By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Within days of obtaining an order of protection against her abusive husband, Kathleen visited her parish priest because she needed to know whether it was OK in God’s eyes for her to leave her marriage.
“I went to the priest because I was a Catholic; I had taken a vow and I was going to stick to that vow,” Kathleen told The Catholic Messenger. But scared for her life, she could no longer honor that vow.
“The priest affirmed that no one deserved to live as I have been living every day. Everyone deserves to be safe. He was so supportive of me the entire journey,” added Kathleen, who now serves as a domestic violence legal advocate with SafePath Survivor Resources Program of Family Resources, Davenport.
“I’m not an attorney. I can’t give legal advice. I’m there to support survivors; I’m there to help them navigate through the civil legal process.”
Kathleen, who asked to be identified by her first name only, shared her story with The Catholic Messenger during October, a month that calls attention to both domestic violence awareness and respect for life.
“Persons experiencing domestic violence are often termed ‘victims,’ or if the situation has resolved, ‘survivors,’ but it is most important to recall they are children of God, with inherent dignity and deserving our love and respect,” Frank Moncher writes in an article titled “Life Matters: Domestic Violence.” The article appears on the website www.foryourmarriage.org, an initiative of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“People have a picture of what a victim/survivor of domestic violence looks like. I doubt she looks like me,” said Kathleen, an articulate woman who dresses stylishly. “They think victims come from a lower economic status. They don’t think it can happen to other people.”
Kathleen assists victims/survivors at the Scott County Courthouse Monday through Friday from 8-11 a.m. and 1:30-3 p.m. Victims who demonstrate a credible threat made against them are granted temporary orders of protection for no less than five and no more than 15 days. Following that timeframe, a hearing is held to determine whether a permanent order of protection (for a year’s time) should be granted. Such orders can be renewed.
In Scott County, hearings for permanent orders of protection are held every Wednesday, said Jim Ottesen, special prosecutor for the Scott County Domestic Abuse Special Prosecution Program. For a two-month period this summer (June 21 through Aug. 18), he calculated an average of 6.6 new filings each week for orders of protection. That figure does not include criminal orders, he said. As many as 20 petitions for permanent orders of protection are heard on Wednesday mornings.
Ottesen previously worked for years as a lawyer either prosecuting or defending people on trial for crimes. In his present position prosecuting abusers who violate orders of protection, he’s discovered how domestic abuse “impacted so many behaviors I dealt with in all of my previous roles.”
Nicole Cisne Durbin, director of Family Resource’s SafePath Survivor Resources, describes domestic abuse as a public health issue. Combine domestic abuse with child sexual assault and children who witness sexual violence, the numbers on a day to day basis are significant, she said.
“Help for domestic violence victims and survivors is available in all counties in Iowa, and that includes legal advocacy and counseling,” Cisne Durbin added.
When domestic abuse victims first come to the courthouse, “They’re asking the courts to protect them. They give an affidavit of their story,” Kathleen explained. “They find it hard to focus. The application is 10 pages long. Just to look at that is daunting, and then to have to recall their story and tell it to judge.”
To obtain an order of protection, a victim has to have been physically assaulted or threatened to where she or he fears the abuser will carry out the threat. A physical assault can involve pushing, shoving, grabbing, pulling by the hair, spitting on the victim, strangling, pushing the victim against a wall, not letting the victim out of a room or touching the victim in an offensive way. The system, as required by state law, is set up to assist and encourage survivors to petition without a lawyer “because not being able to afford a lawyer shouldn’t be a barrier,” Ottesen said.
In her 15 months on the job, Kathleen has seen victims of all races, socio-economic statuses and education levels, from people who haven’t completed high school to people with advanced degrees working as lawyers and in other professions.
“Sometimes we have women coming in who are just very fragile and very frail. They’re very broken … a lot of tears shed, a lot of stories told. Some people feel like a Pandora’s Box has been opened and they need to tell someone. They want someone to listen; they want someone to believe them, to support them,” Kathleen said. “It does make me feel good to let them know I’m there to help them, that I want to help them … I know how hard it is to go into the courthouse and put an order of protection against the person you’re emotionally tied to, had a relationship with.”
She helps them with planning so they can keep themselves safe. “I’m there to offer the services of Family Resources, such as the shelter or counseling services, to offer community resources that are available.” She notes that everyone’s experience is different. “The basic thread of the story is the same … but the story is unique.”
In his article, Moncher observes that abused persons at times “may also make decisions that cause an observer (family member or friend) to question their judgment, or become frustrated with them for remaining in what seems to be an obviously dangerous or hopeless situation.”
Cisne Durbin said SafePath Survivor Resources works with “a lot of survivors who stay with their abusers because that’s the safest thing for them. Believe it or not, the time we see the most homicides is when someone finally decides to leave because (the abuser) has lost all power and control over the victim and at that point values no one’s life.
“… We’re trained to assist survivors in whatever means they need. We try to empower them,” Cisne Durbin said. “We’ll give them the tools they need.”
She notes that one in three girls and one in six boys will be sexually assaulted before turning 18; one in four college students will be sexually assaulted during college.
Among her goals are violence prevention education for children and adults, and training for clergy and other trusted individuals domestic abuse victims may confide in. “If we want to end domestic violence, we need to teach violence prevention and it needs to be engrained in our culture,” Cisne Durbin said.
“Everyone has a dream of a house with a white picket fence and the perfect family,” Kathleen says. “Nobody expects it’s going to end here (at the courthouse), but sometimes it does … It all boils down to respect. It’s a lack of respect when someone abuses you.”
Children & Families of Iowa operates the Iowa Domestic Violence Hotline, a toll-free service for victims, loved ones and community members. Certified Domestic Violence Advocates are available 24 hours a day to provide crisis support, help victims find safe solutions across the state, answer questions and provide resource referrals.
Iowa Domestic Violence Hotline
DIAA (Deaf Iowans Against Abuse)
Toll Free TTY: (877) 244-0875; Relay Crisis Line: (877) 385-011
Cell to Cell Text: (515) 770-3063
L.U.N.A. (Latinas Unidas Por Un Nuevo Amanecer)
SafePath Survivor Resources of Family Resources, based in Davenport, has as its mission to create a community free of violence through education, counseling and advocacy. For information about the services SafePath Survivor Resources offers, or to learn how to volunteer, visit the website at http://www.famres.org/domesticviolenceservicesprogram.html.
SafePath Survivor Resources also operates a 24-hour free crisis line:
Illinois: (309) 797-1777
Iowa Quad Cities: (563) 326-9191
Toll Free Number for Outlying areas: 866-921-3354