The Aftermath Of Domestic Violence In Rural Northern California

Mar 13, 2016

"When I was born into this world, I was born into domestic violence. My father, he was born into domestic violence." -Phillip Williams, Father of Tara Williams

Domestic violence occurs in every region, in every part of society.

But economically-depressed rural areas often have a greater incidence of abuse and fewer resources to stop it.

For example, in Del Norte County -- nestled far behind the Redwood Curtain in California’s northwestern corner -- 911 calls about domestic violence come in at a rate eight times the state average.

SOURCE: KIDSDATA.ORG

More of these calls reached local law enforcement in 2015 than ever before. 

One of these calls brought two Del Norte County Sheriff’s deputies to the outskirts of their jurisdiction late last fall.

A body camera documented the interaction that followed, a single incident in one family’s long struggle to escape a toxic legacy of abuse.

It’s a sunny October morning in Klamath when one of the deputies flips on his body camera. He’s in front of a neat blue two-story house on the Yurok Reservation, where a man is reportedly holding a woman inside against her will.

"When I'd ask her any questions, she would avoid the subject. If I started to say something, she would say something first to keep me from asking the question I wanted to ask." -Sandra Schwenk, Grandmother of Tara Williams

Thirty-year-old Cliff Moorehead meets the deputies on the street. He says his wife’s emotions are out of control and that’s why a passerby called 911 to report a disturbance.

The deputy wearing a camera leaves Moorehead with his partner, and walks up to the house.

Twenty-six-year old Tara Williams opens the door.

Tara Williams fishing at the mouth of the Klamath River.
Credit Williams Family

“Hi Tara... What’s going on today?” the deputy begins.

“I don’t know,” she sobs.

She says she isn’t married to Moorehead, but they live together with three kids.

She says she’s scared.

“Did he hold you against your will?” he asks, referring to Moorehead. 

Tara nods: “I didn’t necessarily want to leave. I just wanted to go outside and get away from the situation.”

The deputy goes through a checklist of questions, the ones he’s required to ask victims of domestic abuse.

He asks if she wants a ride to the emergency shelter, Harrington House.

She says no, not again.

He asks if she’s injured.

She says no, and rolls up her sleeves to show that her arms don’t have marks on them.

He asks if she wants an emergency protective order, a temporary measure the state court can approve to ban Moorehead from coming near her, or having firearms.

She doesn’t know what to do.

“I don’t know,” becomes a refrain through her sobs.

“I’m having a really hard time thinking right now,” she tells the deputy. “I don’t want to lose my family. But I don’t want to be scared anymore,” she says. 

Eventually, she declines the protective order. She doesn’t mention that she’s gotten one of those before. Before turning to leave, the deputy asks her one more time. She shudders.

“I’m just kind of scared of the retaliation,” she says quietly.

“He’ll be going to jail,” the deputy assures her.

“But when he gets out, he’ll be really mad,” she replies.

The deputy shrugs, walks out and arrests Moorehead under suspicion of false imprisonment.  He says Moorehead will be in jail for the day, probably the whole weekend, and that they’ll go to court on Monday.

In theory, that’s the idea. Accused people are supposed to be in front of a judge within days of arrest. This means prosecutors should have an arrest report as soon as possible, to decide whether or not to actually charge a defendant with any crimes before they’re released from police custody.

Despite this history of restraining orders, civil complaints and alleged assaults spanning many years, not one of the incidents resulted in criminal charges.

But Moorehead bails out of jail within five hours. The court date is set a month after the crimes allegedly occurred.

By the time that court date rolls around, Tara Williams is dead.

The Aftermath

“There were probably 500 people at her funeral,” recalls Sandra Schwenk. Tara knew her as Koochas, the Yurok word for grandmother.

You can see a bend in the Klamath River from Schwenk’s house. A rich, woody smell emanates from walls lined with baskets and carvings.

Schwenk points to an outdoor table where her granddaughter used to filet fish as a teenager. She remembers how quickly Tara mastered the tricky art of separating flesh from bone.

She describes the first time she saw her granddaughter with black eyes, more than five years ago. 

“I said, ‘Tara, what happened?’”

She said, ‘Oh, I fell Koochas. I fell down the stairs.’”

“I said, ‘It looks like it.’ Then, she knew that I knew.”

But Schwenk didn’t know how to make it stop.

“When I’d ask her any questions, she would avoid the subject. If I started to say something, she would say something first to keep me from asking the question I wanted to ask.”

A History

Between Tara’s death and her funeral, the charges against Moorehead are dropped at the request of the District Attorney’s Office. The related paperwork notes: “Victim is now deceased.”

Cliff Moorehead didn’t respond to requests for comment. The information here comes from court and police files.

While apparently ready to proceed with the charges until Tara died, Del Norte District Attorney Dale Trigg defended the decision to drop them in a written statement, calling the case a “no physical contact, no physical injury domestic violence incident involving a man with no history.”

But Moorehead does have a history.

Del Norte County’s Department of Child Welfare Services took at least four calls concerning the family since 2010.

Moorehead allegedly assaulted a cohabitating cousin, putting him in the hospital in 2009. The sheriff’s deputies were called and Moorehead reportedly fled. He was never arrested or criminally charged for the incident.

The cousin got a temporary restraining order and filed a civil complaint, stating Moorehead “repeatedly beat me around the face and head,” while their grandmother and other family members were in the room.

The cousin showed up for the first court hearing, but Moorehead didn’t.

The case was soon dismissed by Del Norte Superior Court Judge William Follett. The judge recently glanced over the file and could not immediately recall the reason.

Possibly, he said, there was no proof that Moorehead had been notified of the proceedings, or maybe the victim did not file another restraining order application in time, and both would be grounds for dismissal.

Tara Williams got a restraining order against Moorehead in 2010.

U.S. CENSUS BUREAU, AMERICAN COMMUNITY SURVEY (ACS) 5-YEAR ESTIMATES

“The last two years have been full of DV (domestic violence),” she swore on court documents filed in May of that year. She included detailed descriptions of alleged incidents, as requested by the form.

Tara told of being choked and beaten in the presence of their eldest child and his grandmother. She claimed she was called filthy names, that he threw rocks at her car until the windows cracked. She said she was frightened for her life. She said “Cliff told me that day and many other times that if I ever run to any family and tell what he does to me that he will beat my face in and he will make sure no one else will ever want me.”

The restraining order was granted swiftly, but it dissolved in three weeks, after she didn’t come back to court to re-apply, standard practice for continuing court protection.

Despite this history of restraining orders, civil complaints and alleged assaults spanning many years, not one of the incidents resulted in criminal charges.

Until that October arrest for false imprisonment.

So Much To Live For

The day after those charges are filed, Moorehead calls to report Tara missing. The next day, he reports finding her body, near a wrecked pickup off a lonely stretch of Highway 101.

As word spreads, family members gather on the rain-slicked curve of road. The California Highway Patrol begins its investigation.

This investigation recreates a pickup truck skidding and flipping down a hill between the highway and the ocean. Unseatbelted, Tara is launched through a broken window. Her body lands a good distance from where trees stop the truck. Her cell phone is found right beside her hands, indicating she was likely holding it when she died. CHP says her phone records haven’t been obtained, and the agency doesn’t plan to pursue them. 

In the weeks after her death, some of Tara’s friends suspect suicide.

Tara’s father doesn’t believe it.

“She had so much to live for at that moment,” Phillip Williams says.

He recognizes that domestic violence affected his daughter long before she met Moorehead.

“When I was born into this world, I was born into domestic violence. My father, he was born into domestic violence,” Phillip says. “I used to question, “God, why? Why at two years old did I see my mom getting her teeth knocked out? What did I do to deserve that? And then how did I see that and still repeat the process?’”

Phillip says he used to hate himself. Then, he says, anger management classes and sobriety helped him break the pattern.

“I always thought my wife would leave me, like it wasn’t real. When you feel like that, all you have left is control to keep that person in your life. When you go to your classes, every person there, it’s always her fault: ‘She did this,’ and ‘She did that,’ and ‘She made me do it.’ When I matured, I realized that I made the choice to do that. I had to stop making those choices. I wanted to stop the generational trauma, to show them that it doesn’t have to be this way.”

Still, he says, “trying to escape the label of being an abusive man is difficult and a very long haul.”

And when confronted with stress and violence, Phillip says it’s difficult not to respond likewise.

“That is the Klamath lifestyle. If you don’t protect yourself and what’s yours, the police aren’t going to protect you. You have no help from them, no help from the judicial system.”

Phillip believes his daughter was resolved to keep her family together without being labeled a victim, or having her partner labeled as an abuser.

He says that “she didn’t want to fail. She was not going to fail. She had that determination about her,” but that “When you’re a young family trying to live the American dream, it’s a stress on everybody. The American dream is just too hard to obtain.”

“A Huge Epidemic”

Native American communities are disproportionately affected by many of the underlying drivers of domestic violence; poverty, social dysfunction and addiction among them. But the problems in Del Norte County are not confined to the reservations there. 

Six years ago, Del Norte County’s 911 call volume about domestic violence was in line with the state’s average, around six out of every 1,000 calls to police. But at a time when the state logs fewer domestic violence calls overall, those calls in Del Norte skyrocketed to 46 for every 1,000 calls in 2014. The county with the next highest rate–Glenn County—got only 18 per 1,000.

Of all the calls alleging domestic violence in Del Norte County, less than 20 percent led to an arrest in 2014. An average of 83 people annually were convicted of domestic violence related crimes from 2009 to 2012, the latest year for which court conviction data is available.

These numbers are shaky, since every local agency potentially involved in a domestic violence intervention uses a different records management system. And law enforcement and experts in the field agree that the 911 calls, arrests and convictions reflect only a fraction of the actual violence and abuse.

“It’s a huge epidemic,” says Jodi Hoone, a longtime local advocate and coordinator of services for people experiencing domestic violence. She currently heads up programs for the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation, a tribe whose ancestral homelands include much of Del Norte and Curry Counties.

National research says that for every four women assaulted by an intimate partner, one will report it. With men, reporting is even rarer.

Del Norte County Sheriff Erik Apperson says his deputies know this:

“We typically aren’t involved the first time it happens, or the second, so there’s this long-standing history and a lot of times the victim struggles to believe that law enforcement is actually going to help them,” Apperson says.

So, why so many calls to report in recent years?

No easy answers emerge through many interviews with those who have experienced domestic violence in Del Norte County and those who try to help them.

In Del Norte County -- nestled far behind the Redwood Curtain in California's northwestern corner -- 911 calls about domestic violence come in at a rate eight times the state average.

Many people say they actually wouldn’t call the cops, fearing either retaliation, or as the sheriff said, feeling as though law enforcement couldn’t help them.

“I never called the police,” one survivor says on a confidential survey posted to local social media groups, “I wasn’t sure if they would respond. I wasn’t confident that I could adequately describe the incident, and I feared the perpetrator coming after me.”

“The Enemy They Know”

Shelagh Carrick says people who haven’t worked in the field or personally lived with abuse tend to ask victims: “Why did you stay?”

Carrick is the shelter manager at Harrington House, the only emergency shelter for families experiencing domestic violence in the region. It’s licensed to offer temporary housing for three weeks, tops.

Harrington House is a safe place in a crisis, Carrick says, not a long-term solution.

She’s seen many things happen to families on the other side of reporting. In many cases, they become destitute and homeless if one member gets arrested, fined, or required to pay more than $1,000 to participate in a court-ordered intervention program.

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, DEL NORTE SHERRIFF'S OFFICE

“A lot of women give up because they are in trauma and they are being re-traumatized on a consistent basis. So, the enemy they know becomes less scary than the enemies they don’t,” Carrick says, “If we could improve the financial stability of victims, we would greatly improve the outcomes.”

There’s an office in the Del Norte County Courthouse where domestic violence victims can request financial assistance, as well as help navigating the judicial system.

But Del Norte’s Victim/Witness Program isn’t allowed to give more than $100 in cash per individual and largely relies on community donations to help people out with basics like gas and grocery vouchers, said program coordinator Alison Baxter.

Her office saw 392 crime victims last year, 40 percent of whom identified as domestic violence victims when they sought services there. The total budget for the program was $126,000, a figure that includes salaries for two full time employees.

That’s Baxter and a colleague. They mostly help victims fill out myriad forms: applications to get a restraining order, applications to keep one in place, applications to the California Victim Compensation Government Control Board in Sacramento.

This agency can give certain victims much greater sums or vouchers to help them start a new life. The money comes from restitution fines paid by convicted offenders.

These payments to crime victims from Del Norte County have declined dramatically in the last five years. Funding for domestic violence victims declined by about 90 percent.

Getting Out

Not having enough money to leave has kept Melody in harm’s way for most of her life.

Melody isn’t her real name. She says using her own name sparks fear and shame, but she still has something to say about living through abuse in rural California.

She’s a 21-year-old-woman who spent her teens in Crescent City. She describes an abusive childhood, then life in the homeless camps around town. She says a relationship with an older man soon led to stalking and sexual assaults.

“I tried reporting it, but the cops weren’t very nice to me because I wouldn’t give them too many details. They got upset with me,” Melody recalls. “People often blame the victim, because they don’t realize how hard it is to talk about stuff like that. And they say if you’re not going to report it, then it’s basically your fault.  But I was afraid it would get worse.”

Eventually, Melody got help, though not through the justice system. She found her way out of town and now she has a job and a roof over her head.

SCHARFF, JOHN. THE RANGE AND RESPONSE OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE IN DEL NORTE COUNTY, CA. HUMBOLDT STATE UNIVERSITY

From a police officer’s perspective, describing an assault and allowing photographs of the injuries is critical for prosecuting offenders, said Sheriff Apperson.

“A lot of times (victims) don’t want to go through the clinical part of, ‘OK, let me see the bruise and let’s move this article of clothing so I can hold a ruler up to it and take a picture and oh, by the way, I know you just trusted me enough to tell your whole story, but now let’s do it again and let’s make sure my recorder is working because we are going to play this for a whole jury and for a courtroom full of people.”

Meanwhile, turnover is high at the sheriff’s department, where the total number of deputies has declined by a third in the last few years, from around 30 to 20. There simply aren’t enough resources to go around the 1,000 square-mile county, Apperson says.  

Del Norte District Attorney Dale Trigg says this has a ripple effect throughout the justice system.

He pointed to delayed arrest reports, which he says often reach prosecutors many weeks after an offender has been released from jail, as happened in Cliff Moorehead’s case. Overall, that means fewer arrests lead to formal charges.

“And it’s not always a law enforcement issue,” Trigg maintains.

“The facts are what they are. If you go out to scene and you contact a woman who has injuries and she won’t tell you how she got those injuries, you can’t just figure, “Well, I know how you got them and I’m going to arrest so-and-so for doing it.” The officers can’t do anything about that.”

Trigg says all the officers can do is to try to get the truth out of people.

But Sheriff Erik Apperson explains how laws have changed to shift responsibility away from victim statements at the scene of a domestic violence incident.

“Now in California, if you can establish what’s legally defined as a primary aggressor, then you are required to make an arrest,” Apperson says

Finding Solutions

For many families, an arrest only intensifies stress in the household, leading to more abuse and desperation. This bleak cycle is amplified in Native American communities, where people are disproportionately affected by high rates of domestic violence.

While Native people make up about 10 percent of Del Norte’s general population, they are consistently at least 25 percent of the victim caseload for the county’s major service providers and the state court system.

Native children are a lot more likely to be included in referrals to the county’s department for Child Welfare Services, according to agency data analyzed from 2009-2012. During that time, about two-thirds of Del Norte’s CWS referrals involved reports of domestic violence, while 33 percent of CWS referrals involved Native children. White kids made up just 25 percent of referrals, despite white people accounting for 80 percent of the general population.

The Yurok tribe is the largest Native tribe in California, headquartered in Klamath in southern Del Norte County.

In recent years, the tribe has been awarded more than $7.7 million in U.S. Department of Justice grants to provide services for crime victims and alternatives to incarceration.

One alternative model coming from this funding is the tribe’s Batterer’s Intervention Program.

The idea is for perpetrators of domestic abuse to listen to each other during weekly meetings and learn what triggers violent or controlling behavior.

Lori Nesbitt facilitates a group for women with ties to the Yurok tribe, people who’ve often been both victims and perpetrators of domestic violence. She talks about the program after her group was supposed to meet.

“Today didn’t go as planned,” she sighs. “The women didn’t show up.”  

And when even one person stops showing up to a program like this, it’s contagious. Nesbitt says this is because the whole model is peer-driven.

Fellow Yurok Tribal Probation Officer Ron Bates runs the men’s group for the intervention program, comprised of 52 weekly sessions.

Ron says participants can’t just sit in the chair and wait it out. They have to complete homework assignments and actively take part in group sessions to get a pass.

He estimates that alcohol and drug use figure into nearly every family involved in the men’s group. He says it’s key for the program to be facilitated by a tribal member, even though the model is common around the state.

“Who is going to hold the community responsible? It should be the community and I am a part of that,” he says. 

Most people in the groups were ordered to attend by a judge, in the hopes that they’ll buy into treatment, rather than merely accepting punishment.

But that’s a big shift in perspective, says Yurok Chief Justice Abby Abinanti.

Abinanti is currently the only judge in the Yurok Tribal Justice Center. Her court’s jurisdiction has grown in recent years, from being limited to mostly fishing-related disputes to handling all kinds of misdemeanor crimes involving tribal members and their spouses, upwards of 6,000 people. 

“I stopped asking defendants, ‘Why did you do that?’” she says. “Many people don’t understand why they get into a behavior that they themselves do not like.”

Abinanti says one way to understand the high rate of domestic violence among her people is to look at history. 

“You have intergenerational trauma: where you have a history that is not pleasant between us and other cultures, where you have massacres, where you had people carried off to boarding schools and where you have a tremendous amount of poverty. All those things are breeding grounds for behaviors that are not acceptable in community.” 

Community is a word you hear a lot at the Yurok Justice Center. Abinanti says the whole approach of the court is based on restoring relationships, “And that’s hugely different than creating consequences for behavior in the hopes that somehow that deters the behavior.”

She says punishment and isolation don’t work. 

“You create access to programming that does not make them have to be found guilty first,” Abinanti says. “It makes them have to say, ‘Hey, I don’t want to do this. I want my children to see me differently. I want my grandchildren to see me differently.’”

The intervention program is one way the Yurok Tribe is trying to cultivate that mindset throughout a community grown accustomed to domestic violence. But if people don’t buy into the program, it doesn’t work. And those working with families in the throes of domestic violence say there’s already too much to worry about it.

Hard People To Help

“People just can’t survive,” says Vicky Bates. “And to get their medical needs taken care of and to eat: they’re stuck. If they don’t have a ride or a friend with a ride, then they’re stuck.”

Bates gives a lot of rides. She’s a domestic violence crisis worker on the Yurok reservation.

“They’re a hard people to help” she says, “Because they don’t have vehicles, they don’t have phone services. How can you help them?  So, we get them a bag of emergency supplies together, and hopefully they have that if they have to run down the road.”

Bates says she spends a lot of time in the car taking clients to medical or court appointments, or to the nearest grocery store, a 45-mile round trip from the reservation. Then, at the end of each day, she’s got more people to take care of.

“When I leave at five o’clock, or six o’clock, or whatever hour I leave, sometimes it’s later than that, sometimes it’s been up to nine or ten o’clock. I have to make sure I shrug my shoulders off and go home to my family.”  

Bates is a mother, grandmother and a single parent.

At her house on the reservation, kids bounce around as she talks about the ways domestic violence has affected her.

She wants the kids to hear her talk about her life, which hasn’t been easy. She was married to an abusive spouse by 16. Now, she’s in her 50s. She says she wants to nurture an openness that her parents never had.

“I don’t know, it was just too busy, too many kids,” she recalls, breaking down.

“There was always something going on: family trauma, deaths, kids falling apart, and we were just kind of breezing through all of that and not dealing with ‘Hey, let’s plan for tomorrow.’ It was more like, ‘Uh, let’s try and save today, let’s try and help whoever’s broken today and move on.’”

Bates blinks back tears. Her ten-year-old granddaughter Keepuen strides into the room.

“I’m Keepuen and it means “winter” in Yurok,” she announces.

She says she wants to be a singer when she’s older.

“I’ve been working on my voice,” she adds, smiling at my microphone.

She goes for it, launching into the hit song, “Read All About It.”

“You’ve got the words to change a nation,” Keepuen sings.

“But you’re biting your tongue.

You’ve spent a life time stuck in silence, afraid you’ll say something wrong.

If no one ever hears it, how we gonna learn your song?

So come on, come on, come on, come on…”

Her voice carries through the house, another home where domestic violence has left scars, but not silence.

Emily Cureton is producer of The Jefferson Exchange.

Del Norte Triplicate reporter David Grieder contributed to this reporting. Emily Cureton’s reporting was supported by a California Health Journalism Fellowship through the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.