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Thoughts on Domestic Violence

alec vanderboom

During the four years that I worked as a free public interest attorney from 2000-2004, I developed a speciality in domestic violence. I served six counties in rural Appalachia. My law firm, which was paid by a federal grant, developed partnerships with the local domestic violence shelters in our area. Shelter staff expert would help a women in need, (all our clients were women back in those days), obtain a 72 hour emergency restraining order from an abusive partner. 

My job as a lawyer, was to help female clients turn a 72 hour emergency protection order into "permanent" order of protection--which really meant the protection order would last from six months to three years.

Almost all the judges that I faced as a 25 year old new attorney, were biased against granting permanent orders of protection. These were kind, wise judges who were usually pretty fair to my low-income clients in general legal matters. However, at the time, my state had a firm "No Guns" standing on all granted protection orders. We lived in a culture that was strongly pro-hunting. The judges felt good granting short-term protection orders easily to any woman who asked in order to cool down hot tempers after a domestic violence event. However, "asking a man to loose all his hunting rights for 1 to 3 years seemed like too steep a price to pay for one night of losing his temper on his wife." 

As a woman, I didn't agree with this position. Yet as an attorney, I was in a position to challenge that institutional bias against domestic violence victims one case at a time. I developed something of a "miracle worker" status among the dv shelter staff. I frequently left victims rights advocates with their jaw on the floor in awe after some of my court cases. 

It was all God. I didn't have any special mojo law techniques to get established judges to change their minds on DV. What I did have was myself. I have a gentle demeanor and I had a cracker-jack teachers in my Client Interview Skills Class and Domestic Violence Classes at my Law School. I could get hurt and scared women to open up about their abuse with a series of gentle, calm questions.

 I'm a Catholic. I genuinely cared about my clients. I was blessed to be married to a really sweet caring man after I'd personally experienced domestic violence in a dating relationship from college. As a brand-new Catholic, I don't think I could have quoted you passages from the catechism on Marriage Theology, but I knew instinctively that good marriages were based on love, gentleness, respect and healing. Meanwhile, bad marriages had the same bitter fruit of domination and sin between men and women that's plagued our human race since Adam and Eve.

I did my job as a lawyer before each DV hearing, despite each one being an unpredictable, emergency hearing. I did a solid 2 to 4 hour interview with every client within the calm walls of my attorney office. I gathered up any witnesses or evidence to help prove their case. I ordered subpoenas for police records. I packed my little lawyer briefcase with neat labeled folders and notes on legal pads. 

The day of my DV hearings, I put on my favorite Anne Taylor Suit. I kissed my husband goodbye and then I drove 1 to 2 hours to attend court. Once I got to court, I met my client and her DV shelter worker to go over our game plan. Usually, the female victim was totally shaking. This was the scariest event she had ever done, confronting her abuser, who she loved and had a long relationship history with, inside a court of law.  Every single time, I was so grateful for the help DV staff workers who were so calm, kind and firm. I witnessed women who were total opposites in age, class, and education, grab the hands of my shaking clients and send them endless waves of silent love. It was so inspiring to witness. 

My next job was to go meet with the alleged abuser before court to negotiate a deal. Sometimes, they were represented by attorneys. If so, I would talk to the attorney, instead of his client. Almost 80% of the time, I was facing an alleged abuser alone.  

Here's where the grace of God is really funny. I'm short. I'm 5 foot 4 inches tall. Back then, before all my babies, I was relatively skinny. I looked like a strong breeze could blow me away. I stood up to these tough, macho, country boys who often had 200 pounds and at least 12 inches on me. I stood in front of them without fear and said "What are we going to do about this? Lets make a deal."

I didn't hate the abusers. I looked at Domestic Violence as a sickness that's is often passed on unintentionally through families. I hated that my female clients suffered awful injuries from men that they loved. But unlike the DV Shelter workers who were often so pissed off they could only glare at the alleged abusers, I had a certain pity in my heart for these men. I felt like most of them didn't want to hurt their wives or girlfriends. They were ashamed. If they knew a better way to relate to their intimate partners, then they would do it.

So I'd come up to these strange men, who I'd heard nothing but bad things about for days, and I was respectful, but totally firm. "What are we going to do to solve this problem?" I wanted them to agree to stay away from their partners. If there were kids, I wanted them to agree to settle their custody arrangements within the structure process of a court case, instead of randomly screaming at each other over the phone. I wanted these men to respect their wife/girlfriend's request to stop living together. I wanted the men to agree to anger management counseling. 

Often times, I wanted the men to give up their guns. Sometimes, these men had pro-hunting culture wives who told me "I'm not afraid!  He can keep his hunting rifle." I used that concession as an ace in the hole to get her every other issue left the table.  However, if a female client told me "I'm totally terrified of his massive gun collection. I don't want him to shot me during our break-up", I wanted the guy to give up his gun. I didn't care about local customs in that specific court room. If the State Law gave me the right, I asked for it.  I can't explain my success rate other than from help from God. But I got a lot of guys to agree to hand over their hunting guns voluntarily and go to free, court-sponsored anger management counseling. (Those voluntarily settled results were surprising because almost all of the local judges would not have places those specific criteria in a final, protection order).

My approach of respect, but total commitment to advocacy for my client worked. About 90% of my DV cases settled without a court hearing. If an alleged abuser disagreed with me during pre-trial negotiations, I went ahead with my court case within minutes. All my gentle demeanor changed once I started cross-examining abusers on the stand. I went after men's minimizing and denial statements of abuse like a pit bull. I just hung on to the facts and the evidence until their fake stories of either no physical violence, or justified physical violence, came apart on the stand. 

For me, that was just doing my job as a lawyer. I remember coming back so often to my desk and seeing my clients be totally shocked. I had just stood up to a man they had totally feared. I was a woman. I was not physically powerful. But stood out in a courtroom that was almost all men--the judge, the attorney on the other side, the abuser, and I got attention and respect from all of them. I started to understand in those cases that God works so much in metaphor. It's not the end result of what you do for an abused female client--it's how you do it. I was kind during a painful interview. I gave them belief in themselves and hope. I was respectful to the man that they loved. I also stood for justice. A husband can be a generally good guy but still do horrible things within the privacy of his own home to a women, and he needs to be accountable in public for those bad acts. It seems crazy in our tolerant, anything goes culture--but admonishing a sinner is actually an act of mercy within my Catholic faith.

I must have done 75 to 150 DV protection orders in four years. I only lost 2 of them. There were a lot of hard, frustrating court cases I did as a public interest lawyer. DV work was heartbreaking, but it never made me tired. I almost always walked away from those interactions feeling more hopeful for the future of these women.

My thoughts on Domestic Violence is that I think it is a sickness in our culture. I think its a continuum of behavior. We're all culpable. Every one of us married people are guilty of being rude, unkind, and dismissive of our partner. None of us should walk around feeling superior to an abuser because "we don't hit." Bad words and bad behavior can be just damaging to a sense of safety and security within a marriage, even though a police man would never arrest us for emotional abuse.

I think our law is primarily focused on ending physical violence--which is right and proper. However, every single victim told me that the emotional abuse she suffered was far worse than even the worse acts of physical violence. Domestic Violence never happens with "just one punch." There are always other threats and controls that an abuser uses against a victim. As a lawyer, I found that asking about the other aspects of "power and control" was actually easier than starting out with the most legally important abuse--physical violence. The physical violence was always so shameful. I had to warm up to that disclosure. 

What I did as an attorney, was look at this power and control wheel I got from my DV Law School profession. I'd ask questions about each area. Every time the female client was shocked. "How do you know that my husband/boyfriend/ex always accused me of having an affair? Or locked up our check book? Or hurt my pet?" Every time I would explain "It's a pattern." If they were really having trouble leaving their spouse, I tell them "You're husband isn't an evil guy at heart. He's learned a bad pattern of behavior. This pattern is going to get worse and really hurt you if you don't stand up and ask that he change it now."  I don't think I'm a cock-eyed optimist, but there is a hope that a guy can change with therapy. But no abuser is going to change if the wife remains terrified, and the police and judges and general community don't stand up and say "This behavior is unacceptable." 

This has been on my heart since listening to the NFL scandal. I don't think as a society we should be shocked or discouraged. Domestic violence is real. There are a lot of smart, competent women (like me) who get suddenly sucked into bad dating situations. The beauty is that God is real. People can find hidden strength and make dramatic changes. I encourage everyone to check out the "power and control wheel" and see the much larger underbelly of domestic abuse. The scary punches we see on TMZ videos, is just the tip of the iceberg. Rather than be totally shocked, lets us this time to recommit ourselves to the ideal that "Love Never Hurts!" 

St. Rita, pray for us.