Sometimes waiting in the Family Violence court, I just wonder, “How many victims are there really in a family violence case?” The answer can be elusive.
When I accept a pro bono family violence case, I meet the immediate victim, someone battered by a spouse, live-in lover, occasional lover or “just a friend.” Often, the victim is raising a child or children. Each child sees one parent regularly beat the other.
How many victims are there in a family violence case? I add the original victim’s and batterer’s child or children. The batterer literally pounds cruel lessons home. The children learn them young, filing them in the backs of minds, to surface later. An impulse to beat or to let a batterer attack can lie in wait, until a threat, tantrum or argument triggers it.
I may add to the list of victims the original victim’s nearby relatives and friends. Though full of advice and anger for their relative, it is hard for them to know what best to do. Even when offering help, they may mix in criticism of the apparent weakness of the victim. (“Didn’t I tell you not to let X back in your home?”) The victim will pay far better attention to such questions after he or she has been taken to safety than while the batterer is chasing him or her around or pounding his or her head on the floor. Yet, the relatives, whether really helping or not, do feel their own share of the victim’s shame and misery. They qualify for the list.
And while I won’t call myself a victim in the same sense as those listed above, it is worthy of noting the vicarious trauma and stress of being an attorney of a domestic violence victim. Representing a battered person can pose challenges that differ from other domestic litigation.
But when I start to feel the stress of representing survivors of intimate partner violence, I remember that the survivor is the one actually living through these atrocities. I remember the Atlanta Volunteers Lawyers Foundation’s staff in the Safe Families Office, who are patient and meet the cries for help with empathy and courage. The rest of us can only be inspired and renewed by them. This helps make me a better person. And that is what prompts me to accept another case.
When we meet, sitting between my client and me may be an invisible enemy, silently telling the client he or she is unworthy of help, too weak, too meek, too scared, too stupid, too paralyzed to tell me about the abuse or to accept help to get a restraining order. My client likely hears from this enemy repeatedly. I try to sense that enemy is there and to “answer” the silent insults to help my client. I may have to persuade the victim to reveal the full extent of the abuse received. Occasionally, I have a client who is not ready to see their case all the way through. Some want to believe that their batterers really love them (as they often promise they do) and just need to be understood and treated better by … their victims! Some believe the batterer will keep a promise to stop the violence. They want to believe the best of a person they think they love, so they trust “promises.” Maybe a good friend persuaded the client to file a case, but the client has misgivings about going forward. I must accept that a victim may not show up for court. He or she may feel too unworthy of help. These are the kinds of unique elements a domestic violence attorney must navigate in representing survivors.
The abuse sends out ripples, like a stone tossed into water. Each wave is a category of victims, affected in different degrees by the original attack.
But when I start to feel the stress of representing survivors of intimate partner violence, I remember that the survivor is the one actually living through these atrocities. I remember the Atlanta Volunteers Lawyers Foundation’s staff in the Safe Families Office, who are patient and meet the cries for help with empathy and courage. I remember how AVLF supports me and my clients through the process. The rest of us can only be inspired and renewed by them. This helps make me a better person. And that is what prompts me to accept another case.