Sunday, December 20, 2009

Game Over

- Blaise Pascal

This past week in Harris County, Texas, a long-time criminal judge was found guilty of Oppression. From the Houston Chronicle story (12/18/09):

Harris County Criminal Court-at-Law Judge Don Jackson, who is accused of offering to help a drunken-driving defendant in his court get her case dismissed in exchange for a sexual relationship, has been found guilty on Friday of official oppression.

Go here for the stories by Brian Rogers:

Here's more:

I watched some of the trial - as much as I had time for and as much as I could stomach. The victim in the case is a brave young woman and has my deep appreciation and respect. Like many victimized women, she had to endure the "whore test." The defense tried to show that she is an untruthful woman who posted flirty pictures of herself on Facebook and also used her looks to get what she wanted. All they had to do was convince just one juror that she wasn't to be believed when she testified that the Judge's sexual advances were unwanted and offensive. I am greatly relieved (and frankly pleasantly surprised) they were not able to convince even one juror.

Here is something to consider: Even if she is a woman who a) put pictures of herself on Facebook and b) used her looks, that doesn't equate to c) that she has to accept EVERY man who makes sexual advances towards her. This is akin to accepting the idea that a woman can be sexually assaulted by her husband and that a prostituted woman can raped. Just because we say "yes" sometimes - and in even some ways people don't like or accept - doesn't mean we can't say "no."

This woman in this case not only said "no" - she said "no more."

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Rihanna TOLD Chris Brown

Rihanna - You are an amazing, insightful, and smart young woman. Your singular act of bravery by appearing on 20/20 last week is truly one of the important, pivotal moments in our struggle to change the way the world views domestic violence. Bravo.

Chris Brown - You've got a long way to go. If you think this is any way a private matter, you are stuck back in 1965. Rihanna acknowledges and you must too, that EVERYONE is watching and learning by your actions, your choices, and your words.

In Chris Brown's scripted apology, he can't hide his true thoughts and feelings. He tries to say all the right things, but his frustration and annoyance with Rihanna comes out when he talks about his apology, "I am telling you and I have TOLD Rihanna countless times..." When I hear it, it sounds like, "I have told that B**** countless times." See what you think:


When left to his own, he did what most batterers do - he said he couldn't remember, couldn't talk, and now says it is should be "a private matter." He says, "That's not who I am." Actually, yes - that is who you are. The first step in being different is accepting that you made the decision to use violence. And it is that - a decision - a choice.


What strikes me now is how they both grew up in homes with domestic violence. Both have publically talked about it. Rihanna has made the connection. I hope Chris Brown eventually does. He'll be happier and so will his next partner. Rihanna is well on her way to understanding, accepting, and becoming healthy.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Crying Without Tears

In my career, I have born witness to thousands of stories of shocking violence, incredible bravery, and unabashed raw human emotion. I count myself extremely fortunate and humbled to be able to share in my clients' journey from victimized to victor.

A little background for my story. Here in Texas, victims can give a statement after a trial or guilty plea. Basically, after everything is over, the victim can say a few words to the defendant. Many people don't do this, possibly because they may have had a chance to say what they needed in the trial. Generally, we only see these done in the more serious cases - like an aggravated assault, a robbery, or a murder (given by the victim's family usually).

Recently, I saw a police officer give a victim impact statement in court and it left me stunned. Which, considering my long history of hearing stories of violence and survivial, is really saying something.

The nearly 20 year veteren officer got a call that a man was holding his ex-wife hostage at gunpoint. This officer was the first at the scene. He thought about how he'd want someone to try and save his own children if they were in this situation, so he kicked in the door and confronted the man. It was a real time-stopping standoff. The man moved his ex-wife in front of him. Eventually, the man and the ex-wife moved to a bedroom. Swat came. After several hours, the man finally gave up.

In his victim impact statement, the officer stood to face the defendant. He had just in that moment decided he would give a statement, so he hadn't prepared what he would say. The officer told the defendant, "I would have killed you if I could have." He went on to describe that he just couldn't get a clean shot. He said it plain as day - not bragging, not even angry, just a fact. I would have killed you if I could have. Perhaps he was saying it as much to himself as the defendant. I had the sense the officer had been living with the terrible burden of this reality - that, yes, he would have killed another human being.
The officer talked about how in that moment - defendant holding the gun to his ex's head, officer holding gun on def - the officer thought about his baby son and wondered who would take care of his family if he died. He described how time slowed down just as he'd heard people say about life and death situations.

At the end of his statement, the officer told the defendant he had another chance. And, not to blow it.

So - the title of blog entry - Crying Without Tears - that's how I felt when I saw the officer give his statement. Like the proverbial "punch in the gut." For days after in my mind I heard him say, "I would have killed you if I could have." Spoken like a humble warrier, a regular guy turned soldier, a man who protected someone else's child as he'd want his own protected - a real hero.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Good Advice from a Smart Person

One of my mentors just retired. During his career, he had worked his way up from a line worker to a senior manager who supervised thousands of people over the years. Here is some advice he's given me over the years:

Hire People who are Smart, Work Hard and Get Along with Others

He always said it was really hard to find all three qualities in one person. You might get someone who worked hard, got along with others, but maybe was of average intelligence. Or, maybe you got someone who got along well with her co-workers, was smart, but kind of lazy.

People get into BIG Trouble for Lying, Not for What they Lied About

This is a good one and some people call this "falling on the sword." In other words, if you do something wrong it is better to simply admit you did made a bad decision. What gets most people in serious trouble is not the bad decision, but the "cover-up" and lying about it. Think Bill Clinton.

You Don't Know a Person Until You See Them Under Stress

Anyone can be nice at a party. You don't really know a person's character until you see them under stress, her back against the wall. Is she they type of person who'll throw everyone under the bus? Or, will she get out in front and take control? Will he become angry and nervous, or will he become focused and ready to deal with the problem?

Try Not to Say Bad Things about People

If you think something bad about another person, keep it to yourself, unless you have no other choice. You never know how this might come back to haunt you. For instance, if you think someone is less than honest, be careful around that person. If you have a say on where she works, try and put in her in a position in which she won't impact too many people. Truth will eventually out and people like this will eventually do themselves in.
Get All the Facts Before you Make a Decision
This sounds like a no-brainer. But it isn't. It is easy to go with emotion and make a decision before 1) gathering all the information and 2) weighing all the decisions. Gathering all the information means talking to all the parties who might be involved. The trick is not to let how you feel about someone get in the way. If you need to review documents, do that. The big thing is not to be too reactive. Take the time to gather all the puzzle pieces before trying to put it together. Weighing all the decisions means really thinking about the outcomes. The more political the decision, the more it needs to be considered. Some things really can't be undone.
Don't Let Your Ego Get in the Way
This is a really tough one for most of us (me included). It is easy to respond to a situation from a personal perspective - that really made me mad. But, the best thing is always to take a breath and look at the situation from a variety of angles, and to put yourself in someone else's shoes - to really try and understand how others see it.
I love my mentors and am extremely grateful for all their patience and guidance. I have had several of them in my life and I hope that I can provide mentorship to others as I gain more experience.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Faith in Action

A Christian is great in so far as his service.

- Fr. Ben Smaistrla 10/17/09

Please forgive me if you are offended by this poster, but think about what it means. I was goofing around on the internet and found it. My first response was to laugh. But, then I thought about the deeper meaning and decided this is funny because it is so TRUE. Don't get me wrong, I think prayer is important. But, I also think that many situations call for service, which is faith in action.

At mass this week, our priest, Fr. Ben Smaistrla, told the story of a rich man who saw a bedraggled woman and child begging for food. He didn't give them any. He went home, sat down to his own sumptuous meal, and prayed to God to "help those poor people." He even had the temerity to ask God why he let people suffer so.
I once went to a "day of prayer" for at risk children. It was at a beautiful wealthy church in an exclusive part of town. We heard statistics on at risk children and said a prayer for them. I almost expected to hear the iconic song "In the Ghetto" playing in the background. One Latino lawmaker got up and told us that in fact, parents of "at risk" kids want the best for them, just like parents of kids in the wealthy neighborhoods. He didn't say it outright, but I am extrapolating that what they needed more than prayer, were jobs at fair wages and access to affordable housing and healthcare.

The point is we've got to deliver. It isn't enough to look good, or think about being good, or even pray about being good - we actually to do something to be good. We can't ask "why" without asking "how can I help?" Certainly, we cannot help every person or every situation. But, we all can help someone and we can take a make a difference somewhere.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Out of Bounds

I always thought I could make it big if I thought of my own therapy. I could even put a little ™ by the title. I'm going to call it Family Realignment Therapy.
Here's out it will work. I'll meet with a family and assess where they are in terms of relationships. Then, I'll use various techniques to properly realign family relationships. In my work, I often meet with children who have had to take on adult responsibilities. Or, the parents are so busy dealing with their own problems, they don't give much direction or establish boundaries with their kids.
I'm not talking about "bad" people who do this. I'm talking about people like you and me. (After all, how can you or I be bad?)
Here's an example. I once worked with a woman for several years to get out and stay out of an abusive relationship. Like many battered women, she became isolated from friends and family. As a result, her confidant became her 9 year old son. She told me she didn't know what she'd do without him. He always knew the right thing to say and do to help her. I'm sure he did. I met him. He was a precocious little boy. He was sweet and aware of way too many adult issues. Mom really didn't see how she was burdening her son.
Like many people living in crisis and trauma she couldn't see past "the moment." Planning for the future or looking at the big picture isn't part of the program. I encouraged her to get into counseling and put her son in counseling to realign that family relationship. I have kids and, yes, they are a comfort. But, it can't be their job to meet my emotional needs. I'm supposed to meet their needs. I'm supposed to take care of them, to set boundaries, to be the parent. I know it is a cliche, but if we are our kids' friend, we're probably not their parent - at least until they are grown.
P.S. I had to learn how to set boundaries/rules my own kids and mean it. I gave in too easily and I have learned it is better in the long run to say, mean it, and stick with it. It is harder too, but gets easier with practice.
Two things my own kids hear a lot:
1) Don't confuse me for one of your friends. (often said when they want to give me some attitude) and
2) How many mothers do you have? Answer: 1 (that's right).

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Regular Sex

After working as a social worker with families for nearly 15 years, one thing I know FOR SURE is there is no such thing as "regular sex."

I'm not hoping to start a discussion her about sex per se - what people like or don't. My point is that whatever you can imagine, someone is probably doing it out there. I've had to redefine what I thought "most people did."

Lots of people have sex with more than one person, at the same time. And with the easy access of digital video and photos, WAY too many people are taking pictures. Personally, I really don't want to see myself, but apparently lots of people do.

Here's the downside - when they break up - here's a major shame inducing / help preventing aspect. When I'm talking with a client and I sense something "there" but she (sometimes he) doesn't want to tell me - it is generally somehow related to sex. Second is related to drug use.

I talked with a woman for quite a while and I never could get at what was scaring her so. We did the whole lethality risk assessment. He'd shoved her around and had been harassing her, but the level of previous violence didn't match up with the level of fear she was displaying. FINALLY, she told me. She'd let him take all these naked pictures of her. He was threatening to send them to her family and friends if she didn't get back with him. What a class A jerk. And, what a great control technique on his part. It worked. For a while. But, she finally told someone (me). Her shame and fear were palatable. It turns out he did send out those pictures. And, she lived. And, we got a protective order for her. Life went on. Turns out, we are all naked under our clothes.
I was in protective order court with another client of mine. We were getting ready for her contested hearing (that means her abusive ex-husband wanted to have the judge decide if the PO should be granted her not - he, or course, has the right to have the case heard). She told me she needed to tell me something. OK, generally people do. She told me that she and her husband had been in a swingers group. I suppose she felt she was telling me something that I hadn't heard before. Or, something that would impact the protective order hearing. Neither was true.
But, to her, it was a great shame. I will never, ever forget that moment. The look on her face. How her whole body went rigid, tears in her eyes, as she confessed to me her secret. She said she wasn't forced, but she didn't feel good about herself and this is what her husband wanted, so she did it. She even enjoyed it. But, she never felt right about it. I told her lots of people do lots of different things. In my job, I hear all about it. And, that's not why we were here. We were here to see about getting her protection.
I've learned to ask direct questions. Obviously, I don't need to know about clients' sex lives in general. But, when it impacts their ability to live safely or in peace, I've learned to specific questions like:
1) What happened when he wanted to have sex and you didn't?
This is a great way to get at accessing power and control in a relationship. Often I get answers like:
I didn't say no, he'd be mad...I had sex when he wanted to keep him calm...Sex was the only thing good about our relationship...He hit me if I didn't have sex
2) Is there something else you are afraid of. Sometimes people have things they are embarrassed by, like something to do with sex or taking drugs. If this is something that is going on with you, you can tell me. I've heard everything before and I won't judge you.
Confession really is good for the soul. Often what people are ashamed of, has nothing to do with our case (like getting a protective order). But, they think it will impact the case, so they don't say, but they are afraid. After I ask people like this, they'll tell me they did drugs, or did something sexual they've never done before. I think it often makes them feel better to say it out loud so we can discuss it.

So, my point, on a personal note, I had no idea. On a professional note, the best thing is to just talk about it. As Brene Brown says, the anectode to shame is empathy.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Storing Up Trauma

I spent most of the day yesterday researching a domestic violence homicide case. The defendant was/is pretty much a one-man crime spree. He hurt all the people who he supposedly loved - girlfriends, children, step-children, etc. There was so many offense and criminal cases on this guy, I had to separate them out by year. I'm thinking of making a graphic to show all the relationships he had and all the people he hurt - otherwise, it might be too confusing.

My boss asked me to listen to a 911 call on another murder case. The victim is on the phone calling for the police and the last thing she says is that "he has a gun." Chilling.

Then, another prosecutor came by with some crime scene and autopsy photos from another murder case. We looked at the photos and discussed them. It doesn't bother me to see these types of photos per se - I don't get "grossed out" by them, but it makes me sad to think of how that person must have suffered and how much their families and loved ones must suffer.

I handled the usual number of crisis and mundane situations - asked a prosecutor to see about refiling a case that was charged too low (he did - awesome), spoke with a mentally challenged former victim/client who was assaulted again - she told me she let him move back in, he said he'd change, he didn't, etc, requested an emergency protective order from the prosecutor on that one, made an appointment for another client who got back together with her ex (AFTER he'd spent six months in jail for beating her) she was embarrassed, but I told her about 99% of my clients do the same thing - she's coming in next week - also got her hooked up with a police officer. I helped load some donations in the back of a shelter worker's truck. I edited some items for domestic violence awareness month, and I checked on my co-workers to see how they are doing.

This is a typical day - in a job I love. But, man, what a lot of violence/trauma exposure. I tend to think I'm used to it after nearly 15 years. But, it came back on me like heartburn from too much pizza and beer.

I went to yoga after work. During a series of sun salutations, all the trauma hit me. I suddenly felt really sad and thought about all the pain I witnessed that day. Yoga does that sometimes - it gets at all that mid-brain, repressed emotion. And - it really is a good thing. Because it is THERE. Better to acknowledge it and let it go. The most destructive thing in a job like this is to say or feel it "doesn't bother" us.

I know a lot of people in that category. You can usually see them in the bar after work - every day. Or, they are having an affair. Or, engaging in other risky activities. Anything to feel something other than the sometimes overwhelming sadness and hopelessness of our work.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Peak Reaction Time

A life of reaction is a life of slavery, intellectually and spiritually. One must fight for a life of action, not reaction.

- Rita Mae Brown

I'm trying to get my timing right. You know how sometimes you think of "the perfect comeback" only like three hours later? Or, you say the absolute wrong thing because you just can't stop yourself because you're mad? That's what I'm talking about - what is the peak reaction time - time enough to think of the right thing to say and timely enough to have the right impact.

I grew up in a large and chaotic family (6 kids in a 10 year span). If we wanted something, we had to grab it and shove the others out of the way. We played together and fought together - sometimes at the same time. My mother had to resort to locking us out of the house for a couple of hours at a time in the summers. I think she probably did that to keep from going crazy. The point is - I learned to speak out and do it quickly. This has turned out to be a good thing and a bad thing in my life.

It is a good thing because I usually don't have any problem saying how I feel or what I think. I especially don't have a problem when I think someone else is being abused or treated poorly. Big surprise I ended up being a social worker who advocates for and works with abused people. I have testified in court lots of times at bond hearings. I am not shy about making my point and giving the judge all the reasons why I think we need to have a high bond or no bond. Recently, there was an incident near the elevators in my building. Someone to our office and told us a man had just assaulted his girlfriend. I went out there and stepped past everyone and told this crying woman who was hunkered down in a little ball to come with me. At the same time, I told the boyfriend to "get back." He did and she came with me. I can do the "take charge in a crisis" thing.

But, here's the part I am working on - the flip side that I open my mouth and say what may be the brutal, honest truth but wasn't the right thing to say. My good friend and experienced social worker, J, tells me she's working on the same thing - that reactionary response. When I think about it, probably the responses that are wrong are more to do with my ego. Sometimes it feels good to make that snappy, clever zinger. And - sometimes it does more harm in the long run.
I do a lot of training - mostly police officers - and I have learned not to react when someone makes a comment I think is just plain wrong. This has taken A LOT of practice. But, I have found that if I don't respond with my first thought (often - WTH?!) but I say something like, "Lets talk about that." or "What do others in the class think about that?" If the comment is really off the hook, usually other people in the class will call out the person. Or, we can explore that concept without shaming that person and maybe, just maybe, I can change his or her mind.
Good therapists know about the power of silence. That's the time when our clients are talking about something and we want to jump in and talk - but we don't. We wait. Or, we say something like, "Can you tell me more about that?" Sometimes we have to simply reflect back - "That sounds like it was hard." Social workers learn about working with clients from a Strengths Perspective - that's when we point out the good things people did - "It sounds even though that was a difficult situation, you handled it well."

Taking a breath in between hearing information and responding also helps. That 5 second delay can make the difference between a harmful response and a helpful one.
And - the big trap these days - electronic communication. It is so easy to just tap-tap-tap out that clever response and hit "send." But, there it is - our responses in writing FOREVER. It is hard to take that back....what I really meant to say was....yeah - what I really meant to say is pretty clear - there in black and white. Ouch.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Un Newsworthy

In seperateness lies the world's great misery, in compassion lies the world's true strength.

- Buddha

I was in court observing a domestic violence homicide case. I had consulted with the prosecutor about this case, but had not worked with the victim's family, so they didn't know who I was.

I often bring my laptop with me when I observe trials. I can work during the downtimes. Real trials are not like on TV. There is a lot of downtime: the lawyers make arguments outside the presence of the jury, the court has to conduct other business, there are breaks, etc.

So, I was working on my laptop during one the downtimes in this trial. The jury stepped out for a short break and the victim's brother turned to me and asked if I was a reporter. (Normally, I introduce myself to the family if I haven't already met them, but I hadn't yet introduced myself.)

It was a profoundly sad moment. The brother, kind of scruffy-looking dressed in jeans and a nice shirt, looked at me hopefully. I really wanted to say, "Why yes, and I have been sent to cover this important case." Of course didn't say that. I told him that I was a social worker who worked at the DA's Office. I told him I wanted to be at the trial, but I also had to keep up with my other work, so I was trying to do both. He laughed and said he understood.

The jury came back and the trial started back up just after we spoke and the next witness started talking about where and how the victim's body was found. The brother put his face in his hands and I put my hand on his back and whispered, "I'm sorry." He nodded briefly, his eyes brimming with tears.

In a smaller place - not Houston - they probably do cover all the domestic violence murder cases. Here in Houston, we have an average of 1 person killed every 10 to 14 days due to domestic violence. There's just too many murders. They are too commonplace to make the news on a regular basis.

I've noticed over the years that the domestic violence homicides only get covered if there is something unusual - like when Timothy Shepherd burned up his girlfriend's body in his bar-b-que grill after he killed her, or when dentist Clara Harris ran over her husband with her Mercedes and killed him.

For our commonplace murders - your regular folk - people who work for UPS, or K-Mart - the SOPs of domestic violence homicides - I suppose we're just too used to these or maybe "this story has already been done." Maybe it is just the same story with different names, the same facts, the same ending - you know - un newsworthy.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Public Responsibility

We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don’t do that – if you quit on school – you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country.
- President Barack Obama

If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.
- Mother Teresa

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country.
- President John F. Kennedy

If someone is having a problem, don't ask them what you can do to help, just do it.
- My Mom


My kids' principal sent out an email last week informing us parents they WOULD NOT be showing President's Obama's address to kids, but said they would record it if anyone were interested. I hesitated (do I want to jump into this thing - well, yes) and then responded back that I would have let my kids see it because the information looks positive. And - what better example of the value of education than from a man who literally overcame several issues we commonly label as " childhood adverse risk factors" to become president of the United States. The principal responded by saying if I wanted to come up to the school, I could watch the speech with my kids. So, I did.

I don't think they actually widely advertised this as an option, so it was my kids, 2 other moms, their 2 kids, and me. We huddled around an old computer in the library. We couldn't get the sound up very high, so we huddled around the speaker. It made me think of the days when people huddled around the radio for the fireside chat.

We couldn't hear very well at all, but we could hear most of it. I poked my kids several times during the speech - especially the parts about not giving up and to keep trying even when it doesn't turn out well. What stuck with me was the quote I've posted above.

This is really the heart of social work training - and Catholic Social Justice teaching - and really, just plain being a good, responsible, and productive citizen.

It is this idea that what we do (or don't know) isn't about just how it impacts us as individuals - but this idea that we have a public responsibility too. As Mother Teresa said - we belong to each other.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Near End of Mother

I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.
- Mother Teresa

She sat across from me, crying, telling me she just didn't know what to do, just knew she couldn't "live like this" anymore. My 76 year old client wasn't talking about a husband or boyfriend. She was talking about her 49 year old son.

I know when we are about the last stop when a mother comes to our office about a grown child. The scenario is almost always the same: untreated mental health issues, substance abuse, been stealing/cajoling mom for money, turned violent when she wouldn't give in anymore. Mom tries to put up limits, but gives in when her son asks for help. Us mothers can't but see them as 2 year olds holding up their little arms begging to be cuddled. If only we could comfort them now, like we could then.

For all we say about romantic love, and we say a lot, we can always find another partner. Most of my clients are or have been in intimate partner domestic violence relationships. There's always another fish. But, not so for children. No matter how cruel, how bad, how humiliating, a mother's heart forgives. And breaks. And forgives again.

This mom, like my other moms in her situation, doesn't really want a protective order. She doesn't really want him not to be able to come to her home. She just wants the drug-abusing, violent, mean son to stop coming. She wants her sweet little boy back. She wants the never-before-existed successful, happy good son. She is grieving not only the pain her son has caused her, but also for the son who never was.

I tell her that just because her son doesn't have limits, doesn't mean she shouldn't. She isn't being a bad mother because she says "enough." In fact, she could even help him by not making it easy for him. She can't fix this - only he can. She can - and will - love him always.

He either will stop what he's doing or he won't.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Mother's Wound

Mother is one to whom you hurry when you are troubled. ~Emily Dickinson

One of the most difficult parts of my job is working on homicide cases. Most all death is devastating, unexpected death often more so. It brings a particular type of loss, grief, and guilt. Most everyone feels they “should have done more.”

I spoke with a mom who lost a grown child to domestic violence. She recalled the last time she saw her daughter alive. She made breakfast for her. She told me in detail how she made pancakes, eggs, and orange juice. Then her daughter went out the door, lost to her mother forever. This mom did not know she was making her last memories with her daughter. I am sure she wishes she could have stopped her from going as she looks back.

She told me that she dreams of her daughter, begging her mother for help that can’t be given. She doesn’t sleep for fear of seeing her daughter suffer, as she surely must have when her ex-husband shot her multiple times. It had been 18 months since her daughter’s murder and the mom carried her pain as though it happened last week. She told me she doesn’t know how to make it stop. I don’t either. Those are the times when we simply acknowledge and witness.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

If I can't have you...

I saw this sign for sale at my local convenience store. Isn’t this the classic example for a “sudden passion” defense? A man comes home and finds his wife in bed with another man, so he kills them. Most of the domestic violence homicides I have worked on involved this sentiment:

She had another man around my kids.
If I can’t have you, no one will (cliché, but true).
I told her I better not catch her with no other man.
She disrespected me.

Nevermind that in most of my cases, she has left him. She left him after he's been beating on her, after he's been cheating on her, after her kids suffered - none of that matters. The point with the sentiment behind this sign and the thinking of most of the domestic killers I've seen is this: She is HIS property. He has a right to defend HIS property.
We know that the most lethal time in a domestic violence relationship is when she is leaving. He is not letting his property walk away. We also know that her danger increases when he thinks she is involved with someone else. I worked on a case in which a woman had been out for a year. After years of beating her, he finally let her go. Her fatal move was when she thought a year was enough time to begin a relationship with a new man - and by all accounts a nice man. Her ex killed them both. When the police caught him, he said he wasn't having another man around his kids - she wasn't going to do that to him.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Secrets and Disclosure Remorse

...then you will lift up your face without shame; you will stand firm and without fear.
Job 11:15
I met with a woman in her mid-50s who was leaving a 30 year abusive marriage. She was nervous and had trouble making eye contact with me. I suspected she has having difficulty because she told me things she had kept hidden for years and years. This was a professional woman, who raised children, went to church, did all the things many of us do – all the while burying deep inside of her the pain and shame of being abused at home. There had been no police reports in all these years. She had not taken photos of her injuries. There were no shelter, medical or counselor records. All these years, she lived in two worlds – our world and her own 2nd level of hell.
I had worked with many women just like her over the years. Like many of these women, she self-medicated her pain and shame. In addition to hiding the abuse, she was also hiding alcohol dependence. It makes perfect sense. We are not made to live like this. However, we are made to survive.
Part of surviving is our body and brain makes sure we keep going, making adjustments as needed. For instance, if someone is being strangled, they will find that their arms and legs won’t work. That is because the body is taking care of the vital organs – the heart, lungs, renal system, and brain. When we’re exposed to trauma, our body finds a way to adjust. We do that by disconnecting and medicating. Disconnecting allows trauma victims to live in two worlds, as my client was. Disconnecting separates emotions from reality. People who are new to this field are amazed that a domestic violence survivor can look them straight in the eye and tell them the most amazing lies – “no, he isn’t violent…he’s a great dad…I’m the one with the problems…” Self-medication includes both legal and illegal substance use – alcohol, xanax, valium, anti-depressants, marijuana, etc.
Once the crisis is passed for survivors, I strongly encourage them to go to counseling to reconnect and heal. I explain about all the emotions that will resurfance once they are no longer living a day-to-day existence.
This woman wouldn’t talk with me anymore after we met. That isn’t surprising. It is disconcerting to tell these long-hidden shameful secrets. The response is often to have “disclosure remorse” – it was just too scary to open THAT box. But, telling someone is a huge step. Sometimes people start with that and don’t make any other changes for a while. Sometimes they call the police and tell them. By the time we talk to them, the secret is buried once again.
So if someone tells you a secret like this, it is important to recognize how hard it was to tell. That person needs to hear: I’m glad you told me. You’re doing the right thing by talking about it. It wasn’t your fault. There is help when you are ready. You deserve to be in a healthy relationship. You don’t deserve to be abused. I’m so sorry you went through that. You can be safe.
This is a journey, a process. I tell my clients it usually took a while to get to where they are when I meet them. So, it might take a while to get reset. I’m honored to be one of the people who can help them.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Hero Support

If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.

- Mother Teresa



When I started at my job, there were only four of us workers. Over the years, now we are a staff of 12 and I am the supervisor. I have learned how to do THAT job by trial and error. The most important thing that I have learned is my number 1 job is to support my co-workers. Yes – I did use that word correctly – my “co-workers” not “my staff.” I just don’t like the term “my staff.” I realize there is a power differential. I am the one who has a say in who gets hired, in what the final policies are, in addressing issues when there is a problem. I know that. But, we are working together to meet the directives of our agency, to meet the needs of our clients, and take care of ourselves. And – my part of that is to make sure my co-workers have what they need to do their jobs.
What they need includes a heck of a lot of stuff. What they need includes an effective and safe working environment, proper office tools, continuing education, emotional support, a good salary, kudos, guidance, and sometimes just an ear to listen. They must know that I have their backs – and I do. They have mine as well.
I am so proud to work with all of them. They are all dedicated, smart, and hard-working. We don’t have any slackers at our workplace because the work is so demanding, it isn’t actually possible to slack. We’ve been called the “ER of Social Work." So apt a description has never been made. We are all crisis, all the time.

We meet as a group once per week for about 1 ½ hours. Just us, no prosecutors or other staff members. We really don’t have the time for such a luxury, but I figure we have to make it. If we sit around a table and talk to each other at least once a week, not only do we solve mundane issues (like agreeing on work protocols), we can also solve and prevent the bigger issues. Sometimes we even fight and have been known to cry and pout a time or two. Sometimes we talk about prosecutors we really like, and those we really don’t. Whatever it is, it gets put on the table.
We do a lot of supporting each other and we use a lot of humor. Sometimes when things hit home too much, we just sometimes listen and nod our heads – we’ve all been there.
So – my job as a supervisor – I am truly honored to serve these people. That’s why they aren’t “my-staff.” They are my heroes.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Stuck in Neutral

- C.S. Lewis



Most of my clients are experiencing issues with domestic violence, but sometimes I talk with someone who just has regular marriage problems. I kind of like being in the role of a regular therapist once in a while.
My client was a middle-aged man who came to our office to ask for a protective order – except there wasn’t any domestic violence. Like some folks, he thought a protective order was kind of like the first step in a divorce.
So, since he was there, I talked with him to see if I could at least give in an ear for a bit and steer him in the right direction. The man actually didn’t know what he wanted. He was trying to decide whether to end a twenty-five year marriage with several kids involved. Tough decision.
We talked for a while and I realized that what he wanted was a good marriage. However, based on what he was telling me, that hadn’t been going on for them in a very LONG time. And – based on both of their recent choices, it wasn’t likely to happen.
After we ripped the scab off the never-healing sore that is their marriage he said, “Well, maybe we can just work on things.” Really. OK –I’ll just put it out there. My response: “Wishes and hopes won’t fix anything.” He looked at me very sadly, “I know.” I compared him to the proverbial gerbil spinning around his little wheel and wondering why no matter how fast he runs, the scenery never changes. I challenged him: What are YOU getting out of this relationship now? What can YOU do that is different? He kept talking about all the things she could do to make things better. I kept focusing him back on his choices. And the painful reality: If things are not different, then what? He has to decide.
In the end, I hope I helped him some. I encouraged him to consider going to counseling to get some clarity and insight on his situation. I could tell he was one of those people who thinks counseling is for “crazy” people, so I kept focusing on his kids and saying he could bring them (as they are embroiled no doubt in all the tension and turmoil of the parents). We even looked up some counselors in his area.
I know what it feels like to be stuck. Maybe not exactly like he is. But, sometimes it is easier to stay in the mess that you know, rather than expend the energy and face the fears of the unknown.