DOMESTIC VIOLENCE AWARENESS MONTH
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and sadly this month is still required to raise awareness. This is the first of my annually updated columns on the topic. As much as we’d all love to see it end, the reality is that so long as there are humans, there will be domestic abuse and violence. No one is safe from it. Whether as a victim or a perpetrator. The one thing that I’ve noticed over the past 20 years of practicing family law is that the definition of what is abuse has expanded as the awareness has increased. It has also become a more powerful tool in the arsenal of family law litigants – so long as you put in the “magic words” and preferably are female. The truth is that abuse of men happens, but is rarely acknowledged by the courts.
Since domestic violence affected me as a child, and is a major factor in my professional career I am dedicating all four columns this month to the topic. There are many misconceptions about what constitutes domestic violence, who perpetrates it, who is victimized by it, and what the long term effects are for those caught in its clutches.
Growing up in a violent alcoholic household, the Friday Night Fights weren’t on TV, they were in our living room. These alcohol fueled battles led to broken bones, shattered furniture and one terrified baby boy – me. I can recall with bone chilling clarity the time my older brother took me out of the firing line, and as we walked to the car, he said, “I’m just waiting for them to kill each other.” I was about 5, he was about 21 – that’s the toxic environment we were living in.
It probably wasn’t much afterwards that my mother taught me how to knife fight. She called me in to the kitchen, I was 5 or 6 and she said, “Davey, when you’re using a knife to protect yourself, you always put it blade side up. That way when the other guy goes to knock it down, they cut themselves.” I know she was doing it to give me a life skill. I’m sure she loved me and wanted the best for me. I’m not so sure that teaching a child this, at that age, was the best parenting move.
Parenting and domestic violence have become inextricably linked these days. The family courts are on the front lines of trying to reduce domestic violence in a society that idolizes, cherishes and honors violence in most forms. We hold up as heroes the most powerful football players, but make them wear pink for breast cancer awareness and do public service announcements on TV to “stop the violence.” We want to protect our children at all costs, and in the process have created a culture around the topic of domestic violence that is easily abused itself, and can become the tool of oppression.
Domestic violence is a multi-dimensional dynamic that affects an entire family. When one partner is dominating the relationship, and the family, that is a form of domestic abuse in today’s parlance. When one partner is “disturbing the peace” of the other partner, that is grounds for a restraining order and to kick someone out of their home.
The courts have allowed the creation of a system of protection that is based on little to no evidence, but that will strip someone of their Constitutional rights, their home, their children, their careers – all on the basis of a declaration that the alleged perpetrator is violent, or more tellingly, that the victim “is afraid that the perpetrator may become violent.”
This is a far cry from my childhood when the police would be called and tell one parent, usually the male, to go away for the night. Today there are laws across the country that mandate an arrest. But there’s a catch, most of those laws do not dictate that the First Aggressor should be arrested, but that the Primary Aggressor, should be arrested. What’s the difference you ask? Size and power. The problem with this is that the smaller person can provoke the larger, and know that the police will reward their bad behavior by arresting the larger.
What about those situations where someone needs to escape the violence? What types of resources are available? Where do terrified and terrorized individuals go for help? There are many shelters in Los Angeles county and I have visited or spoken to shelter directors and they have informed my views of what is needed and what can be done to protect the vulnerable. They have also shown me how great the need is in underserved populations, and we have a large underserved population in Los Angeles county for shelters services.
What is needed, who will provide it, how will it be paid for, these are all questions I have asked and will be sharing with you in the next few columns. I have reached out to the Los Angeles Domestic Violence Council with mixed results, I’ve heard from the Supervising Judge of the Family Law Department of the Superior Courts and I’ve interviewed experts from across the political spectrum and across the country. There is much work to be done in this area to bring down the levels of domestic violence and people vehemently disagree over tactics.
But the one thing the one thing we can all agree on, is that the effects on children are not good – ever.
David Pisarra is a Los Angeles Divorce and Child Custody Lawyer specializing in Father’s and Men’s Rights with the Santa Monica firm of Pisarra & Grist. He welcomes your questions and comments. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 310/664-9969. You can follow him on Twitter @davidpisarra