Stifled screams

Posted: Mar 05, 2002 12:00 AM
Stephanie Rodriquez knew why her husband beat her. He was impassioned and jealous. And God wanted her beat up - that much was clear. So Stephanie curled into his love and anger, just as her own mother had done, before finally committing suicide. Then one day, Rodriguez's husband began whipping their 10-year-old daughter with his belt because she could not find her notebook. The father calmly explained that he would continue to beat her every five minutes until she found the notebook. This was for her own good he reasoned. Her eyes full of tears, the child rummaged through the house. Every five minutes the father yanked her up and began yet another beating. Her arms and back swelled with welts. Rodriguez joined in the frantic search but the notebook was lost. They huddled together and prayed. It did not matter. Every five minutes the father came stalking down the hall. Finally, Rodriguez snatched a wooden plank from the kitchen and cracked it over her husband's head. He stumbled backward. The plank dropped. He regained his composure, then began to beat his wife and child relentlessly. Eventually, the paramedics had to wheel their crumpled bodies from the house. The scene is chillingly common. Every 15 seconds in the United States, a woman is physically assaulted by her husband, boyfriend or live-in partner. For those who fall victim to this brutal and arbitrary violence, the state offers a host of legal protections, starting with having the courts issue a restraining order. Just one thing: Since judges issue restraining orders, the complaint must be lodged during regular business hours. Should you have the misfortune of getting assaulted during off-hours, you will likely be unable to secure this sort of legal protection, leaving the risk of domestic violence unacceptably high. "I don't know anyone who has gotten a restraining order on an evening or weekend," sighs Nancy Myer, executive director of the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "If it's not during business hours you are out of luck. And, in places like D.C., the police response is abysmal .SO it's not only a matter of not getting a restraining order, but you can't even get a response." Caitlin Finnegan, Co-director of Community Education with My Sister's Place says that the D.C. superior court sees more than 30 women a day looking for emergency assistance and protective orders. Sadly, D.C. maintains only two shelters, which offer fewer than 50 beds. Such limited space fills quickly. In which case, Finnegan has been known to shuttle victims around town - to homeless shelters and other facilities that can provide temporary lodging. She admits, however, that makeshift responses don't provide the targeted assistance and intervention necessary to break the cycle of violence. What's really needed is a straightforward increase in funding. Sadly, efforts to attract additional money are hamstrung by the perception that domestic abuse is no longer a serious problem. "I think what really has happened," observes Myers, " is domestic violence has become part of a web of social ills so the issue has become invisible in a broad public policy sense." That does not bode well for the 2.5 million women that the Justice Department estimates are abused annually. Nor, does it bode well for adolescent victims of physical and sexual assault, who are six to nine times more likely to commit suicide. While we wait for additional funds, there are still some very practical things we can do to affect change, beginning with greater accountability for police response times and a recommitment to action within our own communities. We may not be able to end domestic violence, but we can organize on the grassroots level and work to secure comprehensive involvement from community-based organizations, instead of expecting the state to have all of the answers. Finnegan also observes that doctors need to be more engaged in the battle against domestic abuse. "I have doctors tell me all the time, 'Look I have patients I know are being abused I just don't know what to say to them.'" Finnegan attributes this silence to cultural norms that dissuade medical professionals from prying into their patient's personal matters. Plainly, doctors need to be trained to be more proactive in suggesting preventative methods. The alternative is to leave the victims of domestic abuse to their own devices, and to invite yet more disaster into our homes.