Another day, another shooting where multiple lives were lost. This time, it was in a a place designed to save lives — Mercy Hospital in Chicago.
Dr. Tamara O’Neal was the victim of domestic violence. The shooter was someone she was in a relationship with. Three other lives were lost: Pharmacy Resident Dayna Less, and Officer Samuel Jimenez. Officer Jimenez had been on the police force for less than three years. The gunman Juan Lopez also died.
The whole incident is heartbreaking, especially after the NRA made a big to do by telling doctors they should “stay in their lanes” and not have discussions about firearms with their patients. Interestingly, last year, the ACLU at Florida successfully sued for the First Amendment right of doctors to be able to talk to their patients about gun safety in a case commonly known as “Docs v. Glocks“. The importance of doctors having such conversations is that it can lead to a discussion as to whether or not the patient feels safe in their own home. Revelations of domestic violence open up the door to the resources that are available to victims.
There is a narrative that if a victim arms herself that somehow domestic homicide could be prevented. Let’s think through this particular situation. Is a doctor going to go from surgery to surgery, patient to patient with a gun strapped to her back? It’s not practical. Domestic violence calls are one of the most dangerous calls any police officer can respond to because of the volatility of the situation. If it is unsafe for a trained professional, how is it any safer for a civilian? Additionally, how many of us (especially in communities of color), remember the case of Marissa Alexander? She fired a warning shot during a domestic violence situation, and ended up in prison. This leads to a question with regards to equality of 2nd Amendment enforcement across racial lines (but that is the next installment –stay tuned!).
One of the reasons why I vocally opposed Marsy’s law in the state of Florida is the fact that it provides no resources to victims of crime. Nationwide, there has been a strain on budgets to protect survivors of domestic violence. Shelters are operating on a shoestring budget. Some shelters cannot accommodate whole families especially if the children are over a certain age, or are male. DV service providers often rely on the kindness and donations of others rather than robust government funding. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) provides a source of funds, but more is always needed.
Women of color are more likely than their white counterparts to be victims of domestic violence, and for it to be more fatal. Again, it comes down to access and networks of assistance. If you are wealthier, you may be able to finance your escape from your abuser. If you are in a lower social strata, it is more difficult for you to be able to pick up and leave. It’s even more difficult if there are children involved. Think about it: you have to come up with a first, last and security deposit, in a place that is not near your abuser, as well as buy furnishings and make sure that your children’s education is not interrupted. Meanwhile, you need to maintain your full-time job. We all know that jobs are not easy to come by.
This heartbreaking scenario and loss of lives should be a call to action. Not for more guns, but for more resources so that victims and survivors can start their lives over again. Aspects like counseling, shelter, relocation, and more police presence if required are critical to successfully escaping an abusive relationship. Employers should be required by law give days off to verified domestic violence victims so that they can attend court hearings, get a restraining order, or to move if necessary. Also, it should be mandatory for workplaces to train with regards to domestic violence situations, so that if such an issue is brought to their attention, they know to know to notify security or take extra steps to make sure the abuser does not gain access to the workplace.
To be clear, my points about the lack of resources is not to dissuade victims from leaving — it is to raise awareness about the challenges surrounding domestic violence as well as ways we can do better as a society. If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence, you do not have to suffer in silence. Click here for resources.
May Dr. O’Neal and all of the victims rest in peace. May their families find comfort and healing. And may their deaths not be in vain — but instead, stimulate discussion, legislation and change around the issue of domestic violence.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month; it is a cause near and dear to my heart. Last year I did a series RLD on DV, outlining the reasons why folks stay with their abusers and resources to help those who are victims.
It is interesting to note, and bears repeating, that this is an issue that affects all levels of the socio-economic rainbow. I love hearing stories of women who overcame violence to find success. In the months since I published the story about singer Michel’le and the abuse she suffered at the hands of rapper/producer Dr Dre in my piece “Straight Outta PR: Hip Hop, Violence Against Women & An Apology”, Lifetime TV did a movie about her story. I think it is critical that the stories continue to be told on the small and big screens.
In pain, there can be found resilience and strength. I absolutely adore Taraji P. Henson — I watch her religiously every week on the hit show Empire. There is an intense story behind her glory — before the fame and the awards (as in Golden Globe, Emmy, and NAACP Image Award), there was an abusive mate. She left him, even though that meant she would have to struggle as a single mom; but found success beyond her wildest dreams. See her story in People Magazine.
But let us not forget the perils of leaving. A tragic story out of Chicago where a woman tried to break off her engagement — she went to her ex’s apartment to return the ring, where he stabbed to death and subsequently took his own life. It is heartbreaking to know that in her last moments, she called her father. The tale of this victim is a cautionary one; if you are trying to leave someone who is abusive or unstable, do not encounter the person alone. Never underestimate the power of desperation to control and violence.
What gives me hope is some of the great programs that working with victims of domestic violence. It is more than just the abused spouse; it is the children who have to witness their family member — the person that is supposed to protect them — abusing and being abused. The “Camp HOPE America” program featured in the Huffington Post does a great job working with the children of trauma in domestic violence relationships. Also, one morning on the Tom Joyner morning show, I learned about Daylight Inc, a program started by a DV survivor in Atlanta which helps women leave. Sometimes shelters are not available exactly when you need them; her program seeks to fill the gaps.
Domestic violence is a serious serious crime. It hurts so many; we must not turned a blind eye and assist those who are trying to make a difference in their communities.
If you are a victim of domestic violence, the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. If you are a friend of someone who is going through a violent situation, stand by the person. Abusers thrive on isolating victims from support systems, their families, and the outside world. Make sure that your friend knows that you are there to assist them. It does take several tries before a victim will eventually leave the relationship; often as many as 4 to 5 attempts to be finally free. It’s a tough situation to be in, but just know that your actions may save a life.
As I bring this series to a close, I cannot end without talking about the most hotly debated topic in the country, as well as in domestic violence circles — the use of firearms. Statistics show that a woman is eight times more likely to die at the hands of her abuser if there is a firearm in the home. African American women are 2.5 more times likely to die than their White female counterparts.
This past May, I had the honor of joining a roundtable discussion/working group with the Battered Women’s Justice Project. As a prosecutor, I came in with the very specific mindset that if there’s any opportunity to protect a domestic violence victim by removing a firearm from the home, I’m going to take it.
But it was very interesting to hear of the other participants in the discussion, who came from the perspective of victim advocates, as well as law-enforcement. The participants came from across the country, from cities, rural areas and native tribes. The biggest debate came from the fact that sometimes the victims will say “yes my spouse is abusing me, but he never uses the gun to abuse me”. “Yes I am afraid of him, but he never threatened me with the gun he always hits me with his hands. If you take his gun, this will make him more mad and place me in more danger.”
Another consideration that was discussed is that of survival. The folks in rural areas will use guns to hunt, which is a major component of how they eat. There’s no driving to Publix, Walmart or Whole Foods, which some of us take for granted. Taking their gun is literally taking their ability to survive. Additionally, there are cultural concerns, where you have firearms or rifles that have been handed down from father to son. So by taking away the firearm, you are literally taking away a family’s history or disrespecting a tribal symbol.
This is why the battle continues. It was very eye-opening for me, and a reminder that life is not cut and dry, black-and-white. As a city dweller, I learned a lot from that discussion. On a personal note, I am married a man who has a ranch in Idaho. When I first went out to the area with my husband (aka the Cowboy), there was definitely a few cultural differences (high heeled boots are never the fashion in that particular town in northern Idaho. I am a Diva after all!). I had some exposure to using firearms in the past; but I definitely learned a new respect for them because it is the instrument of your survival in the woods when wildlife is your next-door neighbor. I understood the arguments that were made at the roundtable; I found some more persuasive than others.
Ultimately, the prosecutor/women’s empowerment side of me strongly believes that it takes just one angry word, one moment of rage, one moment in that explosionary part of the cycle of violence coupled with the easy availability of that firearm for a domestic homicide to happen.
So the discussion continues. There are no easy answers. But I believe that if we keep talking, if we keep raising awareness, and if we keep rallying around victims — letting them know that they are loved, supported, and that they do not have to stay with their abusers, we will find a way to eradicate this problem. And if we give victims support in testifying against their abusers, and getting justice, whether it be in the form of a prison sentence or psychological counseling for their abusers, we will go along way in restructuring how our society thinks about violence along with how relationships should be.
Here are a few resources.
National Domestic Violence Hotline (800) 799-SAFE (7233) or (800) 787-3224 (TTY) or visit their website
National Network to End Domestic Violence List of State DV Coalitions visit their website
American Bar Association For legal assistance visit their website
Stalking Resource Center (800) FYI-CALL or visit their website.
Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (800) 656-HOPE or visit their website.
Whatever you are going through, you are not alone. There is help — you are loved, you are worthy, and you are STRONG!
Continuing this month’s series on Domestic Violence Awareness, I wanted to touch on three more distinct stories, with separate themes. The first is a horrible story from Kentucky, where a man used the family dog as part of the instrument of violence against his girlfriend. I have prosecuted cases where offenders will often abuse the family pet, knowing that this is another way of upsetting the victim. But this offender took it one step further. See her story here.
The next story explores the trauma of a Miami woman who did leave her husband, but he found her, and shot her. He is still at large; his picture is below. Please read her story here. This Miami Herald story also discusses the challenges involved in domestic violence cases.
Lastly, Oscar Pistorius, the South African athlete who was known as the “Blade Runner”, was released from prison yesterday to serve the rest of his murder sentence under house arrest. He was tried for the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. Reeva was shot by Pistorius through a locked bathroom door in the home they shared because, as he stated, he believed she was an intruder. Despite the evidence that came out at trial indicating she was afraid of him, the presiding judge found him guilty of the lesser charge manslaughter and sentenced him to five years in prison. After serving only one year in prison, he will spend the remainder of his sentence in his uncle’s mansion in Pretoria.
This is a reminder that domestic violence affects all races, all ethnic groups, all socio economic backgrounds, and all countries. I have worked with domestic violence victims who covered their bruises with Chanel sunglasses, to those who scraped by on government assistance. The evil disease that is DV does not discriminate; neither should we in our assumptions.