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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.


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?

Should You Perfume Your Vagina to Get Ahead at Work? Let Summer’s Eve Know What You Think.

There is a very good post over at Owning Pink – it had me at the title: Want a Raise? Wash Your Vagina. The post is about a full page ad in Women’s Day magazine for Summer’s Eve Feminine Cleansing Cloths. In that ad (a scan of which is on the blog post), there are 8 tips for asking your boss for a raise, the first of which is to use these cleansing cloths. Yes, the ad suggests you are more likely to get a raise if you “wash” your vagina.

Lissa Rankin of Owning Pink is pissed off and I agree with her. Be prepared, in her post she uses the word “pussy” a lot. With (great) respect to Eve Ensler, I don’t use the word “pussy” to describe my vagina. I am not particularly offended by it. I just don’t see the need to nickname or euphemise my body parts. I don’t have a problem with using or hearing the word vagina and, used to accurately indicate a vagina, it seems entirely sufficient.

But back to the ad. Anyone here ever been sexually harassed at work? I have. A lot. Even after clawing my way through law school and getting hired at a major corporate law firm, I still faced a superior who ogled me, left me inappropriate notes and touched my body at every opportunity. Did he actually smell my vagina before giving me a raise? No. But he certainly made it clear that he wanted to. And the fact that I didn’t let him smell my vagina didn’t alter how my co-workers treated me since when a superior makes it clear he finds you sexually attractive, co-workers tend to assume you are giving in to his advances. So add social ostracism to fear, despair, humiliation and self-loathing. It was a sad, painful experience and one I don’t wish on anyone.

There is a good deal to find offensive in the Summer’ Eve ad. Rankin’s Owning Pink post does a great job of addressing the whole notion that we need to change the way our vaginas smell. To suggest we do so is sexist AND unhealthy.

But this ad strikes a different nerve of mine. At 25, I graduated from law school at the top of my class, a law review editor, thrilled to be leaving a not-so-nice childhood behind. And I had barely passed the bar before I discovered the world up there with the rich folk wasn’t much different from the world I came from. I grew up sleeping with one eye open, waiting to see if some stranger would reach under my sheets in the night. I was often homeless and hungry. My law degree, I was to discover, didn’t change things all that much. I had a place to live and food to eat but I still had to endure sexual harassment. It was still all about my vagina. And Summer’s Eve thinks it still should be.

Among the comments to Rankin’s post is one by a person who says she is the Brand Manager for Summer’ Eve. Her name is Angela Bryant and she says: “I want to know what you would like to hear and see from Summer’s Eve, so send me an email at” So let her know what you think.

And let me know what you think. Tell me your sexual harassment stories. Do you think things have changed much since the 1980s when I was told nothing could be done and a lawsuit would destroy my career? Can you be valued for your work and not your sex?

Could Your Six Year Old Be Arrested, Handcuffed and Shackled in School?

According to a class action lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) , a six year old boy was arrested and chained because he did not move when his teacher told him to move . No one was being hurt, no one was in danger, no crime was being committed. Little J.W. simply didn’t do as he was told. He didn’t follow directions.

While this same behavior happens every day in elementary schools across the country, J.W. attends an elementary school in the Louisiana Recovery School District (RSD). Created to accommodate the children whose families returned to post-Katrina New Orleans, unlike most elementary schools those in RSD have armed police officers on-site who follow the direction of school principals. In J.W.’s case, according to the SPLC Complaint:

On May 4, 2010, J.W. allegedly failed to follow his teacher’s directions. As a consequence for this minor misbehavior, Defendant Doe [a police officer in the school] arrested J.W. and transported him to an in-school suspension room where he was isolated from his peers and confined with much older students who taunted and teased him. Inside the in-school suspension room, Defendant Doe forcibly seized J.W. by chaining his ankle to a chair.

A few days later, J.W. got into an argument with another student about a seat in the cafeteria. This time a school police officer:

forcibly arrested and seized J.W. and dragged him through the halls to Defendant Principal Burnett’s [the elementary school principal] office. … Defendant Burnett ordered [the officer] to handcuff and shackle J.W. to a chair.

The lawsuit seeks relief for J.W. and all the students of RSD under the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. constitution for unreasonable search and seizure. As well J.W. asserts state tort claims for the physical and emotional injuries suffered as a result of this brutal policy and practice.

However, Louisiana is not the only state that allows corporal punishment in public schools. Do you know if the school your child attends allows school staff to physically restrain students and, if so, under what circumstances and with which methods? Can your child be held back from striking another person or can your child be chained to a chair and left unattended? Should a six year old ever be shackled?

Another Intoxication Allegation So Rescind Alcohol Treatment Option??

Stacey Anvarinia, the North Dakota women who pled guilty to child neglect for allegedly breastfeeding her infant daughter while intoxicated, has been arrested again.  According to the Grand Forks Herald, within hours of Anvarinia’s sentencing to 18 months imprisonment, all but six months suspended and with an option to serve part of the six months in substance abuse treatment, she was arrested for slashing the tires on a truck parked in the lot of her apartment building.  No word on to whom the truck belonged but I do wonder whether perhaps it was to Delbert Harrison, the man Anvarinia said had beaten her when she called the police for help the night of her arrest for child neglect.  Regardless, the police found her “hiding in a closet and appearing intoxicated.” (Yes, once again it appears police did not feel it necessary to do a blood alcohol test.) She also had cuts on wrists severe enough for police to bring her to the hospital before bringing her to jail.  Well, she got a hospital visit this time rather than the “go directly to jail” card dealt by police after she was kneed in the head last February.

Let’s review:

-Woman calls police for help because she is being beaten by her boyfriend as she tries to leave her apartment.

-Police arrive, describe her as “extremely intoxicated” but do not question her ability to care for her six week old daughter until she “began breastfeeding her infant in front of us.”

-Woman is never given a blood alcohol test.

-Woman is charged with felony child neglect and the man she identifies as having beaten her is never arrested or charged.  In fact, the state lists him as a witness in the case against her.

-Woman loses custody of her child for six months, is then sentenced to a minimum of another six months away from her child, leaves the courthouse after sentencing and slashes someone’s tires as well as, possibly, her own wrists.

A North Forks Herald article concerning Anvarinia’s sentencing hearing last week reported that the officer on the scene in February testified:

Anvarinia’s demeanor, a strong smell of alcohol on her and the alcohol containers throughout the apartment suggested to him that she was intoxicated.


he saw Anvarinia shake the baby girl, hold her without supporting her head and, at one point, hold her upside down by one leg

However, none of this is in the original incident report by the same officer.  If a six week old infant were being held upside down by one leg and shaken, would you wait until the mother put the child to the breast to arrest her for child neglect?  Would the breastfeeding and nothing else be in the arrest report?

If we are to assume that Anvarinia indeed has an alcohol problem, it was some solace that, though she lost custody of her daughter for at least a year and her abuser walked away with no charges, her sentence included substance abuse treatment.  Well, not anymore. In today’s report:

Stacey Anvarinia, 26, had been allowed to spend at least part of her sentence at a substance abuse treatment facility, but Judge Sonja Clapp of the State District Court rescinded that option today.

The judge has sent a battered mother who allegedly has an alcohol problem straight to jail and, as punishment for allegedly getting drunk again, won’t let her go to alcohol treatment.

Mothers can learn a lot of very disturbing lessons from the Anvarinia case. If you are being beaten while trying to escape an abusive boyfriend, calling the police may result in losing custody of your child. And your abuser won’t be charged with any crime. If you plead guilty to charges for which the state appears to have very little evidence in exchange for a lighter sentence and substance abuse treatment, you better not abuse substances before you get treatment because the judge will change your sentence to deny you the treatment you need. So the punishment for being abused is losing your child and the punishment for being an alcoholic is not getting alcohol treatment. Please, someone tell me who this protects?

Jury Back in Drunken Breastfeeder case … Oh, Wait, She Didn’t Get a Jury

As promised, here is an update on Stacey Anvarinia, the North Dakota women who pled guilty to child neglect for allegedly breastfeeding her six-week-old daughter while drunk.  For more on what appears to be a startling lack of evidence, see my post here. My suspicion that Anvarinia pled guilty as part of a deal for a lighter sentence and return of her baby seems to have been spot on.

According to the Grand Forks Herald, rather than the maximum sentence of five years imprisonment, Anvarinia was sentenced today to six months which she can serve in a substance abuse treatment facility.  No news story published before today has mentioned whether Anvarinia had custody of her infant daughter since the arrest. In my previous blog post, I wondered whether she might have waived her right to trial in order to get her child returned to her.  The Grand Forks Herald reports that at Anvarinia’s sentencing she said:

“I’m very sorry for what I did, and I know it was wrong,” 26-year-old Stacey Anvarinia told the judge. “And I would like to continue working toward getting my daughter back.

So Anvarinia does not currently have her daughter and does not appear to know when she will regain custody of her. She was arrested in this case on February 13, 2009. As of today’s sentencing then, she has been without her daughter for nearly six months and can now, it appears, look forward to at least another six months without her.

The brief news released today makes no mention of Delbert Harrison, the man Anvarinia says was beating her when she called police for help. As of last week, he had not been arrested or charged. Anvarinia’s sentence for calling for help is a year without custody of her daughter, six months of which will be in some sort of detention.

Even if Anvarinia was intoxicated when police arrived – something for which there is apparently no evidence other then the police shock at her breastfeeding in their presence – is the loss of custody for a year (or more) and detention for six months an appropriate sentence? If you were a breastfeeding mother in need of help, how willing would you be to call the police? You might find yourself nursing an infant one minute, and regaining custody of a toddler a year later.

UPDATE/CORRECTION: According to the New York Times:

Clapp sentenced Anvarinia to 18 months in jail with all but six months suspended and said Anvarinia could get credit for chemical dependency treatment.

So Anvarinia’s sentence is more severe than I reported above. Many thanks to Cate Nelson for the heads-up on this.

The “Drunken Breastfeeder” Case: Will the Real Felon Please Stand up?

When I read the Associated Press story this past June about the guilty plea for “child abuse or neglect” by a North Dakota woman alleged to have breastfed her child while intoxicated, a few things leapt off the screen at me. I wondered why this mother had pled guilty. As a lawyer I know that people don’t plead guilty because they are guilty.  Guilty pleas are generally the result of a deal.  The accused is waiving the right to a trial in exchange for an agreed upon sentence or in order to be charged with a lesser crime.  Sometimes they plead guilty because they are frightened or inadequately represented or fear losing or being separated from their children. This woman pled guilty to the original charge so the “deal for a lesser charge” theory can be eliminated. Why then?

Also of significance to me was that the police were called to the mother’s home in response to a “domestic disturbance” call. Often “domestic disturbance” means that the call was in response to domestic violence. Had the original call been made so police would protect the mother?

The next Associated Press article contained a few more clues and some disturbing admissions on the part of the police. This led me to take a look at the Grand Forts Police Incident Summary and States Attorneys Office charge statement. According to these official reports, Stacey Anvarinia stated:

[s]he was assaulted by her boyfriend identified as Harrison, Delbert.

She stated he kneed her in the chin and struck her face when she attempted to leave.

Officers observed red and swelling area on the bridge of her nose, a small scratch to her left cheek, and a red swollen area on her chin.

So Anvarinia had called the police because she had been the victim of a crime. She called for help.

Also according to the police reports, “she was extremely intoxicated.”  How did the police know this? Neither the police reports nor subsequent police comments to the press give any indication.  No report says police smelled alcohol, saw alcohol, heard slurred speech, and the police did not administer a blood-alcohol test.  What behavior did Anvarinia engage in that led to her arrest for child abuse or neglect? She “began breast feeding in front of us.” Paramedics were called but they transported the baby to the hospital. Battered Stacey Anvarinia was taken to jail.

Reports of this story led to much debate about the safety of drinking alcohol while breastfeeding.  That is certainly an important issue.  However, for Stacey Anvarinia, I wonder whether we have any reason to believe she was intoxicated at all. As this case got more press, the Grand Forks police have gotten a little defensive on this point:

This case is more than just the breast-feeding. It was the totality of the circumstances,” said Grand Forks Police Lt. Rahn Farder. “It is quite unusual for a mother to be breast-feeding her child as we are conducting an investigation, whether she was intoxicated or not.

Well, what truly is the totality of the circumstances? In defense of itself, the police cite her breastfeeding as … what? Evidence of her intoxication? Might having been recently beaten cause one to seem disoriented? Check the time she is alleged to have committed the “crime.”  3:57 a.m. Had she slept at all that night? She had injuries to her face. Did she have a head injury? Despite protests that breastfeeding isn’t the issue, the police still only point to her breastfeeding in front of them as being “unusual” in her behavior.

What then happened to Delbert Harrison, the man identified as having beaten Stacey Anvarinia? He was neither arrested nor charged with any crime. Why not?

According to a 2005 study in the American Journal of Public Health, homicide is the third leading cause of injury-related death for women who are pregnant or who have given birth in the previous year.  A 2002 study in The British Medical Journal concluded that a woman’s risk of domestic violence doubles during pregnancy and the year after birth.  The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported in 2005 that due to poor reporting, we really don’t have accurate figures on how high the rate of homicide is for women during pregnancy and the post-partum period because few states report whether a homicide victim was pregnant or had recently given birth. Even given the admitted under-reporting, homicide was found to be the second leading cause of injury-related maternal death. Of those deaths, 57% were caused by gunfire.

Stacey Anvarinia could have been a homicide statistic.  According to the police report, she was beaten while trying to leave. She reached out to the police to save her.  Instead, they arrested her.

According to news reports, Anvarinia will be sentenced this Friday. Let’s see how much jail time you get for breastfeeding in front of the police you ask to save your life.


I woke up this morning shaking from a nightmare. My jaw hurt from grinding my teeth. My palms were sore from clenching my fists.

I knew immediately that it had been a bad dream but it has been difficult to shake off. In it, I was in a hotel room in a foreign city with my eldest son and a man from my past. An abusive, disturbed man who remembering still makes my skin feels as if it is not my own. In the dream I was struggling to find all of my son’s and my clothing so that I could us sneak away. For some reason, my son and this man were going somewhere together and, again inexplicably, I thought this would help give me a chance to gather all of our things. But when the man returned my son was not with him. He said that my son had taken too long to get in the car so he had left my son on the street.  During the rest of the nightmare I was screaming my son’s name out of the window and walking the streets searching for him, bellowing his name in hysteria. Finally, in despair, I went back to the hotel where I found my son had returned. He didn’t know I had been looking for him and he just wanted to tell me what a good time he had had meeting new people and seeing new things. It was a reenactment of a conversation I have had with him many times in real life but in the dream I could not stay calm as I hollered about not disappearing without telling me where he is going, not staying away for more than twenty minutes without calling, how frightened I had been, how dangerous the world is.

And then I woke up. Realizing my son was safely asleep upstairs and that this man from my past is long dead did not help me with the panic attack I suffered for several hours.

No consultation with Freud is necessary to understand why I had this nightmare and why I had it when I did. Tomorrow my first born, my baby, will turn fifteen.

My son is bright and engaging. He chats up anyone who stands still long enough. He wants to know what you are passionate about and he wants to tell you about his favorite architect, the local community feud about the election of township commissioners, the quality of programming on BBC (we live in the US). My son trusts people until they show they can not be trusted.

When I was fifteen, the long battle between my divorced parents over who wouldn’t have custody ended with both refusing to keep me. I was on my own, hiding from the social workers who would put me in foster care if they knew. From the age of fifteen, until my son was born sixteen years later, no family member gave me shelter.  Most of the time no one in my family even knew where I was and, as far as I can tell, none of them cared. My children are the only blood relatives I have lived with since I was the age my baby boy will be tomorrow.

I don’t spend much time feeling sorry for myself or dwelling on my childhood. It was, I am, it is (thankfully) over. But it has been difficult comparing myself at fifteen to my son at fifteen. He is a curious and independent child (like I was). He can do his own laundry and cook himself most meals (as I could). But he has not seen pure evil. He has never had to worry about where he would sleep. He has never … many things no child should do or see or know.

Most days these differences between us make me feel relief.  I have spared him these things. But on days like today, covered with the sense memory of dreams like last night’s, I fear for him. Who will he trust in his innocence? Have I, in keeping him safe, left him exposed?

Like many mammals, my son’s trips away from me are in larger and larger circles. He proudly reports the miles on his bike odometer and I pretend I can breath. Tomorrow he will be the age I was when I was utterly abandoned by the people who were supposed to keep me safe. We will have cake and go out to dinner. And I will continue to worry how safe he really is.

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