Lessons From The Field

Mar 14, 2016

It’s around 10pm when I call Vicky, a crisis worker for victims of domestic violence in Del Norte County, California. I’m panicking, 150 miles away in Ashland. I’m afraid someone is going to get hurt tonight. Vicky listens calmly. She agrees to drive by an address near her neighborhood. It’s an address that shows up over and over in the Del Norte County 9-1-1 call logs. I came across it researching how law enforcement responds to reports of domestic violence in a county with the highest rate of domestic violence reports in California. I began this inquiry when I was a reporter for the Del Norte Triplicate newspaper and completed it as part of my work for Jefferson Public Radio.

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

The night I call Vicky I had just hung up with a woman who reported her husband to the Sheriff’s Office twice in the prior month. He was not arrested either time, even though he had just been convicted for an assault on her that took place six months earlier. A different woman called about him four years before that. I saw the choke marks on her neck in a picture taken by police. He wasn’t arrested then, either.

I decide to name him in a story. I want to warn his current wife before it comes out. I message her on Facebook, say I’m a reporter writing a story I think she should know about. I leave my phone number and ask that she call me when she’s alone.

She calls within the hour. My heart’s pounding as I spit out the facts, without verifying that she is in fact alone. I tell her I’m writing about domestic violence, the police response to the 9-1-1 calls she recently made, and there’s going to be a story in the local paper. She isn’t named, but her husband is. She echoes my last words and a male voice swells in the background. “What’s that f*cking c*nt saying about me?”

The woman on the phone becomes desperately polite. “I’m so sorry ma’am, could you please hold on a minute?” I hear him screaming; her begging him to be quiet. She comes back on the line: “Ma’am, I’m so sorry about that. What were you saying?” I tell her I think it’s a bad idea to continue our conversation, but that she can call me any time when he’s not there.

After we hang up, I burst into tears. Then I call Vicky. I had already interviewed Vicky about her job working with victims in crisis and her personal experiences surviving domestic violence. Vicky calls back to tell me she didn’t see or hear anything unusual at the woman’s address. I think about how little noise strangulation makes. Vicky sighs. She asks me: “Why would you write something that could hurt someone?”

The next day, the woman calls back. She says she’s okay, and assures me she’s alone. She apologizes for her husband’s behavior the night before. I apologize for mine. I convey the facts at my disposal and ask if they’re accurate. “Yeah,” she says.

Before we hang up, I give her Vicky’s phone number. It’s all I can think to do.

Within a month, there’s another 9-1-1 call to her address, another assault on her.

I posted a survey using social media asking people to share how domestic violence had affected them, and if they called the police to report it. I soon got 44 responses. Many were detailed. Fifteen respondents left contact information. I taped interviews with three of those women.

I learned of another victim through her obituary. It said she died in a motor vehicle accident. I interviewed family and friends about her life. They all supported court and police records that documented her partner had a history of abusing her, though he’s never been convicted of any related crimes.

Conversations with her father were the most difficult. We first meet at his house, where I get out of the way and let him talk. He shares memories of his daughter, the sweet things she did as a child. He talks about taking her to the emergency shelter to get away from her fiancé. He says he wanted to retaliate on her behalf, but that’s not who he is anymore. He says he thought there’d be time to fix his relationship with his daughter, then time ran out. Later on, I learn of allegations that he too abused his family in years past. I draft the story without calling him to readdress this information.

Dread settles in. But when I finally reach out to him, it doesn’t go the angry way I expect. I lay out the facts I’ve gathered. I ask him to own the past more honestly, and spare the story about his daughter any more brutal details from police and court records. In my opinion, he responds bravely. He says it goes deeper than her, deeper than him, and deeper than his parents. He speaks of a community where spousal abuse has become commonplace and says he wants to stop that hurting.

I rewrite the story.

After my story first ran, people in the community vented on Facebook. Some posted messages of support, others of disgust. Others were appalled we would exploit a grieving family. One woman said it’s important to get these things in the open, but she wouldn’t want something like that written about her.

I keep circling back to Vicky’s question the night I called her to do a welfare check on someone neither of us had ever met: “Why would you write something that could hurt someone?” I hope every journalist covering domestic violence will keep that question close to their heart as they decide how to protect victims, without perpetuating their silence.

Emily Cureton is the producer of the Jefferson Exchange heard on JPR’s News & Information Service and online at iipr.org, weekdays 8am–10am, rebroadcast 8pm–10pm.