After enduring months of severe abuse, former Valencia resident Joy Elizabeth stood up before a judge Thursday morning, as her attacker sat nearby, to say that she was no longer a victim, but rather a survivor.
“I’ve taken my power back,” she said while reading a victim impact statement during the sentencing of her former boyfriend at the Los Angeles County Superior Court in San Fernando.
Joseph Willerford, 34, was sentenced Thursday to seven years in prison after pleading no contest to one count of domestic abuse. As part of his plea agreement in connection to his arrest following a November 2018 domestic-violence assault against Elizabeth, three other charges were dropped, including one felony count of torture and two other domestic-abuse charges.
Elizabeth, 52, said she was nervous and had rewritten her statement multiple times, but ultimately, was “happy I got it out; I’m happy I said it and I’m proud of myself for doing it.”
Though the lasting effects of her abuse will be, as she put it, lifelong, Elizabeth wants other victims to speak up and those listening to help start a different conversation around domestic abuse.
“I feel that if I can just share my story, if it can make a difference to one woman, one child or one family, then it’s OK for them to hear my story,” she said. “Our conversation needs to change on a national level or worldwide, even in our own community.”
Elizabeth, a mother of six and a business owner, was going through a divorce with the father of her children in 2016 and soon after met Willerford. He presented himself as someone exciting and caring, and gained adoration from her children, she said.
After several months of friendship, the two decided to formally enter into a relationship. But that’s when the red flags started. Willerford’s behavior began to fluctuate — sometimes as the fun guy, while other times he was impatient, explosive even, she said.
On one occasion, he criticized Elizabeth for the way she swept floors and prompted to violently scold her, she said.
“He basically lost his mind, saying I didn’t know how to sweep,” she said. “I realized he was shaking. He ran over and grabbed my head and bit my face; I was in shock.”
The breaking point came July 2018, when Elizabeth was nearly strangled in her own bedroom. Faith came in on time that night to save her life, she said.
But due to fear of retaliation, Elizabeth did not immediately press charges against her abuser, which is common among victims of domestic violence, according to Deputy District Attorney Julie Kramer, the prosecutor in the case against Willerford.
Elizabeth eventually reached out to law enforcement, trusted friends and local faith groups, including Santa Clarita’s Grace Baptist Church. Since then, they have relocated outside of California.
And essentially, that’s the message they’re both aiming to spread.
“It’s important to talk to someone that makes you feel safe,” said Elizabeth’s daughter, Faith, 18, who spoke with The Signal from out-of-state, where she and Joy Elizabeth moved after the incident. “I don’t want victims to feel afraid and think that their lives aren’t worth it and that it’s their fault because it’s not. Abusers place shame on the victim and say, ‘You made me do this for these reasons,’ but those reasons are lies.”
Both of them would like conversations on domestic violence to feel less taboo.
“Talking about it in the first place is hard as it is, and when we do, they don’t want to hear about it,” said Faith. “I want to create a space where people feel safe without any judgment.”
As survivors of abuse and victim shaming, Elizabeth and her daughter are considering starting a nonprofit or safe houses for women and men who escape toxic relationships.
Domestic violence resources:
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233
Domestic Violence Center of Santa Clarita Valley: 661-259-8175
Child and Family Center: 661-259-9439