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Victim advocate's sister killed by boyfriend in 2012

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Tonia Thomas has been an advocate for domestic violence victims for eight years, but never did the problem of domestic violence become so heartbreakingly clear to her as it did last June, when her sister was murdered by a live-in boyfriend.

Teresa Wilson of Beckley was 48 when Arthur Agnew beat her to death. Agnew pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and recently was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Thomas, a team coordinator with the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, knew her sister's boyfriend had been abusive.

Thomas and her niece had tried to strategize with Wilson to get her away from Agnew, but the man had threatened to kill Wilson if she ever went to police. In the end, he followed through with those threats, Thomas said.

It would be easy for Thomas to blame herself, she said.

"[But] all the accountability is on Arthur Agnew," Thomas said. "Regardless of how hard we tried . . .  . All of this is on Arthur Agnew."

Thomas said her sister's death gave her a renewed drive to advocate against domestic violence.

"It really ignited, I think, a whole new spark in me that the work we do as advocates matters," Thomas said. "It makes me want to do even more."

In the days and weeks following her sister's death, Thomas turned to the help of a Beckley domestic violence victims' advocacy group.

"My mindset wasn't clear," she said. "[They] walked us through the system, [asked] what do you need from us? They were just great, and I would hate for other families not to have that."

It's for that reason that Thomas is encouraging the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which is under consideration this week in the U.S. Senate.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., was an original co-sponsor of the bill when it passed for the first time in 1994 and sponsored reauthorizations in 2000 and 2005. The act was most recently up for reauthorization in 2011. The Senate passed its version of the bill in April, but the House of Representatives did not vote on it.

Rockefeller is a co-sponsor of the 2013 version of the law's reauthorization, which the Senate has been considering this week. Last year, the law gave West Virginia more than $3.9 million for the enforcement and victims' services.

The law allows state and local government, colleges and nonprofits to provide services to sexual-assault victims, have arrest policies for domestic violence complaints, provide legal assistance to victims and train law enforcement and court officials to improve response to domestic violence, according to a release from Rockefeller's office.

"There are tragically inspiring stories of survival in West Virginia -- like the young mom who was being beaten so badly by her husband that all she could hold onto were the sounds of her son's crying," Rockefeller said recently in a prepared statement. "After suffering control and abuse for years, that was her breaking point -- and she got out.

"For courageous people like her, this is one of the moments when VAWA is so important," Rockefeller said. "It supports the services that make a difference for these survivors. It should absolutely be continued, and it should be strengthened."

Thomas said VAWA is the cornerstone of the programs that aid domestic violence victims in West Virginia, including the one that helped her and her family when her sister died.

"We have found some real success," Thomas said. "Without it, I'm not sure we would have these things in place. It really is a lifesaving program. It does save lives and proves there's more work to be done -- the critical work that advocates do across the state."

In a statement released Thursday night, Rockefeller talked about the Senate's floor debate on the reauthorization from earlier in the day.

"Everyone deserves to be safe from abuse," Rockefeller said. "We should provide victims of domestic violence with every protection the law can provide, which is why we need to continue this debate and move it quickly toward final passage.

"I'm confident we'll pass a strong Senate bill, and I'm calling on the House to step up to the plate quickly, pass this bill and join us in protecting victims of domestic violence."

A vote on the bill's final passage is expected Monday.

Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.


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