In the four years I’ve worked at the Safe Families Office, I have seen and heard some terrible things. I speak often about worst-case scenarios, be it in trainings or presentations, but there is a distance in the recounting. Last week, however, there was no distance when a voice on the other end of the phone said: “Liz, there’s been a shooting.” It was the police calling, a call the likes of which I’d never before received and I hope I never do again. The fact that it was happening at all, though, meant one of Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation’s clients were involved.
My mind races with questions. Who is she? When was she here? Who helped her? What do we know? What did we do? Could we have done more?
Knowing someone whose life is taken is a terrible thing. Discovering that someone who came to you for help to escape the man who became her murderer is overwhelming. There is numbness, there are tears, there is self-doubt. We replay our interactions with her over and over, asking if we could have suggested something else that may have saved a life.
In this case, our client had endured an extremely controlling relationship for many years with a man with a troubling preoccupation with guns. There was minimal physical violence, but there was palpable terror. When she finally summoned the courage to leave, she did it with great caution. She had a safety plan that included off-duty police officers being present when she left the home, new security systems where she was going. We discussed options, and she felt confident in her decisions. She had been waiting and planning and made her move when she thought she could be safe.
These cases are why we do the job we do – people are in mortal danger in their own homes, while their children play in the backyard and neighbors wave hello from their porches. These cases are also exactly what make our job so very hard to do. How do I counsel a co-worker or an intern who has come so close to a life that’s been extinguished? How do I make sense of it myself? We can try to take solace in knowing we tried, that we did all we know how to do, but that is cold comfort in the light of such a tragedy, and we’re dogged by “what-ifs.” We know too well the lengths people will go to in order not to be left.
As AVLF staff, as volunteers, we must remember that for every case with a tragic end, there are countless cases where the outcome can be a triumph, and we are privileged to be a part of that. We can trust our clients’ fear, rather than the number of bruises they have or the police reports that have been accumulated, to be our guideposts in helping them forge a safer future. Let us be grateful for the opportunity to be a small part in what so often is a monumental change for the better in the lives of our clients and their children.