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.

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