Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What is wrong with this picture?

Subtitle: The blame game, part 2

It's ironic to me that little Triumph Alexander Skinner's mother, who has a black eye in her mugshot picture, was arrested for Child Neglect today. 

The comments from Sentinel readers, for the most part, show little or no understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence.

Most of the writers expect the victim to be able to just walk away from their abuser. Most of them don't realize how extensively an abuser controls their victim.

It is not uncommon for a victim to enable their abuser to avoid having to suffer any consequences for their behavior.
Per the Sentinel:
"She told investigators that Skinner abused her in the past and she feared him. Investigators noticed bruises on Ford's face, neck and throat. Deputies arrested Skinner later that evening at the family home."

And just a few days later, they arrest her. Michelle Marie Ford has a black eye visible in this mugshot. A bruise is visible on the front of her neck.

This woman is supposed to be able to protect the baby? From the man who gave her a black eye and left bruises on her neck?

What's wrong with this picture?

Suggested Reading:
Love and Stockholm Syndrome: The Mystery of Loving an Abuser (Part 1) (Part 2)
Dr. Joseph M. Carver, PhD

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The blame game

Seven month old Triumph Alexander Skinner died, allegedly at the hands of his father Keith Skinner, this past weekend. In reading and watching the media coverage of this tragedy, people want to blame somebody for what went wrong.

The candidates for the blame game in any family violence related fatality are (in no particular order):
  • Department of Children & Families (DCF)
  • Law enforcement
  • The court system
  • Advocacy organizations
  • The child's mother
Did I leave anyone out?  Oh yeah. What about the guy who beat his child to death?

Having been a member of the Domestic Violence Task Force for the past 5 years, I can assure you that everyone will pull their records and try to determine if there was something that was missed somewhere along the line. And if a deficiency is found, steps will be made to correct it.

But the reality is that Mr. Skinner, and only Mr. Skinner, is (allegedly) responsible for his son's death.

Many would argue that the mom is just as culpable as he is because she lied to investigators. But once you understand the dynamics of an abusive relationship, it's not so clear-cut.  Take a few moments to review the Power & Control Wheel if you're not familiar with it.

Try to put yourself into the shoes of a victim who has been abused verbally, physically, emotionally, and/or financially by their partner for years. Try to imagine what it's like to know in your gut that nobody else would want you, that the violence is all your fault, and that you have nobody to turn to for help. These are the things you know so deeply in your gut that it's no different from knowing what your eye color is.

Try to imagine what it's like to be so afraid for your child's safety that you stay in the relationship to protect the child, because you know that the courts will most likely order unsupervised visitation with the offending parent and you can't be there to protect your baby (whether that baby is an infant or a teenager doesn't matter).

Now try to understand that the perpetrator isn't always violent. Sometimes they are wonderful to you. Sometimes they are a terrific parent. Sometimes the relationship seems as though it's worth saving.

THIS is the victim's reality. And a victim believes this is the way life is and there's nothing he or she can do about it. Advocates try to help them see that they do have options and work on steps to pursue those options. But until a victim is ready to throw in the towel on the relationship, and seek alternatives to their situation, there is only so much that the community can do.

However, the community (that's everyone - friends, neighbors, employers, strangers, government, etc.) can do a lot to help victims and perpetrators in these situations. But for lasting change, the individuals have to want it badly enough to work at it. The victim might not be able to say "I deserve better" because he/she doesn't truly believe they do. But when a friend or co-worker repeatedly tells them so, after a while, the thought takes root and begins to blossom.

When you suspect someone is being abused, the best thing you can do for them is tell them you're concerned about their safety and try to convince them to call their local DV shelter to develop a safety plan with a trained advocate. Be supportive (not just in word, but also in deed - offer to watch their children, give them a ride if they need transportation, etc) and don't badmouth their abuser.

When you witness violence, the best thing you can do is call law enforcement and record (if possible) the incident. Many cell phones today have video and/or audio capabilities. Be willing to be inconvenienced by serving as a witness for the prosecution, even if the victim does not want to testify.

Skinner and his victim reportedly had numerous contacts with the criminal justice system, the injunction courts, and DCF. He had a history of violence and was even sentenced in 2005 to 4 years in prison for a 2004 child abuse charge. His wife had filed injunctions against him in 2001 and 2004.

And yet a 7-month old child lies in the morgue, after having sustained heinous injuries that included a perforated bowel, a severely fractured skull, and numerous fractured ribs. His 7-year old sister (the 2004 child abuse victim) was removed from the home, even though she is now safe from her father because he is in jail. She undoubtedly thinks she is being punished for having done something wrong.

When my estranged husband killed our 2-year old daughter, I was terrified that my 8-year old would be taken away from me for my "failure to protect" her baby sister (thankfully that never happened, although I did have to submit to an interview with DCF a couple days after the funeral).

Please don't blame the mother until you've walked in her shoes. Try to remember who is at fault here.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Judicial benchmarking

Earlier this week, I monitored a VOP (Violation of Probation) hearing in Judge Alice Blackwell's courtroom. I first met Judge Blackwell in 2006 when she and Dick Batchelor served as co-chairs of Orange County's Domestic Violence & Child Abuse Commission Implementation Team. She served as the Administrative Judge for Domestic Relations from 2006-2009 and was a crucial player in efforts to improve the way injunction cases are handled. In October, 2009 the Orange County Domestic Violence Task Force recognized her for the outstanding contributions she has made to improving the court system's handling of domestic violence cases.

Judge Blackwell's handling of domestic violence cases is the benchmark for CourtWatchers.  If you're familiar with the Power & Control Wheel, which details the different tactics that abusers use to maintain control over their victims,  you might like to take a look at the corresponding wheel for Judicial Responses to Domestic Violence.  This judge consistently exhibits the criteria  listed in that wheel.

At the beginning of this year, Judge Blackwell rotated out of the Domestic Relations division into the felony VOP courtroom. Even though we miss her presence in the Injunction Court, it's been a pleasure to see a judge who doesn't hesitate to hold offenders accountable for violating conditions of their probation or community control. The defendants in her courtroom have already been convicted of some very serious crimes. Some of them were given the opportunity to avoid incarceration and ordered to probation. Some were given probation after a period of incarceration.

Richard Brace (2007-CF-018059-A-O), age 68, was in her courtroom on Monday for having violated the "no contact" provision of his probation from a 2007 charge of Aggravated Assault w/Deadly Weapon (an automobile) & Battery. Assistant State's Attorney Robert Westmoreland was playing audio recordings of several threatening telephone messages left on the victim's voicemail when we arrived in the courtroom. From our vantage point, it was difficult to discern all that was being said in the recordings, but some of what we could hear was reminiscent of the rage in Mel Gibson's rants against his ex-girlfriend.

Judge Blackwell later characterized his comments as despicable and abusive.

The parties were allegedly permitted by the judge in their divorce case to have contact with one another in order communicate about issues relating to the child.

One of the defendant's messages to his victim indicated that he knew who her new boyfriend was and where he lived.

Lesson #1: Domestic Relations judges need to assign a third party to handle communications regarding children when domestic violence is an issue in their case. Or only permit them to email or text message one another, thus creating evidence that can be used in court.

When the defendant's ex-wife was testifying, Mr. Westmoreland seemed ill prepared as he attempted to put some anonymous letters into evidence (they were not admitted, nor was the victim permitted to testify about their content). Judge Blackwell concluded the victim's testimony with additional questions to obtain facts that the prosecutor did not.

After the State rested its case, Defense Counsel Thomas Matthews elicited testimony from his client that the probation officer, Mr. Wilson with the Florida Department of Corrections, gave him permission to have contact with the victim. Upon hearing this testimony, the prosecutor asked to reopen his case, called the probation officer to the stand (something that should have been done earlier), and asked him about the contact issue. Mr. Wilson testified that he never gave the defendant permission to speak with the victim. Wilson also never contacted the victim to ascertain if his client was telling him the truth about the contact they were having. Wilson stated that he knew, from his client, that the victim had helped take care of the defendant as he was recovering from a heart attack earlier in the year.

Lesson #2: Probation Officers need to maintain communication with the victim when a crime of domestic violence is involved.

Judge Blackwell grilled the probation officer about why he didn't file a violation of probation affadavit a year and half ago, when the contact began. The judge also learned that even law enforcement officers told the defendant that he could have contact with the victim if he only spoke about visitation issues with her.

Lesson #3: When the messages that people receive from those in authority conflict with one another, they will ignore the orders they don't like and abide by those that they prefer.

Mr. Brace admitted that not knowing where his child was every moment made him very frustrated. He became visibly agitated as he told the judge that when his daughter is visiting him, he contacts the victim to advise her of their whereabouts several times during the day (e.g., we just left the bowling alley and we're going to Subway to get something to eat; we just left Subway and we're going to the mall, etc.). He felt that he deserved the same kind of "courtesy" from his ex-wife when their daughter was with her. And he expressed great displeasure that there was a new man in the picture, not knowing what sort of influences to which she might be subjected.

See "Using Children" on the Power & Control Wheel.

The defense attorney argued that there were no threats in the voicemails, to which Judge Blackwell countered that "I know who your boyfriend is and where he lives" is an implied threat.

The judge found that the defendant had willfully violated his probation and sentenced him to an additional year of community control (a more restrictive type of supervision than probation), to be followed by another year of probation. She also ordered he complete the Batterer's Intervention Program. Judge Blackwell took several minutes to explain to the victim why she did not sentence the defendant to prison (the defendant has no prior criminal history aside from this case, had major health issues, and believed that adding 2 more years of supervision to his sentence would be a better way to protect her for a longer period of time than putting him in prison).

Judge Blackwell also expressed great concern for the victim's safety and encouraged her to contact the local domestic violence shelter to develop a safety plan. She also told the parties to set up monitored exchanges with the court for their daughter.

Finally, she emphasized to Mr. Brace exactly what "no contact" means and that she is the only judge that can modify the order. All contact with the victim, outside of a courtroom or legal deposition, was prohibited. She warned him not to try to modify contact provisions with their divorce judge in another county.

Lesson #4: When judges take the time to listen, ask questions, and explain their rulings, treating all parties with courtesy and respect, justice happens.