Where are you?

I have to admit I want to know where my daughter is all the time, and know that she is safe. She seems so young, beautiful, and vulnerable to me as she seeks greater independence and freedom in her day-to-day life. I am haunted by images of girls her age who have disappeared, never to return to their families, because a man who was a predator took a fancy to them or saw an opportunity.

footprintsappscreenshotSo I decided to get an app on her phone, and mine, that would allow me to see where she was. While installing the app, I thought, why not add my partner? She drives to and from Oregon on a weekly basis, and then I would be able to see where she was and when she’d be home. Done in a flash! Now we all get notices about each other’s whereabouts.

The next day, my partner noted that she knew what time I dropped our daughter off at school, thanks to this app. I found myself checking her location twice during the day. My daughter had lost her phone privileges this week, so ironically, we aren’t monitoring her, which was our intention, but each other. The following day, when my partner texted “I see you’re home!” I honestly was just a bit taken aback. What have I done? The element of surprise in day-to-day life seems to be over! Between this and the banking technology that provides instantaneous info on purchases, it’s a snap to get a picture of my day.

I realized how easy it is to feel obligated to provide this information on one hand, and to abuse access to it on the other. My partner isn’t controlling. But what if she were? It would be extremely difficult for me to see a friend or go to a social service agency without knowing I might be observed, interrupted, or questioned. I could give up my phone or get rid of this application, but if I were in an abusive/controlling relationship, doing either of those things would likely increase conflict and danger.

So what role does privacy play in healthy relationships? I love making a decision about how to spend my time without checking it out with anyone, not because I have anything to hide, but because I am an adult and I enjoy feeling in charge of myself. I also love trusting my partner, and being trusted. Feeling like an independent, decision-making grown-up is essential to my comfort in my relationship. Actively choosing closeness with the knowledge I could also choose distance or privacy keeps things interesting, and keeps me in touch with my choices, limits, and integrity.

And that brings me back to my daughter. It’s not her I distrust, it is other people; I am not sure she is ready to negotiate the big world on her own yet. On the other hand, I don’t want her to learn that closely monitoring a person’s movements is a normal aspect of an intimate relationship; or that she does not have the right to move through the world on her own, making decisions, and having that exhilarating feeling of being free and responsible for herself. So what I am going to do with this app? I think I’ll live with it for a while, but I am already looking forward to getting rid of it.

Dependence, independence, interdependence

A fascinating article in the New York Times describes how some single mothers identify as Republican. Here are people who have not created traditional families, or for whom the traditional family structure has failed, and who are disproportionately in need of government supports like food stamps. And yet, about 25% align themselves with the party of “traditional family values” and small government. singlemom

Why? As a single mother friend of mine says “I am not looking for more independence” as she raises her young son; and sometimes it seems like that’s what progressives/Democrats have to offer. The emphasis on equality in work and educational opportunities leaves some of us feeling as if we should achieve economic success while at the same time providing a fulfilling family life for our kids, too—all by our liberated selves. The bar is just higher and higher, and that does not feel liberating.

My friend knows she needs interdependence—neighbors she can count on to watch her child so she can run to the store or work late (and vice versa); people to bring her food and help care for her little one when she is sick; involved grandparents who will help nurture a strong sense of family. The fact that she has someone dependent on her makes interdependence necessary, and more that that, attractive.

I think mainstream feminism has missed the boat on this point. The emphasis on equality in public life: politics, workplace, finances, on women having access to the social goods and opportunities men have has put the movement at risk of devaluing the work traditionally done by women: nurturing children, caring for the frail and elderly, building community networks. Too often, progressives and feminists have let conservatives “own” these issues in public debates, or make it sound as if prioritizing caregiving and prioritizing women’s liberation are at odds with each other.

A lot of social policy is based on the idea that everyone is an independent, rational adult who can choose whether or when to connect with other people. What a fascinating fantasy. This assumes no pregnancy, no children, no frail elders, no dependents, no dependency. Just as medical research that assumes everyone is a male aged 18-40 isn’t particularly useful to women, social policy constructed on the assumption that we are all independent atomistic individuals doesn’t tend to work too well for infants, single mothers, parents, adult children taking care of elderly parents, and those who need assistance from others to live their lives.

The fact is everyone starts out a very fragile, vulnerable baby. And as parents know, carrying a pregnancy and giving birth is exhausting, challenging and even dangerous, and just about everyone needs help with the process in order to live and have the baby live. And most of us are going to spend the end of our lives in need of profound assistance from the people around us. In between, we may have periods of illness or injury where our survival depends on others.

In reality, dependence and taking care of those who are vulnerable are deeply integral to the human experience and should be finely woven into everything about how we think of organizing every part of our society. For example, this hospital emergency room.

Conservatives claim ownership of “family values” yet their vision involves enforcing traditional gender roles. But liberalism and feminism leave some feeling like they have to do it all on their own, and they are not measuring up if they can’t. So here is the challenge for all of us as we shape public policy:

  • To always keep in mind dependents and the people who care for them. Whatever choices we make or aspirations we hold must take into account and work for them.
  • To find ways to support caregiving that do not rely on oppressive gender roles and do not require caretakers to sacrifice their economic well being, social connections, or status.
  • To realize the deeply human task of caretaking requires qualities and skills our public lives sorely need: patience, thoughtful observation, empathy, and respect for the dignity and value of those whose abilities differ from our own.
  • To keep in mind that liberation actually means that everyone, men included, gets to participate in the important task of caregiving—because it is only then that the full range of humanity is available to them.
  • Not all equality has economic measures—some of it happens in places where the rewards and challenges are immeasurable, yet profound, like parenting or helping an elder die with dignity.

The most recent wave of feminism had many tasks. Two big ones were to secure equality in the public sphere and to redefine the very nature of what it means to be human. To do the latter, we must embrace and affirm the fact that we are all dependent at different points in our lives, and the profound and loving work of taking care of dependents (traditionally women’s work) should be valued and shared among men and women.

To create beloved community, our vision must include non-oppressive, liberatory ways of maintaining connection, dependence, and interdependence.

If no isn’t an option, yes has no meaning

I am always amazed at what a difficult concept consent seems to be. She asked for it, she started the argument, she was into making out, what did she think was going to happen if she went there/did that …. are all variations on the theme of “she consented” and used to try to confuse our understanding of rape and intimate partner violence.

Most recently, I was shocked and repulsed at Ariel Castro’s gall in asserting that “there was harmony” in his home, and that much of the sex he had with the three women he had imprisoned was “consensual” and besides, the women weren’t virgins anyway. When I heard this on NPR, I began yelling “What the F?” in my car. Fortunately I was alone.

The good news is, it seems like most people reacted like I did, and that was heartening.

How is it that someone can be so confused about what constitutes “harmony” and consent that they can say with a straight face that it existed in that situation. Castro is an extreme case, but I suspect that one of the reasons he was able to convince himself of this is because it is generally consistent with the purposefully confusing and blurred picture men in particular get about female consent.

In other words, it’s not that far out of normal, and that is the scary part. Blurring the idea of consent plays out in all sorts of ways in our culture. And it is useful because it helps the dominant group pretend/ignore/claim that the subjugated group isn’t really being oppressed, but that they actually CHOSE or consented to their situation. This alleviates their responsibility to grapple with what relationships would look like if each person truly had equal value, dignity, and respect.

So in the interest of clarity, let me explain something about consent.

It is really quite simple: if a person can’t freely say no, then yes (or silence) has no meaning. Yes only means something if NO is a real—no negative consequences— possibility, something one can say free of the fear of violence, force, humiliation, murder, homelessness, loss of economic security, the safety of one’s children. If NO is dangerous, then YES is empty. It’s not consent.

Consent-Flowchart

Boys will be boys?

Recently, my friend’s 9-year-old son came home sad and confused. He had gone to the park with some boys he did not know well.tough-boys

After tearing a wooden fence apart, throwing rocks at a squirrel, and announcing to one of the younger boys that his mother was a slut, the older boys turned on M. They asked him if he “had a slut.” When he asked what this meant, they told him a slut was a “girl to f**k.” He wasn’t totally sure what that meant, and he got scared. As he told his mother later “I got the feeling if I didn’t answer right, they would hurt me.”

Being one of the boys in that moment meant being destructive, suppressing any signs of empathy, selling out women you care about, and characterizing females by their sexual availability. The price for not participating in that masculinity is the threat of violence. Like M, boys every day must ask themselves, “What if all that negative, destructive energy pivots from the small animal, the mom, or girls in general to ME?” Better to agree and keep it directed outward, right? Even if it means meekly agreeing that yes, your mom is a slut, before you even really know what that means or how you feel about it.

Too often, boys learn to mask their fear of one another with a camaraderie solidified by expressions of homophobia, sexism, and—for white boys—racism. Too often, boys learn that they must be dominating, unfeeling, tough, and defined in opposition to girls to be accepted. This results in a form of masculinity that pretends to be secure and strong, but is in reality tenuous and fragile. Fragile things have to be protected, shored up, and reinforced. And that results in a great deal of pain, since it requires targets (girls, sluts, sissies, fags) to define oneself against and put down in order to be “one of the boys.”

The stakes are high: participate or risk humiliation, intimidation, or becoming one of those targets. It is a bit of a house of cards, when you think about it: being worried about being judged not “man enough” by other boys and men who are also worried about being judged not “man enough” with the consequence of coming up short being bullied or violence.

So what happened to M? He told the boys he had to get home. He had the presence of mind to know that what was happening wasn’t okay, and he didn’t like it. He had the security to realize these boys’ friendship was not worth the compromises to his own integrity that would be required to seal it. And he knew that at home, he would be accepted, listened to, and protected.

I wish we could all feel that safe and protected in our homes, and in our bodies, however they are gendered. I would like M and all those boys to feel that they are wonderful, and that they are enough, just as they are. That they do not need to “man up.”* When we can support boys to be true to themselves instead of conforming to this rigid idea of what it means to be a man, then boys won’t just be boys. They will be compassionate, safe, secure people—like my friend’s son.

*explicit language

Where the danger often is

Gun-Violence-Plan

Have you thought about mass killings when dropping your kids off at school or going to a movie lately?  It’s hard not to, given the horrific shootings recently. But do you think of them every time you enter your house?

Most mass shootings occur in private spaces, and involve families. Mayors Against Illegal Guns recently issued a report on mass shootings. In all cases where a shooter killed four or more people, 57% involved domestic violence: meaning the shooter killed their intimate partner, and frequently, their children and other family members.

What surprised me about this report was not the fact that many mass shootings are domestic violence related: we know that from our Fatality Review work. No, what was surprising was to see a mainstream group make this connection: that the deaths of (overwhelmingly) women and children at the hands of murderous (overwhelmingly) men is an identifiable, terrifying pattern and it often has domestic violence at its core. Usually we see the media and officials treating each domestic violence related shooting as an isolated and unpredictable incident.

You and I may have felt frightened by the Sandy Hook or Batman shootings, but if you are a woman in an intimate partnership with a man, especially one who keeps a gun in the house, the odds of being terrorized in your home are higher than the odds of being in a terrorist attack or mass killing committed by a stranger. We know that almost half of women murdered are killed by their intimate partners, and women are more likely to be murdered or threatened with guns when guns are in their homes. The violence most relevant to women and children is the violence committed in their own homes, by a person who should be loving and nurturing them, but we rarely see this connection made so clearly.

Visiting Guatemala

It has been my privilege to travel to Guatemala with the Seattle International Foundation (SIF) to meet people working to address violence against women and children in four different states. What a great way to spend the Guatemaladays leading up to International Women’s Day!

Guatemala established an extensive femicide law in 2008 to address interfamilial violence, rape, and child abuse. Claudia Paz y Paz, the first woman attorney general of Guatemala has established femicide courts and specialized prosecutors offices to bring justice to survivors and challenge the perception that anyone can get away with violating women. SIF will be funding community-based organizations serving survivors in order to help build the supportive infrastructure they need in their community.

Meeting the many dedicated people in Guatemala working to empower women has been a wonderful experience. Although the context is different, many of the struggles that these activists face are similar to the challenges people dedicated to ending violence everywhere face: scarce resources, survivors with complex needs, enlisting support from other institutions, and finding sustainable ways to continue the work. I recognized their dedication, passion, strength, and determination, and most of all their creativity—as very much like that of advocates, activists, and institutional change makers here at home. In that sense I always knew I was with friends and compañeras throughout my time in Guatemala.

I married my partner

I married my partner of 20+ years December 9th, at Seattle’s joy-filled city hall. Families, friends, and friendly strangers gathered to cheer on the newly married couples as they descended a grand staircase. It was quite a party.

Getting married is an ambivalent thing for me, as I have been shut out of that institution for a long time. And I’ve seen the very painful, dark side of marriage in my professional life. Let’s face it, the history of marriage is one of women giving their bodies, emotional support, and physical labor to men. And still to this day, this idea and the support it gets in society narrows women’s choices and harms children—in some marriages. So why would I want to participate?

Photo by  joseanavas
Photo by joseanavas

It’s complicated, because marriage is complicated. Our society uses marriage in multiple ways: as a symbol of love and commitment; as a way to access certain legal rights; and to define an economic relationship and expectations. And, historically, as a way to enforce gender roles that give men/husbands the upper hand in decisions about money and priorities in the family. At the same time, marriage is evolving, and extending marriage to same sex partners is part of a long history of changes we’ve made to marriage so that it reflects our current reality.

Since I’ve been in my relationship for over 20 years, getting married didn’t carry quite the same weight as it did for my parents. They were excited to live together for the first time, be independent of their parents, and finally “go all the way.” Um, that all happened a long time ago for me. What motivated me was something my parents and straight friends didn’t give much thought to: having protections and rights that only come with marriage. I wanted to be ensured I could be at my partner’s side if she should end up in the hospital; have the ability to make medical decisions if she were incapacitated; and know that if one of us dies, our assets will transfer smoothly to one another. Marriage makes the legal world out there safer for us and our daughter. So our marriage was a pragmatic decision.

But I was surprisingly moved as well. I think I had willfully ignored all the ways in which marriage symbolizes positive things in our culture: love, hope, the caring and kindness between people. My jaded cynicism was tempered by the joy that broke out when the voters legalized marriage equality. Watching LGBTQ couples celebrating their marriages gave me more hope for all of us, because it happened in spite of the challenges a homophobic culture places in the way of LBGTQ people creating healthy relationships.

For that reason, I think my marriage and other gay marriages may have something to teach everyone. They are part of the ongoing evolution of marriage from a system of ownership and entitlement to an institution that nurtures healthy love, human potential, and beloved community. As a very wise friend of mine (who married her beloved of 40 years) says, “everyone benefits and is honored by extending civil rights for all, and from recognizing and embracing the power of love and justice.” We are all uplifted when we extend dignity to those who have been denied rights.

Of course, and very importantly, the other thing that gay marriage gets us is gay divorce. This is a good thing because no community is immune to violence, control, and just plain old dysfunction. Ending a complex and long term relationship requires assistance, protection, and justice.

I’m happy to be married. I am moved to have my state and city celebrate and recognize my relationship and those of all my LGBTQ friends. I am relieved to have the rights and protections that come with marriage. And I’m glad to know that if I should need it, I can get a divorce as well. Because no one’s marriage should take away a person’s ability to make their own choices, follow their dreams, or protect themselves and their children.

The Powells

As the children’s justice coordinator at WSCADV, I’ve spent years partnering with the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) on how to address children’s safety when domestic violence is an issue. I’ve worked with some wonderful people, and we’ve accomplished some great things together. And we have a long way to go. The work is incredibly hard because so much is at stake. We all want what’s best for kids. No one wants to tear kids from their parents if we don’t have to. And sometimes we have to.

DSHS has released the report from their Child Fatality Review on Charlie and Braden Powell’s horrific murders by their father, Josh Powell. This report is supposed to help all of us—community members, child welfare workers, police officers, judges, and policy makers—understand how these boys lost their lives while the state was in charge of them, and what we need to do to avoid such tragedies in the future.

The headline DSHS put out on their press release implied nothing could have been done to change the outcome (“Despite solid work by all involved, nobody could anticipate that Joshua Powell would murder his sons”), but the report doesn’t actually say that. It says the committee “did not draw conclusions about whether any actions by Children’s Administration, law enforcement, or the court could have prevented Mr. Powell’s actions.” Having served on commissions, committees, and task forces, I can tell you that this is committee-speak for “even after days of discussion, we did not reach consensus: some of us absolutely thought this was preventable, and some of us didn’t.”

The good news is the committee did come up with 4 recommendations; concrete steps to take based on what they learned. How can we not do everything in our power to make sure these happen?

Most of the press coverage has focused on the first recommendation, which encourages social workers to communicate more with police when there’s an active criminal investigation. In this case, police were clear that Josh Powell posed a potential danger to his kids. The report notes that if they had known that he was being given visitation in his own home they would have expressed “concerns.” Child welfare workers and the visitation supervisor, however, apparently did not share these concerns. The visitation supervisor has said she did not have a feeling of “danger, alert, murderer” about Josh Powell. Case notes pointed to Josh’s compliance with all orders and appropriate parenting during his supervised visits. (Please. Is it really news that abusers and murderers can be socially appropriate when it serves them?) Should social workers talk to police (even if they’re not required to) so they have a chance to give their input? Absolutely. But let’s get to the heart of the problem: until DSHS (and the general public) sees that the pattern of violence and coercion a parent uses against their intimate partner is a huge factor in figuring out if kids are safe, they’re going to keep missing the point, and kids will be endangered as a result.

It is so hard for me to understand how this connection is not obvious. How can someone think: “Yes, this person is probably responsible for his wife’s disappearance—it’s likely he killed her and hid her body—but that doesn’t mean he’s not a good dad.”? (I know, he wasn’t charged with murder (yet), but everyone involved knew that he was the only person under suspicion.) The competent and well-meaning social workers assigned to this case didn’t make the connection that the likely murder of his wife (and the possibility that a pattern of abuse existed before the murder) should be a factor in thinking about how much access he should have to his kids, and where.

Fortunately, the Child Fatality Review Committee did see this connection and found that DSHS had not trained its workers adequately on domestic violence (for some reason, this has received virtually no press attention). The committee noted that DSHS has a policy of screening all intakes for domestic violence (asking, “Has anyone used or threatened to use physical violence against an adult in the home?”). In this case, that question was answered “No.” Because of this, social workers did not follow DSHS policy to conduct an in-depth domestic violence assessment. The committee found that enough information was available to answer this question “Yes.”

What difference would the domestic violence assessment have made? It would have prompted social workers to gather more information—from friends, relatives, or court records. They could have learned from Susan’s friends and family that they had been concerned about physical violence as well as Josh’s controlling tactics like hiding her car keys and attempting to deny her access to bank accounts. When police told social workers they thought Josh had killed Susan, but they just didn’t have enough information to arrest him, the assessment could have helped them use this information to assess danger to the children.

The assessment also looks at the impact of domestic violence on the children. It helps social workers see how a parent’s actions (like how Josh abused their mother and collected child pornography) can indicate their ability to think through how their choices are impacting their kids and if they are capable of putting their children’s needs ahead of their own. And understanding domestic violence means realizing that when a batterer starts losing control of their family (like when Josh began losing his custody battle to Susan’s parents), it often means increased danger.

WSCADV was thrilled when our partnership with DSHS resulted in their implementing the Social Worker’s Practice Guide to Domestic Violence. However, DSHS did not take effective action to ensure that every social worker had basic competencies around domestic violence, how it relates to child safety, and the changes in investigation and case planning suggested in the Practice Guide.

I don’t think this case was about an individual failure on the part of the social workers involved. In my opinion, this is about our systems failing to recognize that we have to look at a history of domestic violence when trying to figure out if a person is a safe parent. The fact that DSHS has a policy in place with the Practice Guide is a great start. But their failure to fully implement it by providing training to support its use has to be addressed. If it had been, would we be telling a different story about Josh, Charlie, and Braden Powell today? I will go out on a limb and say I certainly think so.

Remembering Ellen Pence

In 1986 or ‘87, Ellen Pence came to Los Angeles, where I was working at the time, and did a training for advocates. I remember she asked us: “Are we trying to domesticate these women, or liberate them?” From there, she talked about how shelters should and could create space for women to claim their power, dignity, and visions for their own future.

That was the first time I met Ellen and it impacted me profoundly. I have always remembered that question and it has informed much of what I have done since then. The other gift Ellen gave was to always be so clear that if we wanted to know what would be helpful to battered women, we needed to ask battered women, not think it up in a separate room. So simple, so profound, and so right.

Over the years, I have seen Ellen speak at various conferences and gatherings. Each time, she led me to think deeply, and offered such substantial insight that it shifted and shaped my work. The humor, compassion and loving-kindness she brought to everything she did and said was completely disarming, breathtaking and delightful. Ellen’s life was a blessing for all of us who knew her, and had the privilege to learn from her. And it was a blessing for so many people across the world who don’t know her or of her, but whose lives are better because of all she did.

I am so, so, soooo sad she is gone; she has always been one of my heroes, ever since that first time I saw her speak.