Post 379.

When a woman experiences partner violence, her neighbours, friends and family can report even if she does not. Often, neighbours and families witness or experience violence or its threat because of their relationship or proximity to a victim. The more we all report is the more we empower police to respond and can hold them accountable for doing so.  

Reports of domestic violence do not require women to seek a protection order to ensure their safety. Threats and violence by partners and relatives are also criminal offenses, and police can immediately investigate and charge perpetrators.  

As the Coalition Against Domestic Violence has stated, “It is time that the police develop and implement a zero tolerance policy for domestic violence. If a serious offense has been committed or is threatened, the police must act independently, whether the victim cooperates or not”. 

Proposed amendments to the Domestic Violence Act include provisions for undertaking risk assessments. Upon reports being made, a risk assessment should be undertaken so that police can predict whether lethal harm is likely. A protocol should then be in place which connects with the courts, psychiatric intervention, and social services.  Police should also check perpetrators’ history of violence.

As Conflict Women’s recent press release reminded, Michael Maynard was charged with rape and released on bail in 2018. In February this year, after a history of violence, he killed his 8-year old daughter, Makeisha.  In response to a report by her mother, police were willing to go with Tricia Ramsaran-Ramdass to remove her belongings from the house. The TTPS press release states, “She never did, but instead, moved back into the same home with her spouse until her death on June 9th”. 

Perpetrators, not victims, should be removed from a home. Nonetheless, we must keep in mind that leaving a home does not guarantee that violence will end. Women are at greater risk when they begin to leave or have left, and threats and intimidation continue long after they attempt to end relationships. 

In the case of Tricia Ramsaran-Ramdass, she was fearful of a partner who killed one woman already. It had been years of torture. Her family was also vulnerable. Such terror can lead women to return to abusive partners repeatedly. 

Love, hope, forgiveness, guilt, loss of self and self-blame are always enmeshed in such decisions, but such complexity should never distract from the fact that responsibility for violence always lies with the perpetrator and, in many cases, his controlling practices, his beliefs in traditional gender roles and male dominance, his history of witnessing, experiencing or expressing violence, and triggers such as substance abuse.  

The proposed amendments also allow police to seek emergency protection orders electronically through judicial officers, enabling them to be granted quickly. They allow Interim Orders to be granted after the second hearing where adjournments are being sought by the court and/or respondent.  In 2017-2018, over one-third of more than 9000 applications were dismissed, 72% of adjournments were related to the unavailability of the magistrate, and only 29% resulted in a protection order. 

The amendments address the needs of victims who appear repeatedly at court and leave without even protection on paper. Expanded beyond cohabitation and marriage, the amended legislation will enable some persons in visiting and dating relationships to seek protection orders.

There are expanded protections for children, including those who are witnesses to domestic violence. Mandatory reporting to police is now required if domestic violence is being perpetrated against vulnerable groups, such as the elderly or persons with disabilities. Such reports should also be able to be made to the Division of Family Services and Children’s Authority. 

The Alliance for State Action to End Gender-based Violence, comprising over 20 civil society organisations, including The UWI, continues to call for the amendments to protect all persons who experience violence in a domestic context, regardless of family status or gender. To continue to exclude some from protection is to define who can share domestic space or have relationships. That is not the point of the DV Act. It should provide protection without discrimination. 

My condolences to the family of Tricia Ramsaran-Ramdass, 37 years old and mother of one. We should all commit to preventing such violence in whatever way we can. These amendments will be debated in Parliament next week.

The GBV Unit and Special Victims Department are important, but as yet underfunded, steps in the right direction. Where police and judiciary can improve, the only headlines should be about how much is possible and how soon.

Post 225.

Two weeks ago, I wrote what I then felt was a story of hope. Or, perhaps, what I then felt was the story that should be told. Everyone involved, from the neighbours to the Rotary Club members who were assisting, to the woman and her children, was talking about the chance for a happy ending.

I had my doubts. Having been defeated over years, women leaving batterers often return several times before ever permanently escaping abusive relationships. And, battered women tend to be at high risk of being killed when they do finally decide not to go back, creating great fear about trying to permanently leave. Women also face endless harassment from their abusers during the process of leaving itself: repetitive calls to their phone day and night as well as demands, guilt, blame, manipulation, pressure and promises. Familiar with such harassment, women may feed this pattern, perhaps because they feel incapable of moving ahead on their own.

I had other hesitations, what if this woman couldn’t manage the stress of caring for seven children by herself, even with charitable help for an apartment and living costs? Could she heal enough to re-establish clear thought, good decision-making and secure self-esteem if, in the end, she never received sustained counseling? In this likely scenario, would the children heal as they should or just endure, perhaps repeating a dysfunctional cycle in their own lives as they grew?

I write again about this real life story, which I suspected wouldn’t so simply unfold. There’s an eighth child due in a few months, following a failed termination, and the woman remains a heavy smoker, though when I took her to hospital last week the doctors said that it was affecting her heart and breathing. She left the apartment secured for her and has taken the children with her back to their father. She and the children remain at risk of various levels and kinds of abuse.

The clothes and other items they received from public help are at risk of being sold to pay for their father’s drug addiction. They can tell you where drug blocks are. All the children there are at risk of being involved in stealing, with parental knowledge, to survive.

The neighbours have been pushed away, for the woman felt that they were too much in her business. She’s threatened them harm if her children are taken away by authorities, and, fed up, her neighbours are resorting to responses we know so well: ‘she must like the licks’, ‘she wants the children so people will provide charity’, ‘there is nothing more we can do’.

Right now, they wait impatiently for the Children’s Authority to remove the children from the room where they again now live, all of them sharing two beds, the oldest complaining of cockroaches. There’s a home where the children can be sent together, but it’s the authorities who have to exercise that decision-making power, and they need to do it sooner rather than later.

One older boy, who has had to look after the younger siblings when both parents are not there in the day or at night, starts to cry when he talks about the situation, his feelings of frustration and powerlessness clear, for the adults whom he loves who will not do what is right.

Every day those children are around such neglect of their needs counts. How many days until their situation changes? What does a happy ending for them mean? How can we help make that possible?

Before we resort to the single narrative of woman-blame, we should remember that daily, professional, even over-the-phone, crisis counseling for a woman trying to leave a long-term abusive relationship is not accessible, making the messiness of this current outcome much more likely.

Even if a good shelter takes in all the children, they are unlikely to ever receive the extent of counseling they too need. Both batterers and victims have often grown up in abusive homes, and in one way or another repeat details learned through socialization to violence. Crucially, our social services are completely unable to cope.

This is one story, of thousands, across the country. Today it is told with more uncertainty than hope.

Post 233.

Though she sat with her head down, I could only think of her resilience. Now 31 years old, having survived fourteen years of battering by the father of her seven children, she seemed finally about to make a sure step away. Her neighbours, who have offered many moments of care, are unsung heroes of our nation, helping without public recognition, and it’s their strength that she is relying on to find hers.

The beatings started after her first son, as they do for so many women for whom having children puts them at greater risk of domestic violence. At first, women think it will stop. She said, she had ‘hope’. As their children increase, they become less able to leave, and to manage on their own. The rest of us may think that anything is better than a violent home, but that doesn’t help us to understand the challenges associated with leaving which women may be unable to overcome.

Violence continued, even while she was pregnant, once causing her to go into labour at home. Her tooth was broken, ears torn, lip burst, and she can point to scars from cuts all over her body. The last time, just weeks ago, one beating caused her head to swell, and she went to the hospital, though normally she bore her wounds at home, perhaps afraid of being judged as a woman and mother.

She made many reports to the police, but was never sent to a shelter, and would never have gone if it meant separation from her children. It’s a decision to stay that many mothers make which keeps them in harm’s way, but such separation is often their worst nightmare as those children may be their most powerful reason to live. Following a suicide attempt after another beating, she ran away from the hospital where she was taken, afraid they would declare her mad – rather than simply, finally more battered than even she could manage – and take her from her children. All these are the realities that social services have to take into account in their strategies to empower women to become independent and live violence-free. The police came to verify that she had chosen to run away. After that, nothing.

Social workers that she met through the Regional Corporation provided food cards, and community police gave her their number and offered counselling. He broke her phone where the telephone number was stored. She missed the counselling, from lacking clothes, money to travel and anyone to look after her children while she was gone. Not all her children have regularly attended school. Their father, on drugs, recently sold their home, leaving them homeless.

Astoundingly, despite numerous visits to police, with community officers, and from social workers and district health nurses, many of whom helped in one way or another, and despite teachers seeing children in school who one day disappeared, none of them ever helped this woman right through every step until she escaped. Despite a labyrinth of national welfare services, none pursued counselling to address the children’s trauma over these years. No one ensured she secured a protection order.

Understanding how impoverished and debilitating situations threaten women’s capacity to even make sound decisions, it wasn’t even clear where she could go that would provide step by step help to escape. And, the correct protocols are still not clear to all these, even well-meaning, state officials who encounter battered women.

It’s neighbours who have held her and her family together, bringing all the children into their home after the last beating as she recovered from head injuries and they ended up alone and hungry. It’s her neighbours who sat with her when the Children’s Authority came this week, and samaritans offered her help for rent and to live. Care of neighbours succeeded where social services in an oil rich nation over fourteen years failed.

Today, this is a story of community help and family hope. One from among the hundreds of women who report domestic violence to the police each year. May this woman hold her head high, for she is a survivor. Now, hundreds more women need us to recognise that we are our neighbour’s keeper.

Post 157.

It was hard not to spend this week thinking about children. Children in Gaza, in South Sudan, in Brazil, and in Trinidad and Tobago. Children being killed by bombs. Children facing mass starvation. Children living in a state that can find money for football while they barely survive on the street. Children being abused in shelters and in their own homes.

In one way or another, all us adults are collectively responsible for all children. Our responsibility isn’t about charity, though that has its contribution to make. Our responsibility is about ending violence of every kind, relentlessly pursuing disarmament on every front, infusing a commitment to child rights into every culture, and refusing to let children be unprotected against our own mercilessness, whether from cruelty or neglect, from corruption-caused poverty or avoidable war. Who will hold adults like us responsible, and empower us to do better, if not also us?

Here at home, another taskforce presented a vision for a way ahead for children, and we can almost predict being disappointed by its implementation, because of delays regarding personnel, resources, legislation and political will, even as well meaning public servants press on with commitment and passion. Malala Yousafzai came and, because she was a girl child, was silenced from presenting a crucial message to all adults in her midst, including and especially Muslim men, whose leaders somehow missed the entire point of her global struggle against patriarchal definition of girls’ rights. Another video circulated of a child being beaten, this time with a shovel, and we already know there are no social services that can provide true rescue.

If I’m like other parents, there’s that moment of unmatchable peace at those times when I’m falling asleep knowing that Ziya is safe and near to me. I think of her absolute trust in us when she is scared, her reliance on us to provide for her needs, and her unquestioning expectation that she is loved, and can feel at home and be herself. That should be the reality for every child, but also I lie awake at night just thankful that she’s been able to experience what seems like a privilege for precious few, feeling like getting it right for her is as much as I can do.

It was hard not to spend this week thinking about children, knowing that our global failure is not good enough. Marches can bring people together and show that an issue merits public concern, but marches won’t help children in Pakistan, Jamaica, Uganda or here. NGOs can take responsibility where the state and families fail, but we can’t leave often women-run, volunteer- dependent NGOs to fix our society. We can always blame deficient state services, but the problem remains the world that each of us adults allows to continue as is. All us adults are collectively responsible in one way or another for all children because every single one of them is vulnerable in a way each of us is not, because the civility of a society is marked by the quality of life of its most vulnerable, because their vulnerability is a result of our domination.

We can’t entirely prevent what is happening to children in India, China, the US or Europe, but almost a million adults don’t need an extra cent to transform the terms of childhood in Trinidad and Tobago. We adults need to grow up. Commitment by us all is necessary, and possible. Right now, it is heartbreakingly clear, from Gaza to South Sudan, Brazil and Trinidad and Tobago, children everywhere desperately need our far greater, non-negotiable commitment to care.