Trapped in abuse

Victims, relatives, friends, neighbors often paralyzed by fear of retaliation, uncertainty about facts

January 12, 2004 

People say things about domestic violence victims that they don't say about the victims of other crimes.

"She was really hard to get along with."

"She yelled at him in front of the kids."

"She fought him, too."

People tend to think of crime as involving good guys and bad guys, aggressors and victims.

But when it comes to domestic violence, it's not that clear. It's often difficult for friends, family and neighbors to tell who is who.

That makes domestic violence difficult for friends, neighbors and family members to understand. In turn, it makes it difficult for police to investigate, and for lawyers to prosecute. It's difficult to persuade neighbors to testify in court. It's hard to convince a jury that someone who fights back and won't leave her abuser is truly a victim.

"I'm not perfect, and I made mistakes," said one Pierce County woman whose husband abused her for years, and who now counsels other victims. "In our system, if you're the victim but you're not perfect, we tend to think that you deserve it."

There's almost never a perfect victim. That's the person you see in television movies, the one who has unquestionably perfect behavior, who never touches alcohol and who never, ever fights back.

Reality isn't so clear, domestic violence experts say.

They say many victims fight their abusers, often hitting, yelling or screaming at them, sometimes making it difficult to tell who's the aggressor. They return to their abusers, night after night and year after year. They refuse offers of help. They deny there's a problem.

When victims do call police or complain about the abuse, they may later claim they lied, or that the police, lawyers and doctors trying to help them are the ones who are lying.

It's hardly a crime like car theft, where it's clear who's the victim.

Friends and neighbors are key in getting help to domestic violence victims. But it's often hardest for them to know whether what's going on is a crime.

That was the case for Tim Lambert, whose Puyallup-area neighbor Angela Alden was killed last summer. Her husband, Michael Day Alden, has pleaded not guilty to a charge of aggravated first-degree murder.

Lambert said he'd grown tired of hearing the couple fight and didn't understand why Angela kept taking her husband back.

"I know that if somebody threatens me or hurts me, I don't call them three days later and say, 'Hey, do you want to hang out?'" Lambert said.

Lambert said Angela Alden had told others she knew her life was in danger, but the night she died, she got into a car with her husband, who drove her off.

"Knowing that he'd said (threatening) stuff to her already, to go get into the car with him, it's almost like she was asking for it - not that I wish that on anybody, but what do you do?" Lambert said.

Lambert said he wishes he'd called 911 more often and made more of an effort to help. But on top of everything else, he said, it was hard to be sympathetic because "I didn't like the woman. I never got along with her."

That's a big piece of the puzzle when it comes to understanding domestic violence, said April Gerlock, a psychiatric nurse practitioner with the Veterans Administration who has worked with batterers and victims since 1980.

"Victims aren't perfect, and they're not nice," Gerlock said. "They don't always say nice things. Sometimes they use physical force in response to the violence and abuse against them. They don't fit the 'nice victim' image. And of course, batterers capitalize on that."

One difficult relationship made domestic violence a top issue in Tacoma for the past nine months.

David and Crystal Brame accused each other of domestic violence in their divorce filings before David Brame, Tacoma's former police chief, fatally shot his wife and himself on April 26.

In divorce papers, Crystal Brame described a husband who was obsessive and controlling. David Brame's family recently described Crystal as a woman who was difficult for David Brame to live with.

Becoming a victim

Relationships, even ones that lead to abuse, often start on an even footing.

"You go into a relationship thinking that you're in love with this person, so you see the very best things in them," said the former victim turned counselor. When things go wrong, it's natural for victims to try to excuse their partner's behavior, or look for a cause and blame themselves, she said.

Domestic abusers - both men and women, in both straight and gay relationships - slowly break down their victim's confidence, undermining them in personal ways. Besides physical and verbal abuse, batterers sometimes will control a victim's use of the car or of house keys, order the victim not to talk to friends, and blame the victim for problems in the relationship.

"I've had batterers do things like shutting off an alarm clock or changing the time to make victims late for work," Gerlock said.

Victims sometimes don't realize that their partner's behavior is inappropriate, because they don't have anyone to talk to about it. Abusers often prevent their victims from spending time with friends.

"And then the batterers are so good at creating a misinformation campaign," Gerlock said. They discredit the victim, "projecting a lot of misinformation about who she is and what's going on in the relationship and what's going on in the home.

"And then if she acts angry, or if she acts crazy because she's fearful, then it just reinforces what he's saying about her."

Women and men who are severely abused can behave abnormally, even to the point that they could be diagnosed as being schizophrenic or bipolar, Gerlock said. "That's a reaction to severe stress," she said.

For example, one police officer told a story of a woman who screamed when her husband glanced toward a closet door. To outsiders, her behavior seemed inexplicable. Officers found out later that the man kept a gun in the closet and had threatened to use it on her.

"Outsiders, we get frustrated, we're sick and tired of this," Gerlock said. "She may come off looking really angry or flaky or psychotic, or fighting back." Friends and neighbors, Gerlock said, often don't understand the situation, and think: "If she would just act right, if she would just behave herself."

What makes it harder is that friends often tell a victim that she or he should simply leave the abuser. That's not always possible.

Sometimes the abuser is the wage earner and a victim who wants to leave might become homeless and penniless. With children, the situation is even more complicated. An abuser might have threatened to hurt or kill the victim if she or he leaves - or hurt or kill the children.

Advising a victim to leave doesn't always help, said the woman who left her husband after years of abuse.

"People that I did confide in would say, 'You've got to leave right now,' you've got to do this, you've got to do that, just bombarding me with so many things to do," she said. "I couldn't do any of it. I was in such a state of confusion that I couldn't do anything. I know they were quite frustrated with me because they didn't know what to do to help.

"Working with victims, I've found that what's helpful is not to tell them what to do, but just to listen. Say, 'I don't understand what you're going through, but I believe you. And let me get you some help.'"

Denial in self-defense

Victims often deny they've been abused because they're afraid their abuser will return - even after a jail sentence, say police officers and lawyers in the South Sound.

Pierce County sheriff's Sgt. Jim Kelly, who is in charge of the sheriff's domestic violence unit, said his investigators routinely assume that victims will not testify in court.

"They're afraid of what's going to happen," Kelly said. "Even if the person gets a lengthy sentence, they're going to get out eventually, and they're going to come back to the victim."

Deputy Pierce County Prosecutor Cort O'Connor decides which cases go to district court. Far fewer domestic violence cases are charged than in other types of assault cases, he said, because victims so often refuse to testify.

O'Connor said the most important factor he considers is whether there is any corroborating evidence in the case, such as medical records showing abuse, 911 recordings, or witnesses who can testify to the abuse.

Even when there are witnesses, victims often try to persuade friends not to testify against their abusers, he said.

"If friends want to know what they can do to help," O'Connor said, "they need to be strong and say, 'What I saw was a crime, and I have to testify.'"

Neighbors can help

Because domestic violence so often involves an abuser who isolates a victim from friends and family, neighbors often are the only people who are in a position to help.

But that's a difficult situation, as well.

One Tacoma woman lives next door to a man who formerly abused his girlfriend. She's afraid he'll hurt her, too.

"If I had called the cops on him, there would have been a history, but how safe would I have been?" said the woman, who lives alone. Calls to 911 can be anonymous. But in small neighborhoods and apartment complexes, it's not hard to figure out who complained.

"I knew once I called the cops, then I'm in danger," she said.

It's a serious concern. "Friends do get killed," Gerlock said. "It's not like they're immune to the violence."

But still, in retrospect, the woman wishes she had called 911 to report the abuse.

"That's one thing that I really regret," she said.

So does Lambert, the neighbor of Angela Alden.

"It is a hard situation to live next door to someone like that, so I can understand sometimes people just closing it out," he said.

Years ago, Lambert lived next to a man who beat his wife. Lambert said he got tired of hearing the abuse, and one day, jumped over the fence between their houses and beat his neighbor up.

"I beat up my neighbor so he couldn't move for three weeks, but when he got better, he beat her up because I beat him up. So did I do any good? Probably not."

Knowing what happened to Angela Alden, he said, "I definitely would call the police a lot quicker than I would before. ... The best advice I can give people is just do it, call 911."

Lisa Kremer: 253-597-8658
lisa.kremer@mail.tribnet.com



SIDEBAR: SIGNS OF ABUSE

Friends, neighbors and relatives are the people who most often can help a victim of domestic violence. Counselors say these are signs of abuse:

•The friend makes excuses for not coming to social events.

•When the friend goes out without his or her partner, the partner calls frequently to see where the friend is.

•The friend doesn't have control over his or her own money.

•The friend's behavior has changed.

•The friend is losing weight unnecessarily.

•The friend doesn't have access to his or her belongings. For example, an abused wife might not be allowed to drive one of the family cars or have a key to her house.

If you're not sure the friend is being abused, ask a simple question, such as "Is everything OK?" Almost always, the answer will be yes. But find an opportunity to ask again.

"I've had women tell me they gave out a lot of signs that they were in trouble, but no one really picked up on it," a counselor said.

IF A FRIEND IS ABUSED

If you suspect a friend is in a controlling or violent relationship, it's difficult to help.

Domestic violence counselors say it often takes seven attempts for a victim to leave a relationship. That can be frustrating for friends and family members who want their loved one to get out.

But don't give up, counselors say. Here are some things you can do:

•Listen to the victim.

•Give the victim three key assurances: "You don't deserve this"; "This is not your fault"; and "I believe you."

•Tell the victim you think he or she might be in danger.

•Give the victim phone numbers of domestic violence resources, such as the statewide domestic violence hot line, 1-800-562-6025.

•Call the hot line yourself and ask what you can do to help your friend.

•Don't tell the victim what to do. Abusers often prevent victims from making decisions. Telling the victim what to do could sound controlling, like the abuser.

•Ask the victim where he or she would go if he or she decided to leave. Help her think about making a plan.

•If you see or hear evidence of abuse, call 911.

RESOURCES

Shelters and hot lines

•Statewide Domestic Violence Hot Line: 1-800-562-6025

•Pierce County Domestic Violence Helpline: 253-798-4166; 1-800-764-2420; TDD: 253-798-6050

•YWCA Women's Shelter: 253-383-2593

•Family Renewal Shelter for Battered Women and Children: 253-475-9010

•Pierce County Clerk's Office (press 4 for domestic violence protection/anti-harassment orders): 253-798-7455

Web sites

•Myths about domestic violence: cityofseattle.org/police/Programs/DV/dvmyths.htm

•The City of Tacoma's Web page on domestic violence, safety planning and community resources: www.cityoftacoma.org/default.asp?main=/34humanrights/Default.asp (click domestic violence)

•Making a safety plan: www.domesticviolence.org/plan.html

•Essays, questionnaires and resources on domestic violence assembled by Oprah Winfrey's staff: www.oprah.com/tows/pastshows/200310/tows_past_20031016.jhtml

The News Tribune is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service