It's been a while since we spoke of protection orders in this forum, and I was recently asked in a public forum, "Do protection orders really work?" So, let's revisit..
"A restraining order is just a piece of paper," some say. "It can’t stop a bullet or a knife."
Yep, they’re correct when they say this. I’ve never held up a piece of paper, be it a protection order or the U.S. Constitution, when threatened with bullets or bladed weapons, but I can tell you that restraining or protection orders save lives.
The biggest reason for this is that most people actually abide by them, and the small percentage of people who don’t can generally be effectively dealt with if, but only if, the law enforcement agency of jurisdiction respects the order and enforces infractions. Think of it as a crime prevention tool.
In short, a restraining or protection order is an order from a judge clearly telling one person (the Respondent) that he or she is to leave another person (the Petitioner) alone and to not make any attempts to be near that person. The order usually specifies places where the Respondent cannot go such as the Petitioner’s house, place of employment or school. Petitioners generally get protection or restraining orders at the municipal or county courthouse in the area where they live, and in some states police officers have the authority to grant them temporarily. I recommend calling the local police department or prosecutor’s office if you’re not sure where to request such an order in your area of the country.
Driving by the Petitioner’s house while screaming profanities and making insulting finger gestures has always fallen into the area of offensive actions, as have phone calls and letters. In the last few years, we’ve also seen lots of cases involving e-mail and cellular phone text message harassment.
Regardless, contact is contact, and it is my opinion that even text messages warrant action on the part of the local law enforcement agency if the Respondent sends such a message after having been served with a lawful order. Some would say that a text message or e-mail is no big deal, but in many cases a sent e-mail is merely a test by the Respondent to see what the "real" boundaries are. If the Petitioner responds back, even to curse him and tell him to leave her alone, a dialogue has begun. If the Petitioner doesn’t tell the police about the infraction, the Respondent knows that the boundary has been moved back from what the judge set. "Absolutely no contact" has now become a "little bit of contact." From there it is a simple matter to try to move the boundary again with a phone call. If she engages in his conversation and doesn’t tell anyone that the Respondent has broken the protection order, again, he now knows that yet another boundary has been set.
It progresses to a phone call, letter, or text message in which he begs for a meeting so he can tell her all the things he has done to correct his behavior. If she agrees to a meeting, he will tell her about getting baptized the night before, how he’s set up an appointment with a counselor, how he hasn’t had anything to drink in four days, and how lonely he has been without her.
Every relationship experiences tension, but sometimes in dysfunctional relationships that period of tension culminates in violence and an aggressive display of control to reestablish subservience. Very often that period of controlling violence is followed by what is referred to as the Honeymoon period during which the batterer makes lots of promises, goes to great lengths to make up for their "loss of control," and eventually convinces the victim that he will never hurt her again.
One of the great values in restraining/protection orders is that they short-circuit the honeymoon period and allow a period of time for the victim to get her head on straight about what she wants out of a relationship, whether she truly wants to be involved with the person who just beat her up, and what options and resources she has at her disposal so that she can get on with her life.
However, if the Respondent successfully moves the boundaries set by the court order, and he is eventually able to use all the manipulative charm he can muster, it is highly likely that he will convince her to come back and start the whole cycle all over again.
Even if that is not the case, if she truly has set her mind that she is not going back to him, the very fact that he is getting away with additional contact is unbalancing. The Petitioner took the time and committed the energy to ask a court to help her keep a person who has hurt her and frightened her away. If the Respondent ignores the court order and continues to make contact without any repercussions, how confident do you think she is going to be in the strength and authority of the court and local law enforcement?
Law enforcement officers need to look at protection order violations as direct insults to the criminal justice system. Without losing our tempers or challenging the Respondent to pistols at dawn, we need to feel a sense of disrespect toward our badge and to the law each time we hear of an infraction. This type of violation calls for action because action on the part of law enforcement sets the judge’s court order in concrete and makes the boundary absolutely clear.
Aggressive enforcement action is generally all it takes to re-establish the legal, correct boundary. Most people learn the lesson quite well after one arrest. Sitting in a jail cell for a few hours has a way of clarifying one’s priorities and setting straight how important it is to leave the Petitioner alone. I’ve said before that an arrest can be a blessing, certainly in this instance for the victim, but also for the Respondent in that it may stop him from carrying on in a way that will get him popped later for something more serious such as a Residential Burglary or a Stalking offense. Let’s put this in the category of "tough love," and move on.
Now, every once in a while you’ll have a guy that won’t learn his lesson easily. One arrest doesn’t do it, and maybe three or six won’t either. This is a very dangerous fellow. Ignorance or testing limits is one thing, but this type of offender is telling the world he doesn’t give a damn about judges, police, other people’s safety and security, or anything else for that matter. People like this are extremely controlling and narcissistic, believing themselves better than and above the law and the needs of others.
This personality is like a leech in that he will gulp down huge quantities of time, manpower, and the victim’s sense of well-being. He will try souls and fray nerves. He will smile at the time of arrest and blame everyone but himself when he bonds out.
And he will very likely end up damaging or killing the victim at some point if he is not stopped. Don’t take this offender lightly. Complete disrespect of lawful orders, especially on the heels of enforcement of said orders, is a huge red flag for danger.
Professional, responsive police agencies work hard with this group, disseminating information and photos of the suspect to all officers, providing heavy extra patrol at the victim’s home and place of employment, requesting warrants for more serious offenses when they apply, and dealing closely with the prosecutor and service agencies to make sure everything that can be done is done.
I’m a firm believer in Restraining/Protection Orders. They are effective in the majority of cases in getting one person to leave another alone, allowing time for the cycle of violence to be disrupted and hopefully replaced with a more positive, safe life pattern. They only work if police agencies don’t use them as a bluffing tool, so enforcement is critical when offenses occur. One arrest is generally all it takes, but repeated challenges to the order must be met with repeated enforcement. It is far better to prevent the crime, but aggressive enforcement of these valuable court orders can mean the difference between life and death, freedom or continued enslavement
Victor Vieth of the National Child Protection Training Center (http://www.ncptc.org/) has called for a strategic end to child abuse within three generations. It’s an audacious call, but upon reading his apologia “Unto The Third Generation” and hearing him speak so passionately on the subject, one comes to understand he’s onto something valuable.
The plan calls for the systematic training of front line professionals who are likely to come in contact with abused children such as victim advocates, police officers, teachers, medical staff, etc., so that they have a clear understanding of the problem, signs and symptoms of abuse, and effective tools for addressing each challenge. It doesn’t end there, though. The plan also calls for other professionals such as staff in religious institutions, attorneys and judges, media personnel and elected officials to be educated as well so that essentially anyone who could potentially play a part in bringing hope and security back to an at-risk child becomes part of the solution team.
One of the integral pieces in the plan calls for semester-long classes for front-line professionals so that graduates leave a criminal justice or child advocacy program ready to hit the ground running. This training will include extensive coverage of such concepts as mandatory reporting, effective victim interviewing skills, evidence collection and statement corroboration, and decision-making strategies to facilitate successful, long-term solutions to some of the most difficult problems we ever face.
The idea is to break the connection of generational violence by placing emphasis on solid reporting, complete and accurate investigations, and collaborative follow-through on all levels. We know that child abuse is perpetuated from generation to generation by many families. Thus, the strategy is to effectively end child abuse by working to interrupt the violence of a first and second generation. Children—all children—will stand a chance of growing up in a home devoid of violence and, thus, will not have lived a history that could dictate a violent future.
Yes it’s an awesome undertaking, and the goal is so lofty as to be shooting for nothing less than miraculous. Miracles happen, though, and the only shame would be in not pursuing such a dream.
The time is now. It’s now because of visionary leadership such as Vieth; because of a broad willingness of diverse professionals to train and collaborate at unprecedented levels; because organizations from the private sector recognize that child abuse and domestic violence negatively impact the bottom line but, more importantly, that to participate in ending the epidemic brings great honor to their respective companies; because our communities demand it and our elected officials are listening. Mostly the time is now because these children need us to be the generation that dreamed it, planned for the dream, and then took decisive action to make it come true.
Read Victor Vieth’s Unto the Third Generation here: http://www.ndaa.org/pdf/unto_third_generation.pdf
“She's colorful. She's irritable. She's blunt. She's beautiful. She's perfect. She's everything you could want in someone. She has every little quality.”
Those are the words uttered by the husband of a twenty-three year old woman he’d murdered two days earlier, hours before he confessed his crime to police and took them to her body. He made this statement to a news team who’d been filming him as he went house to house with flyers of his “missing” wife’s picture, begging neighbors to help him find his precious wife.
This case, which is unfolding in a city to the south of where I work even as I write this post is a perfect illustration of Batterer’s M.O., a topic about which I’d planned to write for some time.
Batterer’s M.O. is important to understand when dealing with survivors of domestic violence. This is especially true for family members who are feeling a sense of confusion as to who is telling the truth. For example, if your sister says that her husband is abusive, you’ll probably believe her. However, let’s say your sister has a history of being mean to family members or she has a mental illness that creates inconsistencies. In that case, the husband in question might be able to easily persuade her friends and family members that she was the root cause of all the problems.
All criminal classes have an M.O. (modus operandi, method of operation). Drunk drivers usually say they’ve only had two beers. Thieves will say they forgot to pay for an item or that they were merely borrowing the property. Dope holders tend to say they were holding the substance for a friend or that they are wearing someone else’s pants (yep, wearing someone else’s pants). The things criminals do is so routine that trained officers can immediately spot the lie as soon as it’s uttered.
This works well when speaking with domestic batterer’s. Remember that batterers are control freaks. They use physical force because this is an effective way to make the other members of the family do as they command. However, control comes in different packages, and charm is often one of these. Charming manipulation should be expected in these cases. It is the norm, and it is used so often that it can be utilized as an indicator of guilt.
So, when we are on scene of a domestic disturbance it is highly likely that the offender will sidle up next to an officer and say things like:
· You know how women are.
· She didn’t mean it. She’s just crazy.
· I’m sorry you guys had to come out here on something silly like this.
· She’s probably close to having her period.
All of these will be expressed in a charming, buddy-buddy type voice. Officers (and friends and family members) need to be wary of this behavior. It should come to you as a red flag.
Eventually they may realize the charm isn’t working, and this is when Batterer’s M.O. takes a turn to a new tactic. The batterer will start being more aggressive and hostile. This may be where he threatens to sue the officer or department. He may spout obnoxious things like, “You’re siding with her because…
· you guys always take the woman’s side…
· she’s pretty…
· I’m black, white, Hispanic, Marshallese, Asian…
· I’m not rich…
· I’m rich…
· I’m on parole…
· police are assholes…
Alas, the intimidation method still didn’t work, so now it may be time to threaten violence. This almost always happens right after the handcuffs go on. How brave.
Batterer’s M.O. is real. In the case of this latest homicide, the victim’s husband did his level best to be charming and appear cooperative. He went so far as to portray himself as a worried, involved, loving husband in front of television cameras. It didn’t work because an on-the-ball police agency caught on to his malarkey, and maybe now he can work is Batterer’s M.O. on his cell mate.
Leaving an abusive home is a dangerous time. You have to remember that the abuser is, by nature, a controlling, obsessive person who has clearly demonstrated his willingness to use violence, lies and cheating in order to get his way. This same personality can become even more frantic and angry when his ability to control is dissolving.
This is why so much effort goes into safety planning and providing police protection in the first few days and weeks after a domestic battery survivor leaves the abuser. Great emphasis is placed on keeping them separated. He’s less able to hurt her if he can’t get near, so this is a tried and true method used by police and courts across the country.
One challenge to this strategy crops up when it comes time for court-ordered visitation. Let’s say abusive husband is the father of two beautiful children, and this weekend is his scheduled visitation week. Barring evidence that he has also abused the children, many judges will order that he gets to spend time with his kids.
Let’s assume for the sake of discussion that he has no issues with parenting, and that the children want time with dad. There has been violence between the estranged husband and wife, but the children have a good relationship with both parents.
Let’s also assume for the moment that the mother is afraid of the father or that she’s been granted a protection order. How, then, does she get the children to him in a way that doesn’t expose her to danger or expose him to arrest for a protection order violation?
Her concerns may be valid. He’s been violent in the past. He’s angry that he only gets to see the children every other weekend. He may believe she’s dating someone new, which brings up issues of jealousy and a sense that some other man may try to raise his kids. Add in any other stressors such as job tension, money problems, wanting the limited visitation time to be perfect, and you’ve got an emotion-driven encounter brewing.
The obvious method is to do the exchange in a public place. This works fairly well, but there is nothing to stop one parent from saying vile things about the other in front of the children, getting into an argument, or actual physical violence from erupting other than most people’s desire to avoid bad attention from other parents at a fast food restaurant or drivers in the parking lot of a grocery store.
A reasonable variation on this concept is doing the exchange in the parking lot or lobby of the police department. This strategy works, and it is used quite often. Take a look at your local police station next Friday or Sunday evening, and you’re likely to see a man picking up or dropping off his kids at the start or end of a weekend visit.
Police department exchanges work in that the peace is generally held. There will be no violence or false accusations. Arguing will be kept to a dull roar, and overall the exchanges will be uneventful. However, this method has a serious drawback in that children will become very familiar with the department without ever really having a positive encounter with police officers. They get the subtle sense that police departments are sad places, where their parents look at one another with glares, and where in all likelihood one or both parents trash talk “the cops” who may have already been to the house for a previous violent incident. This occurs without the child ever having a meaningful encounter with an officer. This solution offers all the institutionalization without the humanity, and that is the impression children create.
I must digress here for one moment to say, not for the first time, that if you’ve ever been a parent who points to a uniformed police officer and said to your child, “Be good or that policeman is going to take you to jai,” I need you to go get a big bar of deodorant soap and shove it in your big obnoxious mouth. In that one moment where you think you have so cleverly conveyed to your child that he better be good, you have, instead said to your impressionable baby that a man sworn to protect him with his very life will, instead, grab him or her out of your arms and set in motion a child’s worst nightmare: being taken away from her mother by force and put in a very scary place. The most important thing in our entire profession is protecting children, and now you’ve turned us in your child’s eyes into the monster under the bed. If you do it in front of me I will loudly and firmly correct you in front of all the other customers. Fair warning, so please refrain from rude cruelty when trying to redirect your children.
Back on task, we also need to consider what happens when a court has ordered supervised visitation. Supervised visitation means a parent can visit, but only if a responsible person who has been assigned by the court is there at the same time. This occurs when there have been allegations of child abuse or neglect, or when there is concern that the parent might snatch the kid and leave the state if left to his or her own devices.
Court-ordered supervisors are generally staff members at a local child protective services office, and though these tend to be very kind people, they are also overworked people with deadlines and phone calls to return. The visitation is generally in a small office that has been supplied with a few toys. Imagine how despairing it must feel to both parent and child to have to be monitored every moment of a visitation by a stranger in a gloomy office or cubicle.
Enter visitation/exchange programs. These are cropping up all across the country, and chances are you have one near you. They are generally grant-based non-profit centers where the safety and emotional well-being of the child is paramount, and the safety of the exchanging or visiting parents is also the priority. Centers tend to be welcoming environments for children. There are comfortable playrooms with age-appropriate toys, facilities for watching family movies, and picnic areas for nice lunches. The visitations are monitored every second, but this is done in a way that allows for some sense of closeness between a parent and child.
A growing number of judges are ordering that all exchanges or visitations take place in professional exchange centers. They realize that these centers put a lot of time into background checks on both sides, special needs of the children, and safety planning with local police agencies. In short, these centers tend to be quite good at what they do, which is somewhat miraculous when you consider that achievement of mere adequacy has been the course for so many families for so many years.
Do some computer searching for an exchange center in your area. Chances are you’ll find a superb one nearby, and most seem very willing to let prospective clients schedule a tour of the facilities. This is a safer, saner way to manage exchanges and higher-risk visitations, and I encourage everyone to learn more about these facilities and incorporate them into your safety planning.
From my family to you and yours: Have an excellent, happy holiday, a merry Christmas, a memory-filled New Year’s Eve, and a momentous 2012.
God Bless. D.L. Williams
Cage Fight in the Kitchen is a year old! It's been a hard fought year relative to domestic violence. Mine ended last month with the murder conviction of a woman who brutally killed her two year old stepson, over two-hundred fifty cases, dozens of arrests, and speeches and seminar appearances in Texas, Missouri, Oregon, Missouri, Wyoming, and Arkansas. I marched in the Men's March Against Violence last week, and one of the proudest moments of my life was marching with that group of good men committed to non-violence in the home, shoulder to shoulder with my youngest son and father, led by a bagpipe band, and topping the hill to see my wife waiting with her camera ready.
There have been times when I've wondered if anyone reads this blog, or if it has any positive effect. Who knows? What I'm certain of, however, is that there are still men, women and children living afraid in their own homes, and that this means there is still work to be done. So, the march continues....
God Bless, David Williams
There have been times when I've wondered if anyone reads this blog, or if it has any positive effect. Who knows? What I'm certain of, however, is that there are still men, women and children living afraid in their own homes, and that this means there is still work to be done. So, the march continues....
God Bless, David Williams
Let’s begin with the premise that the use of intoxicating substance, whether they be legal such as alcohol, or illegal such as marijuana or crack cocaine, is not in and of itself evil. People do stupid things when they are curious, frustrated, depressed or anxious, and more effort should be made in this country to prevent use and provide rehabilitation for those suffering from addiction. I believe strongly that abuse of drugs is the shortest path to destruction for any individual short of outright suicide, and that prevention and rehab programs save lives, help avert communities from deteriorating, and result in fewer inmates in our prison systems.
Putting aside the tragedy of addiction for individuals, the real issue is not about the substances themselves but the black market associated with contraband. Therein lies one of the most significant challenges for modern law enforcement. That market brings with it the cruelest of violent acts, good people being caught in cross fires, organized criminal activity, and the smutty tendrils of other associated crimes that destroy communities. Black markets turn Mayberry’s into Gangland’s, and they must not be tolerated by anyone who wants to live in comfort and peace.
Substance abuse plays a part in domestic violence in a myriad of ways. For example, I have rarely gone into a home where violence has taken place when alcohol or other drugs were not used. It is simply ingrained as part of the violence cycle that it is actually surprising when it is determined that no drugs are involved.
I’ve heard it said that people on marijuana are more mellow and, therefore, less likely to have a propensity for violence. Perhaps, but make no mistake that some of the most violent, cruel folks I’ve ever met dealt in and used marijuana on a regular basis. Yes, that hearkens back to the black market issue, but individuals who dabble in or frequently access that market are inevitably exposed to that violence. If you run in the rain, you’re going to get wet.
To be clear, however, the drugs that seem to have the most violent influence in the home tend to be alcohol followed by methamphetamine in a distant second place. For the moment, then, let’s leave all the illegal activity behind and focus entirely on alcohol.
Why do some people get so sweet and funny when drinking, and others want to get in a bar fight or beat their significant others? I don’t have a good scientific answer for you other than to say that in my very strong personal opinion, “mean drunks” are simply mean people who suppress their jerk personality most of the time, but can’t keep it hidden when they drink.
Look, if you drink with a happy person, they are likely to tell you how much they love you, how wonderful the music is, their life philosophies, and their dreams and goals. Drink with a person who is frustrated at work, and you’re likely to hear all about their swine of a boss for the next couple of hours. Drink with a person who is angry at the world for never getting the right girl or job or break, and you’re likely to end up getting into or breaking up a fight as the evening draws on. Personality and disposition plays a huge role in how well people tolerate liquor and how they respond to others when they’re on it.
Now expand that to include angry people who get drunk at home, and who may also have a strong tendency to bully and control. A toxic situation is in the works, and this can get even worse when the alcohol begins to affect the subordinate partner as well. In other words, imagine the situation when a generally meek, controlled wife gets “uppity” because the alcohol has made a little spark of frustrated courage bubble to the surface. Suddenly she’s telling the abusive person in her life what a bag of syphilis he’s been to her, and how she’s not going to take it anymore. Just what is a violent, intoxicated, angry control freak to do? Why, you re-establish the pecking order, of course.
Another all-too-frequent scenario involves the sober victim and the increasingly intoxicated abuser. In this situation the victim in a master/serving girl routine she’s been forced to “play” many times before is often serving the abusive partner the intoxicant. In essence, she’s obliged to bring him the very substance she knows will get him worked up enough to become violent. It becomes a vulgar race to see if she can get him drunk enough to pass out or to be able to outrun him before it occurs to him that she isn’t serving him properly and commences the beating.
One more common circumstance occurs when they’ve been out on the town, perhaps at a dance club. This is generally a bad idea because even if she is as homely as a hippo, a man inclined to be violently controlling will believe that she’s wanting to have sex with every man in the bar once the guy gets a few drinks in him. Jealousy is always ugly, but it’s downright hideous with this type of personality on whisky. And heaven help her even more if she has the audacity to question his ability to drive while intoxicated. She might as well have laughed at his penis size in front of her friends for all the hell she’ll catch once they’re home.
Returning to illegal drugs allows us to explore a whole slew of other ways in which substance abuse has a negative impact on domestic violence. For one thing, the very fact that illegal drugs are being used has a stifling effect in terms of people’s willingness to call the police. The victim often won’t call for help out of fear she will be lassoed in for the dope bust or, in some cases, a significant portion of the current finances would be gone if her dope-peddling husband goes to jail.
There can’t be enough attention paid to this issue. When the abuser is also a distributor of illegal narcotics, he gains significant leverage over the people he controls. If, for example, he is the sole bread winner, and he’s bringing in a nifty income from selling crack cocaine rocks, it may be extremely difficult to do anything that would remove him as the source of that income.
Even worse, if the victim is addicted to the substance he happens to be selling, she knows that his removal from the home to jail also means the removal of her dope source. This can be as terrifying as homelessness and hunger in some cases. A fellow can get away with a hell of a lot if he’s supplying the crystal meth to an addict.
Perhaps most tragically, many victims will refrain from seeking help when they’re in a violent relationship because they are terrified that the police or child protective services agencies will find out about the drug use and take the children away from her. I don’t know about you, but I’d endure torture before I’d give up my kids. Sadly, the fact that those children are being exposed to toxic pollutants, ongoing violence, and blatant disrespect for them and their mother often never occurs to people who are trapped in this nightmare.
Yes, yes, shame on her for getting involved or addicted in the first place. Glass houses and cast stones may occur to some at this point, because none of us gets through life mistake-less. Don’t get me wrong: drug addiction is a whopper, and there are times when children must be taken from their homes. But in so many of these cases, people start using drugs for the simple reason that they want to escape, at least temporarily, from the stark knowledge that their life is hellish. Drugs do that, albeit in a completely destructive way, but we repeatedly see this effort at clumsy self-medication in situations where violence and threats are a way of life. Add on some level of mental illness such as chemical depression, and you begin to see just how slippery conditions become when street drugs are available that make you feel happy for the first time in months. Never mind that the same drugs will rot you from the inside.
This is where communities and shelters can do the most good. When a person who is being routinely bullied and beaten learns that her community will support her in getting sober, establishing a rewarding life path, and staying safe while she engages in the fight of her life, she is much more likely to place her faith and energy in getting well. If that person is successful, the community benefits from getting a productive citizen back, and the victim is rewarded with a rebirth.
It’s a tough message, though. Slavery to an abuser coupled with slavery to an addiction is a tough chain to break, especially if your self-esteem is low, the danger is high, and the incessant call of the drug is obsessive. The resources and support system have to be in place, and the person must make a conscious decision that enough is enough for success to occur.
That having been said, I don’t believe in coddling either a battered woman or an addicted person. By and large we are talking about people who have a certain amount of street savvy and survival skills, and their propensity to try to manipulate the situation to get out of an arrest, invoke pity, deny responsibility, and repeat the same mistakes over and over tends to be pretty high. A person can’t just talk about taking action as in, “I’m going to give him one more chance,” when she’s already given him ten one-more-chances, or “I’ve got control (of my addiction) back this time. It [using] won’t happen again.” They must actually take action.
They can’t say they’re going to go to AA meetings, but always have a reason why they couldn’t go that day. They can’t say they’ll go to rehab if it ever happens again, or promise to make an appointment with their doctor to get medical help. If you’re talking about the possibility that you need rehab, you probably need rehab. They can’t promise to stop going to the liquor store and then find themselves in line at the corner drive through. Taking action is the difference between staying in an abusive household or escaping, killing yourself and destroying your family with drugs or seeking professional help, living lies that are wrecking your faith and the faith people have in you or demonstrating to the world that you are strong enough to control your own destiny.
On the other hand, something truly remarkable happens when a person can finally break the chain of addiction, including the “addiction” of an abusive lifestyle. People who find it within themselves to escape and make new lives for themselves, whether that be through a structured process such as a twelve-step program, going to a shelter, rehabilitation, wrap-around support of loved ones, medical interventions, or some method of their own device take on a certain zeal and passion. You can see it in their physical makeup in that they look and move healthier than when they were being oppressed. Many talk about their escape with the enthusiasm of a religious convert, bubbling over with their desire to spread the message of hope and empowerment they may be feeling for the first time in years. It’s a response observers fervently hope lasts, and one in which loved ones and the professional service providers in their lives will line up to support and encourage.
I had a case once that involved a man who had arrived in the U.S. several years before his wife. He arrived here after swimming the Rio Grande, worked hard, got amnesty under a federal program, and eventually was awarded with naturalized citizenship. He opened a restaurant, and the American dream became his reality. Eventually he held his hand out across the border to his wife, and she came to join him.
He began to beat her almost immediately, and this evidently continued through both pregnancies and past when the youngest child entered first grade. The children had been born in America, so they held U.S. citizenship. The husband had gained his citizenship. Mom was the only “illegal” in the family, and he reminded her of that each and every day.
He held this fact over her head constantly, often threatening that he would call Immigration officials if she didn’t obey him. She was absolutely convinced that U.S. citizenship came with the extra benefit of direct access to federal law enforcement agents who were sitting around waiting for someone like her husband to call and inform on her.
This was especially terrifying because their children were U.S. citizens. She knew that deportation meant they would be left at the mercy of a man she’d come to realize was monstrous. Part of her decision to stay for as long as she had was her belief that her husband could have her sent out of the country on a whim, and that her children would become his next victims. For years she chose to endure his physical and sexual assaults so that her children would not have to.
To make matters worse, he routinely sabotaged her efforts to gain citizenship herself, either by “losing” her paperwork, making anonymous calls that she was using illegal drugs to Immigration officials who were actually trying to help her, or simply refusing to take her to scheduled English classes and appointments. He already controlled the pocket book, her ability to communicate with her friends and family, her transportation options, and then he added the wrinkle of controlling her very ability to stay in the same country with her children. No wonder it took her so long to ask for help.
During one episode he slammed her hand in a car door. That incident was the first one ever witnessed by anyone outside their family, and it was the first time the police had ever been notified. The person who dialed 911 from a pay phone refused to leave a name and left before we got there, so there were no witnesses, but the call helped in finally allowing a police agency to get involved.
I remember that she was absolutely terrified of all of us. We were large, armed men with tremendous authority over her life right then, and she must have seen us as Gestapo. Her husband kept yelling that he was going to have her deported, that she had spent her last night on American soil. Her lips quivered, and her eyes stayed filled but not spilling for the first two hours.
She believed him, of course. She had it in her head that American citizenship came with a secret pass or power to have others jailed and deported because he’d told her so many, many times. She firmly believed that her husband, by all rights an extraordinary spirit for all that he’d overcome and accomplished, had friends in high places that were a phone call away from tearing her from their children. He’d begun a pattern of abuse toward the boys of late, but she’d been able to distract him from them and get him to hit her instead for some time. She shuddered imagining what would happen to them if she weren’t there to shield them from a man she’d come to accept as an abusive monster.
Truth was, I felt a little stuck. The guy didn’t have the swing he’d convinced her he had, but he would definitely be able to make a phone call to federal immigration authorities once he bonded out of jail. If he was successful in his plans, she’d be deported and there would be no witness to confront him at trial. The charges would have to be dropped, and he’d reign supreme and unchallenged over two little boys. This did not feel like justice.
That’s when I learned about the U-visa. U-visas are a direct extension of the federal Violence Against Women Act of 1994. Several strategies were employed under this act including more police officer training, more shelters and long-term housing for victims of domestic violence, and more funding for batterer’s intervention programs across the country. The U-visa has turned out to be a nifty little idea designed to keep witnesses of violent or felony crimes in this country so that they can participate in removing hardened criminals from communities without having to worry about deportation.
The short version of how this works is that if an undocumented immigrant witnesses a serious crime, he or she has the opportunity to petition the U.S. government for the visa, which protects them from the deportation process during the length of the investigation and through prosecution. For assisting in removing say, a drug dealer from the streets, a gang member, or a violent or sexual predator, they are then afforded a chance at staying in this country long enough to earn naturalized citizenship.
This is not instant citizenship, and the whole process can still take years, but it offers a real incentive for someone who is frightened and fed up to come forward and be offered a whole basket of protections. Witnesses to crimes are already afforded police protection and protection under state and federal law, and now they can also be protected from removal from the country. This is obviously good for them because they don’t have to hide or cringe every time they see a cop, and it is good for law enforcement because we keep a witness that will help us restore or maintain safe streets and homes.
The obvious crack in this plan is that some people might manufacture a witness statement for the sole purpose of initiating a U-visa application. The only thing I can tell you is that there will always be flaws in a government bureaucracy, but this plan and process proves valuable time and time again. Yes, some people might try to scam the system, but it would be a risky move to make up a story about felony crimes and hope it stuck all the way through the conviction phase, because any discovery of illegitimacy would likely result in criminal charges and rapid deportation. Also, the victim advocates who generally make the referral tend to be very discerning in filing the U-visa applications and requesting the assistance of their local law enforcement agencies in completing the documentation. Those advocates don’t want to be seen as sending undeserving applicants our way, so they are often more strict and hesitant to file than are we.
The forms are a little long and tedious. Fortunately for us, law enforcement’s portion is short and simple. We are asked to sign a document confirming that the applicant was an important part of our investigation, and that he or she cooperated fully with that investigation. We then usually attach our police reports related to the matter and send it off for processing. This is a good thing because law enforcement officers tend to have too many pieces of paper on their desks anyway, so something we can sign and move out in two minutes makes us happy.
Make no mistake; if you are a violent criminal, a sexual predator, a thief, or a drug dealer, I want you gone. I want you in jail for your sentence and immediately deported afterwards. I want to know everything about you, including what friends and family you have in the area so my colleagues and I can round you up even faster if you ever sneak back in our country. I want Immigration officials to take a wife or child batterer as seriously as a member of an organized criminal conspiracy, and I want your life to be absolutely miserable while you scurry around in my country, trying to evade detection while preying on others.
However, if you’re a decent human being who somehow made it here from some other country in the simple hope of creating a better life for yourself or your children, I don’t want you to have to go about your day afraid of the police. Yes, I want you to apply for documentation and be identified (just as we are through social security, taxes, driver’s licenses, etc.). And, yes, I want you to go through the proper, admittedly long and bureaucratic process to earn citizenship here, just as I would if I were to choose to seek citizenship in another country. My new home country deserves that respect and show of allegiance.
Regardless of how or when you are identified, I want the message to be loud and clear that the police should and generally do recognize the difference between the severity of an undocumented worker and a drug dealer or a child molester. You just can’t reasonably put them in the same category. It would be like comparing a person speeding in her car to a person who steals cars. If you want to get anywhere with the intricate, deeply entrenched problems associated with immigration, you have to start from a foundation of common sense and respect for the diverse human condition. When you have that, you can participate in making sound, humane decisions that have the potential to improve individual lives, families, and entire communities.
People who are afraid and being preyed upon need police assistance. The alternative is for them to live in a form of slavery or to raise arms themselves in a form of vigilante justice. Many street gangs around today were formed as a result of a need for greater protection coupled with a lack of faith in local police. Neither of the alternatives is acceptable, so some mechanism for allowing oppressed people to come forward has to be allowed. Currently a part of that mechanism can be realized through the U-visa program and through police agencies and officers able to exercise discretion when it comes to reaching for the greater good.