Perhaps a previously fashion-forward coworker has taken to wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants in warm weather. Or a once outgoing student has become withdrawn, sullen and even combative on the playground. Maybe a client shows up for a haircut appointment wearing a hat, underneath which there are clear signs clumps of her hair have been yanked from her scalp. Or perhaps there’s been constant yelling and sounds of things breaking from the apartment or house next door ever since that seemingly loving couple moved in.
Are these indications of something sinister happening beneath the surface, or just friends and acquaintances going through rough patches? Should something be said – a helping hand offered – or is the most polite course of action to carry on as if nothing is amiss, lest anyone involved feel embarrassed?
These are agonizing questions for sure, each with myriad implications, but the bottom line, according to the Inyo County Domestic Violence Council, is that minding one’s business should no longer be an option any type of relationship or family violence and abuse is suspected.
“One of the biggest concerns we hear is from people who know their friend’s in trouble but they don’t know how to bring it up, or don’t want to bring it up,” said ICDVC member and Assistant Court Executive Officer Virginia Bird.
According to Bird, taking a stand against domestic violence will take the efforts of the entire community, but first residents must know what to look for and what to do with that information.
To better help community members recognize the signs of domestic violence and – just as important – the dynamics involved – the ICDVC welcomes anyone and everyone to its latest day-long symposium on the topic, starting at 8:30 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 13 in the Tri-County Fairgrounds’ Charles Brown Auditorium.
As with similar symposiums hosted by the ICDVC (past topics have included bullying, teen relationship abuse, the correlation between substance abuse and interpersonal violence and factors contributing to the lethality of domestic violence), the council has brought in nationally respected experts with first-hand experience on the front lines of domestic violence.
One of this year’s speakers is Sarah Buel, a clinical professor at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law who is also a former prosecutor in addition to being a survivor of family violence herself.
Inyo County Superior Court Judge Dean Stout, also a member of the ICDVC in addition to the local Foster Care Commission, Addictions Task Force, Children’s Services Council and a host of similar, state-level groups, is particularly excited to have Buel on board.
Stout said he heard Buel speak at a conference to hundreds of judges from around the state, “and you could hear a pin drop. She makes no bones about telling us what we should be doing better.”
He noted that while past symposiums were devoted to certain aspects of domestic violence, the 2011 event will take a broader, more comprehensive approach thanks in large part to Buel’s knowledge, experience and speaking ability.
“Not only is her own story very moving and inspirational, but she has an amazing ability to provide practical information to a diverse audience,” Stout said.
Ron Overholt, California’s interim director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, and Christine Patton, interim assistant director, will be coming to Bishop to hear her speak.
Also expected to be in attendance on Thursday are members of the mental health community (therapists, counselors, psychologists, et al), advocacy groups (Wild Iris, La Causa), court staff (clerks, bailiffs, receptionists, etc.) law enforcement, members of the legal community (prosecutors, public defenders, mediators), members of the health care field (physicians, nurses, doctor’s office receptionists, paramedics), child care workers and advocates, members of the faith community, and caregivers of the elderly.
Bird said casting as wide a net as possible among the professional community is crucial since domestic violence is such a pervasive problem.
Educating the aging population, for example, is important since “domestic violence doesn’t stop just because someone becomes elderly,” she said.
The professionals, first responders and advocates listed above are attending of their own volition or at the behest of their supervisors in what has become an ongoing effort to educate those in a position to help victims of domestic violence about the dynamics of the issue.
And whether it’s bullying, teen dating violence or family violence, Stout said it all boils down to the abuser seeking power and control over his or her victim.
With that power and control comes dominance, leaving the victim in a subservient position to his or her abuser. And with this subservience can come dependence upon the abuser – emotional, financial, mental, even physical.
Stout sees it first-hand every day.
“As a judge I see the effects of domestic violence day in, day out,” he said. “Domestic violence is not limited to criminal cases, or domestic violence restraining order cases, but it also raises its ugly head in guardianship, family law, juvenile dependency, juvenile delinquency and other cases.
“I have come to see just how pervasive domestic violence is in our community, and the devastating effects it can have on our children,” Stout said.
According to Stout, research has shown that children raised in homes where domestic violence is occurring suffer from significant development problems – including impaired neurological development.
“Their brains don’t develop like those of children in loving, supportive, violence-free environments,” Stout said.
Brain scans have shown, for example, that children from abusive homes do not develop “base” skills such as the ability to reason and analyze. The impairment can go much farther.
Poor impulse control and their own tendencies to act out of anger set the domestic violence cycle in motion for a new generation.
“Kids are like concrete – whatever they’re exposed to sticks,” Stout said.
Stout must be vigilant in his own courtroom when it comes to recognizing the signs of domestic violence. He said child custody cases, for example, can be deceptive based on outside appearances if domestic violence is an issue in the home. The child may cling to the father, who by all outward appearances is the more responsible and emotionally stable of the two adults seeking custody, but the child could be trying to curry the father’s favor in an attempt to prevent further abuse of his mother.
Court staff, meanwhile, are constantly trained in how to properly – i.e. compassionately – deal with victims of domestic violence who appear before them to have restraining orders and emergency protective orders dismissed.
According to Stout, staff must inform the victim that the dismissal is being done without prejudice, meaning the victim can always re-file; the victim is asked if he or she is rescinding of their own free will; and the victim is encouraged to talk to someone in Victim-Witness before leaving.
Essentially, Stout wants court staff to let victims know they are welcome back any time, that they know help is out there, and that the court is available to them without judgement – no matter what.
Stout said that, as counterintuitive as the reasons for staying with an abusive partner may seem to anyone in a healthy relationship, passing judgment on the abused will only make her that much more hesitant to seek help the next time she tries to leave the relationship.
“When you understand the dynamics, you understand why the victim doesn’t leave,” Stout said.
Accused abusers have been known to “plop right down” in the chair next to their alleged victims in the courtroom, even in the presence of support staff from Wild Iris, in attempts to intimidate their partners. Bailiffs have been trained to watch for this behavior.
Understanding the power and control dynamic, Stout said, is the first key to ultimately helping the victim, whether that help is calling the police when you hear glass breaking in the apartment upstairs or keeping exasperated eye-rolling at bay when she refuses to press charges.
Stopping domestic violence, Stout said, is not about empowering the victim – who might feel blamed and thus victimized all over again at the suggestion she enroll in counseling – but rather appropriately empowering those Stout calls “bystanders.”
And like most attempts to affect social change, this type of empowerment must start with education.
“With this symposium we’re trying to educate the community about what they can do,” Stout said.
Echoing Bird’s sentiments about the pervasive, insidious nature of family violence, and its presence everywhere in the community, among every demographic, Stout conceded that any effort to stop domestic violence in a community cannot be successful without full community participation.
“Domestic violence is not limited by social, economic and ethnic lines,” he said.
“You don’t have to be involved in the justice system, faith community or treatment community to benefit from Professor Buel’s experience, knowledge and wisdom,” Stout continued. “She has important words for all of us.”
Empathy-building, not just in relation to the victim but to all those who deal with domestic violence, is just as critical as education, Stout said.
The symposium presents an opportunity for everyone in attendance to gain a better understanding of their experiences in dealing with domestic violence – from the police officers who respond to the 911 calls in the middle of the night (statistically some of the most dangerous for law enforcement personnel), to the therapists working with victims and abusers, to the district attorneys whose job it is to prosecute abuse cases.
“It’s important for everybody to understand everybody else’s role in intervening in domestic violence,” Stout said.
Helping to expand attendees’ views along these lines will be additional symposium speakers Mike Agnew, retired detective with the Fresno Police Department, and the Honorable Len Edwards, retired judge of the Santa Clara County Superior Court.
According to Stout, Edwards’ “judicial leadership and passion for improving the juvenile justice system to enhance the safety and well-being of children and families is unequaled.” Edwards has been named Judge of the Year by the U.S. Supreme Court in recognition of his work.
Agnew is a recognized expert on domestic violence and has provided related training to law enforcement personnel throughout California.
“Like Professor Buel Judge Edwards, Detective Agnew has important information, not just for law enforcement, but for all of us to hear,” Stout said.
The ICDVC is still accepting and encouraging registration for the Oct. 13 symposium. Forms can be obtained online at http://wild-iris.org/index.php  or by contacting Virginia Bird at (760) 873-5217 or email@example.com .