Meredith Carroll: Providing support for domestic abuse victims
February 6, 2019
Editor's note: This column used a fictitious name for Amanda to protect her identity and that of her family.
The Aspen Police Department's annual crime report showed a 46 percent increase in domestic violence cases and a 35 percent increase in restraining-order violations from 2017 to 2018. The statistics are initially tricky to digest with any amount of optimism, although Diana Duffey, president of the board of directors of Response, a local nonprofit that provides support, housing and advocacy services to victims of sexual violence and domestic abuse from Aspen to Carbondale, believes the numbers are actually an indicator of progress.
"At Response we're kind of looking at the increase as a good thing," she said. "We've been working really hard to do outreach and get our name on the list of available services. I don't think the incidences are increasing but people are feeling safe enough to call."
Among the strategies is having bilingual staffers visit local hotels and speak to employees about what kind of behavior merits reporting — while also alleviating deportation fears for anyone concerned about drawing attention to their legal status in the process. But whether it's an undocumented house cleaner or an affluent bigwig, picking up the phone can feel like, and actually be, a matter of life or death to a domestic violence victim.
"The one thing I've taken away from all of this is that the majority of people being abused do not report it to the police," Amanda Smith said. "If you want to do something for a victim of abuse, call the police for them if they won't do it for themselves."
Soft-spoken with doe eyes and a strong disposition that crumbles when the topic inevitably turns, Smith is still actively recovering from years of emotional and some physical abuse at the hands of her now ex-husband. She was his favorite punching bag, on the receiving end of public belittlement and humiliation even while he managed to save the worst of his cruelty for the privacy of their home. He engineered her into shunning family and friends. He'd wiggle her thighs or reach for a love handle as a not-so-subtle reminder to stay in shape. She had her own money that he wrested control of, too, thereby further limiting her potential to break free. Then when he drank, everything escalated. She hid in plain sight in Aspen by wearing a disguise that rendered her perfectly indistinguishable from every other woman fortunate enough to spend carefree afternoons on the playground surrounded by gorgeous, laughing children.
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Her therapist finally recommended a divorce attorney who got the ball rolling on extracting her from the marriage, except now, even after the ink on the papers is dry, her ex continues attempting to manipulate her legally. They share custody, which Smith blames on the judge for deciding the lack of physical scars and visible bruising must mean both are fit parents. It's an impossible situation made more difficult because of her concern for their offspring. Daily exercise, meditation and support groups are currently helping her "try and become a better person from before all of this," she said. "Whoever I was before, I want to be better." She still can't quite scrub off the melancholy of feeling unseen and unheard by others, but ultimately she credits Response for saving her life.
Aspen Police Chief Richard Pryor says it's difficult to measure why the numbers have gone up — especially since the past decade has shown a decrease in local domestic violence arrests — although like Duffey, he's also hopeful it's due to an intensified focus on safe outlets. The APD has been actively adjusting their response to domestic violence cases, including new report forms that direct officers to take into account the emotional states of the victim and suspect in the risk assessment. Three staff trainings were held in 2018, such as Trauma Informed Interviewing, with additional teaching planned for 2019.
"This year I am focusing on developing my level of knowledge about crimes against people, particularly domestic violence, trafficking and sexual assault so as to make sure we improve where we need to," Pryor said. "The PD would like to have a staff member dedicated to victim services, and we are working to reorganize staffing to see if and how we could address this, however my feeling is that it would require another full-time employee."
Duffey says the steps being taken are tangible, and not just by the APD but the Pitkin County Sheriff's Office, child protective services and Mind Springs Health, too. Over the past couple of years, the organizations have significantly stepped up their efforts to keep each other informed.
Another of Response's major recent advances, thanks largely to its new(ish) executive director, Shannon Meyer, was attracting grants and donations for a transitional housing program that provides victims with a private residence for up to three months, a big leap from the maximum of three nights they previously offered.
The 2018 Response Chocolate Classic fundraiser was the organization's last one after nearly a quarter-century. This year it has a charity golf tournament planned instead for May 7 at the Roaring Fork Club. They're making discernible progress, even if the numbers hint at an entirely different story.
"We're not able to do everything for everybody but there's been huge shift in learning to recognize the signs of unseen abuse," Duffey said. "It's pretty progressive that so many local agencies are open to not just seeing a black eye; they know emotional abuse is real and valid. It'll take time but we're doing the best we can."
Follow Meredith Carroll on Twitter @MCCarroll. More at MeredithCarroll.com.
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