Today is the 7th Annual “It’s Time To Talk” Day, and I am joining the voices at BlogHer and Love Is Not Abuse to talk about domestic violence.
Her name was Yvonne. She came into my office on a warm July afternoon, her arms wrapped around a raven-haired two-year old boy named Andre. He was nestled against her neck, his dark eyes peeking out from tufts of hair that hadn’t seen a bathtub in days, if not weeks.
I had only been working in the Special Victims Unit for a few months.
I was one of 9 Domestic Violence Advocates working for the local police department. We saw women everyday who were running from something, running from someone. But this one in particular, this mother, this teenager who was barely a young woman….something about her “mama spirit” split my heart open that afternoon.
Yvonne and I sat together on the torn, ratty couch in the interview room while Andre took a broken green crayon and scribbled carefully across a piece of old cardboard. I explained to her that the police officers would want to know everything that had happened, and that I would help her to fill out the legal documents requesting a restraining order. She answered the investigators questions delicately. Protectively. With her eyes cast down and her hand always resting on Andre. She said that her boyfriend had hurt her, but hadn’t left any marks. She said that she had tried to leave before, but didn’t have anywhere to go. No hiding place where he couldn’t find her.
When they finally finished, Yvonne and I sat quietly together. “They’re going to want to take pictures of any bruises or marks that you have.” I told her softly. It’s up to you whether or not you’re comfortable with that. Is there anything that you want us to know?”
Yvonne stood up and closed the door to the interview room. She turned to me and gave the tiniest smile. “I didn’t want to say anything in front of them” she whispered, as she slowly unbuttoned her jeans. She showed me her legs, covered in bruises and burns. She pulled back her hair, allowing me to see the scars that were healing on her neck. “I only came in today because he hit Andre.” she said, her voice finally rising and her power seeping back into her tiny, broken body.
“I’ll stay with you every step of the way” I promised her. I held Andre on my lap and fed him cheerios one by one, as the evidence technician took 47 photographs that documented her injuries. I called the local shelters as she napped on the couch in the lobby, desperate to find a safe place for her to stay while we figured out how to help her leave town. In the days that followed, Yvonne’s fear was slowly replaced by rage. She prided herself on being a good mom to Andre. She loved to cook, and was going to school. She had a wicked sense of humor, and as we would wait together at her abuser’s court hearings, we would crack ourselves up with stupid jokes about the coffee vendor and the security guards. And yet she felt that she had lost all of these things, because she couldn’t go home. In asking her to “leave”, we were asking her to imagine a life where she was completely on her own.
I used to help train police officers on how to respond to a Domestic Violence crime scene. Time and again, the men would tell me “It’s just so frustrating. We get there, and it’s clear that someone’s been hurt, but she always refuses to leave. She won’t let us help her.”
And I would tell them this…
Imagine that one night after you’re done with your shift, you’re walking to your car and you’re suddenly approached by a group of men. ” You have to come with us”, they say. “But I need to go home” You protest. “My wife is there, and my kids are waiting for me. “Leave everything here” they say, as they take your car keys and the ID card that lets you in to your office building. They put your briefcase down on the sidewalk, and they put you in the backseat of their car. You hear them talking in code, numbers, as they call someone to tell them where you’re going. But it’s a place you’ve never heard of. When you ask what direction you’re headed in, they tell you that it’s a shelter, and the address is confidential. “It’s for your own safety” they say. “But can I call my wife and tell her I’m ok?” you plead? “No one can know where you are” they tell you. Over and over and over.
We tell women that it’s easy to “Just leave”. It’s not.
We tell women that they must’ve asked for it, when they didn’t. We tell them that if someone’s hurting them, they should call the police….but we don’t tell them what will happen next. We ask them to report their abuser, when most of the time that abuser is their only source of income, of connection, of family.
So today, as we join together to echo a collective rebel yell against domestic violence, I ask you to think not only about how to encourage women to “leave”, but how to support them the morning after. For every woman who picks up the phone and dials 911, for every Yvonne who walks into the office of a Special Victims Unit to make her report, for every Andre who is growing up to the sound of parents fighting….there is another woman who is waking up for the first time in a shelter. There is a child who is spending the night at grandma’s while mom recovers in the hospital. There is a young man who has been abused, who is drowning in shame because he thinks that it’s only something that happens to women. It’s not. There is a family who is fractured, in the name of healing.
We can make it easier to “just leave”, by telling our sisters and brothers and friends that we will be there for them every step of the way once they do. It takes courage to leave an abusive relationship. But it also takes resources. Tell the women (and men) that you love, that if they are being hurt, there is nothing in this world that will stop you from giving them every possible tool to keep themselves safe. Know the signs of relationship abuse. Learn about the reasons why people “stay”, and how to help them make a safety plan for when they are ready to go. Talk to your sons and daughters about what it means to be protected, what it means to be respected, and how they can tell you absolutely anything….and you won’t judge them or get angry. Do your research. Pay attention. And let your loved ones know that with every morning after, there is always the hope of a brand new dawn.
Yvonne spent 24 days in a domestic violence shelter. She attended every court hearing that her abuser had, until he was sentenced to 3 years. The last time that I saw her, she was about to graduate from community college. She was in the lobby of the courtroom, grinning at sweet Andre as he ran towards her with a big chocolate milkshake mustache dripping down to his chin. In choosing to keep Andre safe, she had ultimately saved her own life.
Although I’m no longer spending my days in the police department, I find that I think of Yvonne (and the dozens of mothers just like her that I met on my journey there) all the time. As our family celebrates the holiday season, I am choosing to honor these brave, bold mamas by donating some much-needed items to our local domestic violence shelter. I thought that after working in shelters for so long, that I “got it”. But now that I’m a mother, I know what I would want for my own two year old son, and I want to make sure that these moms have the same thing. If you could join me in honoring them, I have listed some resources below. There is a domestic violence shelter in every county across America. They are always in need of food, clothing, and toiletry items. These moms are starting over, and asking their children to leave their lives behind. Think of what your own children would need if they were waking up on a cot in a new room, without a single familiar thing to remind them of home.
With your help, the morning after can be the start of a beautiful, safe beginning.