University of Houston
Friends of Women’s Studies
The Living Archive Series
In the Field of
Columnist for the Houston Chronicle
Program Director of the Batterer Re-education Program
Former Executive Director of Aid to Victims of Domestic Violence
Claudia: This is going to be something of a free-for-all, which I think we all prefer. In the beginning, we’ll start with how these distinguished women got started in the movement and work forward to the present, predictions for the future, and how to sustain something like this. If you write a story in 1975, or begin a movement, it’s hard to keep people understanding that there’s still a great deal of work needed. Rhonda, why don’t you say how you became involved in the domestic violence movement?
Rhonda: I was/am a feminist and interested in issues affecting women and society. The National Council of Jewish Women, locally, began a volunteer project to assist women – how to file criminal charges, Family Law rights. They were looking for volunteers, so I volunteered. 21 years later, I was still there. For me, Domestic Violence is the ultimate Women’s issue. If you cannot be safe at home, with the person you love, and who is supposed to love you, the rest of it takes a backseat. So that is an area I wanted to focus on.
Claudia: Toby, how did you get started?
Toby: I was always interested in Rights issues. I think there were two catalysts that brought the resurgence of the Women’s movement. One was the Civil Rights movement. I remember working with our synagogue in Amarillo and we did a busload of people to Selma, Alabama. I was supposed to be on the bus, but didn’t go because my now ex-husband said I couldn’t go taking his child who I was pregnant with. I said I was going to go, and he said, “Don’t I have any rights over the child?” So I got off the bus.
The other thing was the Child Abuse movement. As Rhonda said, when you think of home, you think of that as your refuge, and your sanctuary, and your haven. Its real crazy making, if home is the most unsafe place to be. I was in a marriage that was fraught with Domestic Violence, so I was very interested when I started seeing things in the popular press about battered women’s shelters. The first thing I saw was written by a woman named Erin Pizzey. Even the title of her book has political implications. It’s called Scream Quietly, or the Neighbors Will Hear. It brings forth the issue of privacy, that what goes on behind closed doors is no one else’s business. The public really thinks that, even if terrible things are happening behind those doors.
Besides Erin’s book, another catalyst for me was the 1976 Brussels, Belgium first international tribunal of Crimes Against Women. Women were talking about being raped, being battered, and women from third world countries were talking about Clitordectomies performed on them. I was working at the Texas Research Institute of Mental Sciences, and there was a lot of interest in the resurgence of the Women’s movement. In 1972, the Women’s Political Caucus met here. Peggy and I sneaked out to go. I was the vocational rehabilitation person at TRIMS, and I justified it by saying they’re doing something on employment. I’ve never been in a meeting that was so electric. There were people there that you only read about – Shirley Chisem, Gloria Steinem, and Betty Friedan, and it was just dazzling.
When I came out of my marriage in the mid-seventies, I thought, "Why don’t we have a shelter here in Houston?" Every time I went to a conference with my work, I would look to see if they had a shelter in that location, and I would go visit. Things had a tendency to begin on each Coast – New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and D.C. And on the other side – Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and L.A. Then they drift mid-continent and then they come down. So we were always kind of last to get things started. I kept looking around to see if we could get a shelter.
We called ourselves the Coalition for Abused Women. We heard about other groups that were working with post-penitentiary women, women who had been in mental hospitals, and we joined with them to form the Houston Area Women’s Center, with our first priority being shelters. This was the first experience I had where women had the wrench, and developed the policy, and how the shelter was going to be. We opened the shelter June 1, 1978, and it opened with total volunteers. With my mental health experience, I did a support group for the women who came through the shelter. The women would say things like “I don’t want him (the abuser) in jail; I don’t want a divorce. When things are good between us, they are pretty good. What I want to stop is the violence and abuse.” So I thought, aha, something needs to be done with the men. I had known Rhonda forever…
Claudia: So, how did you meet?
Rhonda: Actually it was through our husbands, and having children the same age. Our husbands and our children were in an Indian Guide group together.
I think what Toby is talking about is that most domestic violence efforts, here and across the country, began as grass-roots efforts. It was mostly volunteers, recognizing that there was a serious problem in the community and trying to respond to it. People, like me, who had been stay at home moms, begin to learn things we never knew we needed to know – policy development, double-entry bookkeeping. Most people learned this by the seat of their pants for these programs as women begin to come to them for help. It was an enlightening and broadening experience for people who volunteered full-time. The problem was huge and because it meant a lot to see a response to these issues, a lot of people worked volunteer before there was money to pay them.
Gloria: Tell a little bit about how the program came to be and how you became executive director.
Rhonda: The first shelter opened, and across the country that was the response to domestic violence – to develop a place where women and children could come and be safe temporarily. Through that experience, we began to recognize that wasn’t all women needed or wanted. A lot of women wanted other assistance, particularly information about legal rights and options. In the late 1970s and early 80s, even though domestic violence was a crime on the books here and lots of other places, that crime was never enforced. The police department’s policy said it was a civil matter. Police officers were supposed to separate the parties, and leave the scene, and so forth. Women would call the police, but then they would be given the run-around. So they needed information about how to navigate the criminal justice system, and their rights in terms of dealing with children and shared property.
A group of women got together from the National Council of Jewish Women, many of whom were attorneys and had seen battered women in their practices. So a committee was formed and the legal aid program here in Harris County was approached to provide space. The National Council of Jewish Women trained and provided volunteers.
I got involved as a volunteer because my son, who will be 38 this week, was the beau of a girls’ group. He said to me “ Mom, do you want to go with me to a mother/daughter function?” I said sure, because I was never going to get to go any other way. The speaker was talking about domestic violence to these young girls, and talking about this volunteer project that was beginning. I walked up to her afterwards and said I was interested. She had a place for me, so I began to volunteer.
We talked to women who were clients at Gulf Coast Legal Foundation. In those days, legal aid provided service to clients who were 70% of the federal poverty level. There were other restrictions. Women had to have minor children, there were asset tests. It was clear that lots of women were falling through the cracks of available legal services in Harris County. They didn’t qualify for free legal service, but they couldn’t possibly afford to hire an attorney. So, we got a grant for $13,000, and advertised for a part-time attorney.
In early 1982, a woman who is still with the agency, Anne Rizio, came to start working as an attorney at Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse, representing some of those women who fell through the cracks. At that time, we needed to change the way the program was structured. Prior to that, a volunteer would come for 3 hours, maybe once a week, and leave notes for the next volunteer and so forth. Now, we were running a legal office, so we needed continuity, someone who could type, produce legal documents, schedule appointments, and do court hearings. So I volunteered on a full-time basis to do that job.
Claudia: Once past the dramatic beginning, past infancy and into adolescence with this movement, what have been some of the highs and lows of the past 20 years? Has it been hard to keep this going? There was the excitement in the sense of purpose initially, but now?
Toby: There’s always more to do, and I remember getting consultation calls about, how do you do this, how do you do that, while I was working at TRIMS. Then we had a formation meeting of people from around the state who formed the Texas Council on Family Violence, which is the network of domestic violence programs and other interested people. I was the first chair of that organization, not because of any particular prowess, but because I worked at a state agency and had access to a Xerox machine and postage. Any fledgling organization needs that kind of thing. I zoomed home and looked over my job description, so I wouldn’t be sent to prison for misusing state funds.
I remember we were trying to get state money, and we just thought they would give it to us. We were so naïve. It has to go through a state agency. I thought, well, that’s easy, I’ll just go to my boss at TRIMS and see if we can funnel it through MHMR. He was furious with me – “We’re in the habit of getting grants, not giving them.” It was between MHMR, the Texas Rehabilitation Commission, the State Department of Public Welfare, now DHS. Lance Laylor was our legislator – he sponsored the legislation for us and we were victorious. So we had all this money, $200,000 to go around the state.
Then we started trying to influence legislation. One of the things I remember at the capital was trying to get this Battered Woman Syndrome thing. When battered women defend themselves against their abusers, and sometimes end up killing him, there was a thing called Battered Woman Syndrome. We saw all of the terrible problems with this around the country, so we wrote this legislation and I went up to plead for it. Rusty Hardin, one of the chief prosecutors for Johnny Holmes, came after me and said “I understand what you girls are trying to do, and its really kind of noble, but you’re going to close one hole and open up one bigger then Dallas.” And I said, “ If you know what we’re trying to do, and you see the pitfalls, you’re going to sit out in this lobby and help us re-write the legislation.” And he did. It was kind of a fun thing.
Rhonda: One of the things that you find out with this kind of work, or with any grass-roots work is that it isn’t enough simply to help individual women. Clearly what has to happen is systems have to change. You have to educate the public about the myths and misconceptions that we discovered and documented about domestic violence. The response to domestic violence had to change. I mentioned earlier that the policy of the police department was in total conflict with the law.
Toby: Tell them about when you took the table and chairs and sat there…you know down at the place where you started the Criminal Law Division.
Rhonda: First, we had to get the police department to change their policy, and we also made changes when opportunities present themselves. When Lee Brown became the chief of police in 1982, the first thing that happened was a few of us involved in domestic violence work made an appointment to go see him. And Lee Brown, who had been in Atlanta, and was part of the National Police Chiefs Organization, was well aware that civil law suits had been brought against police departments. One was brought in Dallas, for instance for failing to protect women under the law, because they refused to enforce the law.
So we went to see him and he was ready. He said “We’re going to form a task force and we’re going to appoint people to the task force, and we’re going to look at this policy and the task force is going to make recommendations for changes, so we can improve our response to domestic violence victims.” We formed a task force, which should have had to meet maybe three times. We met for a year and a half, every month, sometimes twice a month, trying to get the police department members to comply or to change their minds and agree with us that this is a crime and we need to enforce it that way. The old-timers would sit there and say, you can’t do that. But you know, that was the way they were taught. Finally, the policy was changed to reflect the law. Lee Brown called a press conference, this was in the summer of 1983, to announce the fact that the Houston Police Department policy would now comply with the law. So many people thought that domestic violence wasn’t against the law that the media reported, “New law had been passed” that now you couldn’t beat your wife. That was ridiculous, of course, because that had been the law for a hundred years, it just hadn’t been enforced.
Now, with that changed we took our new policy and went to see the district attorney, Mr. Holmes, which is what Toby is referring to. We said “Okay, they are going to be making all these arrests, what are you going to do?” Johnny Holmes said, “Why don’t you come down and show me how this is going to work?” The district attorney’s office has a community intake office where any citizen can go in and ask to file criminal charges, if the police didn’t do it, or if they think a crime has been committed and they haven’t reported it. What Holmes was proposing was that we, the good old volunteers, come down and staff the community intake office, and show him how it was going to work to get charges filed in domestic violence cases, and help these women through the process.
So, on January 2, 1984, I took my table and chairs down to the district attorney’s office. That was an incredible experience. But again, we needed to do volunteers - people from Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse, a couple people from the Houston area Women’s Center, and the League of Women Voters volunteered. We sat there and interviewed complainants, made recommendations to the prosecutors as to filing charges. We kept up with these women through the criminal justice process, trying to provide support to them so that they would indeed follow through.
Now, today, we have at the Harris County’s district attorney’s office, as a result of that demonstration project, the Family Criminal Law Division, which has four prosecutors, four social workers, legal secretaries, investigators. It is a big division of the district attorney’s office. So we made a huge swing and a big change. Those are the kind of things that keep you going over the years. When you see that progress has been made, it’s energizing.
Toby: And you’ve moved on. Tell them about when you were one of five people who got to go to San Francisco, and be on the Family and Juvenile Court thing. First you go to the police, and change a few things, and then the D.A.s, and then you’ve got to get to the judges.
Rhonda: Right. The National Council of Family and Juvenile Court Judges, for at least ten years, has been interested in and focused on domestic violence. They have held conferences, and training, and modeled policy. The first one that Toby is talking about is when they asked each state and territory to send a team to the conference on California to talk about how you can do coordinated community responses to domestic violence, including the judges. I was appointed by the Texas Supreme Court to be on the team, and at the time, I was the chair of the board of the Texas Council on Family Violence, so that’s really how I got to be on the team. We went, and each state talked about what they were doing, what their advances were, and we would come up with plans to improve things, particularly how we were going to improve things by involving the entire community. Because a shelter is okay, and a legal services program was okay. But battered women go everywhere, and everyone needs to be involved. They go to school, and to church, and to the doctor. How do you bring all those people to the table to respond appropriately to domestic violence? So that was the first national conference on a coordinated community response. It was exciting and everyone went home to implement the plans.
They hold one every year, so it happens on all levels. Many places, judges are very much involved in responding to domestic violence, but they are still our stumbling block, in many ways. Judges are afraid to say too much about domestic violence, because they have to look at both sides of the case, and judge it on its merits. So they don’t want to be advocates for victims of domestic violence, they want to do the right thing in their courtroom. So it’s hard to get them on board, sometimes.
Claudia: Toby, in your work with the men, what kind of progress do you feel like you are making with batterers?
Toby: That’s a wonderful question, but kind of hard to answer at times. People will ask us, “What’s your success rate?” We’ll say its 100%. It depends on how you define success. If you define it as this man goes forth and never abuses and is just wonderful, that’s not it. Our main goal in this program is the safety and self-determination of battered women. So if we can give her more information upon which to base her decision, we consider it a success. So even if he bombs out of the group, because most women think, “Oh, if I can just get him in a program.” They think program equals complete change, so if they hear from us, “Well, we can’t do anything with him, either.” that’s good information for her. She tends to put a lot of faith in this and that tells her she needs to do something else. Really, almost all men who stay with it make some change but you have to think, how much is enough? That gets defined by the women.
Rhonda: There’s just been a huge change in the criminal justice response, in the legal tools that are provided for domestic violence victims, even in the public awareness many of the myths and misconceptions about battered women and domestic violence have been dispelled. Its not just poor people and so forth. So we have made lots of progress, but we still have a long way to go.
Toby: Miles to go.
Claudia: I’ll ask both of you, what’s the next step? If you could snap your fingers and change something, what would it be?
Rhonda: Well, I think that there are two things for me. One is that we need to begin when people are this small and educate them on how to interact with one another. Not just men and women, boys and girls, but with everyone, how to treat each other without violence and without physical hurt. And we need to keep re-enforcing that all the way through. We teach fractions about four different times. We need to keep doing this age-appropriately. And I think that’s very important.
The other thing, for me, is that the domestic violence programs we began as grass-roots programs have become institutions. They serve perhaps 5 to 10% of the people who need the assistance, and the next step is to go back into the communities where women are and try to reach them in cultural and ethnic and language-appropriate ways, because they aren’t coming to us all the time. So I would like to see both of those directions occur.
Claudia: What would you say, Toby?
Toby: I think that very much like what she says, you can work with victims, and you can work with perpetrators, but if you don’t do something about draining the swamp… You’ve got to do community things. We talk about our great success criminalizing this, or making sure people are held accountable criminally. You can work to do things by building more prisons or you can work to do things by pouring milk down babies. I think education is the better way to go.
Claudia: Are there questions from the audience?
Audience Member: I’m flabbergasted that this started out volunteers. I’m proud to say that I was in the first class of the Houston Area Women’s Center volunteers, which was 25 years ago. I took my new baby with me. There was a nursery there. But I didn’t know everybody at City Hall and in the D.A.’s office were volunteers.
Rhonda: In the beginning. They aren’t now, and haven’t been for a very long time. But in the very beginning it was the League of Women Voters, and others who volunteered to go down there. But then, as Toby said, there was funding available. The D.A.’s office applied for a grant, and there was one position funded. And there were still volunteers.
But over the years, now these people are all paid, this huge division is all on the county payroll.
Toby: There were so many people along the way who didn’t have a primary role, but who encouraged us. I remember Peggy from way back. And Claudia’s mother worked with me. When I was finishing up my dissertation and getting this terrible divorce, her mother proofread for me and did really wonderful things. Her mother was the editor of the newspaper at our agency. There were all sort of wonderful kindnesses that people gave that they didn’t expect anything in return.
Claudia: I have two questions. Do you deal with female batterers, either gay or straight?
Toby: I can tell you when we started, a lot of the laws get co-opted, and one of the bad things that happens is that there have been a lot of mutual arrests and things for mutual battering. A lot of our people come from probation referrals, I remember getting called and asked about taking women who have been convicted of domestic violence, and I said I don’t want any part of this, because it promotes the myth that women are just as violent as men. Now that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some violent women, but the proportions are miniscule compared to men.
One of the probation officers talked me into taking some of the women because they said, “Toby, if we send them to anybody else, they’re going to be real punitive to them, and usually the women who get to you are the ones who got in the last lip.” And that pretty much was true. You can talk about how we decided to quit that, because of what was happening and what happened in Baytown.
Rhonda: One of the struggles that has happened for a long time is the criminal code says that most domestic violence assaults are what’s called Class A assaults. But they frequently get filed as Class C misdemeanors. And that is a fine, maximum $500, and you can’t go to jail.
In Baytown, they had a very interested police chief who wanted to create a project of zero tolerance for domestic violence. What they were doing is they were filing many, many Class C misdemeanors and adjudicating in their municipal court and sending all of these mutual-combat women to the battering intervention program at our agency. So we had one group, then two groups, and too many people were being referred. In essence, what we wanted to do was stop them from making inappropriate arrests of these women. We thought we were abetting them by accepting them, so we decided we weren’t going to do it anymore. We weren’t going to take women referred as “batterers”, because 97% of them were battered women and most had been arrested inappropriately, and we were just adding to that problem. So we don’t provide services to women batterers.
Claudia: Okay. How do you deal with the emotional stress of dealing with family violence and still sustain an active career?
Rhonda: For me, personally, I would get very angry at the injustices, and the anger would energize me. We also had within our agency, a policy that we would blow off steam to one another. So we would hear a horrible story and immediately talk to someone else in the agency, mull it over, try to figure out what we could do about it, so we didn’t take it home with us. Although sometimes, we did still take it home with us. We tried very hard not to. For me, the anger at the injustice kept me going.
Toby: Anger is very energizing, and it keeps you going. The other thing that sustains me is I’m a movie junkie. I can remember going to see that movie Il Postino. And I found myself sobbing and I didn’t know why I was sobbing and then it dawned on me. It was because the people in it were so nice, because your idea of what’s normal gets screwed.
Rhonda: You think you’ve heard it all until you hear a new story, and then you think well, now I’ve heard it all, until the next day, when you hear a new story. It’s always amazing how horrible people can be to one another and how badly they can treat each other.
Claudia: How does batterer re-education work?
Toby: Mainly what we want men to be able to do is to accept responsibility for what they have done. They have to be able to recognize it first. If you’re just kind of looking at this and you say, “Okay, a woman was hit.” And you hear men use the passive voice a lot. All of us, when we abuse people, we use passive voice. So, okay a woman was hit, where’s the agent who hit her? Then its okay, then I’ll accept the responsibility, it was I who hit her. Then you look for remorse. Well, do you feel bad? What happens there? And most people get to saying they are sorry, and then you have to think, okay how do you do restitution?
You have to really love men to do this work. Sometimes Rhonda would come over and just roll her eyes and say, “I don’t know how you do this.”
Part of it, I think, is that most of us are socialized, even women, that women are devalued. And women in a culture who have been totally devalued, its much easier to do this kind of re-socialization or re-education with minority men, because they understand the power and control issues, where white men typically have tremendous privilege.
Rhonda: The logistics is that the work is done in a group setting and 85% of the men are court ordered to be there. They don’t want to be there, they don’t think they did anything wrong, but its better then jail. They have to come, and they are required to pay for the service.
In my own defense, I’m going to say that I’ve been married to the same man for forty years, I have three sons – I like some men. I don’t tolerate the bologna that these particular men give around paying for the services. My relationship to the program was I collected the money. The bounced checks, and the excuses, and the arguments about whether or not this was worth paying for used to put me on edge, and I would roll my eyes, occasionally.
Toby: I want to close with one thing. You see, this is a power and control issue. We knew we were onto something one time in the very beginning when I got a call from a man and he was feeling tremendously remorseful, and he said “I can’t stand it when my wife looks up at me with black eyes, and when I walk through the door, my kids run for the other room.” So I said, “What do you think you want from a program like this?” And he said, “Well, what I really want is to figure out how to get her to do what I want her to do without having to hit her to make her do it.”
Claudia: So what did you say?
Toby: Come on over.
Rhonda: Come on down. Right.
Claudia: It took a long time to get sex education into the public school system. What about the movement of domestic abuse into the schools?
Rhonda: We’ve tried for the last twenty years to get a formalized program into the schools. And of course, you have to feel sorry for the schools, because everybody wants their foot in the door. This is a captive audience, malleable children, you want to force-feed them your information. But we haven’t been successful in doing that. We have had many invitations to speak to groups in high schools. The year before last the agency where we worked went on a weekly basis (of course we’re free help, so we would go help, too, so we could go over there) to do groups for the boys and groups for the girls in special circumstances. I don’t know if we’ll ever get our foot in the door, but certainly it is important.
I can remember going to a middle school in a fairly affluent neighborhood to talk to the family life classes about domestic violence, and trying to bring it down to the twelve- and thirteen-year-old level. Afterwards this young woman, twelve years old, came up. Her demeanor was that of a battered woman. She didn’t look me in the eyes, she had on long sleeves, she twisted her hands, and her hair was hanging over her face. What she was trying to tell me, but was having a hard time doing, was that she was already in an abusive relationship with a teenage boy, who had already threatened her with a gun. She hadn’t told her parents because she knew her father would kill him if he knew. So twelve and thirteen is too late. We need to start when they are really, really little.
Toby: We’ve done this so much, we know each other’s stories. Tell them about how you saw the guy walking down the hall.
Rhonda: If you go to high school – and this is one of the things that I have always used as an illustration because a lot of times the young women that you talk to don’t recognize or don’t want to recognize that they are in a controlling and/or abusive relationship – so if you ever go to a high school and you see the guy walking down the hall and he’s holding her neck and propelling her. They aren’t holding hands, he doesn’t have his arm around her, but he has his hand on her neck, he’s sort of guiding her. I used this as an example of controlling behavior. A girl in the high school class said, “Well, my boyfriend does that to me all the time, and actually he pushed me into the wall a few times, and is that abusive?” She didn’t want to look at that at all.
A lot of young girls, whose boyfriends are jealous of them and controlling of them think that they love them. “If you’re jealous of me, and don’t want anyone else to look at me, it means how much you love me.’ And they don’t recognize the control in that relationship. So, we need to start really young, but we haven’t been 100% successful yet.
Claudia: Do you think popular TV stories have had a popular or negative effect? For example, The Burning Bag.
Toby: I think it’s like public education that people can watch and they like watching it, so there is nobody on the planet now who doesn’t know about domestic violence.
Rhonda: You would think so, but sometimes there are still people who don’t want to admit, just like the teenage girls, that they are in violent relationships. A woman who came to see us who didn’t really consider herself to be a battered woman had a bruise on her leg about this big, and it was three weeks old. Her husband had kicked her with his steel-toed cowboy boots over and over again. She didn’t consider herself to be a battered woman because all the pictures that she saw on TV, they always had black eyes and bruises you could see. He never gave her black eyes or bruises you could see. It was always on her leg or her back, so she didn’t think she fit into that category.
Claudia: Can you see working on emotional abuse anytime soon?
Toby: You never have physical abuse without emotional abuse.
Rhonda: Right. We already work on that. It goes hand-in-hand with physical violence. It’s probably more devastating.
Toby: Andrea Duerken wrote a wonderful poem called The Bruise that Doesn’t Heal about emotional abuse.
Rhonda: The old saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”, isn’t true. If you talk to domestic violence victims what they cry the most about are the put-downs, the name-calling, the belittling, all the psychological and emotional things because the bruises do heal and they do go away.
Gloria: Okay. How is abuse defined? Is mental torment included?
Toby: Not all abuse is criminally culpable. You can hair-split. There’s a story of a woman whose family had china that was generations old. One day, on Thanksgiving, her husband had a tantrum, and she had the table all set. He took hold of the tablecloth and yanked it and all this china was gone, you know this is four generations in the family. And then he beat her pretty severely. When she came to somebody it was like twenty years later and she said, “Well, am I a battered woman?” He had hit her twenty years ago but he hadn’t hit her since. But when you talked to her, what she said was anytime she did something he didn’t want her to do he said “Remember Thanksgiving.”
Rhonda: It’s not a crime to be emotionally abusive. Actually if that were true, we would all probably be arrested, because we’ve all probably been pretty unpleasant at one time or another in a relationship. But the state will only get involved if there is actual physical injury.
Claudia: This is another question about clients. Who are they? Do they transcend stereotypes?
Toby: Yes. I think even the men who come to the program; they don’t want to come to be in there with a bunch of batterers. Because they all say it’s a bum rap, and kangaroo court. Then when they get there they are all just shocked and surprised, because it runs the gambit of people without jobs, from people who don’t know how to read very well to doctors and lawyers and accountants.
Rhonda: One of the things that Johnny Holmes said to me a million years ago, why it was that they didn’t pursue filing criminal charges was that they were all criminals anyways. I said I didn’t think that was true and he said “Oh, wait you’ll see. They’re all on parole, they’ve all been in jail.” I’m very fond of Johnny Holmes, because he’s a big man and will admit when he’s wrong. And so about ten or so years later when he had this division that he was starting he said “You know, you were right. They weren’t all criminals.” So as Toby said, they cross the line. That’s true about the women as well. They are teachers, therapists, lawyers, doctors, housewives, sales people, all kinds.
Claudia: Everybody. How well did the various domestic abuse organizations work together? Are they in competition or do they help and assist each other?
Rhonda: They’re both. It depends. Certainly there is a finite amount of money in the community available to support these kind of services, so they are certainly competing on that level, for dollars. But we do have the Harris County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council, one of those coordinating response the judges talked about many years ago when I went to that conference. All of the shelter programs, and legal programs, and the prosecutor’s office, and the police department, they are all sitting at the table together trying to figure out a way to respond cooperatively to what’s needed. The goal of the Coordinating Council is to identify gaps in services and work together to fill those needs. So there is some competition, but there is also some cooperation.
Claudia: How do you coordinate with CPS to protect children? And what happens to these kids?
Rhonda: Domestic violence of course affects kids, and there is no real formal cooperation between the domestic violence programs and CPS. We are required to report child abuse when we hear about it. Most of the time when we’re reporting it, it’s because we know that the woman is separated from him. We’ve tried some cross-pollination and some cross-education. There have been some really horrible situations that we’ve encountered, but we don’t have any formal arrangement, which we should. We really do need to work together, because the kids are suffering when they are in these situations.
Claudia: What do you see in the kids? And are they able to get past it?
Rhonda: You want to talk about that?
Toby: Well, I think kids get past things, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an effect on them, like we all get past bad things that happen to us.
Rhonda: Lots of kids who are in these homes drop out of school, have drug and alcohol problems. There was a study done by Sam Houston State Criminal Justice School that reported 80% of violent prisoners in Texas prisons came out of violent homes. So we know that domestic violence perpetuates itself, that they grow up to be abusive, and to be in abusive relationships. Some kids, though, are stellar. They take care of the family and they are strong and wonderful.
Claudia: Right. What is the percentage of abused women to get out of the relationship altogether?
Rhonda: I think the number is 65-67% of women eventually leave battering relationships. They may go five, six, seven times before they leave permanently.
Interestingly enough, that may not be a success rate. One of the goals of the battered women’s movement is not to tell women what to do; we are not there to rescue them. We are there to give them information, safety-planning options, so they can make good decisions for themselves. And there are some women who make the decision to stay in their relationship. She loves him, and she wants him to change, and she learns how to be safer for herself and her kids, but she’s not ready to leave for a variety of reasons.
Toby: An interesting fact is that the most dangerous time in a woman’s life is when she is leaving a man. That is the most dangerous time. And its even more dangerous – there’s just a study out by Judith McFarland at Texas Women’s University – that danger is enhanced if there is a gun around, and you can almost be assured something is going to happen if she tells him she is leaving for another man.
Rhonda: Right. That is the ultimate loss of control is for her to leave. Domestic violence is about power and control.
Toby: Yes, I see tremendous control. One of the things – In the February 24th issue of the Chronicle there was a story about a woman whose husband had thrown kerosene on her and ignited her. I don’t know if you all saw this…One of the things that I saw in this – you talk about being furious – CPS came and took her child away from her because of reckless endangerment. Where were they with Russell Yates?
Rhonda: Women are prosecuted for failure to protect their kids, frequently, when the kids are abused and they are at work, then they get prosecuted for failure to protect. So there is a lot of that.
Audience Member: Why is CPS going after battered women instead of the father?
Toby: It’s easier. And if you have a case where a child is being battered, it’s very important to look to see if that mom is being battered. Occasionally, you have sort of the domino effect - he hits her and she hits the kids, but more likely he is hitting them both.
Claudia: How much does alcoholism play a part in this?
Rhonda: Alcohol exists in domestic violence relationships. There is a pretty high rate, but it isn’t the cause of the violence in the relationship. Men who drink beat their wives, men who don’t drink beat their wives, and men who used to drink beat their wives.
Toby: And men who drink don’t beat their wives.
Rhonda: There is alcohol, there is drug abuse. There is some connection between some kinds of drugs and violence, particularly derivatives of cocaine, that can make you volatile. We had a client once whose husband was a bus driver, they had been married for twenty-five years, and they had a nice relationship. He began to use crack and became violent. There have been some studies at Riverside Hospital about this.
Audience Member: What about women who say, “Well, he only does this when he’s drunk.”
Rhonda: Usually we talk to her and we discover he may only hit her at that time, but when you talk to her about the relationship, the power and control issues go on on a regular basis. So maybe there is something else connected with it, having to do with that’s the day he gets paid, and she may be asking him for money which infuriates him because its his money. So there may be other kinds of things that are involved as well. There are some guys who only hit when they are drunk. And sometimes women will say they wait until he passes out, she hides in the other room, and when he passes out she knows its okay to come out.
Audience Member: How much of this behavior is modeled from generation to generation?
Toby: Well, it isn’t even just modeled within the family; it’s modeled within society. I don’t know if you remember, with Thelma and Louise, people went absolutely berserk because they saw these violent women. If you did the body count in Thelma and Louise, it was either one, when they killed the rapist, or three, if you thought they committed suicide. But you see a Schwartzaneger movie or a Bruce Willis movie or Jean-Claude Van Damme, the body count is into the hundreds.
Rhonda: I do think that there are numbers and numbers of people who grew up in violent homes who repeat that behavior because that is what they have learned to do. But then you will talk to lots of people where he grew up in a violent home, but she didn’t. So this is totally foreign to her, she doesn’t understand what got into him.
Audience Member: When you go to the schools, there seems to be a slight elevation of awareness that bullying is not a good thing and that maybe there should be school intervention. That seems to be a precursor.
Rhonda: Interestingly enough, one of the approaches that many schools have taken is a similar approach that was taken to avoid violent criminal charges in domestic violence cases some twenty years ago – and that’s mediation. They teach kids how to mediate their problems, which is pretty good. It didn’t work in domestic violence cases because there was an imbalance in the power and because how do you mediate “don’t hit.” It’s just against the law. You don’t trade off “I’ll cook turkey if you don’t hit me.” But that’s an approach that has become popular in schools, particularly middle schools.
Toby: Bullying has come out of the Columbine thing because apparently the two young men who shot everybody had talked about being bullied. Even if you look at that – their taking that into their own hands is a tremendous sort of exercise of privilege. All those school shootings – in Arkansas, and Pearl, Mississippi, and Kentucky – all of these were white males. Nobody was gay, nobody was a person of color, and nobody was female.
Rhonda: No one has pointed that out, which I think is pretty interesting. The same thing is true when you talk about Andrea Yates. Just this past week, if you read the paper, and this happens pretty frequently, the man killed five children, his wife, and himself. Everyone went shrug, shrug. About once a month you can read in the paper where a couple had separated and the man shoots the wife, shoots the children, frequently commits suicide. Nobody says anything. They say in the article “domestic disturbance.” There is no motive – that’s the other part they will point out. Nobody understands what the motive was. But the attention paid to Andrea Yates’ case is phenomenal.
Toby: I’m really appreciative that all of you came out and gave up an evening. We’re really thrilled.
Rhonda: Yes, thank you.