The trauma of domestic violence: reality v. the classroom

dv1“I need to use a phone.”

I had just arrived home yesterday and was surprised to find my neighbor — I’ll call her Sarah (not her real name) — standing in my drive. Then I realized it was her car that was parked on the other side of the street. She must have been waiting for me.

“Has something happened?” I asked, but not really needing to, given the pallor of her face and the way she staggered as we walked towards my house.

“I’ve been beaten up and I just need to call the police.” That’s when I noticed the hand she held to her temple was hiding a very nasty lump. “I don’t want to stay,” she added quickly.

At work, I am known as the trauma geek – in fact, just yesterday afternoon I was teaching trauma-informed care to our current class of parent educators who are getting their certification in nonviolent parenting. One of the participants is a domestic violence survivor and gave a description of how trauma affected her ability to think and remember after escaping into a shelter.

“It was like there was rain in my ears for a week. You could speak to me and I would see your mouth moving, but I couldn’t understand what you were saying.” She was far more eloquent than my slides on the neurological effects of trauma. And now here was Sarah sitting on my sofa probably in the same state.

A glass of water! I remembered the grounding techniques to soothe the alarm center (amygdala) of the brain. I filled a glass and then sat down and stroked her hand.

“Would you be willing to tell me who has done this to you?”

“Not right now.” She gingerly pressed the swollen corner of her mouth. “I think I’ve broken a tooth.”

“Let me see?” Yes, the two front teeth were chipped.

“And this finger, I think it’s hurt.”

“Do you want me to take you to the hospital?”

“They won’t believe me,” she moaned. “They didn’t believe me last time.”

Last time? There seemed to be less and less doubt what I was dealing with here (if there ever had been).

“You talked about calling the police. Do you want to do that?”

“No! I don’t want to call the police. They locked me up in solitary for 18 hours and let him go home!”

Sarah swept her uninjured hand through her hair again and again in distress. Piecemeal, the details came out. Sarah has been trying to get her husband to leave for the last two years. Today, she finally threw his clothes into the yard and said, “Just go!”. That’s when he hit her. She thinks it was her fault for provoking him. Their 13-year-old daughter witnessed all this.

“And how is she doing?” I asked, worried by this new piece of information. Where was the daughter now? Was she also in danger?

“Oh, she just thinks her dad is right.”

Figures. Children often side with the abuser because survival instincts kick in – they are afraid of this person. But knowing the difficulties of mother/daughter relationships and seeing Sarah’s own conviction that she was somehow at fault for “being a bitch,” I could see another generation growing up to believe that Sarah had been “asking for it” and that physical violence was a legitimate way to express anger – even if Sarah is probably a foot shorter than her husband and at least 75 pounds lighter.

Clearly Sarah needed medical attention and probably should file a police report. That much I knew, but between saying she didn’t know what to do, she kept saying she just wanted to go to her friend in another part of town.

“It’s okay. You are safe here. You can take as long as you like just to regulate.” (Damn, wasn’t there a less technical word?) “You don’t have to make any decisions right now.” Trauma-informed care told me that she needed to regain power and control, that I should offer her choices and not pressure her, but then she had a crazy idea:

“I saw them drive away,” (the husband and daughter), “I just need to go back and get my phone. He took it away from me but perhaps he’s left it behind.” Without the phone, Sarah couldn’t remember her friend’s number, which unfortunately is unlisted. But it didn’t seem like a very good idea to accompany her back home, only to be surprised by the return of a pissed-off husband who had already used one woman as target practice today.

For someone who trains others in trauma, I was fast finding the limitations of theory when confronted with a real life trauma survivor who was hell bent on getting us both beaten up. I suggested I call our domestic violence specialist, Susie Hess, who worked previously in a domestic violence shelter and teaches nonviolent parenting to domestic violence survivors for our agency. No answer!

I also suggested we call a dear friend of mine who is a defense lawyer and has taken trauma-informed, nonviolent child raising to heart, which he employs in his capacity as minor’s counsel (a court-appointed lawyer who safeguards the rights of children) and when dealing with domestic violence cases. Thank God, Ramon picked up his phone!

Ramon’s slow, steady, warm voice came over the speakerphone and seemed to reassure Sarah… until he advised her to file a police report. She shook her head violently. “Go with someone,” continued Ramon, “someone who can advocate for you and won’t let them brush you off.”

“I’ll go with you,” I whispered. “I won’t let them do anything to you. And we have Ramon as back up.” (As I said this, I wondered what his Sunday plans had been. Certainly not charging down to a police station 40 miles from his home. If there is a lawyer heaven, he is going to it.)

“And get an escort back to your house to get your things,” Ramon was continuing. That made sense. A couple of burly blue-clad policemen with guns was a reassuring image, but not to Sarah.

“They took us both,” she was crying now as I hung up with Ramon. “It’s my fault, it’s entirely my fault. My one phone call and I find out he’s home. ‘They let you go home!!’ I was pissed. They kept me in solitary for 18 hours. They didn’t believe me. No LAPD!” She shook her head again.

I was witnessing trauma memory – fragmented, disorganized – only this wasn’t her memory of the last time her husband had beaten her, it was her memory of how she had been treated by the police. We talk all the time about how one of the goals of trauma-informed care is to avoid retraumatization, but clearly in terms of getting the message out, there is much work yet to be done.

Sarah springs up. “I have to go check on my daughter!” I hastily follow her to the door.

“Do you want some flip-flops?” (She had run out of her house barefoot in the effort to escape.) While the mother in me is trying to find her something for her feet, she has bolted outside. I find myself back in my driveway with my phone and my keys and not much clue on how to proceed. I can’t let her go back to her house by herself, I don’t want to go without a police escort, I can’t persuade her to go to the police station or the hospital, and she hadn’t even sipped the damn water that was supposed to regulate her!

Just when it’s looking as if I’ll have to go to the house with her to get her phone/check on her daughter who’s not there, Sarah changes her mind.

“I’m going to my friend’s house.”

“But you don’t even know she’s there! And you’re in no fit state to drive. Let me drive you.”

“No, I’ll just go back to my house and then I’ll call you,” she says as she jumps into her car and heads in the opposite direction.

I am left perplexed and worried. What should I have done? Should I have taken the keys from her? Insisted more forcibly? Taken control? Is all this theory about empowerment and giving trauma survivors choice only for when they are no longer a danger to themselves or others? Was that how the police had been thinking when they locked her up? We teach parents that they have to be the upper brain for their children who developmentally have not yet acquired the ability to reason, or when they are dysregulated. Isn’t this also true of someone whose amygdala had been hi-jacked and can’t use the rational, clear-thinking part of her brain?

You know, it’s so much easier to teach this stuff. I love the part in my presentation about neurobiology and trauma responses, the principles of trauma-informed care, but what about when trauma happens on my day off? To my neighbor?

“I can give her the hotline number,” says Susie when she calls back later. “And I can recommend a shelter where they can help her. I wouldn’t pressure her to file a police report but maybe you can call her and suggest you go to the hospital together? Tell her it’s okay if she doesn’t want to say how she got hurt. Ask if she would be willing to let you take a picture of her injuries. Say she doesn’t have to use it, but it will be there as evidence if she needs it later. Also, talk to her friend, if she’ll let you, and give her Ramon’s number because Sarah probably will have difficulty retaining information. And talk to her about safety planning – there’s a web site with all the things she will need from the house, birth certificates, credit cards, and so on.” (http://www.domesticviolence.org/personalized-safety-plan/)

How I wish I had Susie’s knowledge before. At least I’ll know what to do if there is a next time, and if you’re reading this blog, perhaps you will too.

“You did the right thing,” soothed Susie when I admitted I felt I had messed up. “You gave her water.” Hmm. I think she is just being kind.

Update: My neighbor “Sarah” called me this morning to say her friend picked her up yesterday and took her back to her house. The husband won’t tell her where her child is, so after 24 hours this is technically now a kidnapping. Susie gave me the contact information for a great lawyer who specializes in DV and I texted it to Sarah. She is now willing to concede that the police need to get involved and she is also going to the hospital for treatment today.

Louise Godbold is co-interim executive director of Echo Parenting & Education in Los Angeles, CA.

2 responses

  1. Dear Dr. Behrendt:

    We have a couple of email lists we use to send out information on our services and upcoming events – one for professionals and one for parents. Is that the kind of list you were thinking about? If so, please go to our website (echoparenting.org) and under ‘contact us’ you will find a place to register. Thank you so much for your interest in our work!

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