Where there’s a will there’s a way

Like so many recent episodes of gun violence, the rampage in Santa Barbara raised the familiar questions: Could the violence have been prevented? Could we have seen this coming?

National conversation about how misogyny fuels gun violence is new, but the story line is old. It is echoed in the majority of mass shootings that involve domestic violence. Start with a man who feels he is entitled to attention, sex, or loyalty from a woman. He feels victimized and then enraged when he doesn’t get it. Easy access to guns makes that rage deadly.

Discussion about whether better mental health intervention could have prevented the Santa Barbara killings were still fresh when a shooting at Seattle Pacific University prompted the same questions. Last week, Seattleites faced an unprecedented choice between a vigil for victims at SPU and another on the same night, this time asking whether homophobia fueled the murder of two young men.

Experts and pundits differ on how to read warning signs. But the consensus seems to be if we somehow could see the danger in advance, we would act to stop it. Of course dangerous people shouldn’t be allowed to have guns, the story goes, but we can’t tell who is dangerous until it’s too late. If we could, we would intervene.


Right now, all over the country, courts and law enforcement have specific information about thousands of people who pose a serious threat of violence. What’s more, courts have heard evidence and issued orders that make it illegal for these people to have guns. Often, the court has specific information that the dangerous person owns a specific gun, and has threatened to kill someone with it. So what happens to get illegal guns away from these known dangerous people, after all the dots have been connected? Next to nothing.

It is illegal under federal law for an abuser served with a Domestic Violence Protection Order to have a firearm. With few exceptions, the law is simply not enforced. Among the victims of domestic violence murders studied by the Washington State Domestic Violence Fatality Review, a handful had Protection Orders in place because the abuser had threatened murder or suicide with a gun. Courts and law enforcement did nothing to actually get those guns out of dangerous hands. Out of the thousands of victims who petition for Protection Orders in Washington each year, only a tiny minority even ask the court to take away the abuser’s guns. That’s not because the rest aren’t afraid. It’s because they know it’s useless to ask.

Ironically, California lawmakers are looking to Domestic Violence Protection Orders as a model for a new “gun violence restraining order” that would allow courts to temporarily remove guns from people who have been identified as dangerous. But one thing we have learned from efforts to disarm abusers is that these laws don’t enforce themselves. Getting results takes coordination, political will, commitment at every level, and (of course) money.

The good news: it works. One California county hasn’t had a domestic violence murder since they put an aggressive plan in place to take guns out of the equation.

In the wake of a mass shooting, consensus that we need to do something is easy to come by. But the long uphill battle to use the tools we already have in place tells a different story. If we put what we know into practice, then strategies for preventing domestic violence murders can be a model for stopping the violence that shares so many of the same roots. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We just need to get it rolling.

Summer reading

It’s summertime. Bye-bye, I’m heading to the beach.

It is inconceivable to me to go without a book. On my list this year: Zippy by Haven Kimmel, which I borrowed from my library and devoured in a few laugh-out-loud sessions. Truly a funny, poignant tale.

A particularly explosive guffaw of relief flew out of me as Kimmel recalled a violent episode in her childhood home when things could have gone terribly wrong, but didn’t. Her dad did not beat up her mother. She writes:

Mom told me, when I was old enough to ask, that she had learned the lesson from Mom Mary, Dad’s mother, who took her future daughter-in-law aside and told her that a woman has got to make herself absolutely clear, and early on. In Mom Mary’s own case, she waited until she and my grandfather Anthel were just home from their honeymoon, and then sat him down and told him this: “Honey, I know you like to take a drink, and that’s all right, but be forewarned that I ain’t your maid and I ain’t your punching-bag, and if you ever raise your hand to me you’d best kill me. Because otherwise, I’ll wait till you’re asleep; sew you into the bed; and beat you to death with a frying pan.” Until he died, I am told, my grandfather was a gentle man.

It reminded me of Mette’s mom’s theory about ending domestic violence—that women just need to get scarier than men. I asked Mette to ask her mother if it would be okay to share her theory. Her mom replied “Hell, yes. And I might add, I would be happy to teach classes on how to be scarier than anyone!”

In reality, there is nobody less scary than Mette’s mom Cindy. Though I have never given her cause to be fierce with me, I do believe she has that capacity.

And hence to the point. Fierce is different from scary.frying-pan

I mean, I really do not want to be reduced to simply scary—to beating my chest louder and harder than the primate squatting next to me.

But to warn someone off with a metaphorical frying pan—with a “Don’t you dare disrespect or threaten me or our children”—is the essence of the fierceness Cindy could give lessons about.

Historically, we have turned to the police, courts, and prisons—institutions designed to simply scare people—to deal with domestic and sexual violence. It hasn’t worked.

A smattering of people are coming up with different approaches. Ideas for engaging men coming out of prison, using technology so abusive dads can have safe contact with their kids, and creating alternatives for batterers to seek help themselves, before police and courts get involved.

I am feeling very optimistic that we are on the cusp of making an evolutionary leap—from scary to fierce. From having only fear-based approaches that at best impose an unstable peace, to becoming resolutely fierce in defending the foundational worth and dignity of women and children. It’s time.

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.

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.

Thank you Mr. President

President Obama is finally out of the closet. Last week, after years of dropping hints, he became the first president to declare his belief that “same sex couples should be able to get married.” New clarity and leadership is especially welcome as North Carolina becomes the thirtieth state to adopt a constitutional amendment banning marriage between same sex partners. So it seems like a good time for a refresher on why gay marriage matters (not just for gays!), and why Washingtonians should be paying attention.

  1. For better or worse (get it?), marriage is a really important civil and cultural institution. Denying GLBT people access to the civil right to marry cuts deeper than the rights themselves. It communicates that GLBT people are not equally valued or protected by law. And that makes us more vulnerable to violence at home and on the street.
  2. The anti-gay agenda is not just anti-gay. In North Carolina and 19 other states, the marriage amendment not only bans same sex marriage, but any type of civil union that is not marriage. Among other lost benefits, domestic violence and stalking protections may no longer apply to unmarried partners, gay or straight. When Ohio passed a similar amendment, courts denied domestic violence protections to survivors for two years until the state Supreme Court settled the issue.
  3. We’re all being played. Strategy memos from the National Organization for Marriage don’t mince words: “The strategic goal…is to drive a wedge between gays and blacks — two key Democratic constituencies.” This isn’t just about defeating gay marriage; it is about using homophobia and racism to keep people divided from each other and politically weak.

Marriage equality is likely to be on the ballot in Washington State this November. We have the chance to be the first state to defend marriage equality by popular vote. I’m ready for us to make history.

Dear editor

We are really disappointed with the inaccurate coverage of domestic violence and family court in this Seattle Weekly article. We submitted the following letter to their editor.

We have deep concerns about Nina Shapiro’s January 18th article “Ripped Apart.”

Ms. Shapiro makes the important point that family court is significantly under-resourced, and decisions are being made about “the most precious relationships in people’s lives” with hearings that are far from comprehensive. Yes. This is a real problem in King County and across our state.

But Ms. Shapiro goes on at great length about how domestic violence allegations are used to manipulate the courts against dads and draws conclusions by presenting one side of the story. The Washington State Domestic Violence Fatality Review has studied domestic violence homicides over the course of twelve years in fifteen Washington counties. Inter-disciplinary groups reviewing these homicides found time and again that―even with the most violent abusers―courts failed to adequately address victim’s safety concerns and failed to understand how abusers’ controlling and violent behavior threatened the safety and well-being of their children. These findings are completely ignored by Ms. Shapiro.

We routinely hear about attorneys advising victims NOT to talk about the abuse they have experienced because it will bias the court against them. They remain silent out of fear that the court will think they are lying or trying to manipulate the system. This silence hurts children.

We agree that family court needs to be improved. But, whenever allegations of domestic violence are present, the focus should be on safety and the best interest of the children. We encourage The Weekly to exercise better judgment and present balanced material on matters such as this.