If we don’t change, maybe we don’t deserve to be here

I’ve been waiting breathlessly for the return of Babylon 5, a science fiction classic I got into belatedly. I even co-opted one of its characters, Lyta Alexander, when I was in an online RPG 20 years ago. Sure enough, it came on Amazon Prime finally, and I’ve started watching it. I hit a wall, though, watching the seventh episode in the first season, called “The War Prayer.”

The 1994 show, for those who don’t know, tells the story of a space station constructed after an interplanetary war in the year 2250, built to allow humans and aliens to interact in a hope of achieving peace.

This particular episode deals with a group on Earth called the Homeguard. These folks oppose dealing with aliens at all. Their chant and watchwords are “Earth First.” They terrorize aliens in an effort to scare them away and keep the station and Earth’s resources for humans only.

The station commander and security advisor discuss the situation, wondering what will happen if they release information about this “Earth First” group. Commander Sinclair bitterly points out that most who know about it are already fervent supporters, “and most of the rest just don’t give a damn.”

So, 24 years ago, we see the exact theme playing out that we see in today’s “Murrika.” Except here it’s a little more sinister. The leader of the country and those who support him in the government are pushing “America First,” not just random extremist groups.  We are terrorizing members of American cultural sub-groups, instead of Centauri, Narn and other aliens. Blacks, LGBTQ, immigrants–anyone who is not part of that specific WASP male culture risks being made second-class, losing their rights, or even being terrorized and killed at rallies or on the street.

Women are losing rights over their own bodies, due to recommendations made by committees of white men. Is it any wonder that The Handmaids’ Tale is so dark and frightening for us to watch? How long until we reach that point? In the show, the women’s rights slowly disappeared, one by one. The right to a job. The right to handle their own money. The right to read and write. The right to choose to have a baby. The right not to be raped. We see in the current government that while major brouhahas are going on in one place, calling the attention of the media and activists, that in Washington, Congress is quietly whittling away at other laws–many of which the majority don’t even read.

Not to mention the amendments and special interest-bits that get tagged on.

Clearly, this whole “Me and the people like me First” campaign is not new. It didn’t start with the current administration. it didn’t start with the last administration. It didn’t start back when the Republicans came right out with the policy of opposition, no matter what was on the table. (George Voinovich, 2002).  “The Other” is always something to be confronted; but should it be met with hatred and fear, or with a welcoming hand?

The hatred and fear continued in the Babylon 5 episode, as once the bad guys were caught and charged with the terrorist acts, the leader turns to his former friend on the station, and says this:

Malcolm Biggs: I can’t believe you did this to me, Susan. What kind of a human are you to side with – [looks at (aliens) Delenn and Mayan] *them* ?

Lt. Cmdr. Susan Ivanova: I find many of these people to be more human than you and your kind. But I don’t suppose you’d understand that.

“I can’t believe you did this to me.”

“I can’t believe you made me do this.”

“Look what your parents made me do.”

The New Yorker on June 11, 2018, points out that the Trump Administration uses the language of domestic violence. It sure does. As someone who’s worked with domestic violence victims and survivors for over 20 years,  what I read in the news makes me sick.  And it doesn’t look like it will end any time soon.

The sickness isn’t just one man. It’s pervasive in the system.

Maybe–just maybe–there are enough people willing to put themselves on the line to change things in fall 2018, in spring 2020. But we’ve been wallowing for a long time, living with all those who “just don’t give a damn.” When good people don’t engage, whoever’s loudest gets to control things, truth and justice be damned.

So I’ll go back to my nice fictional space station, where I expect this won’t be the last time we hear the Earth-Firsters. Because this is us. And we deserve what we get.

And then the judge said…

So we’re in court this morning for domestic violence cases, and the judge has about seventeen cases waiting –a pretty stellar number. Usually there’s six or eight. Everyone’s a little twitchy and not looking forward to three hours of “he said, she said” sad stories.

So he starts at the top of the list and begins the Call, seeing who’s there and who’s not. He barely gets the caption of the first case out when the male defendant in the case stands up and says, “Do I have to be here?”

The judge looks at him a little funny and starts to answer, when the guy interrupts again. “Look, I don’t care what she does, all right? I just got off work, I work third shift. I’m tired, I got a bunch of beers waiting and I don’t care what she does. I don’t want to be here all day listening to this crap. Can I go?”

At this point, all the attorneys in the room are turning around to check out this fool, a young guy who must be about 18 or 19, nice looking kid, short hair, rock band T-shirt and jeans. And all you can think about is the beers and the disrespect he’d show to a judge, and wonder what the hell this poor woman’s had to put up with.

The judge is obviously taken aback by this young man, and he stumbles over his words. “W-Well, there’s no rule that says you have to be here–”

“Great. Thanks. See ya.”  And, all eyes on him, he struts out of the courtroom to go get in his car, go home and drink his beers. Hopefully, in that order.

There’s a beat of silence in the courtroom, then a buzz of conversation. The judge looks at us and says, “Great way to start the day.” Then he picks up the list and moves on, leaving us all wondering what’s going on with the next generation. I’m all for not having to waste time, but, son, this is your life. Best start taking it seriously pretty soon before you get much older. Just sayin…


Happy endings

Often in domestic violence cases, we find that when an abuser starts losing control of the victim, and the victim becomes a survivor and moves out on their own, then the abuser goes after what hurts that survivor most. Usually that’s the children.

I have a dozen cases in my files where mothers have lost their children to fathers who are better funded, better situated, and often present as pillars of the community, despite the abuse they’ve dished out over the years. Many of these women are cut off from their children for years, certainly long enough to destroy all hope of a positive mother-child relationship forming. They have to choose between their own safety and their child. What a horrible place to be.

This month, I had the joy to be involved with a case where a mother and a child, separated by more than ten years by a vindictive abuser, had the opportunity to be permanently reunited again. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the courtroom as this mother and daughter hugged each other, triumphant at last.

 Karma does come around sometimes, as I continually reassure these women who live in agony, praying their children are safe and cared for.  They just have to keep themselves strong, healthy, and on the road to stability. Always prepare for that chance that fate will bring your children home again. You never know when that happy ending will arrive–sometimes when least expected.

It’s nice to have a smile at the end of the day. Best wishes to my client and her daughter, and nothing but good days from here on.

Does the truth really set you free?

Candor is a double-edged sword; it may heal or it may separate.–William Stekel

I’ve seen promos recently for a program on the WE network called “The Locator.” It’s a reality show about a guy named Troy Dunn, who’s made a career out of looking up long-lost family members for hire. This week, for example, the featured hunt is “a young woman’s search for the biological father she didn’t know she had.”

My thought would be, if she’d grown into young womanhood without this man, does she really need to find him?

I don’t know anything about the facts of that case, but I’ve run into this sort of situation many times over my years of legal practice. It almost never turns out well.

For example, husband and wife live together for ten years and raise two children. Everyone remarks over the years how daughter looks just like dad, but son must have traits from a prior generation. Lo and behold, when they break up and he wants to file for custody, mom pops out with “But he’s not your son. Mr. X is really his father.”

Son learns this truth and then spends the next however many years trying to rationalize why his real father left, whether he should love or hate the man who’d raised him, and why his mother is a cheat and a liar. Lose-lose in my book.

Or a case where one parent has moved far from the other to escape domestic violence or a parent who’s commited sexual acts against the children. It’s possible to change names, Social Security numbers, and vanish into a new place, where parent and children can be safe–as long as they’re not traced.

What if one of these children finds some evidence of a former life and begins to unravel the careful web that’s protected her?

Or in the worst possible set of facts I’ve encountered, mom has an affair which brings her a child. Husband, horrified because of the affair, divorces her. Because she’s married at the time of the birth, a legal presumption applies and the biological father, though verified by genetic testing, is let off the hook for support.  Husband will have nothing to do with this child, knowing it’s not his, and the father has vanished from the child’s life. Child grows up with no father at all.

When he gets old enough, what could he possibly learn from the man whose DNA makes up half his chromosomes but who walked away and washed his hands of the mess?

Would someone like Troy Dunn really help any of these people?

On his website, Dunn talks about the need to “purge,” that people will heal and feel better once they’ve come clean, as it were, and revealed the truth.

Every family has one or more secrets they have chosen not to share, for one reason or another. Some of these old family stories might just be a fictitious wedding date, to protect the legitimacy of a child, or they might be something very serious, like the ones above. Even adoptees desperate to find information about their birthparents might discover that that mother or father had very good reason to place a child into a loving home, and the revelations uncovered could do a lot of damage.

Sometimes Col. Jessup is right: we  can’t handle the truth. And we shouldn’t have to.

The dream job

“Do you miss it?”

I was sitting in court next to the legal advocate from our local women’s shelter this afternoon, as we supported a woman who’d been brutalized by her husband. The photos from the hospital showed ugly bruises inflicted by the man’s cane. Yes. Cane. The man had the temerity to beat her till she was black and blue and then came to court, claiming he was too disabled to have managed the feat.

“I do miss it,” I confessed. From 2001-2004, it would have been me advocating for this woman, bringing 15 years of legal experience to the aid of battered women as part of the Blossom Project. It was my baby, a special six county program solely devoted to assisting victims of domestic violence. As the Attorney Coordinator, I designed the services, including eight-week classes geared toward giving victims much-needed information and direction in terms of where to find jobs, housing, child care, and more. Each week, I also represented up to 15 victims, mostly women, in the process of gaining protection orders in court.

There are a few women who really stand out from the hundreds of bruised faces I saw over those years. One came to every class, listened faithfully to everything that was said, but refused one of the bright pink carnations the ‘graduates’ received, for fear her husband (who she was preparing to leave) would think she’d been with a man. Another waited two years before she gathered the quiet courage to leave, more for her sons’ sake than her own, once they became secondary targets of the violence; as she predicted, she lost her income, then her house and finally her children. The system managed to work against her at every turn. A different one did much the same, but finally her children saw the truth of things and came back to her. She put herself through college, got a Fulbright to go to Africa for a semester to help women there, and now counsels abused women professionally.

There is nothing worse I’ve seen in my law practice than the results of one human brutalizing another, particularly when that man or woman or child is one for whom the batterer has professed great love. What kind of screwed-up message does that give the loved one? Studies have shown that it obviously distorts the ideas about relationships for a child growing up in such a home. Many of the men and women who I represented had grown up in a home like this as a child. That’s why we believed the education component was so important–giving them a hand up, if they’d take it.

Some did, and it was a proud day for both of us when it happened. Many didn’t. Statistics show that a DV victim returns an average of seven times to the abuser before being able to make that final break. I’ve been lucky that none of my clients have received the other kind of finality. They’ve been threatened with capital punishment if they leave, and occasionally, I’ve been threatened as well with harm for helping them. But somehow I kept on.

I still take divorce and custody cases referred from the women’s shelter, often pro bono, because someone who knows what they’re doing has to stand up for these women. I teach the chapter on civil remedies each year during shelter volunteer training. The legal advocate knows she can call me day or night for immediate advice to help her clients, who often need to have information to make a split-second decision. But it’s not the same as being the one in that courtroom chair. That position was the one time in my career I could feel that I was a hero every day. Yes, I miss it.

For information and food for thought.