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Why Doesn't She Leave? 

Once dismissed as 'family trouble,' domestic violence is now recognized as an epidemic -- especially in New Orleans, where murders by intimate partners occur at five times the national average.

The first of a three-part series

One time he bit off the tip of her tongue. Over the course of two years, she suffered a fractured jaw, a broken nose, black eyes, busted lips and pistol whippings. She has permanent knots on her head from the nights he came home and beat her with a skillet. His temper could be crazy, she says, especially when he was smoking "wets," joints soaked in embalming fluid, a hallucinogen.

The undersides of both of her wrists bear deep scars -- the left was stabbed with a screwdriver; the right gouged with a butcher knife. On several occasions, he strangled her until she passed out. When she was several months pregnant, he shoved her down the stairs. Their daughter was born nine weeks premature and spent her first four months in a respirator.

It is a sickening chronicle of abuse. But it wasn't what made Heather leave.

Instead, the final straw came from her kids. "My son -- he's two -- started hitting me," she says. "He was cussing me, telling me to shut up. He would call me a bitch."

Heather (who requested her last name not be used in this story) came to New Orleans from another Southern city. For the past month, she's been staying at a local shelter for battered women, where she and her children share one room and an adjoining bathroom with another woman and her two kids. The shelter has a common area downstairs, next to the kitchen and a set of beige lockers for each woman's valuables. Heather is sitting in a yard just outside that area, talking about what brought her here.

She says that she never actually saw her husband hit the children, but had started to notice that her daughter and son would cower when her husband bent down to kiss them. So she started wondering, she says, what was happening while she was at the grocery store.

Ultimately, Heather left to protect her children. But why hadn't this bright, articulate woman acted to protect herself?

Inevitably, two core questions -- "Why does she stay?" and "What will make her leave?" -- are asked by almost everyone who observes domestic violence. The questions are particularly appropriate in New Orleans, says sociologist-criminologist and Loyola University professor Dee Wood Harper, because in this city, murders by intimate partners occur at rates five times the national average.

Nationwide, some studies have concluded that one-quarter of all women have been victims of domestic abuse. But the problem might be even worse. In a recent national survey by the New York City-based Commonwealth Fund, one in three American women reported that she had experienced violence or physical abuse by a spouse or partner.

Most intimate-partner assault is committed by men against women. Battering -- assaults committed day after day on the same person -- is a behavior especially confined to males. According to Bureau of Justice statistics, roughly 95 percent of batterers are men and 85 percent of the victims are women.

Often, battered women suffer more than bruises and scratches. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that one out of every four female emergency-room patients was a victim of domestic violence. And the abuse often escalates beyond that point. According to FBI data, one out of three homicides of women in the United States is committed by a former or current romantic partner. In New Orleans, that proportion nearly doubles -- in 2001, 59 percent of murdered women were domestic-violence victims, according to the New Orleans Police Department.

Other effects of domestic violence are less easily measured. Abused women may skip work for extended stretches rather than be seen with a black eye or bruises. They may be evicted because of frequent loud noise, commotion or police calls to the home. And volumes of research show that children raised in violent homes are much more likely to become violent adults.

Even so, walking out the door may not be an option, says criminologist Dee Wood Harper. "Poor women can't just leave, file for divorce and go on with their life. That takes resources." So, when low-income women need help, they turn to public resources in high numbers. During the year 2000, a 24-hour crisis hotline run by the YWCA's Battered Women's Program received calls from 5,655 different New Orleans women. It's a significant number, yet only a small piece of the picture, cautions Merni Carter, head of the Louisiana Commission Against Domestic Violence, because only an estimated 13 percent of battered women seek help through shelters or hotlines.

If only 13 percent of women call the Y's line, that means that 43,500 Orleans Parish women were involved in violent relationships during the course of one year. That's one-fifth of the adult women in this city.

That number doesn't shock Harper. "That wouldn't surprise me. It really wouldn't," he says. He notes that the YWCA's program and its hotline have, for a number of years, been steady resources for this town's battered women. "This is a very poor city, with probably a quarter of a million people living under the poverty line. But they can pick up the phone and dial the Y or they can dial 911. Those don't cost much."

Merni Carter concurs. She cites studies indicating that many middle-class women leave abusive relationships without contacting either the police or the courts. "People who have any kind of resources utilize them," she says. "But people who are poor have to call the police."

It's important, in any city, for battered women to receive a sympathetic response from "the system" -- the police, courts, hospitals, shelters and legal-aid attorneys. But in New Orleans, where more than one in three people live below the poverty line, that system may be the only thing standing between a battered woman and more abuse.

It's one o'clock on a Thursday afternoon. The bailiff unlocks the big doors to the Orleans Parish magistrate courtroom, and in walk 50 or so defendants, men and women who have been charged with felony-level domestic violence. Many are dressed in work uniforms -- from hotels, muffler shops, restaurants, and repair crews. A few sit next to toddlers or hold babies in the pew-like benches, where they'll wait until their name is called.

Some defendants are here awaiting trial, others are in here as a condition of their probation. Either way, they are all required by law to show up on Thursday afternoons. During the next hour or so, each person is called to the front of courtroom by the domestic-violence court case manager, Darlene Winfield, known to most of the defendants simply as "Miss Darlene." The judge checks in about upcoming trial dates and asks about that person's situation -- about steady employment and participation in counseling groups (both are required), and about stay-away orders, gun possession, curfews, and weekly urine tests (violations mean jailtime).

This is Domestic Violence Monitoring Court, a judicial innovation launched in October 1999 by Chief Judge Gerard Hansen and Magistrate Commissioner Joe Giarrusso Jr. in cooperation with the local district attorney's office. The Orleans Parish version is modeled after similar courts in Dade County, Fla., and Brooklyn, N.Y. and was developed after visits to New York state's Center for Court Innovation, a nationwide laboratory for new judicial concepts, particularly specialized, "problem-solving" courts like this one.

Hansen and Giarrusso preside on alternating Thursdays. Both men are well-researched on domestic violence, and both can be kind and accommodating, especially with defendants who are doing well in the program. On the bench, Hansen has a twinkly-eyed paternal air. He tells one man that his toddler is a beautiful child and jokes with another about whether his car-repair shop is actually the best deal in town. Giarrusso's demeanor is closer to that of a losing coach at halftime. It's encouraging, but stern. In his court, defendants are admonished to remove their hands from their pockets and to call Giarrusso "sir" -- because he calls them "sir" and he expects the same respect from them.

Hansen's and Giarrusso's styles might be worlds apart, but both men are clear about their primary mission: victim safety. While they applaud progress in defendants, their focus is on keeping close track of each and every person in their court.

Today, one man is a no-show. Winfield stands in front of her microphone and speaks with Judge Hansen, who also answers her over his microphone. There are very few secrets in Domestic Violence Court. Hansen, his brow furrowed, issues a warrant for the man's arrest and makes sure that the whole courtroom knows why. The defendants are acutely aware that Hansen is displeased -- a few who were previously slouching or whispering sit up straight and pay close attention. It's all part of this court's design: if a person is praised for a new job or a diploma, it's in front of the group. If someone is punished, the whole group sees it.

Not long ago, such public treatment of these cases was unheard of. So-called "family trouble" was considered a private matter, and law enforcement and the courts tried their best not to get involved. Before the late-1970s, a woman couldn't even obtain a restraining order against her husband unless she had filed for divorce. In the 1980s, courts dealing with domestic violence often mandated marriage counseling, a sentence that is now considered ill-advised and even harmful because counseling can't be effective unless both parties feel safe.

The topic itself was rarely discussed before that time, says Merni Carter. "In 1975, I got my master's in counseling," Carter says, "and they didn't even have the terms 'domestic violence' or 'battered women.' Ms. magazine coined the term 'battered woman.'"

The women's movement did much more than coin the term. In many ways, they brought the entire issue to light. The feminist focus on domestic violence came out of an earlier campaign, in the 1960s, that opened up rape-crisis centers across the country. It soon became obvious that America needed other emergency shelters -- for battered women. The first shelter for abused women opened in the United States in the mid-1970s.

The fight against domestic violence may have received its biggest boost in support in 1994, right after O.J. Simpson was arrested and accused of killing his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. In October 1994, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act, which toughened domestic-violence laws and budgeted $1.62 billion for shelters, crime-prevention and police-officer training.

Motivated and funded by federal actions, most local justice systems began to grapple with domestic violence as a separate, distinct entity. In 1994, within his first few months in office, New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial formed a Domestic Violence Task Force. That same year, the City Council passed the city's first domestic-violence ordinance.

The efforts have won praise in many circles. However, some defense attorneys and judges complain that domestic-violence reforms are overly focused on prosecution. In their efforts to protect victims, say these critics, domestic-violence courts trample over standard defendants' rights and bypass the neutral fact-finding process central to our justice system.

Today in Orleans Parish Criminal Court, everyone who appears on a domestic-violence charge is issued a protective order, which prohibits contact with the victim of any sort -- in person, by phone or letter, through a friend. These violations are, through efforts by the NOPD, starting to receive more strict enforcement -- in 1999, there were no Orleans Parish arrests for violations of protective orders; in 2001, there were 75.

These are clear successes. Yet the Orleans Parish court, like others across the country, will eventually send most batterers out the door without penalty. Recent nationwide studies of domestic caseloads found that 50 percent of cases did not see formal action. Orleans Parish numbers show even lower levels of prosecution -- last year, the district attorney's office was unable to bring charges in 67.8 percent of all domestic-violence incidents. According to a January Criminal Court memo, the district attorney attributes these low numbers to "lack of evidence supplied by the New Orleans Police Department" and "the reluctance of the judiciary" to go forward with cases in which the victim refuses or is unable to testify. (The district attorney's office had no additional comment by press time.)

All of this means that, in two-thirds of the Orleans Parish domestic-violence cases, defendants are likely to face little more than arrest and a few weeks under the collective thumb of Miss Darlene, Judge Hansen and Magistrate Commissioner Giarrusso.

The two men and Darlene Winfield are working to increase the effectiveness of their court. But they are also candid about its current shortcomings. The status quo spurs Winfield to make the most of the time she has with each defendant. "Very few charges get accepted and the percentage of refusals is high," she says. "So I have to make a difference because I know that most of these people are going to walk."

Early on, Heather had unsatisfactory interactions with law-enforcement officers, who told her that, as long as she and her husband lived together, the police could do nothing. So when Heather decided to leave, she didn't even think of calling the local authorities for assistance.

The biggest hurdle she faced was that her husband kept complete control over her life -- a telltale technique used by abusive men. He didn't allow her to work, he kept all the money, and he allowed her use of the car only for grocery-store runs. After she threatened to leave, he even began locking up her legal identification and the children's birth certificates.

Heather's mother, worried, sent her $500 tax refund to Heather. The day the money arrived, Heather waited for her husband to leave and then got on the telephone to the Greyhound station. When, she asked, did the next bus leave? At 10 that night, she was told. It was a bus to New Orleans. OK, Heather said, she would be going to New Orleans.

She booked $198 worth of tickets for her and her kids, then called a battered women's hotline in New Orleans; she told them her situation and that she would be arriving early the next morning. Shelter staff made arrangements and gave her directions from the bus station.

She packed a few things and then hustled her toddlers into a cab and to the Greyhound station. They arrived in New Orleans with four outfits for Heather, several keepsakes and a few drawers of kids' clothes. The shelter and a government-funded work program have helped with daycare, bus fare, even the uniforms she'll be wearing to her new job as a medical assistant. She still can't afford to get her own place, but she hopes to move eventually to a separate unit within the shelter.

In many ways, Heather is a success story. She and her children are far away from her husband; she has a good job and she's dealing with things. Her kids seem OK, too.

It's clear that she's happy to be moving forward with her life. Today, as she walks toward the bus, a cute guy passes. "You would think that I wouldn't want anything to do with men, but I do find myself looking," she says with a grin. But flirting is a little different these days. "At first I might look at someone and think, 'Oh, he seems nice,' she says. "But then I think, 'What if he's an abuser?'"

Her bus arrives. She climbs on, takes a seat and starts to talk about her husband. She plans to never see him again. Yet Heather says that she sees his face in their children and thinks back to their years together, before things went bad. How he was a tall gangly teenager -- "so skinny that our classmates teased him." That was before his 6-foot-6-inch frame got thick and strong and he could easily overpower Heather. She recalls how they used to spend hours in a double swing in her parents' backyard. How they stayed together even when she was at college and he was at home working as a laborer.

"All my friends used to be jealous," she says. "He was such a good boyfriend." She still remembers the first dozen roses he gave her, for her ninth-grade prom. Heather took a Polaroid of that bouquet. The snapshot now sits in her beige locker at the shelter along with a few other items -- birth certificates, her ID and her kids' baby pictures.

She stops talking as the bus lurches into its next stop. This is where Heather gets out for the work-program office. She walks off the bus, then turns to chat for a few more minutes. She is aware that her memories may seem contradictory. But the monster she fled really had been a sweet boyfriend in his youth.

She attempts to explain. Things were definitely made worse by the drugs, Heather thinks. But she suspects the real reason goes farther back. "His dad did the same thing to his mom," she says flatly. Her husband had always pledged that he wasn't going to be that way.

But somehow that promise fell by the wayside. "Violence is a cycle," she says, matter-of-factly, noting what she's read about the topic. Then a cloud comes over her face. Each night, she says, as she climbs into her bunkbed at the shelter, she hopes that her little family has seen the last of that cycle.

click to enlarge Chief Judge Gerard Hansen (left) and Magistrate Commissioner Joe Giarrusso Jr. might have styles on the bench that are worlds apart, but both men are clear about their primary mission: victim safety.
  • Chief Judge Gerard Hansen (left) and Magistrate Commissioner Joe Giarrusso Jr. might have styles on the bench that are worlds apart, but both men are clear about their primary mission: victim safety.
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