harm the children.

Little treatment exists for the children of domestic violence, although they are much more likely to commit acts of violence themselves. Seeing the mother abused is as devastating as being abused, according to Franke.

When an abuser looks into a woman's eyes and announces he'll hunt her down and kill her if she leaves, she's likely to believe him.

Statistics back him up in the threat of bodily harm or death. Women who leave are at 75 percent greater risk of being killed, according to Franke.

The threat is potent. Franke tells how shelters for battered women were almost empty recently after a northern Utah man allegedly killed his wife and set her body on fire. Eventually, women started coming in again. One woman said she stayed away because her husband asked her, "You want to be a . . . shish kabob, too?" Other women told similar stories.

Leaving doesn't mean it's over, he said. Shelter operators know only too well that most women go back to abusers, at least for a while.

Prosecutors are used to having battered wives ask them to drop charges, according to Steve Garside, Logan prosecutor. The Utah Legislature passed a no-drop law so cases go to court regardless of the woman's wishes.

The "honeymoon" phase can be seductive. He apologizes and promises it won't happen again. She convinces herself it's true.

Garside said that abuse, unless checked, always happens again. Usually harder and meaner.

Joan's decision to stay was purely economic. She had no money to support her kids alone, she said. "It got so bad I had to get out, even if it meant we'd live in the car."

Often, women are just afraid no one will believe them.

While both women and men become violent in an abusive relationship, differences are based on more than size inequality. Franke said men tend to use "instrumental" violence, violence with a purpose like controlling someone.

Women are reactive in their violence, striking back. So police often arrive at the scene to find a man who is calm and "in control," while the woman is hysterical and "volcanic." It's hard to sort out what happened.

Since victims vacillate, it's important to act fast once a woman decides to leave, said Suzanne Bell-Brown, resident coordinator at the Salt Lake YWCA's battered women's shelter. Most women try to leave while the man is away, which makes timing important. If he shows up, she's likely to deny knowing why police are there. It's also a hard decision. Given time to think about it, many women will decide to tough it out for reasons already cited.

Ultimately, separating abusive partners is society's responsibility.

"We need to stop saying `there but for the grace of God go I,' " Stuart said. "We need to be outraged at the violence. We need to say those who are violent will be held responsible.

"We should provide treatment, yes. But that's secondary."