M. Samantha McAllister graduated summa cum laude from LSU-Shreveport, earned a Masters in history from Louisiana Tech and received her Juris Doctorate and Bachelor of Civil Law degree from LSU, Paul M. Hebert School of Law. She practices family law in Bossier City and is admitted to practice before all state courts in Louisiana, the U.S. District Court, Western District, and the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
She agreed to share her expert view and to offer advice to victims of domestic violence.
Perhaps not one moment in my life was more pivotal than the day my mother took me to the YWCA Family Violence Shelter to volunteer at just eight years of age. Little did I know, my life would become consumed in helping victims of domestic violence; providing the personal commitment to help those without a voice, voices that had been silenced by the threats and violent acts of their abusers. This is my area of expertise. I help women who are victims of abuse, and I do not take any cases in which the spouse is abusive. I believe in my client’s cases and, because domestic violence litigation in still in its “toddler years,” I learn everyday how to better protect my clients and their children.
When I was asked to write a “guest blog,” I had recently been hired to represent a dear friend on a divorce/custody action involving domestic abuse, which unfortunately has spun out of control, causing my friend and client pain beyond belief. Yes, I became personally involved. Yes, I became angry. I realized how, even though we have made great strides in domestic abuse legislation, there is simply not enough protection for those who have been or are being abused. A travesty of injustice remains for victims of abuse, which is why advocates like myself would like to give you information on what you need to know if you are, think you are, or know someone who is being abused.
When the issue of domestic abuse arises in a court proceeding, the obvious question is “Where is the physical evidence?” However, more often than not, the case surrounds emotional and/or verbal abuse, or a repeated pattern of the same, followed by physical abuse. The physical abuse can take many forms other than simply hitting, slapping, or punching; for example, forcing sexual intercourse, grabbing, choking, or threatening bodily harm with a weapon. Verbal abuse and emotional abuse constitutes a pattern of intimidation, humiliation, degradation, belittling, criticizing, control and manipulation. For example, a woman who is controlled by her spouse is often told how and what to eat, what to wear, how to style her hair, what church to attend, that she is to provide sex on demand, clean and cook to the abuser’s expectations, and is belittled, berated, and shamed for not providing such in the manner the abuser expects. Emotional and verbal abuse can be much more exhausting than physical abuse because it leaves a trail of scars that do not go away with time. The scars are very real, harsh and run deep, often affecting the victim’s children.
Here are some of the key warning signs of domestic violence:
· Physical Abuse: Hitting, slapping, kicking, choking, pushing, punching, beating, forcing you to leave and locking you out of the house.
· Verbal Abuse: Constant criticism, making humiliating remarks, using abusive language, not responding to what you are saying, mocking, name-calling, yelling, swearing, interrupting, changing the subject.
· Disrespect: Interrupting, changing topics, not listening or responding, twisting your words, telling you what to think and how you should feel, putting you down in front of other people, saying bad things about your friends and family.
· Minimizing, Denying & Blaming: Making light of behavior and not taking your concerns about it seriously, saying the abuse didn't happen, shifting responsibility for abusive behavior, saying you caused it.
· Sexual Violence: Forcing sex on an unwilling partner; demanding sexual acts that you do not want to perform, degrading treatment.
· Isolation: Preventing or making it hard for you to see friends and relatives, monitoring phone calls, reading mail, controlling where you go, taking your car keys.
· Coercion and Pressure Tactics: Making you feel guilty, pushing you into decisions, sulking, manipulating children and other family members, always insisting on being right, making up impossible rules and punishing you for breaking them, rushing you to make decisions through "guilt-tripping" and other forms of intimidation, sulking, threatening to withhold money, manipulating the children, ordering you around.
· Harassment: Following you, or stalking you, embarrassing you in public; constantly checking up on you, refusing to leave when asked.
· Economic Control: Not paying bills, refusing to give you money, hiding or withholding financial resources, not letting you work if that's what you choose to do, interfering with your job, taking your car keys or otherwise preventing you from using the car, refusing to work and support the family.
· Abusing Trust: Lying, breaking promises, withholding important information, being unfaithful, being overly jealous, not sharing domestic responsibilities.
· Threats and Intimidation: Threatening to harm you, your children, family members and pets; using physical size to intimidate, shouting; standing in the door way during arguments to stop you from leaving; keeping weapons and threatening to use them.
· Emotional Withholding or Neglect: Not expressing feelings, not giving compliments, not taking your concerns seriously, not paying attention, not respecting your feelings, rights and opinions. You never know where your relationship stands. Not spending time with family.
· Abusing Authority: Always claiming to be right (insisting statements are "the truth"); telling you what to do or not to do; making big decisions; using twisted "logic."
· Destruction of Property: Destroying furniture, punching walls/doors, throwing things, breaking dishes, kicking or hurting pets.
· Self-Destructive Behavior: Abusing drugs or alcohol, threatening self-harm or suicide, driving recklessly, deliberately doing things that will cause trouble (like telling off the boss).
If you are a victim of domestic violence/know a victim of domestic violence, I would like to “arm” with you the following advice:
1) Find support, whether it is an attorney, a police officer, a friend, a family member, or a support group. The fight will not be an easy one; you will need someone to stand beside you and be your “rock” so that you simply will not give up making your voice heard.
2) If you have not already, LEAVE your abuser. Go to your support system to help. Do not stay in an unsafe situation for you and your children’s sake. Gather clothes for yourself and your children, along with your children’s birth certificates, and store them in a safe place – with a friend, relative, neighbor, or somewhere your abuser cannot find them.
3) Contact a domestic violence shelter and see if there is an opening for you and your children. Bossier City will open its first Family Justice Center in May 2009, at 1513 Doctors Drive, Bossier City, Louisiana. The center promises to bring to domestic violence victims all the services she needs. I am proud of our District Attorney for this accomplishment, and hope our city will band together to make this program a huge success.
4) Find an attorney who is experienced and has successfully fought cases in which women were abused. Your spouse’s attorney will throw up many challenges and will fight much like your spouse, to abuse and bully you and attempt to control the case until you are emotionally defeated. Find an attorney willing to fight for you, and willing to take the appropriate avenues to help your case. This may mean going above and beyond, spending a day at the courthouse, escorting you to a shelter and/or police station, or finding a judge who will listen. You may not have a lot of money to hire an attorney initially. Talk to family, friends, your church and raise funds. Call the bar association and ask if there is a pro bono section of the bar that may help you.
5) Create a paper trail. This is the best way to make the State recognize there is a pattern of abuse. Make a journal of everything that has happened so far. Write down witness’s names, addresses, phone numbers and what they can testify to. Save any emails, text messages, and/or any other correspondence your abuser has sent you. Go to the police and file reports each and every time you are being abused, harassed or stalked, no matter how small a matter you think it was. Even if the reports do not achieve fruition, you have created a trail showing a repetitive pattern of abuse.
6) If you have been physically abused, go to the hospital and have them make a medical record. Tell them you have been abused, and ask for the police. Make sure you have a medical examination and pictures made of the scars, bruises, etc.
7) File a protective order and file for divorce under the domestic violence statutes. Arm yourself for your protective order hearing with witnesses and evidence. If the protective order hearing is unsuccessful, appeal your case to a higher court.
In conclusion, never stay in your home and allow yourself to be abused. There is hope, there are people who care and there are people who are willing to fight. Stay strong, and make your voice heard!
For Further Resources see:
Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence, http://www.lcadv.org/
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, http://www.ncadv.org/