Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Call All the Way from Idaho

Most of the time, our cases (domestic violence) are routine and the media isn’t interested in them. That’s just the way it is. However, recently, we got involved in a very high interest case. I’m not going to write about that (sorry), but I am writing about all the public attention.

I answered a called from a woman in Idaho. She wanted to let us know about the strong opinions she and all her 30 co-workers have. I listened to her and I thought her concerns were normal and valid. My response? I told her that many of the issues she was concerned about are the same ones we are concerned about. And – we have a team that includes social workers, investigators, and lawyers. We often make these kind of hard decisions together. I like to think that even if we (sometimes strongly) disagree, that eventually, we come up with the right answer. What I told her I wanted her to know was that we take our work seriously and we sometimes have to make hard decisions based on the information we have. I understood if she didn’t agree.
The Idahoan continued to talk about all the things that are wrong in general with our system – again – yes, I hear you. Finally, I said to her – You know, I’ve worked here for more than 10 years, on thousands of domestic violence cases, homicides, you name it…pause…but this is the first time I got a call from Idaho from someone about one of our cases. Silence. Then, she started again…

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Public Practice

  1. The miracle is not that we do this work, but that we are happy to do it.
    - Mother Teresa

    I met another social worker at a gathering recently. I told her where I worked and she said, “I’m in private practice.” It’s like I said I worked at Target and she said, “I work at Saks.” Or whatever. Don’t misunderstand – some of the social workers I most admire work in private practice. My own dear clinical supervisor, one of the truly important mentors in my life, works in private practice.

    I’m a little envious, I suppose. I think it takes a lot to rent some office space and have enough confidence, courage, and self-discipline to go it alone. I don’t think I’d be good at it. I don’t know if I’d have the patience or focus.

    I guess I’ll start saying, “I’m in public practice.” That’s right, I deal with whoever walks in the door. Old, young, immigrant, bigot, alcoholic, meth/crack addicted, rich, middle class, shockingly poor, wheelchair bound, untreated mentally ill, angry, in denial, chronically depressed, perpetually victimized, troubled, hopeless, and absolutely amazing and inspiring. Those are my people. I often have “just when you’ve heard it all” moments.” Some days I might trade it for scheduled appointments and routine visits. I must like all the crisis and trauma because I keep coming back. I look forward to going to work on Monday mornings as much as I run out of there on Friday afternoons promptly at 5:00.

    A social worker friend of mine worked in a non-profit residential treatment program with children for many years. Her, I admire tremendously. Can you imagine an 8 year old in residential treatment who asks to call you mommy? She says that we are “secular clergy.” Sounds like an oxymoron, yes? But, an apt description.

    Next time I’m at one of those functions, “Oh, you’re in private practice? Well, I’m in public practice.” Should be fun.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


Forgotten is forgiven.

- F. Scott Fitzgerald

She posed with exaggerated sexually at the counter of the rural Texas working class restaurant, waiting for her lunch order. Her purposely selected clothes were probably a size too small. She was sending out a signal and occasionally looking around the room at the uniformed, blue-shirted workers on lunch break to see who was receiving it. A few were and giving her lurid looks. I felt like I kind of knew her. I’ve talked to many women like her over the years, women who are primarily defined by the approval of men – male defined women.

When we left the restaurant, my husband, who is a criminal defense attorney, remarked about the “ex-dancer” in the restaurant. I guess that makes sense since he represents so many of them. I said, “You mean the woman who looked like a sexual assault victim?” Maybe we’re both being reductionistic. Maybe we’re both right.

Sex workers seem to be perennial victims, at least the one’s I’ve met. Most of them have been my clients, victims of domestic violence. (And, mothers. Kind of takes away the lure to think that the woman gyrating in front of you at Babe’s has a 2 year old at home.) Maybe my view is skewed. I also meet a lot of teachers and nurses who are domestic violence victims. So – maybe I just see a lot of them because this is another profession that primarily employs women?

From what I’ve experienced and read, and what I think to be true is this: How is it that a woman feels like sex is her primary power? Is it because society tells women that to be worthwhile, we have to be sexually attractive? Is it advertising? Magazines like Cosmo? Playboy? Penthouse? Could it be that women who end up selling sex are taught at a young age that the best, most powerful thing about them is sex? And who taught them? An abusive step-father? Grandfather? Pedophile uncle?

Once a woman is defined as a sex seller – a prostitute, dancer – then she can never, ever get away from that role. Never. She will always be known as an “ex-dancer.” You can imagine at the PTA meeting that someone finds out. One mother whispers to another, “SHE used to dance naked.” Yet, we wouldn’t consider defining a man as a “sex-buyer” or much less and “ex-sex-buyer.” Could you imagine at the same PTA meeting, one father saying to another, “You know, he used to go to titty-bars all the time.” Even if they did, it would be said with admiration or jealousy.

A common defense in domestic violence cases is this idea that the woman is a whore. They don’t come out and say it like that. But, that’s what they mean. “She was cheating, so he lost it and hit/shot/stabbed/killed her.” Often in protective order court, the man’s attorney will talk about how she works as a dancer, or she’s been having a sex with many men. Uhhhh, and that has what to do with the fact that he beat her until her face looked like one big, swollen bruise? Once a respondent’s lawyer told us how the protective order applicant had been having sex with a lot of different men. I looked at him with a straight face and said, “You mean she’s a whore?” He said, “yes” without the slightest clue that I was being sarcastic. Wow. My co-worker had to explain it to him.

The point is this: We want sex-workers. We want male-defined women. We encourage and expect this behavior from women. The price they (we) must pay is that we cannot escape this role and we cannot be equal. It isn’t that sex or sexuality is bad or wrong. It is the imbalance of power that is wrong. Even if a woman temporarily gains power in her role as a sex seller, ultimately she will pay the price – her humanity, her self-worth, and inclusion in the “legitimate” world. Because, she’ll someday be at that PTA meeting or at church or try to get a job in an office – and they’ll say it…”you know, she used to…”

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Domestic Violence Test

“It isn’t that they can’t see the solution, they can’t see the problem.”

- Gilbert Chesterton

I was recently subpoenaed to testify as an expert witness in a family case that involved domestic violence. I talked with the mom and reviewed collateral resources, including a police report and other information. I don’t want to write too much about the particulars of the case in order to protect the privacy of the parties, but I concluded that several high-risk lethality indicators had been identified.

A PhD psychologist had evaluated dad. Like many mental health professionals who do not understand domestic violence, she relied on standardized tests, including anger scales.

Dad’s attorney made a motion to exclude my testimony partly because I am a social worker and therefore not qualified to be an expert in this case. Fortunately, the judge didn’t agree with him and I was allowed to testify.

A couple of points – and the points of anyone who understands domestic violence, I suspect – were this:

1) Domestic violence isn’t about anger, but about control. So, anger scales aren’t appropriate. Domestic batterers are experts at control. They control their families and their environments. Violence is but a part of the control. In fact, a formerly battered woman recently put it well when she told me, “The violence was almost incidental to the rest of it.” “The rest of it” was the humiliation, shame, and culture of terrorism she and her children lived with in on a daily basis.

2) Standard psychological tests don’t measure whether someone is or is not a domestic batterer. We have to look at behaviors. I gave the court some resources that documented this. Here is a link:

The judge considered everything and granted a protective order for mom and is now only allowing dad to see the kids in a supervised setting. He is requiring the whole family to go to various types of treatment (not together).

While this was a victory, it is only the beginning. Now is a dangerous time for this family. Dad is the type who doesn’t like to lose and even with the protections in place, they are still in danger. Mom is ready to fight and she gets discouraged, but she’s on the right track. It is such an honor to watch her take control of her life and her children’s lives.

Sunday, April 27, 2008


Why doesn’t she just leave? I have been working in the area of domestic violence for so long, I am surprised that people still ask this question. Really – you don’t know? How about this – Why doesn’t he stop hitting her? Surely, by now, EVERONE knows that “the state picks up the charges.” Why does he make the choice to keep hitting her knowing that he’ll be prosecuted? What the heck is wrong with him?

But, back to this question about her just leaving: First I’d say that there is no “just” about this issue. As former police officer Mark Wynn says, “Leaving isn’t an event, it is a process.” It isn’t a matter of walking out the door, especially when kids are involved. Anyone who is divorced with children will tell you that that person is ALWAYS in his or her life. And – read the paper, watch the news – start noticing when women and children die in domestic violence relationships – it most often when they leave. Domestic violence is foremost about control – leaving breaks the control.

Unsupervised visitation is the NORM for divorced men who previously beat their wives. Unbelievable, but true. Ask any family attorney. Ask any battered woman. I’ve seen it up close thousands of times. So – here are a battered woman’s choices:

1) Stay in the relationship. Part of her loves him; maybe he’ll get better. He says he will. He even tries sometimes. At least while she is there, she is safer. She can be around her kids all the time and make sure they are safe. She keeps getting hit. Her kids keep seeing it. Her children are learning that violence is OK, that you don’t have the right or ability to stand up for yourself, or for some that are lucky, maybe they want to be different (see www.markwynn.com).

2) Leave. He told her he’d kill her if she left. She tried leaving before. He didn’t leave her alone. Her kids will be around him alone, without her as a buffer. What if he beats the new woman in his life? Even though she left, her kids would still be exposed to violence. He controls the money, she feels stupid, she has lost contact with her friends and family, what if he gets custody of the kids? Here in Houston, in 2006, Leonard Hausenbauer killed his young children when his wife left him. Some people may wonder how he could hurt his own childen. It wasn’t about his children, it was about her, hurting her. He wanted her to pay for leaving.

3) Do nothing. Make no choices to stay or leave. Pretend. Live day-by-day and just hope it gets better. Maybe drink to do SOMETHING with her pain. Become less than fully human, never being able to think about how she feels – because to do that would be to fall apart. And – she can’t. She’s got to stay alert, like a prisoner of war.

So, when it comes to arresting and prosecuting, it becomes between him and the criminal justice system. What the heck is wrong with you, dude? If you can’t stop hitting her because it is just wrong, maybe you will because you don’t want to be in trouble? Maybe she’ll find a way out if you are held accountable? Chances are slim, but maybe you’ll make the choice to stop using violence?

Friday, April 25, 2008

Half-Naked Lunch

Last week, a couple of us took a good friend to lunch to celebrate a milestone birthday. We ended up at a restaurant called “The Strip House.” “Strip” is a double entendre for “steak” and “sex workers.” I said I’d never go to this place, but I did. Part of me was curious. They don’t actually have live sex workers there, just pictures of them, mostly pictures of topless women in “artistic” photos. To be fair, there were actually some pictures of men – fully dressed, in suits – maybe those are the pictures of the “sex buyers?”

When we arrived, I asked the woman up front if they have pictures of naked men. She laughed - politely - and said they didn’t. When we sat down, I asked my lunch companions if we should take our shirts off. Ok, Ok – I did agree to come here. I’ll stop being a smart alec. The food and the service were very good. I have to say and we had a very nice lunch.

If I ever go back there, I’m sneaking in a picture of a naked man and putting it up on the wall. I figure nothing says first class dining like looking at male genatalia while eating good food.

Friday, April 18, 2008


Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.
- Carl Jung

There is a violence awareness project going on in Houston this weekend. Several funeral homes have volunteered to drive their hearses, festooned with anti-violence signs, through “high crime areas” such as the 3rd Ward.

My initial thought is this: Do people who live in “high crime” areas already know they are at risk of violence? How are they being helped by being reminded?

I say this with respect to the people who are volunteering on this project. I’m glad people are willing to volunteer their time to make life better. I do have a suggestion for the hearse drivers for their next awareness project.

How about driving through the business area of the Galleria, downtown Houston, or maybe River Oaks? Don’t people die because they don’t have access to health insurance, and as a result, proper health care? Aren't people's options limited because of inability to make a living wage? Isn’t this a type of violence? An injustice? Maybe if we raise awareness, people who have access to power and money will be motivated to make changes?

Anna Quinlan in her book Black and Blue writes about a domestic violence victim who fled from her abusive husband. She ran with her son, leaving everyone and everything she knew. She changed her name and went deep into hiding. When the woman wouldn’t “follow the rules” about staying in hiding, her caseworker told her she could die if she didn’t do what she was told. The woman thought about how her caseworker was no different than her abusive husband – both threatened her with death to get her under control. We in the criminal justice system do this too. When a woman doesn't want to pursue charges or cooperate with the police, we tell her she is going to die if she doesn't do what we say. We mean to help her, but really, how are WE different that HIM. If you don't do what we say, you'll die.

So – people who live in “high crime” areas and battered women – they all know where they live, what they face. As a matter of coping, maybe they don’t sit around and think about it all the time. So, maybe instead of threats, we could offer compassion? We could ask instead, how we can help. We can empower people to make their own lives better. We can raise awareness about the causes of violence. We can address larger issues such as poverty, racism, and sexism that increase violence. We can demand accountablity from the sources of power.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Boys' View of Home Violence

When a poor person dies of hunger, it has not happened because God did not take care of him or her. It has happened because neither you nor I wanted to give that person what he or she needed.
- Mother Teresa

Not long ago John, 8, and his brother, Mike, 6, and I sat on the floor in my office and played with wooden blocks. Their younger sister, Lucy, age 3, played with some toys nearby. Their mother was speaking with one of my co-workers about her violent ex-boyfriend, Richard. John, Mike, and I stacked up the blocks as high as we could and then one of them knocked them over. While John played, he kept a watch on his younger sister. If Lucy walked too far away, he got up and gently brought her back closer to him.

While we played, we talked. I asked them if they knew why their mom was at our office. They said it was for their mom to talk about Richard. I nodded. I asked them if that was a good thing and they both agreed it was. We kept playing and talking about school and kid stuff. I asked John about the abrasion on his face (I already knew from the police report he got that defending his mom). He said, “Richard did it when he pushed me.” I nodded again and asked him if it hurt. He said it didn't.

I told the brothers what I tell a lot of kids, that this is grown-up business and their job is to worry about kid business. Kid business is going to school, playing, reading, running around, stuff like that. I do realize how naive that is because some “kid business” is the stuff that would make many of us cringe. Some kids’ business is staying safe and protecting their mom and counting how many beers dad is drinking before trouble starts.

Still – I tell them that to say that they can’t control what us grown-ups do in case they feel like they are supposed to. I also talk with their mothers about the same thing. The normal parent-child relationship gets turned upside down in a lot of homes with domestic violence. The kids take on the role of protecting and comforting the parents. Isolation comes with family violence, so parents start to look at their children as their friends and confidants. I remember one formerly battered woman told me her 7 year old daughter was “her best friend.” What a burden for a kid to carry.

The darker side is when the kids emulate the role of the abuser and disrespect or even hurt their mothers. We found this to be true when we looked at some juvenile family violence cases a few years ago. We thought we’d find that juveniles charged with domestic violence were assaulting the male in the home, possibly protecting the female. What we found most often was that male juveniles assaulted female heads of households, a boy after his father’s own heart.

I talked with John and Mike about how and when to call 911, how to get out of the room if something violent happens, and – how it is NOT their fault. I told them Richard was in jail and we were going to talk with their mom about some grown-up ideas on how to be safe. John looked at me and plainly said, “He’ll send other people.” Then, John told me he didn’t need to call the police. He stood up and said, “I’m protecting my mom.” He looked very proud of himself and I told him he was very brave and how lucky his mom was to have such wonderful children who loved her so much.

After I talked with them, I talked with mom and and told her about my conversation with her boys. She was ashamed about not being able to protect them. We told her she was in fact protecting them. We talked about ways to stay safer and ways to heal.

At 8 years of age, precious John knows what battered women and children know without a doubt. We can’t protect them. He knows the grown-ups – the social workers, the police, the courts, and the lawyers can’t protect his mother. He knows that when Richard comes back, or if he sends one of his friends, it will only be him and Mike and Lucy. He’s going to be ready.
Mark Wynn is a grown-up boy who watched his mother get beat over and over, who tried to protect her, who did comfort her no doubt, and made plans with his brother to kill his sadistically abusive step-father. He grew up and made the choice to change the world on behalf of his mother. He became a police officer and decided to do what he could to stop domestic violence at a time when it was "a family matter." He started with himself, then he convinced other officers, and whole police departments and communities - he did it person to person. I had the chance to attend a training session with him this week and even to go out to dinner with him and a small group of people afterwards. It was such an honor to meet one of my heroes. As the mother of boys, I can imagine that his mother must have been so very proud of him. And, as a mother who works with other mothers to stay safe, I am so grateful to him. One person really can change the world - if he is ready.
If you want to learn more about Mark Wynn, go to his website: www.markwynn.com
If you want to learn more about the impact of violence on children, go to Dr. Bruce Perry's website (he's another hero): www.childtraumaacademy.org

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Big Screw Up OR The End of Denial

All happy families resemble one another. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
- Leo Tolstoy
We’ve probably all heard that the Chinese sign for crisis is the same as opportunity. I don’t know if the part about that being a Chinese sign is true, but I do believe that crisis is a chance for change. It is life telling us – Hey – this ain’t working – you can’t force it – so here’s a chance to make it right.

In my job as a social worker at a criminal justice agency, we ask complainants in domestic violence cases to come talk to us. Most of the time, they say it didn’t happen, it was her fault, they were drunk, she is crazy, he was only defending himself, she made it up to because she was jealous, etc. Once in a while, her current story may be valid. Most of the time, she’s covering up for him – out of a combination of fear, love, shame, and hope.

Some people may get caught up in trying to “catch” her in the lie. That isn’t the point. I want to reach around the story and get to the emotions. The only way to do that is put my ego aside – it isn’t about me. It is about her – and her kids. I don’t know what she is facing. It isn’t my job and it isn’t even the point to “talk her into” pursuing charges. The prosecutor will evaluate the case based on the evidence and go from there.

My part is talking with her (or him as sometimes the case may be). Yeah, it totally sucks to be in this situation. I know you’re embarrassed to be here. I know you’re not like those other women in our waiting room. But, how can your life be better? Can I help you? You and your kids deserve to be in a home where you are safe. You deserve to be respected. You did the right thing by getting help. You’re not alone. I’m worried about you. There are people who can help you if you want.

I don’t mind confronting people if it is necessary – but with compassion. Recently, a mom dropped a protective order. Based on his previous violence, there is no doubt in my mind that he will continue to hurt her and her children. I told her I was very worried about them. Right now, we have him in jail – charged with some serious crimes. We intend to keep him there. I hope we can. Mom believes he “has changed.” She doesn’t have a lot of options, so she is picking the least resistant one – false hope. I’m not pretending all her options aren’t hard or dangerous. I know that often women like her are in more danger when they leave. So, the only thing to do now is try and keep him in custody as long as possible and to keep the door open for her. This crisis is a chance for her and her children’s safety – IF we all do the right thing.

Denial is a very effective coping mechanism – for a while. I’ve certainly used it. I’m sure we all have. The thing is, eventually, we might be trying to juggle too many balls. Eventually, we get one too many and they all crash. I once had a client tell me that her husband wasn’t serious about changing. She said, “He’s just shuckin’ and jivin’.” That really summed it up. He was just talking and pretending.

With crisis, comes shame, panic, fear and relief. We often don’t even realize how stressed we’ve been until we have to stop “shuckin’ and jivin’.” Life forces us to face hard realities. So, yes, with the big screw up, comes the end of denial and the chance to really fix things.

Saturday, March 15, 2008


I’m always working on boundary issues. So, why am I writing a blog? I’ve got to do something with my thoughts. And - I wish we had more social workers working in criminal justice, so I hope some will read this blog and be interested. This is my technical pensieve, Harry Potter fans will get the reference – for the rest of you, a “pensieve” is a repository of memories. You can put your memories in the pensieve and that way your brain doesn’t get too overwhelmed.

Anyway – If I could think of a different word, I’d use it. “Boundaries” just sounds too psycho-babble-ish to me. Maybe, I’ll say “limits” instead. I want to talk about limits – the place where I say, “Back off, you’re getting too close, or I am.”

When I was growing up in my large, enmeshed Catholic family, I desperately sought boundaries. I surrounded myself with three cereal boxes in the mornings to give myself a 2-foot area of private space. I’d put one in front of me and the other two boxes on either side and quietly eat my cereal. That way at lease I could have a little space of my own for about 10 minutes. I also remember spending a lot of time sitting on the roof or in a small treehouse. Sometimes I’d ride my bike to the neighborhood library. In our crazy, chaotic home, there weren’t many places to have “personal space.” The idea of boundaries was foreign. If I ever complained about not having my own room, my mother reminded me that she never had her own bed.

As I got older, I had to learn about boundaries – both in personal and professional relationships. I’m getting better. I’ve had to learn how to draw limits for myself and my friends and family. I’m learning to say NO when I need to.

Boundary issues are HUGE in mental health practice. We even have fancy names for them – transference and countertransference. Transference is when our client “transfers” feelings they have for someone in their personal life to the therapist. For instance, perhaps I remind my client of her mother, so she starts treating me like that. Countertransference occurs when we (the clinician) identify the client with a relationship in our personal lives. For instance, I may start treating a client like my daughter. I may start responding to her as I would a daughter, which is never good.

Boundary issues are so important with clients, that we have strict ethical rules. We are supposed to avoid dual relationships (I can’t treat a family member or friend for instance) and unlike attorneys, we can’t have sexual relationships with our clients.

We have these rules for the protection of clients. Despite our value of “working with” our clients, the fact is that we have great power in the relationship. We must be respectful and vigilant in protecting our clients. I always remind myself that while I may have seen thousands of clients over the years, they don’t see thousands of social workers. Some may see more than others, but what I say, how I treat them, even in a short session of 30 minutes can be very important.

I once had a client return to our office after five years. She said I kept your card and I remember what you told me five years ago – I’ve thought of it often. Wow. Panic. I remember thinking that I hoped I said something good. It turns out I did (whew). I told her that I hoped he wouldn’t keep hurting her, but if he did, to come back and see me. She did – five years later. Another one of those “magical moments”, I’d say.

Keeping up good boundaries is hard work. We have to be thinking about all kinds of communication. Not only what is verbally said, but non-verbal communication, and physical communication. We usually deal with some pretty heavy and shameful stuff in our sessions. We always want to end on a positive note – remind her of her strengths and good decisions. And depending on the client at the end of a session, I might shake her hand, pat her on the back, or even give her a hug.

Many of my clients have major issues with boundaries. Early on in their lives, they were either never taught about limits (trying to use this word instead) or they were taught that their limits did not matter. We work on those issues. Often, I have clients who call me several times a day, or make unreasonable demands. These are learned behaviors – and they can be unlearned. For someone like this, I try to model boundary setting, by not responding to her excessive demands. For instance, if someone calls me 4 times in a day, I’m not calling her back until the next day (unless it really is a true emergency – you learn to tell the difference).
I have to be careful not to "do too much" for my clients. This is a mistake I made much more often earlier in my career. It isn't healthy for the client or the social worker. Kind of the old "teach a person to fish" thing. If we do too much, the client won't learn to do for themselves and they'll still be in the position of depending on someone else.

Now, in the interest of limit-setting, my kids just woke up, so I am turning off my computer and joining my family for the weekend.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Tips for Testifying in Criminal Court

These are all the things I usually talk with people about before they testify. Maybe it will help you or your clients.

· Inside the courtroom – if you haven’t already been sworn in, you will be sworn in – you raise your right hand – listen to what they are saying – then say “I will.”

· Once you sit down, you may find that your heart starts beating quickly or you suddenly feel nervous. That is normal – even for people who testify a lot (like police officers or expert witnesses).

· Quietly take a deep breath – imagine the breath is going all the way to your stomach. Hold it and count to 3. Then slowly (and quietly) let it out. Do this 2 or 3 times.

· When you are speaking, don’t go too fast – the court reporter is taking notes of everything you say.

· The prosecutor will ask you some simple questions, like your name, what you do for a living, etc. Then they’ll get into more serious questions about the case.

· They may ask you to point out the defendant in the courtroom – this is the only time you have to look at him or her. They may ask you to describe something he or she is wearing – you might say “She has a blue shirt on.” Or “He is wearing a brown tie.”

· When you are answering questions, answer only the question the lawyer asks. Don’t try to guess at what they mean.

· Don’t try to be clever, cute, or augmentative. Be serious and sincere.

· If it feels comfortable, look at the jury when you are answering the questions – they are your audience.

· Sometimes you may get asked a question that you don’t know the answer to, or you may not understand the question. It is OK to say that you don’t understand or don’t know. You can even ask the lawyer to repeat the question.

· The defense attorney may act like she is mad at you or act like she thinks you are lying. Don't take it personally. Stay calm and only answer the questions she is asking. Don’t argue with the lawyers.

· If the defense asks you something that you think makes you look bad, if the prosecutor feels it is necessary, they will ask you a follow-up question when it is their turn.

· The most important thing: Tell the truth. Tell the truth. Tell the truth. Even if it makes you look bad or you feel that you did something bad or wrong, tell the truth. If you lie about anything, the jury might think you are lying about everything. Don’t be ashamed - Everybody has things in their life they wish they had done differently or there may be private things in your life that you don’t want other people to know.

· The lawyers can go back and forth and ask you questions –the prosecutor, then the defense attorney, then the prosecutor again.

· If one of the lawyers objects, stop talking. The judge will rule on whether you can answer the question. She will let you know if you can answer or not.

· The judge may tell you that “the rule” has been invoked. This basically means you can’t discuss the your testimony or other people’s testimony. The judge will explain more. No matter how much you want to talk about it – you cannot. You will jeopardize the case and your credibility if you do.

· Once you are finished testifying, the judge will excuse you. You may be excused to leave for good from the case, or you may be asked to remain in the courthouse. Or, the judge may let you leave the courthouse, but tell you that you will be “on call” should they need you later in the case.

· When you leave the stand, quietly walk out of the courtroom.
  • After you testify, you may feel nervous all over again. You may even feel tired. This is normal because you’ve just had to talk about something possibly personal or painful in front of a lot of strangers. Take some time after you testify to relax – take a hot bath, spend time with friends, go outside, do something relaxing.

Saturday, March 8, 2008


Have compassion for all beings, rich and poor alike; each has their suffering. Some suffer too much, others too little.
- Buddha

What can hurt a parent worse than to watch the suffering of her or his child? As a mother, I cannot imagine a greater pain. As a social worker, I don't think I've seen greater pain. The only thing worse is feeling powerless to help your suffering child.

Being a parent is the combination of the greatest love and greatest fear. The greatest love because, well, just because it is. There is something ancient and primal about it. The love a parent has for his child is visceral – we can feel it in our guts. That leads to the fear part. We want to protect them, to make them safe, to fight for them, and clear life’s path for them.

In my work, I’ve spoken with many parents who despair at being unable to save their suffering children who are caught up in the trap of domestic violence. We’ve learned to call the victim’s mother when we are prosecuting a batterer. Most of the time, she’s worried about her daughter, even been cut-off from her and can’t figure out a way to help her get away from the violence. Occasionally, we find the mother not defending her daughter, but the batterer. That conversation is also enlightening - and disturbing. We know, too, that the parents of the abuser also suffer. Many times, the son is repeating the lessons of the father. As much as he hated his father beating his mother when he was growing up, he has internalized the behavior.

Not long ago, I met with some parents who were unable to help their daughter. Her estranged husband had killed her. The parents knew their son-in-law had been violent with their daughter. They didn’t know the extent. They did what they could. They begged her to bring her four-year-old son and come home to live with them. The daughter did try to end the relationship with her abusive husband. But, she felt she could manage the situation and didn’t want to move back home with her parents. Who could blame her? She was an adult and didn’t want to feel she was moving backwards in life. Besides, he may have gotten her at work or some other place. Moving home with her parents was no guarantee of safety.

Lost. That is the word I would use to describe her parents. They had endured many sleepless nights knowing their daughter and perhaps their grandson was being hurt. They probably felt some initial relief when their daughter ended the relationship with her husband. They probably didn’t know that a battered woman is most likely to die when she ends the relationship. Many people don’t and that is why they ask, “Why she doesn’t just leave.” They don't realize that leaving is the trigger for death.

The parents did what they could. In the end, it wasn’t enough. Nothing was. How they must have suffered. And, how they will suffer asking themselves “what if” questions. I am sure either one of them would have traded places with their daughter. Most of us parents would gladly trade our suffering for that of our children.

Our part begins with that initial meeting. We will work to bring the killer to justice. I hope the parents experience some catharsis through this process. Many do, I’ve learned. That’s what we can do for them and what we will do for them. It isn’t enough – nothing could be. But, it is something.

In suffering, there is compassion, understanding and eventually hope. The loss of a child, especially to violence, is never something to “get over” and I’ve heard many parents tell me there is no “closure.” Eventually, we hope, there is acceptance and some measure of peace.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Don't Mistake Kindness for Weakness

We may never be strong enough to be entirely nonviolent in thought, word and deed. But we must keep nonviolence as our goal and make strong progress towards it.

- Mahatma Ghandi

In honor of National Professional Social Worker Month, please indulge me in venting on one of my pet peeves: Social Workers as Gullible Wimps

Some of my co-workers ask us if we can be available to do some “hand-holding” with a complainant. I know they respect us. I know they value our work and our opinions. And – I really try not to let this bother me, but it does. I’m trying to figure out why.

I have eight years of professional training – college, graduate school, and 2 years post graduate clinical supervision. The State of Texas says I’m qualified to diagnose and treat mental illness, even open my open practice if I want to. I don’t. I like where I am just fine, thank you. Actually, I love my job and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. My clients are awesome and I genuinely like my co-workers (like one big dysfunctional family, we are).

I guess it bugs me to have my profession reduced to “hand-holding.” And, I think it minimizes the victim’s role as someone whose “hand needs to be held.” You guys sit over there and hold hands. Of course, in reality, my co-workers and I do a lot of hand-holding and we’re glad to do it.
It is a chance to help someone when they need support. However, there is a lot more that goes on. I call it street social work. Many of our clients do not seek counseling, although I wish they would because it would help them. So, this gives us the chance to go to them, to provide some supportive and educational counseling with them.

It goes along with this idea that all you have to do to be a social worker is to “be nice.” Well, you should be kind, and compassionate, and open to all kinds of people – that is true. But, you also MUST have the ability to confront, demand, and advocate. The trick is knowing when and how to do it.

The term “social worker” is often misapplied to anyone who works for a non-profit or CPS. That’s like saying a paralegal is the same as lawyer. They both do legal work, but one has the training, degree, and license and one does not. In Texas to practice social work, a person must have a degree in social work and pass a licensing exam. There are different levels of social workers, from bachelors to masters level clinical social workers. In addition, clincial social workers are required to have two years of post graduate clinical supervision.

Social workers are the most represented discipline among mental health treatment providers. We have training and skills in crisis intervention, substance abuse, mental health diagnosis and treatment, and suicide assessment and intervention. We are trained to consider a person’s culture, gender, socio-economic class, ethnicity, and many other factors. We study social and clinical theories. We are trained to work at a political level as well. What impacts you and me, probably also impacts others and we need to demand a systemic response.

Now to the idea of social worker = gullible wimp. You’ve probably seen this in the media, when “social work” is code for someone who is gullible, not willing to be tough, or hold others accountable, things like: “We aren’t a bunch of social workers.” or “This isn’t a social work office.” Grrrrrrrr I may have compassion for someone who has done an awful thing, and even try to understand how and why he got there. That doesn't mean I don't believe he should spend a long time in prison.

Anyone can be nice. Anyone can confront. The skill is confronting someone while being kind. And being aware not only of the words being exchanged, but the emotions going on – being aware not only of the content of the conversation, but also the process, being aware of the present moment, as well as the context. It is hard work. It takes a lot of training and practice. We aren’t just having a chat. All the while, we are observing, thinking, teaching, and helping our clients to recognize their strengths and acquire skills to makes their lives better.

Yes, of course, at the heart of it are compassion, empathy and connection. It wouldn’t be anything without that. But, don’t mistake our compassion and understanding for weakness. Please.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Felix Fraga Lesson - Can't We Just Try?

Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.
- Buddha

When I was in social work graduate school, I had the great fortune and plain dumb luck to serve an internship with legendary social worker Felix Fraga. Felix is well known and admired for his decades-long commitment to public service.

By example, he taught me the most basic tenets of good public service:

Be nice.
Be respectful.
Value other people.
Believe in the good in others.
Leave your ego out of it.
Work hard.
Keep trying.

Felix would have an idea for a project. He would gather us – his staff – around and tell us his idea. We’d think of all the obstacles. He’d listen, not very patiently, but nicely. Then he’d say “Can’t we just try?” It was impossible to tell him no. Who would say we couldn’t at least try? Such a simple request. And, he’d always be so earnest and sincere. So, we’d try. And, most of the time, we were successful. I watched him use his same gentle, persistent, and impossible-to-refuse style on many, many people. He usually achieved his goals, which were never about him, always about doing something for someone else.

His voice and that phrase are part of my primal social work psyche. He’s in my brain, especially when I feel overwhelmed – Can’t we just try? Can’t we just be part of doing something good? Or being better? Or expecting better?

Yes, we can. And, yes, we’ll keep trying.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Grief Work

“Suppressed grief suffocates, it rages within the breast, and is forced to multiply its strength.”
- Ovid

“Grief” – even the word sounds so overwhelming. I make my living dealing with grief. Sometimes people ask how my coworkers and I how we can listen to traumatic stories all the time. I guess the short answer is 1) you get used to it, 2) it isn’t sad all the time, and 3) people do get better and it is pretty cool and really an honor to be part of that.

I know this from my own life: I’ve experienced grief. I know what it feels like to be overwhelmed, to be ashamed, to feel small, stupid, and hopeless. And – I know that it didn’t last forever and while it doesn’t define who I am now, it is absolutely part of who I am now. So, in addition to my training, that’s part of what I draw on to work with my clients.

Yes, this is hard. I’m sorry. I wish I could take away your pain. I can’t. But, I can help you work through it. I can support you and remind you of the things you did right, when you only think everything you have done is wrong. I can’t snap my fingers and give you the easy way out, but I can help support you through the hard way. I can get you in touch with other places or ways to get better. I’m not better than you, or smarter, don't have all the answers, just willing to listen and help.

I also know this about grief: You can’t ignore it for too long. We all put grief away sometimes. When it is just too awful, too painful, too big, we might stuff it in a little box behind our hearts. We might try to drown it with some alcohol, or calm it with medicine. It is still there. Waiting. Growing.

We bury it so deeply that we believe the grief just went away. It doesn’t. It won’t. It will come back at the most inconvenient times. It will seep out and damage our relationships with our closest friends and family. Unacknowledged grief turns into anger, bitterness, and even worse, coldness. We all know these people. Maybe we’ve been these people. He’s the man who is quiet and seemingly in control, but you can feel the anger not radiating from him, but seeping out like cold poison gas. He’s the guy who one day explodes and everyone says, “but he was so quiet.”

So, my point: Grief seems impossible, but it isn’t, as long as we realize that at some point, we must face it. A few years ago, worked with a mother whose 10-year son had recently been murdered by her husband. Before I met with her for the first time, I took a breath and had a moment of panic – WHAT can I say or do? I walked in, knowing the words and actions would come. She looked so lost. I did a little introduction – my name, I’m a social worker, so sorry she was here, so sorry about her situation, wanted to see what I could do to help her through this if that was OK…she just looked at me, really through me.
The only thing she wanted was her son. How all of us wished we could have given him back to her. I also knew that she wasn't ready to tell the story about how he died, but she would have to. The thinking part of her knew that he was dead, but the emotional part was still pretending he was "away." As a clinician, I didn't want to force her to embrace the reality of his death all at once. However, I knew she had to for criminal justice reasons.

Well, I thought, let's start where she is, so I asked her if she had a picture of her son. Of course, she did. He was a beautiful child – a sweet bright face, full of life and hope. I told her he looked very sweet. She smiled and said he is - was. She told me how he was a compassionate, insightful boy who always thought of other people. I asked her to tell me more about him. She did. I told her I was also the mother of boys and understood the special love they have for their mothers. That’s how we started. I encouraged her find the strength to testify in the mother's love she has for her son. She did.

When she was done giving her statement, she practically ran out of the building. I don't blame her since she was forced her to tell a story she wasn't ready to verbalize. I hurried alongside her. She needed to get to the open air, away from her son's death. Once outside, we briefly talked. I told her she did the right thing. She used some healthy and not-so-healthy ways to deal with her grief – as do many of us, especially with profound grief. She got through the hardest parts. She’ll never stop aching for her son and asking a million “what-if” questions, but she is doing OK and even finding joy in her life.

People tell me they want their lives to “go back to the way it was” and “to be normal.” I don’t lie, because I know they need to be prepared. I tell them their lives will forever be changed. But, it won’t always hurt this sharply and be so close to the surface; that they can feel better; that it can take a long, long time; that we can’t fix it, but we’ll help as much as we can.

So, last week, I made one of those contacts. I called the brother of a domestic violence murder victim. He told me he was actually writing his sister’s obituary when I called. He sounded calm, but of course, he’s probably just getting through this fresh painful part right now. I told him my name, I’m a social worker, I was sorry, we wanted to help in whatever way we could and explained a little of what would be happening. It was short, but it was a beginning. I didn’t want to overwhelm him, but just let him know we’re here and we’re ready.

Ovid said to “remember this pain, for someday it will be useful to you.” I suppose that is the basis for empathy. So, we try to do that. We draw on our training, especially on the most basic premise of social work - that we start where our client is. We draw on memories of our own pain, and on the pain of others to try and help people to get to the other side of grief – which is hopefully acceptance and some measure of peace. In the process, we are rewarded with the extreme honor of witnessing people move from pain and hopelessness, to comfort and hope.

Sunday, February 17, 2008


Om Mani Padme Hum – Buddhist Compassion Mantra

My mother first taught me about compassion. She didn’t say much about it, but she did it, like when she saw an older lady walking on the street and offered her a ride (things were different back then). She winced when she saw prisoners on a chain gang, telling me that it hurt her to see people chained up like that, regardless of why they ended up there. That didn’t stop her from hammering a child predator when she was on a jury, though.

I learned compassion from being brought up Catholic. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it dawned on me when I was in social work graduate school and noticed there sure were a lot of Catholic and Jewish women there. Both religions teach social justice and the duty we all have to each other. Of course, I am NOT saying other religions don’t, it is just really pounded into our heads. Once one of my kids told me that we needed to feed the poor. “OK”, I said. “Where do you think the poor are?” He responded that he didn’t know, but we needed to find them and feed them, good little Catholic boy that he is.

I’ve learned compassion from my clients, especially from them. In my job working with victims and their families, a murder victim’s brother reminded me of it a while back. While on a break during the trial, the brother asked me if the defendant’s family “got somebody like me” to help them. I was stunned - what amazing selfless compassion. His sister was dead, killed by the defendant – and he was concerned because the defendant’s family was also suffering and they needed someone to help guide and support them through the trial.

That simple and beautiful act of compassion by the victim’s brother is truly one of the pinnacle moments I’ll always remember. I would even say it was a “magic moment.” It was one of those times when the world stops spinning for half a second and you realize you just experienced something absolutely remarkable.

I remember witnessing an act of compassion by a prosecutor I admire. The dazed-looking elderly parents of a capital murder defendant wondered into the office seeking information. Who knows how many places they’d been? Their daughter had been charged with murdering her small child. Rather than just dismissing them, this prosecutor brought them into her office and gave them some basic information about the case and told them what to expect as far as the process of how criminal cases proceed. I asked her about it afterwards. She said she felt sorry for them and she was afraid they’d just keep getting bounced around. She was so nice to them and showed them a little practical compassion when they so needed it.

Since we deal with crisis and trauma all the time, sometimes people ask how my co-workers and me how we can do our jobs. I guess I don’t look at it like that. I think of those moments – like with the brother and my co-worker – that make me awed and honored to be a part of all of this.

I’ve learned that compassion isn’t weakness. It isn’t living on the surface, thinking everyone is “nice.” Compassion is hard sometimes because it requires us to look outside ourselves and consider the suffering of others, even if they have done awful things. It requires strength and the ability to face extremely difficult situations. The surprising thing is, ultimately, compassion leads us to contentment, peace, understanding and resolution.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Going Public

“Not guilty.” It was over just like that. He wasn’t guilty, wasn’t responsible for Teresa’s murder, wasn’t responsible for the death of a mother of five. That was it. Everyone can go home.

After a week of trial, “not guilty” is what the jury said. Teresa died four years ago due to a gunshot wound to her head. The defense theory was that it was an accident because Teresa was “mental” and had tried to kill herself. She had been a victim of traumatic sexual abuse as a child and had suffered from various mental problems because of it. She’d made threats to kill herself, and even tried, more than once. She also routinely tried to get help and be happy, the best way she could. She got overwhelmed, but she hadn’t given up.

The defendant, who had a previous conviction for domestic violence against another woman, told several different stories about how Teresa died. Experts testified about inconsistencies in his stories that didn't match the physical evidence. Mental health providers testified about her diagnosis and the defense made a list of all her problems. After a week of testimony, the jury spent about 3 hours deliberating and came back with that verdict.

After the verdict, when everyone got up to walk out, Teresa’s mom just sat there, like she was waiting for a different answer. When she recovered enough to cry – she said she was “going public.” No one had the heart to tell her that “the public” generally doesn’t care about women who die like this. “The public” is used to these stories. It generally isn’t very newsworthy and we rarely see reporters milling about waiting for the latest information on our cases.

A small group of heartbroken, and hopeful, family and friends came to the trial every day. They supported each other and they waited. They heard the prosecutors talk about the evidence and how Teresa was more than a mental illness – she was a woman, a mother, a daughter, and a sister. The defense threw down mental health terms like they were character defects: “She was del-u-sion-al” the defense attorney drawled out. He said she was “psychotic.” At one point during the closing he even said “She was mental.”

It was a hard case, nobody doubted that. The jury did what they were supposed to do – we can’t question them – it is what it is.

Teresa was important – she was loved and valued. Her babies, her mother, her sister, all her family – her friends - will always mourn her and feel they were denied justice.

For Teresa’s sake – – I’m going public. On this little blog that maybe only a few people might read – truly, it is cases like this that make me want to do a better job – and frankly, make me more than a little “mental.”

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Best Thing I Ever Read About Domestic Violence

This is the best thing I've ever read about domestic violence. See what you think:

by Andrea Dworkin
From the Los Angeles Times
October 8, 1995
Copyright © 1995 by Andrea Dworkin.All rights reserved.

Five days before Nicole Brown Simpson was murdered on June 12, 1994, she called a battered women's shelter in terror that her ex-husband was going to kill her. The jury was not told this, because she couldn't be cross-examined. Guess not. Most of the rest of the evidence of beating and stalking, from 1977 to May, 1994, was also excluded. O.J. Simpson had stalked her not once, as represented to the jury, but over at least a two-year period. Prosecutors had been permitted to introduce seven incidents of stalking, but they chose to admit only one into evidence. The jury, predominantly women, was not responding to the wife-abuse evidence, said observers. In fact, during an interview late last week, one woman juror called the domestic-abuse issue "a waste of time." Polls during the trial confirmed women were indifferent to the beatings Nicole Simpson endured.

I was battered over a four-year period nearly 25 years ago, and am still haunted by fear and flashbacks. As a woman who escaped an assassin husband, I agreed with Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher A. Darden that, in 1989, Nicole Simpson knew someday her husband would kill her. She'd told many people, including her sister, Denise, that he'd kill her and get away with it. In fact, you can take a battered woman's knowledge of her abuser's capacity to inflict harm and evade consequences to the bank.

But five days before Nicole Simpson was murdered, she knew, for sure, she would die. How? Why? Something had happened: a confrontation, a threatening phone call, an unwanted visit, an aggressive act from Simpson directed at her. She told no one, because, after 17 years of torment, she knew there was no one to tell. The police virtually everywhere ignore assault against women by their male intimates, so that any husband can be a brutal cop with tacit state protection; in Los Angeles, the police visited Nicole Simpson's abuser at home as fans.

Remember the video showing Simpson, after the ballet recital, with the Brown family--introduced by the defense to show Simpson's pleasant demeanor. Hours later, Nicole Simpson was dead. In the video, she is as far from Simpson, physically, as she can manage. He does not nod or gesture to her. He kisses her mother, embraces and kisses her sister and bear-hugs her father. They all reciprocate. She must have been the loneliest woman in the world.

What would Nicole Simpson have had to do to be safe? Go underground, change her appearance and identity, get cash without leaving a trail, take her children and run--all within days of her call to the shelter. She would have had to end all communication with family and friends, without explanation, for years, as well as leave her home and everything familiar.

With this abuser's wealth and power, he would have had her hunted down; a dream team of lawyers would have taken her children from her. She would have been the villain--reckless, a slut, reviled for stealing the children of a hero. If his abuse of her is of no consequence now that she's been murdered, how irrelevant would it have been as she, resourceless, tried to make a court and the public understand she needed to run for her life?

Nicole Simpson knew she couldn't prevail, and she didn't try. Instead of running, she did what the therapists said: Be firm, draw a line. So she drew the sort of line they meant. He could come to the recital but not sit with her or go to dinner with her family--a line that was no defense against death. Believing he would kill her, she did what most battered women do: kept up the appearance of normality. There was no equal justice for her, no self-defense she felt entitled to. Society had already left her to die.

On the same day the police who beat Rodney G. King were acquitted in Simi Valley, a white husband who had raped, beaten, and tortured his wife, also white, was acquitted of marital rape in South Carolina. He had kept her tied to a bed for hours, her mouth gagged with adhesive tape. He videotaped a half hour of her ordeal, during which he cut her breasts with a knife. The jury, which saw the videotape, had eight women on it. Asked why they acquitted, they said he needed help. They looked right through the victim. There were no riots afterward.

The governing reality for women of all races is that there is no escape from male violence, because it is inside and outside, intimate and predatory. While race hate has been expressed through forced segregation, woman hate is expressed through forced closeness, which makes punishment swift, easy and sure. In private, women often empathize with one another, across race and class, because their experiences with men are so much the same. But in public, including on juries, women rarely dare. For this reason, no matter how many women are battered--no matter how many football stadiums battered women could fill on any given day--each one is alone.

Surrounded by family, friends and a community of affluent acquaintances, Nicole Simpson was alone. Having turned to police, prosecutors, victim's aid, therapists and a women's shelter, she was still alone. Ronald L. Goldman may have been the only person in 17 years with the courage to try to intervene physically in an attack on her; and he's dead, killed by the same hand that killed her, an expensively gloved, extra-large hand.

Though the legal system has mostly consoled and protected batterers, when a woman is being beaten, it's the batterer who has to be stopped; as Malcolm X used to say, by any means necessary—a principle women, all women, had better learn. A woman has a right to her own bed, a home she can't be thrown out of and for her body not to be ransacked and broken into. She has a right to safe refuge, to expect her family and friends to stop the batterer--by law or force--before she's dead. She has a constitutional right to a gun and a legal right to kill if she believes she's going to be killed. And a batterer's repeated assaults should lawfully be taken as intent to kill.

Everybody's against wife abuse, but who's prepared to stop it?

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Stress(less) Tips

Remember this pain, for someday it may be useful to you. - Ovid

Here are some stress tips. I'm sharing them not because I'm some great all-knowing guide, or a Pollyanna - I'm sharing them because I've been there - and learned the hard way, more than once.

Stress(less) List

1. Remember who you love.

2. Remember who loves you.

3. Be grateful (see 1 and 2).

4. If you are religious, pray.

5. If you’re not religious, pray anyway. You never know and it helps to spend a few minutes being quiet.

6. Take care of your body.
a. Eat at least three healthy things each day – fruit, vegis, yogurt, etc.
b. Get sleep.
c. Drink water.
d. If you can’t exercise, at least get up from your desk and walk around once in a while.

7. Be careful about alcohol consumption. It is tempting to have a couple of beers or glasses of wine each day to “wind down.” But, alcohol is a depressant and will only add to your stress.

8. Breathe, purposefully.
a. Your heart rate follows your breath.
b. Your mind follows your breath and your heart rate.
c. Relaxing Breathing – breathe deep – imagine the breath going all the way to your stomach - and count to five as you breath in. Hold your breath for two counts. Let out your breath counting to five. Do this 10 times. You’ll be amazed.

9. If the stress doesn’t go away; if you are feeling low energy, sadness, hopelessness, agitation or anxiety for more than a month; if you can’t sleep, or want to sleep all the time; or gain or lose a bunch of weight - consider seeing a doctor. Excessive and/or prolonged stress can turn into depression – which is a medical condition, which often requires a medical treatment. See http://www.nami.org/ for more information.

10. You may have to fix something in your life before it gets better. Which means, you might have to face something painful and it may even take a long time. Don't be afraid of it - sometimes only the hard way is the way to peace.

11. Remember who you are and everyone goes through tough times. You’ve probably done it before and you can do it now. Your life doesn’t have to be defined by whatever you are dealing with. It will get better.