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Growing Up with Domestic Violence: Patrick Stewart and Me

I got a fundraising e-mail from Amnesty International the other day. It was from a celebrity, as so many non-profit fundraising e-mails are. But this one really made me stop and look. It was from actor Patrick Stewart and it was about supporting Amnesty International’s campaign concerning violence against women. He wrote:

I know too much about violence against women – as a child I watched in terror as my mother was abused by an angry and unhappy man who could not control his emotions, nor his hands.

and

Amnesty was instrumental in the passage of the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 – signed into law by President Obama in July. This law begins to reverse the alarming rate of sexual violence against Native American and Alaska Native women. Survivors of sexual assault finally stand a real chance of getting a police response, a rape kit and the opportunity to see their case prosecuted.

Amnesty is also a driving force behind the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA), which aims to revolutionize the way U.S. foreign policy confronts abuses like domestic violence, rape, honor killings and human trafficking worldwide. If passed, IVAWA will support measures to prevent violence, protect survivors and bring perpetrators to justice.

I knew this about Amnesty International but I didn’t know this about Patrick Stewart. So I did some research and came across this powerful video.

As someone who grew up in a home much like Stewart’s, a good bit of this resonates with me. The first time I dialed 911, I was ten years old. I watched in fury as one police officer after another refused to arrest my step-father. He was walked around the block. He was believed when he said my mother open wounds were the result of a fall. Not only was my step-father never sanctioned in any way for beating my mother, no police officer ever called an ambulance or offered to help her get medical care. As a ten, eleven, twelve year old, it was my job to mop up the blood. And there was a lot of blood. Night after night.

The neighbors knew, of course, but no one helped. I was never even offered a safe place to stay for the night as we waiting in fear for my step-father to bang on the door.

As an adult, when I was Litigation Coordinator at the Women Against Abuse Legal Center in Philadelphia in the early 1990s, I found that not much had changed since I argued with New York City police officers in the 1970s. My clients were accused of provoking the men who broke their arms. My clients lost their children to protective services because there was violence in the home but I could not get protective orders enforced that would keep abusers out of the home. And one day I got a call from a priest who ran an in-patient drug rehab program. He wanted to talk to me about a man in his facility. The man was distraught to discover his wife had filed for a protective order against him. The priest told me he thought the man was a good man. That he wasn’t dangerous. That I should help him resolve this without going to court. He put the man on the phone weeping bitterly about losing his family and never having hit her. I told them when the next court date was and that he could make his arguments there. The priest thought me heartless.

Indeed I did make a huge mistake that day. A fatal mistake. I did not confirm whether the man was free to leave the facility if he wanted. If I had known, I would have called the client immediately to report the conversation. I would have, and should have, warned her. But I didn’t. And within a few hours of that phone call, the man left rehab, went home, and stabbed his wife twelve times in front of their two toddlers. I will live forever knowing that maybe, just maybe, I could have saved her life.

The violence I and Patrick Stewart saw as a child, and that I saw as a lawyer, continues today. The law has changed significantly in most places in the U.S. but enforcement is still woefully inadequate. Women who defend themselves end up going to prison while their abusers are still walked around the block.

Domestic violence often increases during the holiday season. Families are stressed. And during an economic depression, conditions are even worse and escape is even more difficult. This is also a time for giving. So I am giving to one of my favorite non-profits: The National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women. This organization provides support for women imprisoned for defending themselves against abusive partners.

Please give. If not to the National Clearinghouse, find a local battered woman’s shelter and give generously.

Has domestic violence touched your life? Is ending violence against women something you are working on? How has your experience of violence against women changed your life?

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