AFTER spending two years studying services for domestic violence survivors, I was surprised to realize that one of the most common barriers to women’s safety was something I had never considered before: the high value our culture places on two-parent families.
I began my research in 2011, the year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that more than one-third of American women are assaulted by an intimate partner during their lives. I talked to women in communities that ranged from a small rural mining town to a large global city, in police stations, criminal courts, emergency shelters, job placement centers and custody proceedings. I found that almost all of the women with children I interviewed had maintained contact with their abusers. Why?
Many had internalized a public narrative that equated marriage with success. Women experiencing domestic abuse are told by our culture that being a good mother means marrying the father of her children and supporting a relationship between them. According to a 2010 Pew report, 69 percent of Americans say single mothers without male partners to help raise their children are bad for society, and 61 percent agree that a child needs a mother and a father to grow up happily.
The awareness of the stigma of single motherhood became apparent to me when I met a young woman who was seven months pregnant. She had recently left her abusive boyfriend and was living in a domestic violence shelter. When I asked if she thought the relationship was over, she responded, “As far as being together right now, I don’t want to be together. But I do hope that in the future — because my mind puts it out there like, O.K., I don’t want to be a statistic.” When she said this, I assumed she was referring to domestic violence statistics. But she continued: “I don’t want to be this young pregnant mom who they say never lasts with the baby’s father. I don’t want to be like that.”
Shame about not meeting certain standards of motherhood was prevalent in upper-middle-class families, too. Women with professional and social prominence often feared tarnishing the veneer of their perfect-looking lives. Others were afraid of being judged for putting their children at risk by choosing a dangerous partner. One explained that she kept her abuse a secret because “I was embarrassed by the things I was seeing; I couldn’t let people know that he wasn’t the husband and provider we pretended he was.” Regardless of who they were, most survivors were acutely aware of how their victimization would influence their public identities as mothers.
The truly alarming part, however, is the extent to which the institutions that are intended to assist domestic violence survivors — protection order courts, mental health services, public benefits programs and child custody systems — reinforce this stigma with both official policies and ingrained prejudices.
Mental health professionals, law enforcement officials, judges and members of the clergy often showed greater concern for the maintenance of a two-parent family than for the safety of the mother and her children. Women who left abusive men were frequently perceived at best as mothers who had not successfully kept their children out of harm’s way and at worst as liars who were alienating children from their fathers.
In court, I watched a judge order the very first woman I interviewed to drop off her son at his father’s house every week for visitation. When she tried to tell the judge that she had a protection order against her child’s father and that she was concerned for her safety, the judge responded: “You know what? You are just trying to keep this child from his father, aren’t you?”
I saw women lose custody rights because they had moved with their children to friends’ houses or even into domestic violence shelters to escape abuse, and judges considered these “unsuitable living arrangements.” The children were sent back to their abusive fathers, who could provide “more stability.”
Another survivor I spoke with was tangled in a custody battle with her former boyfriend, who was also being prosecuted in criminal court for injuring their children. One afternoon, we sat outside the town’s courthouse. She had just lost two additional days a week of custody to the children’s father. The primary evidence against her was a picture of her drinking a cocktail, illustrating her apparent unsuitability as a mother. She said: “I tried to get my kids out before things got really bad, and the court was like, ‘Where are the bruises? It’s not so bad. Why are you alienating the kids from Dad?’ Next time they said, ‘Why didn’t you get out? Why didn’t you protect the kids?’ They want you to get away from the abuse and then they make it so hard.”
The very system meant to punish perpetrators and protect survivors of violence bound the two more tightly together. This reality deeply affected women’s choices; many calculated that they would rather live in abusive homes with their children than risk leaving them alone.
Since returning from my fieldwork, I have been struck by the pervasive narrative across the ideological spectrum regarding the value of two-parent families. To be sure, children who enjoy the support of two adults fare better on average than those who do not, and parents with loving partners often benefit from greater emotional and economic security. However, I have seen the ways in which prioritizing two-parent families tethers victims of violence to their assailants, sacrifices safety in the name of parental rights and helps batterers maintain control. Sweeping rhetoric about the value of marriage and father involvement is not just incomplete. For victims of domestic violence, it’s dangerous.
1) I got a job today
2) I am drunk
3) Sem is with me so I’m very happy
I started promising myself to
never stay anywhere I’m not
very much wanted. I have too
many scars to be breaking
my bones to fit into places
that weren’t made to fit me.
Cracking Down on Subway Dancers is Just Another Way of Criminalizing Black Youth - Mychal Denzel Smith (The Nation)
In March, we learned that under the new NYPD police commissioner, Bill Bratton, the number of stop-and-frisks police were making dramatically decreased. The New York Times reportedthat in the first two months of 2014 “police officers recorded making 353 stops for behavior deemed suspicious, compared with 5,983 last year.” And while that’s a welcome change from the sky-high number of racist and unconstitutional stop-and-frisks the city saw under Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, it does not spell the end of an overly aggressive police force. TheTimes also reported that “the arrests of peddlers and panhandlers on subways have more than tripled over the same period last year, with the police recording 274 such arrests as of March 2. By this point last year, they had made 90 such arrests.” Arrests like these effectively penalize the poor and homeless for the ways in which they survive. Additionally, notes theTimes, “Police statistics also indicate a noticeable spike in arrests for low-level violations in public housing developments.” While felony arrests were down 5 percent and misdemeanors flat, the number of arrests for violations, “a category that includes drinking beer in public and riding a bike on the sidewalk,” were up 21 percent.
One of the groups targeted in this new crackdown: subway break dancers. Almost anyone who has taken the subway in NYC has seen them, usually a crew of about four or five, typically young black men, who play loud music and perform in the subway car in hopes that passengers will be generous enough to tip them afterward.
So far this year, NYPD has arrested forty-six of them and charged them with reckless endangerment.
Admittedly, the dancers can be, at times, a little annoying. The instant they shout “Showtime!” and turn on the music, what could have been a quiet train ride is transformed into a party, whether you signed up for it or not. But the minor inconvenience they may pose for the few minutes they dance is certainly not worth an arrest. I also find it hard to be mad at them, knowing that school budgets, particularly for the arts, have been slashed to the point that few creative outlets exist for these kids, and we make next to no effort to create the jobs that would replace the money they earn from their dancing. If subway riders are complaining about the disturbance they cause, there must be another way to deal with them that doesn’t involve giving them arrest records.
Commissioner Bratton said of the subway dancers, “Those activities create a sense of fear, or that we’re not paying attention to disorder.” Those scary, disorderly, dancing young black bodies. Always causing fear.
And how long before that fear results in what happened to Nubia Bowe in Oakland?
On March 21, 19-year-old Bowe was arrested and sent to a county jail for four days after BART police (now infamous for the killing of Oscar Grant in 2009) responded to a complaint of loud music and dancing. After a witness who initially identified Bowe and two of her friends as the people who played the music recanted and told officers they weren’t the right group of people, the police still proceeded with the arrest. Bowe told Oakland’s Post News Group, “Once they pulled me off the train, I was first slammed to the ground and then thrown against the wall. The officers pushed me back down and continued to elbow and knee me in my back. My mouth was full of blood by then. The whole time this was happening, I repeatedly said ‘I am not resisting arrest. You are violating my civil rights.’”
Bowe says the aggression didn’t stop with the arrest, but continued when she reached Santa Rita jail, where “three male guards and one female guard came in my cell and beat me up. They hit me and then said that I assaulted one of them. So they chained my wrists to my ankles and tipped me over onto the urine-soaked ground so I couldn’t get up.”
The ease with which we criminalize and abuse black youth in this country would be astounding if it weren’t so routine.