Domestic Battlefield of Social Violence

crimeby Karla Fetrow

Igniting the Charge
“You can see right here, the holes near the bottom of the door where two of the bullets hit. Notice by the splintering, the gun was actually pointed downwards when the first shots were fired. We’ve been thinking at this point, he only meant to scare.” The elderly man had been kneeling while he spoke, his fingers tracing the crackling bits of wood bored through by a pair of stinging bits of lead. He straightened slowly, dusting his pants, and wiping the top of his fading hair as he rose. “Now, if you’ll come with me, right over here is where he shot the policeman.” Although most of the area had been mopped, a long, smeared, reddish mark turning to umber swept down the wall like a paint brush stroke. “Notice how far away from the door he was. He had come inside. He had stood in the kitchen, trying to reason with Maury. The impact forced his body up against the wall.” His finger pointed out the tapering trail to the dark stain on the carpet.

He looked at me keenly, his blue eyes, buried under folds of flesh and traveling backwards to another time era, revealed no thoughts of his own. “If you’re ready, young lady, we’ll just move on now to the rest of the crime scene.” I felt the victim’s advocacy director’s hand cup curl comfortingly under my elbow, lending me courage. I nodded.

I followed him through the silent, accusing house, around the corner of the kitchen, down the hall and into a bedroom. A nauseating swirl of surrealistic emotions followed me. Here were the naked jaws of unsuppressed violence. Here was the fury and sudden, irrevokable decisions of the night. Thirty five years the man ahead of us had worked in rescue operations for the fire department. Thirty five years he had made careful notes of his observations and filed incident reports. The incidents he was relating today were the deaths of his three grandchildren, aged seven, five and one yet unborn.

His calmness was uncanny. “Here’s where little Abby crouched. He shot her once in the head. And over here…” his voice grew a bit unsteady and softened. “Beverly tried to protect Matthew. She bent over him, shielding him with her body. The bullet passed through her stomach, killing him instantly.”

He said something more, but I could no longer hear him. His words were drowned out by the blatant accusations explosively imprinted on the walls and mossy colored carpeting. The efforts at clean up here largely had been in vain. Here was blood, masses of blood, screaming in agony, that never could be completely erased. Without knowing how, I was abruptly sitting in a chair with a cup of coffee snuggled into my hands. The blue eyes, which had been so remote before, unfolded kindly and sadly. “It’s over-whelming for some people,” he acknowledged. “It’s all pretty over-whelming.”

The victim’s advocacy director bent her head and whispered close to my ear, her long hair falling into a curtain of privacy. “Are you sure you want to pursue domestic violence counseling?”

It was a trick question. I had been put to the test to see how far I’d willingly go into the jungle. I was too numb to speak. I scarcely remembered what first prompted the decision, it seemed so long ago. It all began with Emma. I had been resting between careers, working part time as a teacher’s assistant to be close to my own young children who had recently entered the public school system. I hadn’t truly decided what step I wanted to take next until I met Emma. My son had befriended her oldest daughter, who was in the same grade. I suppose she figured that any boy who would be nice to her daughter, who was tall, awkward and sadly lacking in social skills, must have a sympathetic mother. She began confiding in me.

Her situation required a lot of confidentiality. As the school year progressed, it became evident that her daughter, Linda, had more than just a problem socializing. She was clearly the victim of abuse. When Linda showed up at school one day, in nothing but a sweater to ward off sub-zero temperatures and both eyes swelling rapidly shut from recent bruises, a social worker from the Division of Family and Youth Services was called, along with a police investigator and the school nurse standing by as a reliable witness. Their initial report revealed that her stepfather had hit her when she had not finished the dishes before it was time to leave for school. She had been shoved out the door without a chance to put on her snow gear so as to catch the bus before it was too late.

Emma was not allowed to see her daughter that day, nor for the next several months. Linda was whisked away into protective custody where the examining doctor confirmed that the cartilage around both eyes had the build-up usually seen in late middle-aged women, and that multiple tiny bone fragments floated within the surrounding tissue. Criminal charges were filed against Emma’s husband and he was thrown in jail.

During the proceedings, Emma was told if she co-operated fully with the police and gave testimony against her husband, she would regain the rights to visit her daughter. She was assured the medical reports were all they needed to pursue the case, but that if she testified, D.F.Y.S. would be satisfied that she showed serious intent to re-unite with her daughter. She did as she was told and her husband was sentenced to five years in prison. She applied once again for visitation rights. She was flatly refused. The D.F.Y.S. pointed out that Emma had never once filed a restraining order against her husband for the physical abuses both she and her daughter had suffered and was not now currently filing for a divorce.

Emma was a little stunned. She hadn’t really considered divorcing her husband. He was the natural father to the two younger children and had never laid a finger against them. Linda was the one he punished because Linda back talked, never did her chores and taught the younger children bad habits. He had also been a good provider. With him in prison, Emma floundered in the social system of welfare and housing, employment training and counseling, her younger children dragged along in attendance. I began babysitting for her sometimes so the kids could actually stay at home and play. “You need legal counsel,” I decided. We went through the yellow pages, looking up the list of attorneys and asking their fees. None of them were affordable, or even very interested. Emma’s husband had made headline news. Nobody wanted to represent the wife of a child abuser. “You might try pro-bono,” one suggested. I tried. “This isn’t the type of case we’re interested in,” they said. “You might try legal advocacy.”

Where was I to find legal advocacy? Emma discovered the best place to look was at the Woman’s Resource Center. I went with her as a friend to help give moral support. The director was very sympathetic but not overly helpful. “In order for Emma to receive a legal advocate from the center, she would have to move into our shelter,” she informed me. I argued that Emma lived twenty miles away. She grew up in the community. All her family and friends were there. The director smiled sweetly. “Perhaps you’d like to become her legal advocate?”

She had shanghai-ed me. I returned home with a mountain of text books on domestic violence, the cycles of abuse, the heroic efforts of women to created shelters, the current codes and policies on domestic violence treatment. My voluntary baby sitting job increased frequency as Emma continued through the tangled web of compliance with social services. Finally, the payoff hit. She was allowed a visitation with her oldest daughter.

Ironically, it was on this day, while she was visiting and the children played together that the tragedy occurred. I had just brought them inside when we saw the first flashing red and blue lights of a patrol car whiz past the drive and on down a couple more houses. A few minutes later, we heard the shots. Although later reports said it took fifteen minutes for the second patrol response, it seemed like the distant yard lit up almost immediately with flashing lights. In my chair, rapped around the warm comfort of the coffee, I reflected, the children had been over there playing earlier. Yes,” I want to do this,” I told the victim’s advocate director.

The Machine Just Isn’t Big Enough

Beverly survived the killing spree of her husband that ended in his suicide. She had been seven months pregnant at the time of the shooting. She lost her unborn child in the same instant the bullet passed through her stomach and killed her son. When she was well enough to leave the hospital, she organized a series of meetings to bring a woman’s shelter into the community. She testified to the listening audience that her husband had begun exhibiting violent tendencies after losing a technical assistant job he had held for ten years. He couldn’t seem to shake his despondency. He began drinking. When he drank, he beat her. She made a formal complaint to the police. Because she had children, she was instructed to evict him and file a restraining order. She did. The night of the tragedy, her husband had returned and forcibly entered the house. She called 911. They sent a dispatcher to remove her husband from the premises. It was then, the shooting spree began.

Everyone attended Beverly’s meetings, including a police officer who testified to the number of officers wounded or killed during a domestic violence conflict, with an additional grudging admission as to the number of officers who had been cited for abusive relationships and actions. Several fine, upstanding legislators were there; two representatives and a Senator, as well as the mayor who all made their disapproval against domestic violence plain for the newspapers. However, when the subject came around to funding for a service program within the community, there was a lot of finger tapping and concentrated looks of vexation. “Our funds are very limited in this area,” they explained. They channel mainly into city services. Since you’re part of the municipality, I suggest you go to the city’s resource center and see if you can piggy back off them for a hot line. Once you have your hot line, you’ll qualify for the safe housing project.”

That seemed simple enough. After all, a resource center that had been so kind as to load me down with a pile of legal advocacy books should be willing to extend their services to include a hot line in a community twenty miles away. The director was not quite so sweet when she learned the intentions of my visit. She explained that their funds were largely dependent on the number of abuse cases they received each year. “We barely have enough money to cover the staff and expenses as it is,” she said. “If we divide our services into a rural outlet, the statistics will go down.”

Beverly and Emma were their cash cow hopefuls. They weren’t letting them go. The police officer’s plaintive complaint however, granted three more patrol cars for the area, all of which were quite liberal at smashing in doors. It became detrimental to even hold a loud argument if you had close neighbors. Not wishing to appear prejudicial, in the case of family quarrels, both husband and wife were carted off to jail until they got things sorted out.

There was only one thing left to do. Side with the closest rural advocacy program. My portfolio and project proposal in hand, I marched into the rural family resource center and spoke to the director. She was sympathetic. “I’ll tell you how we’ll do this. Work within the center for awhile as a domestic violence counselor and we’ll gradually extend an outreach program into your community.”

Over the next three years, I saw the entire structure of a resource center. I saw the type of people who came in for counseling; nervous young women with children, older women with faces lined with grief over their battering husbands, pimply faced boys, twisting their baseball caps, poor people, middle class people, haunted, fearful eyes and drawn faces. You never heard much laughter. The voices were always subdued, body movements stiff and controlled. I couldn’t see any real success cases. While I worked at an organization thirty miles from home, Beverly’s trumpeting call fell away in the absence of more shocking revelations, and Emma continued to scramble through the ropes of social service requirements. After two and a half years of anger management therapy, the psychologists determined her husband was ready to once again interact with society. At the same time, it was discovered that Emma had AIDS. Determining that her children would need their father, who, as fate sometimes decides, did not test out HIV positive, Emma returned to her husband.

It wasn’t truly the frustrating aspect of working with women who were constantly drawn to conflict that wore me down. It was the cogs in the machinery. My initial enthusiasm for working on the side of good began to dim with an appraisal of the organizational structure. We had an administrator who was always drunk. We had a service provider who was so aggressive, her twenty two year old daughter was completely dysfunctional. We had a counselor who was so fearful, she slept on a twin sized bed in her office, lived in her pajamas and had probably not stepped outside the confines of her safe haven in five years. The one I loved; the one I truly listened to and followed; was the director.

She was a soft, over weight woman with a slight lisp. She spent long hours pouring over cases, her eyes moist, her brows knitted in disturbance. She tried for peaceful solutions; for understanding the underlying conflicts that created violent episodes, yet even she began to cave when the center attracted enough community support and funding to inspire the politicians. “You can receive matching funds from the government if you adapt to our current state policies,” she was informed. It was quite an invitation. Double the funds they were currently receiving just for a few minor changes in policy.

There was one major drawback; the policy changes created a conflict of interest with the confidentiality statements signed by all domestic violence counselors. The new requirements specified that in any case where an act of abuse had been admitted, the police were to be immediately notified. Any person convicted of abuse was required to serve six weeks of mandatory anger management. An incident report was to be written about any person showing up at the center with bruises, split lips or other evidence of bodily damage, regardless of whether they claimed they fell, the children were rough-housing or they bumped their head on a cabinet.

The program director’s appeal that these forceful means of apprehending violent offenders was making abuse victims less willing to retain their services was met with the response by the community council that maybe what was best for the center was a change in leadership. Someone assertive who could take full reins of the service needs; someone aggressive, charged and able to generate more funds. The energetic, aggressive individual who took the place of the program director was a thirty-some year old, meticulously cultivated man in an expensive business suit. His first act was to fire the administrator, the bullying social service assistant, the cowering counselor and a few other employees he found dysfunctional. His second was to replace his staff with an admiration society of lovely blonde girls fresh out of college, their sun tanned legs always available for viewing. I didn’t stick around for the third.

The Tail Chases the Dog

With the loss of the rural advocacy director, I had no real support for my community’s resource center. By then, I didn’t really care. Beverly had given up years ago on her crusade and run off to marry. Emma didn’t do very well with her reformed husband. Lacking any greater excitement, she continued a habit she had started while her husband was in prison, of entertaining boyfriends. When he learned of her discretions, another violent episode occurred, and he returned to prison. This time, she did divorce him and made sure she had the title to his truck, his snow machine and the rights to all his personal possessions. She then tumbled into several more affairs, each relationship more abusive than the last and her children were permanently removed from her care.

Linda didn’t prosper much better under the care of the state than she had under her mother’s parenting. Her first experience with foster homes opened the door to visits with her real father, who, after several months of unattended visits, molested her. After a year of intense psychiatric care, she was placed in her next foster home. She found the rules too restrictive and rebelled. A third state intervention taught her the ropes of desired goals. If she wanted a liberal family, she found one. If she wanted one that awarded her with expensive presents and vacations, she found this, too. Throughout her growing years, Linda was placed in seven different foster homes. She graduated from D.F.Y.S. with no direction to her life, and spent her eighteenth year in jail for robbing mail boxes.

I haven’t given up completely on breaking the cycle of abuse, but realize the cycle is so submerged within the system, it would take a completely revolutionized way of thinking to end it. We admire violence. We love active sports that result in injuries and sometimes death. We admire the tough heroes who shoot it out with criminals and toss them around like body bags for awhile before disposing of them. We champion “get tough” attitudes as the answer to abuse. When the guns are flaring, show them your guns are bigger. We don’t see our own transgressions, our omissions to look at underlying causes for abuse. We shudder to think we may be the cause. We fear changing our ways, our habits, our solutions to problems that never seem to go away, because then we would have to examine where we went wrong. We fear meeting violence open handed and in peace, yet ultimately, it’s the only way the cycle will end.

About karlsie

Some great perversity of nature decided to give me a tune completely out of keeping with the general symphony; possibly from the moment of conception. I learned to read and speak almost simultaneously. The blurred and muffled world I heard through my first five years of random nerve loss deafness suddenly came alive with the clarity of how those words sounded on paper. I had been liberated for communications. I decided there was nothing more wonderful than writing. It was easier to write than carefully modulate my speech for correct pronunciation, and it was easier to read than patiently follow the movements of people’s lips to learn what they were saying. It was during that dawning time period, while I slowly made the connection that there weren’t that many other people who heard the way I did, halfway between sound and music, half in deafness, that I began to understand that the tune I was following wasn’t quite the same as that of my classmates. I was just a little different. General education taught me not only was I just a little isolated from my classmates, my home was just a little isolated from the outside world. I was born in Alaska, making me part of one of the smallest, quietest minorities on earth. I decided I could live with this. What I couldn’t live with was discovering a few years later, in the opening up of the pipeline, which coincided with my first year of junior college, that there were entire communities of people; more than I could possibly imagine; living impossibly one on top of another in vast cities. It wasn’t even the magnitude of this vision that inspired me so much as the visitors who came from these populous regions and seemed to possess a knowledge so great and secretive I could never learn it in any book. I became at once, very conscious of how rural I was and how little I knew beyond the scope of my environment. I decided it was time to travel. The rest is history; or at least, the content of my stories. I traveled... often to college campuses, dropping in and out of school until one fine day by chance I’d fashioned a bachelor of arts degree in psychology. I’ve worked a couple of newspapers, had a few poems and stories tossed around in various small presses, never receiving a great deal of money, which I’m assured is the norm for a writer. I spent ten years in Mexico, watching the peso crash. There is some obscure reason why I did this, tightening up my belt and facing hunger, but I believe at the time I said it was for love. Here I am, back home, in my beloved Alaska. I’ve learned somewhat of a worldly viewpoint; at least I like to flatter myself that way. I’ve also learned my rural roots aren’t so bad after all. I work in a small, country store. Every day I greet the same group of local customers, but make no mistake. My store isn’t a scene out of Andy Griffith. The people who enter the establishment, which also includes showers, laundry and movie rentals, are miners, oil workers, truck drivers, construction engineers, dog sled racers and carpenters. Sometimes, on the liquor side, the conversations became adult only in vocabulary. It’s a good thing, on the opposite side of the store is a candy aisle filled with the most astonishing collection, it will keep a kid occupied with just wishing for hours. If you tell your kids they can have just one, you have an instant baby sitter; better than television; as they agonize over their choice while you catch up on the gossip with your neighbor. We also receive a lot of tourists, a lot of foreign visitors. They are usually amazed at this first sign of Alaskan rural life style beyond the insulating hub of the Anchorage bowl. Many of them like to hang around and chat. They gawk at our thieves wanted posters. They laugh at our jokes and camaraderie with our customers. I’ve learned another lesson while working there. You don’t have to go out and find the world. If you wait long enough, it comes to you.

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6 Comments on “Domestic Battlefield of Social Violence”

  1. I don’t think it is so much fear but over complication of the actions taken that stymie the re-alignment of behaviour for domestic violence for both the offender and the offendee – there is far too much procrastination in mulling over definitions and the who’s where in the chain of response. It’s not just dealing with the issue but its culture, religion, lawyers, doctors, nurses, judges, social workers, councelors, police, lobby groups and legislators all frothing at the mouth to be seen as the ‘heroes’. Behaviours are changed when there is an immediate consequence to the action but with the ‘enlightened’ society that we live in there is a delayed tangible consequence that doesn’t really hinder the offender but allows them to fester and seethe over the ‘injustice’ that the offendee has forced upon them. I think it is this overcomplication and the elongated process that makes it such a decision for people in domestic violence situations really stall on nipping the problem on the butt when it first initiates, with a partial optimistic whimsy that it won’t happen again because the offender apologized and said it wouldn’t happen again.

    The other aspect that precludes any meaningful resolution of the domestic violence issue is the unevenness of the perception of who is an offender. Though the article dealt with the issue of domestic violence and its outcomes based on examples of experiences of women, it does happen to men as well but the reactions from the professionals is the opposite. Often men don’t report offenses because rather than being taken seriously they are mocked. There’s nothing more demeaning than going to the hospital to get stitches to your forehead and when the doctor asks what happened, bar fight, and you answer your girlfriend smashed a table lamp into your forehead the response is a laugh and the remark, “did you leave the toilet seat up”.

    To solve the issue of domestic violence it has to be simplified, desexualized and looked at with common sense. There has to be a real eduction of society not the e-DUH-cation that institutions of ‘higher learning’ have whispered sweet nothings into the ear of legislators and brainwashed falseness of superiority because of textbooks the cattle they call students have managed to spew out rote by rote of. There are some that come out of these places with their minds intact that actually see that they are not superior and far more entitled to deem what is occuring in these cases but even then they have to contend with the rules and regulations that their agencies have in place. My grandpa used to say that most people waste alot of time looking for the right recommended tool to fix something when if they would look around they’d see something that would work just as well in front of them. On a farmer’s field rocks become hammers, dimes become flathead screwdrivers, wire becomes a nut and bolt; this is what needs to happen with our society – we are wasting so much time looking for just the right weighted hammer to put a nail in that the machinery has rusted when we could have just grabbed a rock and got on with the task.

  2. Great job. A very thought provoking article. I like the use of narrative to tell most of the story. Not just a memoir but a great illustrative story that makes its point. It’s hard not to get involved emotionally with every issue you tackle, since you always make the story near to your heart. Philosophically speaking, I agree…violence in the home is just a side effect of the violence that permeates society. We’ve been glorifying violence since the beginning of time, even more so after the invention of the modern media in the 19th century and onward.

  3. A.B., when i first wrote this article, i intended it to be an overview of the problems facing domestic violence advocacy. Upon reflection, i realized that what i was targeting was the propensity to capitalize on a very serious issue. As long as safe housing and shelters remained largely a volunteer community function, there were very few steps taken to intervene with domestic violence policies. Once the ability to make a profit off violent situations came into play, the scenario changed. It would not have cost the government much money to support a rural hotline, but instead they passed the buck to a city service twenty miles away. The city service didn’t feel they could afford to extend a hotline because then their statistics would go down, which would mean less funding.

    Instead of extending domestic violence services, the solution was a larger, more brutal police force and stricter anti-abuse laws. This negates the purpose of teaching non-violent measures. Most people caught within an abuse situation don’t wish to “get anybody into trouble”, they simply want the violence to end.

    Centers that manage to acquire somewhat of a success rate and receive the monetary backing of their communities come immediately into the limelight for aspiring politicians. Suddenly there is a pedestal to climb on where none had existed before. Until we admit that profiteering off violence is an abuse in itself, we can’t end the cycle.

    I would have liked to have treated more case histories. I’m well aware of male abuse. I’ve seen men come into the center who were smaller, weaker or less aggressive than their wives. It was very difficult for them to admit they have been wife battered, but sometimes; such as in cases where children were involved, it was vitally necessary. I think the greatest difficulty stems from the coping skills of people who have suffered abuse since childhood. They are accustomed to the honeymoon, punishment and reward cycle of abuse. If you take away the punishment, they feel they have also been deprived of their “rewards”. Without guilt, there is no subsequent honeymoon. Conditioned into this type of behavior, they will try to force the hand of non-abusive relationships. I’ve seen abused persons shove, belittle, castigate, ridicule and try other deliberately offensive tactics in an effort to reclaim the role of victim.

    Mitch, thank you for your kind words. I’m not sure if i wish to blame the media for the violence in the home, but i do blame it for continuing to perpetrate the concept that the only answer to violence is increased violence. I often wonder if cases such as Beverly’s would have had a different outcome without the stipulation of mandatory police reports and restraining orders. The couple were never given a real chance to work out their differences. They were never asked if they would like to receive counseling. We can’t wake the dead to ask if the husband had gone to his home with an intent to kill, or if he just decided that was the only solution once he saw a patrol car arrive. It was possible he only returned to claim a few things, see the children and try to talk things over with his wife the way so many estranged couples had done in the past. It’s also possible that Linda would have had a different life if she had been able to receive more visits from her mother. She remained in a state of limbo throughout her years as a foster child, desiring reinstatement with her mother, and believing that because her mother failed to get her back, she also failed to love her. And Emma… complying with the State every inch of the way until she realized her daughter was a prize foster services never intended to give back. Accustomed to reward and punishment, she finally understood this was one honeymoon she’d never get to go on. People learn by example. The example set before Emma was, don’t even try because we are never going to forgive you. She was young then, and able to make changes. Now she is older, has fallen by the wayside and is just one more of the dysfunctional members of society.

  4. A lot of good points have been raised by A.B. I do think that precious time is lost in the decision of whose job it is to do something…whose jurisdiction. Having worked a crisis hotline I know that there are times when I would just make a judgement call to get an individual over a county line so they could be helped without taking them through the pain of hanging up and calling someone else who may or may not be able to be there. There are many people in law enforcement and social services who want to make a difference but whose hands are tied by buerocracy and who are not able for whatever reasons to break rules to save a soul.
    I would also add to this discussion that it seems that our society as you stated loves a hard ball player, that violence is rewarded. But a bigger issue is the mistrust and un-salved pain of individuals like “Linda” who very often go into the field of helping those whose lives were like theirs without first doing the work necessary to heal themselves. Thier unhealed pain becomes the driving force behind their own work and nobody gets good services then. This is because they are unable to seperate their own feelings from what is in front of them and see every situation as an opportunity to “make-up” for whatever occured to them. Very often this is subcontious and people who are well meaning but unable to make this seperation actually cause countless problems in being able to make a difference in this already highly emotionally volatile field.

  5. Law enforcement does SO LITTLE in these situations. A restraining order is just a piece of paper–very unlikely to scare a batterer. One thing I learned in some of my “aftermath therapy” was that you, when you are battered, tend to try to “ignite the spark”–interestingly, the beaten person is often the first to cause physical harm (a slap, a thrown object, or simply merely some choice words) in order to get the waiting over with and provoke the long-awaited attack. Afterward, the batterer is “relived” if not coddling to the harmed member of the dysfunctional duo. You did a good job plumbing the psychology here.

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