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.