Here's the text from a short talk I gave at a candelight vigil sponsored by the Dubuque Y Crisis Services Program to highlight Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The video is available at my Facebook page.
It did not start as an easy case. Jill did what so many survivors of domestic abuse do—she tried to protect herself and especially her kids. That meant thinking about what happens after police respond—will they arrest her abuser? Will they believe her if she tells them the truth? Even if they do believe her, will her abuser get out of jail and come find her? Will he send someone else to finish the job?
Every survivor of domestic abuse has to wrestle with those questions. Everyone else gets to look at the case from the outside and judge the survivor for her choices. Law enforcement can choose not to arrest if a victim won’t identify an abuser. A prosecutor may coldly review a case and say—no, if the victim is not “cooperating,” we will not prosecute this case. A juror might say in deliberations, “if she doesn’t think it’s a big deal why should we?”
The reason Jill’s case was successfully prosecuted is because the decisionmakers did not judge Jill. Law enforcement could see that Jill was holding back details about what happened, and they did not judge her for it—they did what they could do to protect her. Kristi and I talked with Jill often to assure her that we did not judge her for what she initially reported—she knew that we were taking the case seriously, that we would not back down from the most serious charges, and that the truth would come out. Jill had support from her sister and other family. And at the end of Jill’s case, the jury judged the evidence and got to the truth – they did not judge Jill.
None of that can be taken for granted. Once Jill made the decision to cooperate, she had to persevere through depositions and trial, including hard questioning from defense attorneys. She had to watch her young children go through the same process. And she sat in that courtroom not knowing what a jury was going to do at the end of the trial. Even with all the support in the world, that takes an immense amount of courage.
Jill’s was one case out of over 250 crimes of violence in Dubuque County that year. Imagine how many survivors do not have the same support as Jill. It is easy to become jaded as a prosecutor when a survivor comes to the office to recant her statements to police or drop a no-contact order, and the temptation is to let it be – if she wants so desperately to protect him, why should we care?
But with that temptation comes a cost measured in lives. Domestic violence left unaddressed will escalate. Verbal abuse progresses to a beating, to strangulation, to use of weapons, and every day in the United States 4 people are killed by their domestic partner or ex-partner.
So the task for us is to avoid the temptation to judge, to let it go, to disconnect, to judge. If we are ever going to break the cycle of domestic violence, survivors need our support – not our judgment.