By Tanya T. Warrington
Justice. We want and need justice after a crime has been committed against us. We want to know that the person who committed crime will not be doing the same things to us again or committing the same crime against other innocent people. We feel anger about the damage done. We recognize immediately that no one can undo the crime—something unfair has happened to us and we’ve lost intangible things that no one can just return to us. The legal system cannot restore our broken heart or our shattered trust or our damaged sense of safety. Social Services cannot reset time and arrange for us to be born into a healthy family to permanently replace our dysfunctional and abusive home. A safehouse counselor cannot wave a magic wand that will take away all the nightmares and memories that haunt an abused wife. A minister cannot restore a child’s innocence that has been stolen by an incestuous relative.
I am so grateful for all the help that is now available to victims of violent crimes perpetrated by family or friends. Domestic violence is now a well-known term. Society now generally views abuse as a horrible crime. Perpetrators are now prosecuted, some of the time. Abused spouses can go to a safehouse or talk to someone on a crisis line, etc. Help is available, although the numbers of people needing assistance far outweighs the available resources. Safehouses have to turn people away. Too many counselors, pastors, and law enforcement officers are not adequately trained on how to effectively help victims. Courts are overcrowded and judges are called upon to try to decipher if the alleged victim is truly a victim.
For the person who has been raped or physically abused or emotionally torn to ribbons the system is frightening. When I was on my way to my second restraining order court date, I fully expected that the judge would believe my husband who was so charming and eloquent, not me. I had become fully convinced after years of abuse that I was not very smart, not very likeable, not very trustworthy, not very valuable…well, just plain “not” anything worthwhile. Who would listen to me? I spoke so quietly that most people had difficulty hearing me anyway. And proof? I had not one shred of proof. I had fully invested myself into denying any abuse, not shining a light on it.
Walking to the courthouse, the lawyer re-asked me questions that the legal secretary had already asked me and that this lawyer’s partner had already asked. I was already unsure of myself and distrustful of others, fear steadily climbed the more repetitious the questions were. This female was supposed to help me? The law office must have horrible communication systems or this lawyer must not be very bright. I began to cry. I had refused to cry when my husband tormented me, but now I cried. She told me to pull myself together. I did, but with a sinking conviction that the temporary restraining order would be taken away.
Then the lawyer informed me that there had been a last minute change of judges which was not good for us. The judge who had been originally scheduled had a favorable reputation of supporting the abused but that this new judge had given some unfavorable rulings in the past. Great. I silently prayed, asking God to be our judge. Then I remembered again that I might be going to hell for breaking my marriage vows. My husband must be mentally ill—but I wasn’t staying with him in sickness or in health.
The hearing was a three-ring circus from my point of view. A pastor that I’d only met once at my son’s preschool, claimed to have been over to our home for dinner many times and that my husband was a good father. At first, I was in shock. How could a pastor perjure himself like that? Then I realized that my manipulative spouse probably had invited the pastor over after I left and performed the caring Dad routine I’d seen him act out in front of company for years. Then the judge asked me if I had ever made a report to social services. No, I hadn’t. I kept telling myself that there was no abuse, only a “misunderstanding,” or an anger “problem,”or a lack of proper learning “situation.” Who was I to decide what was abusive. I thought that was the judge’s job. So I did the only thing that I could, just told the unvarnished truth as straightforwardly and as simply as I could. Repeating what he said and saying aloud a few of the things that he’d done that made me concerned about the safety of our children.
I was convinced that I had ruined the chance to protect our children. Especially, when his lawyer announced to the judge that my husband and I were in the middle of divorce proceedings and made it seem like I was out to malign my husband due to my anger over the divorce. I couldn’t believe that she was lying. Divorce papers had been served in the courtroom maybe twenty minutes ago. They hadn’t known that I’d decided on divorce proceedings (in the secret hope that it would bring him to the point of being willing to receive much needed help so that our marriage and family could be saved). I wasn’t a vindictive wife. I still loved my husband. Leaving our home to keep the children safe had been the hardest thing I’d ever done. If he hadn’t choked our five year old right in front of my eyes, I’d still have been at home, trying my best to live up to my wedding vows.
After I was already sure the judge would deny the restraining order, my husband announced that he was attending a batterer’s course voluntarily and that he’d made a call to social services himself. I couldn’t understand why he would mention it and weaken his case. But the judge and both lawyers retreated to the back chamber to call social services. When they returned, the judge announced that nothing had been reported that constituted a crime of any sort. I was dumb-founded. Since when was choking a child considered normal parenting?
The judge told me that now was the time to tell her anything that I thought she needed to know to make a fair ruling. In desperation, I told more about what life at our home had been like. I shared about the threats he made regularly (words I’d thought I’d never tell another soul). I pleaded for the safety of our children.
I thought the judge wasn’t getting anything I was saying when she asked me about myself. What did the bruises he’d given me or the threats or the trapping have to do with our children? I was an adult, not a helpless child. I’d never been beaten. She seemed to be getting way off track. I answered truthfully but with an increasing sense of hopelessness. Then she asked my husband questions. He sounded so smooth, so confident, as I listened to him spin lies. I began realizing then how many lies he’d told me during the years. His lies were so convincing. I would believe him, if I hadn’t been there to see very different things. He combined bits of truth with bits of fiction. It was fascinating in a horrid way.
To my utter amazement, the judge turned our temporary restraining order into a permanent restraining order and gave me instructions to report any violations to the police. It hadn’t occurred to me that he could just violate it whenever he felt like it. I knew then that he would violate it (which he did). I wondered what the point had been. What good was this piece of paper when he could ignore it at will? Why had the safehouse encouraged me to get a restraining order? The kids might have been safer without one. Now he’d be angry and ready to punish me. I knew that without any doubts.
The lawyer was happy on the way back to her office but I was full of dread. I asked her what good the order would do if he retaliated by violating it. She seemed totally surprised at my lack of joy. She told me that if he was foolish enough to ignore the order then I was to report it to the police. My panic grew. What good would that do if one of my children was badly injured, or worse?
It was my first introduction to the system. My head was spinning and my heart aching. I so wanted to keep my children safe and it didn’t feel like the law had much to offer me after all.
In retrospect, I had a very positive experience with the legal system, with social services, and with the shelters and safehouses over the next couple of years. I received lots of valuable help at a time when I had become pretty helpless and hopeless. But at the time it was a confusing labyrinth full of strangers who I never knew whether to trust or not. I felt betrayed and shocked multiple more times before I no longer needed their assistance.
If you are a victim who is entering the maze of the system, take heart. The civil servants and law enforcement are mostly good people who really do care. If you run into some who are jaded, don’t give up. Keep speaking truth and keep seeking help. If you don’t know who to trust, accept that as normal. Of course you’re no longer trusting—abuse is a major violation of trust. Hang in there. God truly is the final judge no matter what happens on earth, take some comfort in that. Keep telling the truth, someone will hear you.
If you are a member of the system, try to remember how depleted and beat down a victim is by the time she or he is desperate enough to ask for help. Try to remember how new the workings of the courts and the state are to a victim and take the time to explain everything. Know that it takes tremendous fear and the birth of courage to buck against the abuser who has held all the relationship power for so long. The person across from your desk may look like a frozen rabbit, but she or he will grow stronger through the very process of questioning the abuser’s perspective of reality. You have the power to help in ways that surpass what you think you’re offering. Hang in there. Your career can be so discouraging as you watch victims waver and make false starts—but for every victim who makes it away from abuse permanently there is a whole family tree that is rescued.
Justice can seem so unattainable but let’s keep on doing our best. Freedom is birthed only when we are willing to fight for justice.