A letter from Safe and Stable Families Director Jamie Perez.
“I have some bad news. One of your clients was killed by her husband this morning.”
I was standing in line on a Sunday afternoon, waiting to board a plane from Washington, D.C., to Atlanta when I received the phone call. It was from Amanda Planchard, Director of Victim Assistance for the Office of the Fulton County Solicitor General, sharing this tragic news. I immediately searched through hundreds of clients’ information – each of whom had visited the Safe Families Office that year – before pulling up the victim’s paperwork. I wanted to review her file and her history. I wanted to figure out what went wrong.
The victim, a former Sheriff’s Deputy, had been married to her husband for 15 years. She had recently told him she wanted a divorce. He responded by accusing her of cheating. He went through her phone, systematically calling her contacts and asking them why they were “taking his wife.”
He began regularly calling her to ask where she was. If she didn’t answer, he accused her of cheating again. He told her their kids weren’t going to be around anyone but him. At one of their children’s birthday parties, he saw that she had a male friend with her. He immediately went to his car, retrieved a gun, and told her that he would punch her in the face. On other occasions, he did just that. He told her, “You will hurt like I hurt.” He told her he “wasn’t someone to mess with.”
At a glance, there wasn’t a long history of severe physical violence. But there were threats. Extreme and constant jealousy. A gun. There were signs.
“A victim is most in danger when she notifies her abuser she is leaving. Between 50 and 75 percent of domestic violence-related homicides occur after a victim leaves their partner.”
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and I want to spread awareness about the violence that goes beyond the physical.
I think we can agree that physical abuse is bad. But absent that, at what point should we be concerned? Is it domestic violence if a partner makes threats but hasn’t acted on them? If he belittles her, criticizes her, verbally abuses her? If he regularly engages in jealous behavior? If he checks her phone, mileage, gas usage – but hasn’t hit her?
What if she has to turn her paycheck over to him? If she’s on an “allowance”? What if he owns a gun and mentions it, keeps it in sight, but has never pointed it at her?
All of these behaviors should be extremely concerning. Domestic violence is about power and control, not just about how many times he’s hit her. Abusers may resort to physical means when their other methods of control stop working. And even if she hasn’t been hit before, things often escalate quickly. It can still turn lethal. A victim is most in danger when she notifies her abuser she is leaving. (Between 50 and 75 percent of domestic violence-related homicides occur after a victim leaves their partner.)
Why? Because the abuser realizes he’s no longer in control. Behaviors often spiral into the extreme in an attempt to regain this control.
After learning of our client’s death, those of us on Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation’s Safe & Stable Families team mourned, supported one another, and brainstormed on how we could prevent similar tragedies in the future. We reviewed what had happened in this particular case and we were proud to see she received the same attention and care as anyone else, despite the lack of extreme physical abuse.
“There are so many lives saved, thanks to the work of our staff and the staff of the Partnership Against Domestic Violence, who co-runs the Safe Families Office. And not just us: law enforcement, judges, volunteer attorneys, advocacy groups, victim assistance offices, and so many, many others.”
While there is always room for improvement in our domestic violence systems, it is impossible to know beforehand which abuser is going to permanently silence his victim. Nonetheless, the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office partnered with the Fulton County Family Violence Task Force to create regular domestic violence trainings for its deputies. These trainings make sure the deputies both understand the realities of this violence and are able to recognize it in the workplace.
Additionally, the task force is currently working to address firearm dangers – not at a late stage in a domestic violence case, but when victims first come to the courthouse. And in the Safe Families Office, we continue to closely review and address cases with similar fact patterns, specifically focusing on firearm involvement.
I started this letter with a heartbreaking quote, one that serves as a tragic reminder of the need for our work. But our team has found that to gain the strength and momentum needed to move forward, we also must recall the positive moments.
There are so many lives saved, thanks to the work of our staff and the staff of the Partnership Against Domestic Violence, who co-runs the Safe Families Office. And not just us: law enforcement, judges, volunteer attorneys, advocacy groups, victim assistance offices, and so many, many others.
Our clients’ words of gratitude remind our staff, volunteers, and supporters of the incredible life-saving value of our work:
“Thank you. You gave me my life back. More importantly, you probably saved my life.”
“My divorce is now final and my life is going the direction I want. . . . I had very good people handling my case from the beginning until the end and I’m truly grateful from the bottom of my heart.”
“I had somebody there for me that was not my family. The Safe Families Office, now I consider them my family.”
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