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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?

Breastfeeding? Not in My Family.

The November Carnival of Breastfeeding poses a question I have thought about a lot: what is my family history of breastfeeding and how were the decisions concerning breastfeeding made in the generations of mothers before me.

Check out the other posts in the November Carnival of Breastfeeding linked below.

I have no memories of my mother breastfeeding. I have one picture of my mother breastfeeding my younger brother. It is black and white, very grainy, and hand torn around the edges. My grandfather took up photography as a hobby for a while and he never mastered it. In the dark, somewhat haunting photo of a four year old me standing on one foot looking at my infant brother in my mother's arms, I can see my brother is at the breast. My mother is wearing a bathrobe and so am I. From the series this shows up in, and the infrequence of visits from the grandfather, I think this was taken the morning of my brother's bris. No surprise that I have no member of the breastfeeding but remember the bris very clearly. I watched the circumcision in horror and did not for a minute believe he wasn't in a lot of pain because he screamed and screamed.

Based only on this picture, I thought it was possible my mother breastfed her five children, at least for a little while. But I wasn't sure and it wasn't information easy to acquire.

You see, my mother left me when I was a year old or younger – no one seems too sure. When I was growing up it was something we weren't allowed to talk about and is now something no one will talk about. My older siblings were far too concerned (justifiably) about their own survival to keep much track of me though it is my understanding my then-12 year old sister did all the child care after my mother left and when she went to school I stayed with a woman I came to think of as my mother. From what I can piece together I was born bloated from likely alcohol use by my mother. She is an alcoholic. And then sometime within the next year she decided to leave my father and her four children.

By the time my younger brother was born four years after me, my mother had a new husband and had come back for me and one other of my siblings.

So I am fairly sure my mother didn't breastfeed me and given her alcoholism I am likely better off. But that one photo of my mother breastfeeding my younger half-brother always had me wondering. I have only spoken to my mother twice in the last 34 years but I did ask her that question. She told me that she had started breastfeeding all of us but she never had enough milk. She said she thought breastfeeding was best for babies and that it was great I was breastfeeding my children (who she has never met). I don't know whether to believe her or not. I am inclined not to.

My grandmothers are dead so I can't ask them whether they breastfed. Knowing what I do about them, if formula or wet nurses were available options, there is no way either of my grandmothers breastfed. Both of them wanted as little to do with their children as possible.

One of the many reasons I was committed to breastfeeding my children was the lack of attachment in the mother-child relationships in my family for as many generations as I can trace. Mother after mother who handed her kids off to paid help if she could afford it and just ignored her children if she couldn't. Each woman's inability to attach to her children led to more people who couldn't form healthy attachments. This was a cycle I was, and am, determined to break.

Extended breastfeeding of my three sons isn't the only reason I believe the abuse of my childhood won't continue on to future generations through my children. Breastfeeding is not the only reason I have relationships with my sons that my own mother could not even conceive of. But breastfeeding was my first experience of deep true love. Breastfeeding gave me my first attachment. Breastfeeding is now a family tradition.

Other November Carnival of Breastfeeding Posts:

Christine @ Christine's Contemplations: Carnival of Breastfeeding- My Family History of Nursing
Judy @ Mommy News Blog: My Family History of Breastfeeding
Jona @ Breastfeeding Twins: Beer & Bottles (and other motherly advice)
Elita @ Blacktating: Three Generations of Breastfeeding
Mama Mo @ Attached at the Nip: How Women in My Family Feed Babies
Alicia @ Lactation Narration: Only the Hippies Were Breastfeeding
Dr. Sarah: Breastfeeding, Circa 1950s
Motherwear Breastfeeding Blog: An Unbroken Chain

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.

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