Fighting Back: ‘I had to get out or I wasn’t going to be alive for my kids’

Monitor staff
Published: 2/4/2019 6:57:34 PM

A former New Hampshire police officer screamed at his wife and told her she was fat, stupid and ugly.

He put his hand over her mouth to keep her quiet.

He frequently grabbed her by the wrist, pressing firmly with his thumb to control her actions in public.

She still breaks down when she recalls the night her now ex-husband massaged her shoulders before methodically sliding his hands up her neck. He then applied pressure, restricting her airflow so she couldn’t effectively breathe. Seated facing away from him, she rolled her neck to loosen his grasp and dashed for somewhere else in the house. But he caught up with her before she could get too far. He then forced her down and raped her – like he had many times before, but worse.

“That was the last straw for me. I had to get out or I wasn’t going to be alive for my kids,” said Jane, whose real name is not being used by the Monitor to protect her identity for personal and safety reasons.

The bruises on her arms are now healed but a contentious family court battle wages, years after her separation and divorce. Disagreements over who has custody of the children and who is in charge of decision-making can persist as an abuser tries to maintain control over his victim long after the physical abuse has stopped.

While the criminal justice system aims to provide safeguards and accountability, the majority of domestic violence incidents are never reported to police. Of the cases that do result in an arrest, more than half are dismissed in the courts and only a small percentage of convicted perpetrators ever see jail time, according to national and state statistics.

Victims turn to the family court system in effect to end all ties with their abuser, but the process can trigger memories of past trauma and bring them back to those moments of crisis. An initial court appearance may be the first time a woman has seen her abuser in months and she may be asked to consider mediation to resolve the case – something she knows will put her in danger. Abusers view the family courts as the ideal mechanism to continue to exert coercive control over their victims – even if through seemingly subtle ways. That is especially true in parenting and divorce proceedings that can persist years after separation, and it is one of the many reasons an average victim may leave and return to an abusive relationship seven times before permanently separating.

“A lot of clients say that’s worse. They say, ‘I never should have left’ or ‘I’m just going to go back.’ And, that’s exactly what the abuser is counting on,” said Erin Jasina of New Hampshire Legal Assistance. “They’re counting on the fact that they’ll be able to wear the victim down, threaten them and terrorize them to the point that they will return.”

Family court judges said they see instances of offenders, primarily men, who try to take advantage of the system by filing motion after motion to get the victim back in court. That is true for Jane, who years after leaving her husband, is still fighting her case.

“They think, ‘I’m going to use my legal right to gain access to the victim and the children,” said Judge Susan Carbon, who presides in Manchester. “They’ve effectively been an absentee parent who has committed domestic violence and now they’re saying, ‘I’m going to be the best dad I can be.’ ”

Carbon said judges have to be cautious about preserving someone’s right to access the courts while at the same time remaining cognizant of that person’s attempts to abuse the system.

But several victims who spoke to the Monitor said that doesn’t always happen, and there are sitting family court judges with a limited understanding of the dynamics at play in domestic violence cases and the tactics employed by abusers. The state court system does not mandate training on domestic violence during a judge’s tenure.

Inner turmoil

Jane’s recovery journey isn’t a linear progression; at times she finds herself back in what she identifies as “crisis mode.” Her situation and her story are not unique but rather emblematic of the life-altering reality that a victim faces long after she leaves her abuser. The immediate threat of violence has dissipated, allowing her to break down emotional barriers she once built to survive. But as those barriers fall, the psychological trauma she suppressed during years of abuse manifests itself in far-reaching and debilitating ways.

She fears the panic attacks that come unexpectedly when she tells her story, the risk of retaliation from her abuser for speaking out, in addition to the social humiliation and shame that contributed to her decision to stay.

“I didn’t want that stigma placed on me. I didn’t want people to think I was weak,” she said. “I consider myself a strong businesswoman and my reputation within my field and within my community is one of empowerment, so to appear weak to my colleagues in any way is really embarrassing.”

When Jane first came forward, she provided police with bare-bones details, trying to downplay the abuse so her husband wouldn’t lose his job – or worse, come after her. The officer who took her report that day referred her to the Manchester-based YWCA crisis center to speak with a confidential advocate who would later be instrumental in helping Jane disclose to authorities and file a report.

The New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence oversees 13 member crisis centers – including the YWCA – that employ confidential advocates who assist victims in applying for a restraining order, drafting safety plans and accessing other social services, including through the attorney general’s office or New Hampshire Legal Assistance. Advocates say it is vital to arm victims with accurate information about programs in their communities that aim to help keep them safe and encourage them on their path to start anew.

Information and support can make all the difference for victims who have been isolated for years, told they aren’t good enough and that no one cares.

Linda Douglas, the coalition’s trauma specialist, said advocates create a safety plan with victims regardless of whether they choose to stay or leave. For victims who choose to stay, a safety plan could include staying out of rooms that don’t have alternative exits, teaching children how to call for help, giving an extra set of house and/or car keys to a friend, and securing important legal paperwork should they need to leave quickly.

Crisis center advocates work with victims to make sure safety plans are personalized because what works for victims in Hillsborough County may not be realistic for those who live in the North Country – or elsewhere.

Pleas and prosecution

By the time a domestic violence victim makes the decision to leave for good and report to police, the road to freedom and separation is still a long and winding one. That was true for Jane.

Her report initiated an internal investigation at the department that led to fundamental policy reforms. And in the end, her husband was stripped of his badge and his gun.

He was also criminally charged but not convicted. A grand jury handed up multiple felony indictments which prosecutors later dismissed, saying they believed Jane but faced an uphill battle proving the case beyond a reasonable doubt to 12 jurors, in part, because she stayed and continued to send him loving text messages after the abuse.

The detective on the domestic violence unit told prosecutors they failed Jane and should have pushed ahead.

“That one specific police officer was an amazing human being,” Jane recalled. “He kept saying to me, ‘I believe you and I know this happened to you.’ ”

Data provided by the New Hampshire court system’s case management system shows that 64 percent of the domestic violence charges brought against defendants in the state between 2015 and 2017 were ultimately dismissed by a judge or not carried forward by prosecutors. The data does not provide further clarity about whether those charges were dropped in exchange for certain conditions, or how many were dismissed as part of a plea deal that may have led to the filing of alternative charges.

“We always have to be looking at how to do every aspect of this work better,” said former U.S. Attorney Emily Rice, who prosecutes misdemeanor domestic violence cases in Manchester. “The system is overloaded in some senses and yet we know the cases that we see – the ones that are reported – are only a small fraction of the domestic violence that’s happening in our communities.”

Of the even fewer felony cases that make it to trial, attorneys said educating jurors about the complex dynamics of domestic violence is an ongoing challenge.

“We say we’re enlightened and we say we understand domestic violence, but it’s so hard, especially when there are all of those victim-blaming factors that the defense uses to their advantage,” said Patricia LaFrance, a family law attorney and former felony prosecutor. “Even when you have a willing victim, it’s still so difficult to get a conviction in these cases because of those preconceived beliefs.”

While testimony from expert witnesses helps, prosecutors said it is not the sole solution to the problem and that more community-based education and awareness is essential.

Finding of abuse

Separate from the criminal proceedings, Jane was granted a restraining order against her husband who filed multiple appeals. Each judge who heard the case upheld the original order and returned a finding of abuse under state law.

“There are a lot of women in my demographic who do stay. I had the house with the pool and the white picket fence. I went on vacations with my kids and the whole thing. Looking in from the outside, people never would have known. Even my neighbors were like, ‘That never happened.’ People said, ‘She’s reclusive; she never comes out; we don’t see her.’ Well, there was a reason why.”

One of the first times he assaulted her, she miscarried on the bathroom floor. She said he shoved her to the ground and repeatedly kicked her in the back more times than she could count. He then walked over her and told her to make him something to eat.

Statistically, domestic violence is the leading cause of death for new mothers from the time a baby is conceived until the child turns one year old.

Jane felt trapped inside the walls of her home where she said she could never meet his expectations of a perfect housewife. She scrubbed the floors with bleach, trying to get every stain and food crumb, but he’d always find something to ridicule her about. And when she didn’t fold the laundry to his liking, he’d take his arm and push it all to the floor, requiring her to fold it again while at the same time he demanded she make him a sandwich.

“Trying to be what he wanted me to be was a full-time job,” she said.

Jane said people were quick to assume she had money and lived the quintessential life. In reality, her husband gave her an allowance of a few dollars a day and was always in control of the family’s finances. She said she perfected shopping at discount department stores and hid the bruises on her arms beneath long-sleeve blouses and shirts.

“It’s hard for people to understand what that feels like until you’re in it,” she said. “It’s not something you talk about over lunch with your girlfriend.”

Financial abuse is a common tactic used by abusers to isolate their partner. Approximately 98 percent of domestic violence victims experience financial abuse.

Jane had never asked for help prior to reporting but said that initial connection she made with her advocate was life-changing. With the crisis center’s support, she was able to connect with an attorney through New Hampshire Legal Assistance to challenge her husband’s attempts to quash the restraining order. She also received financial assistance through the state’s Victims’ Compensation Program to pay for therapy for herself and her children.

She hopes one day to be that advocate for another survivor.

“I want my mess to be my message. I don’t want what happened to me to be for no reason; it has to be for something.”

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319 or at adandrea@cmonitor.com.)

If you or someone you know has experienced domestic violence, advocates are available 24/7 to provide free and confidential support through the statewide hotline at 1-866-644-3574. You don’t have to be in crisis to reach out.


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