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.

Restored dignity

One time I was introducing myself to a group of advocates: “My name is Ankita. I work on WSCADV’s Domestic Violence Fatality Review Project.” And then I cried.

In this role, I’ve learned from the lives and deaths of numerous women about the impact of domestic violence, and how we all can improve our response. Each story of victims reaching out for help and not getting what they needed contributed to my passion and energy to educate communities and professionals to be better prepared. I did this in hopes that the lesson of one woman’s death would be the success of another woman’s survival.

Recently, I began to work on WSCADV’s Domestic Violence Housing First Project. The goal of this project is to eliminate housing as a reason for survivors to stay in abusive relationships. It is supported by a funder that has given domestic violence programs the space to creatively meet the needs of survivors so they can obtain and remain in housing. For example, advocates can offer rental assistance, pay off an old debt that has been a barrier for a survivor to obtain housing, or pay for childcare. The help advocates can provide is not governed by contract requirements or organizational barriers. Instead, solutions are formed or offered based on what that survivor needs.

Now I get to hear stories about women moving beyond surviving and on to more fun and exciting things, like obtaining an education, helping other women, watching their kids grow in a violent-free home. When I first realized that when funders, domestic violence programs, and survivors are aligned―and words like justice, hope, and change no longer represent a concept, but an action―I cried again.

I am re-energized to hear survivors telling us that this project has restored their dignity, advocates being thrilled to eliminate barriers for safety, and funders seeing a real difference in people’s lives.

Dirty laundry

In the wake of the murders, the Northwest Network gathered to display the Clothesline Project―an art installation created collectively by hundreds of GLBT survivors of domestic violence. All evening people stopped, read the messages of strength and survival, mourned the deaths, and talked about how to make the community stronger.

On August 11 in Seattle, 29-year-old Eric Cooper and his 3-year-old son Cooper Chen were brutally murdered. Louis Chen―Eric’s partner of over 10 years and the boy’s other father―has been charged with their deaths.

In my role as the coordinator of the Domestic Violence Fatality Review, I pay attention to news reports about domestic violence homicides. This death struck me in a different way.

I had the reactions I always do when I read about someone killed by an abusive partner: sorrow for the loss to family and friends; grief at the terror the victims had to experience; and outrage that another life has been lost at the hands of an abuser.

This time I had another set of reactions too. As a queer parent, I worried that the publicity around the murder would fuel homophobic, right-wing arguments that gay men are sick or crazy, that gay parents are unfit, that GLBT families are unnatural.

I’m sure people from any community can relate to the fear that airing our “dirty laundry” will be used against us. That if we acknowledge that domestic violence happens in GLBT relationships, we’re providing ammunition to people who want to paint us as sick and deviant.

As I watched the news coverage unfold though, I think the opposite is true. I believe that naming what happened to Eric and Cooper as domestic violence helps us understand their experience. The evidence suggests that domestic violence happens at about the same rates in gay couples as in straight couples. Honestly talking about abuse in the gay community makes it possible to confront it, to respond, and to prevent it.