All in the family?

After serving as a volunteer victim advocate in Buncombe County criminal court each week, I find myself in the grip of conflicting emotions: disheartened by the complex problem of domestic violence, yet humbled by the strength some of these women display.

On Wednesdays, Courtroom 4 is where cases are heard in which the defendant was in a relationship with the alleged victim — spousal, dating or familial. Typical charges include assault on a female, simple assault, stalking and harassing, communicating threats, and violating a protective restraining order. Helpmate, a local nonprofit, provides court advocates for victim/survivors (who are usually, but not always, women).

Not as well known as Helpmate’s crisis line, emergency shelter, counseling and public-education programs, the court-advocacy program served 2,389 people (in both the criminal and civil courts) during fiscal year 2005-06. In the civil courts, Helpmate staff assist with applications for emergency protective restraining orders and “permanent” one-year restraining orders.

It’s almost always standing-room-only when Courtroom 4 convenes (usually by 9:30 a.m.). A typical day will see 45 to 80 separate charges on the docket, but some defendants may have multiple charges against them. And while these weekly numbers may seem high, they’re not out of the ordinary for counties our size.

In Wednesday court, victim/survivors are state’s witnesses, there to provide evidence so that an assistant district attorney can prosecute the defendants. Often called victim/witnesses, they are debriefed by the victim/witness liaison, who works in the D.A.’s office. And if a victim is afraid to get a warrant her/himself, a law-enforcement officer who was called to the scene via 911 and who saw evidence of violence at the time can also take out a warrant.

I’m in Courtroom 4 primarily to lend support and encouragement and to give frightened victim/witnesses some information about how the court works. I also assess the victim’s safety and provide access to safety measures.

Whether or not the warrants are prosecuted depends on a couple of factors. The most disheartening reason charges get dropped reflects the cyclical nature of abusive relationships. If a relationship started off with constant emotional or physical abuse, many victim/survivors would break it off immediately. But people who grew up in an abusive household often assume that some abusive behavior is a natural accompaniment to domestic relationships.

In other cases, the victim/survivor finds herself paired with an abuser who has periods of self-control and civility. But as tension builds, behaviors such as jealousy, intimidation, harassment at work, playing mind games, and name-calling appear — all helping to align the power in the relationship with the controlling partner. Then comes outright conflict, culminating in physical abuse.

After the episode, the abuser, stricken with contrition, cycles into the honeymoon (or wooing) stage. “I can’t live without you,” the woman will hear. “This won’t happen again — I swear. I guess I just love you too much.” And even, “You’re the most important thing in my life.”

Acting protective (especially in public), saying the relationship is priceless and expressing contrition are all behaviors that stroke the other’s ego, granting the abused partner a kind of power. This works to pull the victim survivor back into the relationship — often more tightly than before.

The honeymoon stage is vividly evident in Courtroom 4 every Wednesday. A month or more typically elapses between when the charges are filed and when they appear on a Wednesday docket — plenty of time for the abuser to pull his tricks. All too often, the victim/witness cuddles up close to her abuser in court, his arm draped over her shoulders, or — even more intimately possessive — his hand resting on her thigh. Worse yet are the times when his arm is encircling her neck.

But rather than setting off an alarm in the victim/witness (this is, after all, a courtroom, not a movie theater), these behaviors seem only to placate her. Even more exasperating, the defendant has often been released from jail on the condition that he stay away from the victim/witness — who’s now supposed to testify against him.

Thanks to this honeymooning, however, the victim/witness now wants to dismiss the charges and resume the relationship. She’s had time to “recollect” that the incident wasn’t all that bad, or she’d somehow “provoked” him, or he’d been “under stress” from work or having lost his job, or “He’s been like a father to my kids — I can’t bear to see them separated.” These women have not yet gotten clear inside themselves that such rationales do not justify violence at the hands of one who purportedly loves them.

In some instances, the D.A. refuses to dismiss the case — especially if a weapon was present or the defendant has a history of such charges. But the D.A. can’t do much if the main witness is going to be difficult on the stand, or there were no children present during the incident, or the defendant refuses to plead guilty. In such situations, the charges may be dismissed in order to save the court’s time and attention for other cases that sound particularly dangerous or that involved the presence of a child.

For many women in abusive relationships, then, a violent episode doesn’t necessarily result in separation — even after they’ve shown the insight and courage to take out a warrant.

Other women, though, have faced down a series of threatening phone calls and/or mysteriously flattened tires, determined to pursue the charges in court. Some have chosen to stand up to their abuser despite his threats to see that DSS takes away her children. Often in court alone, these women may see the defendant there surrounded by family.

Those victim/witnesses who choose to return to their abusive relationships usually suffer an increasing loss of self-esteem and motivation. For some, this eventually leads to what psychologist Martin Seligman has characterized as learned helplessness. In such cases, it’s only when a victim/survivor’s life is blood-chillingly threatened that she finds the strength to try to break free.

But this means suddenly and drastically rewriting one’s self-image — in front of a roomful of strangers — by claiming at least as much power as the abuser. I’ve seen women exiting 10- or 25-year relationships, facing a man whose neck is bulging and red with contained rage as he glares daggers at her.

I’ve met women in their 50s and even 60s who have finally found the strength to say, “Enough is enough!” I’ve seen women torn apart as their youngsters cry at the prospect of leaving their fathers. And watching these women stare down their abusers and embark on new lives for themselves, I can’t help but think that they have more strength than most of us. As a volunteer advocate representing Helpmate, I’m initially there to lend them support. But in the end, they have my admiration.

Wednesdays can be roller-coaster days, but they’ve brought me into contact with some amazingly strong survivors — women I’ve barely known but will never forget.

[Six-year Asheville resident Karen VanEman, a retired college instructor, is the chair of Helpmate’s board of directors.]

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