Beating The System 

Nashville's fragmented approach to helping battered victims is in for a facelift

Nashville's fragmented approach to helping battered victims is in for a facelift

A woman’s husband has been in jail for seven of the last eight years. She’s got a minimum-wage job at McDonald’s and a 12-year-old son she’s doing her best to raise, only he’s starting to get a firsthand look at violence. More than once, he’s had to physically defend his mother from her husband’s pushing and shoving—along with listening to the man as he threatens to cut his mom “into tiny, little pieces.”

Such a scenario might be fitting for a lurid TV-movie of the week, but it’s not fiction: The woman, a Nashville resident, recently went to the city’s courts, seeking refuge from her abuser. Thousands of others just like her desperately try to make their way out of similarly heinous domestic situations every year in Nashville. But if life for such victims of domestic violence is hell on earth—living in fear of another beating, another drunken tirade, or another assault on the children—seeking help isn’t much better.

It’s fair to say that the system for “processing” such victims has come marathons since the days when local district attorneys were reluctant to prosecute husbands for “slapping around” their wives—in the not-too-distant past, such behavior was regarded as a private family issue. But there’s still a long way to go.

A woman—or man, for that matter—who finally musters the courage to seek protection from an abuser is always in for a rude awakening when she (or he) encounters the city’s Byzantine bureaucracy. Victims lucky enough to have transportation and a little money in their pockets can make their way to “Night Court” in downtown’s Criminal Justice Center to seek an order of protection. The paperwork contains a list of complicated questions requiring enormous detail, including the address, complete with zip code, where the abuser resides. If the victim is lucky, the Night Court commissioner will grant the temporary order. (Although once the order of protection is served on the abuser, the chances of the victim being murdered skyrocket.) Even then, she’ll have to come back downtown two weeks later to testify in court for the permanent order.

If the victim has children by her abuser, she’ll be told to go across the street to Circuit Court, where such orders are handled, while women who have children by someone other than their abuser stay in Night Court. To make things even more complicated, if a woman wants to start a paternity action against her abuser, she’ll have to get in the car and go to Juvenile Court. If she wants a warrant against her abuser, she’ll then have to travel to the Police Department’s Domestic Violence Division on Peabody Street to fill out more paperwork, then come back to Night Court with an officer to process that warrant.

“Now, let’s suppose a child’s with her the whole time, which is almost always the case,” says Valerie Wynn, a former counselor at the Police Department’s Domestic Violence Division. “The child’s crying, the child’s cranky, the child’s hungry, and, by the way, Mom may have just been beaten up the night before. She’s exhausted, she’s terrified, she doesn’t know if she’s got enough gas in the car, she has no money.”

By the time day one is over, a victim spends nearly eight hours and anywhere from $8 to $20 in parking to get help. Meanwhile, assuming she’s lucky enough to have a job—and many such women aren’t—she’s missed a day of work.

But it doesn’t end there. In the ensuing days, the victim misses more work, does more traveling, and finds herself on waiting lists for counseling. To add insult to her very real injury, she may not have been told about all the services available to her. All told, it generally takes 16 days or more for the victim to get the permanent order of protection and to begin receiving counseling and other services.

“If she needs housing, she must be at the [public housing] office at 7:30 a.m.,” says Wynn, a tough, straight-talking Philadelphian who’s seen too many terrorized and desperate victims of domestic violence. “She will wait five to six hours and may not be seen and may have to return. Right now, the waiting list is six to eight months.”

Getting help, in other words, requires not only enormous courage but also resources and resolve. “You have to picture a soldier coming from battle,” Wynn says. “That’s what victims look like. They’re exhausted, the kids are exhausted, and then you say, ‘We’re here to help you. Do you have 20 days, do you have $85, can you drive all over the world?’ ”

Many other cities across the country have also wrestled with the oppressive nature of helping victims—“survivors” is the term victim advocates prefer—abandon their world of violence and abuse in search of a protected, hopeful existence. But such places as Colorado Springs, Colo.; Louisville, Ky.; and Minneapolis, Minn., have overcome the challenge, developing centers that offer a seamless approach to connecting victims with police departments, court systems, and social service agencies that provide such necessities as housing options and job training.

This concept is one that Wynn and three other local women are planning to re-create in Nashville, and so far the response from relevant officials (including, not insignificantly, Police Chief Emmett Turner) and agencies has been overwhelmingly supportive. Before the end of the year, the Mary Parrish Center—named for the late mother of Wynn’s husband, Mark Wynn, a nationally recognized expert on the issue of domestic violence and a former lieutenant at the Metro Police Department—will open on Second Avenue, in building space being donated by Alice Zimmerman.

If all goes as planned, the revolutionary operation will literally transform Nashville’s approach to treating domestic violence survivors. It’s not too much to say that it could actually save lives, because the city’s currently fractured approach to helping victims is the very thing that causes women to give up on getting help.

In fact, Melanie Lutenbacher, a Vanderbilt researcher who recently collaborated on a project with Andrea Conte’s victim-advocate organization, You Have the Power, found that about 40 percent of Nashville victims who recently responded to a survey didn’t get help because the system seemed too daunting or because they didn’t know where to go. And of the 60 percent who did seek help, one-half of them responded they felt they didn’t get the help they really needed.

“Basically, this is how I look at it,” Wynn says. “Domestic violence is a family problem, and we’re not addressing it as a family problem.”

The agencies, government and otherwise, involved in serving victims of domestic violence all acknowledge that the system is inefficient and cumbersome to navigate, as do individual volunteers. Zimmerman, who founded and volunteers for a special program that helps victims get orders of protection in Night Court, sees the system in action every week. It’s frustrating from the get-go: Women who take that first step have to do so in Night Court—a seedy, depressing, 24-hour revolving door for the dregs of Nashville humanity, people being arrested or turning themselves in for one transgression or another. Zimmerman bristles at all the hassle that follows. And she doesn’t mince her words: “The name of this loony tune is the victim is victimized by the system.”

If a skeptic wanted to discount that point of view as the impassioned discontent of a victim advocate, think again. Jean Crowe, managing attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee, says there are countless studies that show victims are battered by the very system that’s supposed to help them.

One woman, for example, recently went to Night Court—in between 16-hour nursing shifts—to get an order of protection against her husband, an alcoholic whose abusive tirades had prompted her to live with a family member, even though she is the sole owner and mortgage holder of her home. Because her lawyer had, for some unexplained reason, filed her pending divorce in another county, the Night Court commissioner would not immediately grant the order of protection. In the meantime, volunteers and Circuit Court officials reached by telephone from Night Court tried to figure out what the woman needed to do to get protection from her husband.

Not only will a one-stop shop cut through a bureaucratic nightmare so problematic that some women abandon it before they get help, it will offer what victims in Nashville cite, over and over, as the single most important service they need and are currently without: long-term counseling.

“The whole notion of long-term help came up over and over again,” Vanderbilt’s Lutenbacher says of her recent research with You Have the Power and further inquiries of her own in which she interviewed a diverse sampling of 40 domestic-abuse survivors in Nashville: “One woman said, ‘You know, they can give me a roof over my head and some clothes for now, but then what about after that?’ We definitely need a coordinated approach and a lot more education to the community.”

When Wynn worked as a counselor at the domestic violence unit, she says she never really felt that the women she worked with were leaving her care much better off. “We get her out, then what?” she explains in her no-nonsense Yankee accent. “No money, a couple of kids, maybe no job skills, her self-esteem decimated. She can’t even contemplate getting a job, and often there’s no transportation.”

The solution for counselors such as Wynn, who had only limited time and resources to offer, was generally to get such women into federally subsidized, or Section 8, housing. The whole process bothered her, she says, because she felt she was furnishing victims with only a fraction of the services they needed. “I’d sit there and think, OK, Mary’s with her three kids in Section 8 housing. Did I help her? Is she safe? Bullets are whizzing by, the children are seeing God-knows-what.’ We want to do more than get them safe and stick them in Section 8 housing. We want to give them their lives back.”

General Sessions Judge Gale Robinson, one of two Nashville jurists who handle the domestic violence dockets, concedes that Nashville’s approach to the problem has been nowhere close to ideal. “When you have to work with the government on anything, sometimes the operation isn’t real smooth,” he says. “And that’s not to say anything bad about the victim advocates or our treatment centers or the shelters or the Police Department or the courts or the district attorney’s office, but if you had something under one roof to deal with the issuance of the orders of protection and everything else, it would be absolutely wonderful.”

As it is, not only is service to local victims both limited and fractured, but an agency or government office on one side of town may be completely unaware of what another Nashville agency is offering. “One program, I just found out a few months ago, does job placements,” Wynn says. “Do you know how many women I could have possibly sent over there if I had known? And it’s not their fault, and it’s not my fault. We are all so busy with this work. I can’t know everything you’re doing at your agency, and you can’t know everything I’m doing at mine.”

Whitney McFalls, a victim advocate for the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and one of the center’s four founders, says that as more services have become available to victims, the resulting confusion has only poisoned their efforts to get help. “Things have been started with good intentions, but it’s all been fragmented.”

The Mary Parrish Center is named for a domestic violence survivor who spent years putting up with beatings so bad they often landed her in the hospital—one time, her abuser threw her out of a moving car. Despite her repeated pleas, law enforcement officials wouldn’t, or couldn’t, protect her. So one day, Parrish packed her children—including Mark Wynn, who hurriedly poured his pet goldfish in a Kool-Aid pitcher—and what few possessions she could manage into her car and never looked back. “Despite many years of abuse and terrorism,” the center’s literature says, “[Parrish] managed to successfully raise five children to adulthood, all of whom now lead productive and peaceful lives.”

Already, Police Department officials, judges, court officials, local advocacy organizations, and various individuals have all signed on as willing and eager participants in the center. Knowing how inefficiently the wheels of bureaucracy turn for victims now, hearing Valerie Wynn explain how victims will be handled at the Mary Parrish Center induces a sort of mind-calming feeling for an observer. And for victims, what Wynn describes could very well change their lives and offer immediate hope for a real future.

“You walk in the door, and we do an intake with you assessing all your needs,” she says. “Where are you with money? Where are you with job skills? Do you have job skills? What’s your transportation situation? What’s your housing situation?”

Everyone the victim needs to see is in the building. A domestic violence detective is right down the hall, the Night Court commissioner is available by closed-circuit television; there are interpreters, job trainers, counselors, even volunteering doctors offering free exams. Nashville corporations will be calling the center with job openings and training opportunities. “By the way, let’s put the kids in the playroom that has volunteers who are going to watch the children,” Wynn continues. “And are you hungry? Are the kids hungry? Do you need clothing?”

While such a place may seem downright utopian by current standards, it’s not. Other cities have pulled it off, and funding, Wynn predicts, “will come.” Organizers plan to open the center this fall as a shoestring operation with a budget of about $100,000; they’ll increase services as private donations, grant money, and other resources become available.

But not all of the center’s personnel will have to be privately funded. Nearly every agency and government office involved in combating domestic violence has agreed to participate. That doesn’t mean the government would have to hire new staff; it simply means reassigning people from various offices. McFalls, for example, who currently works in the Legal Aid office, would spend a day or two at the center every week, perhaps rotating with other counselors. A detective from the police’s Domestic Violence Division—or a rotating handful of them—could be permanently assigned there.

Wynn says the center will mitigate costs with a thrift shop that will serve three purposes at once: to generate income, to provide jobs, and to offer low-cost, basic necessities for victims, many of whom flee their abusive situations with only their children and the clothes on their backs. “Women are women are women,” she says. “And we feel better when we get our hair fixed and we get some clothes. It’s important not just to get you safe but to make you feel pretty again. No matter what our circumstances are, we’re still women.”

While it would be dishonest to argue with the fact that most victims of domestic violence are women, not all of them are, and not all of them are involved in heterosexual relationships. Keeping this in mind, the Mary Parrish Center will recruit volunteers from Nashville’s gay and lesbian community, as well as representatives from other, less visible victims’ constituencies, such as Adult Protective Services, which offers help to older citizens. All indications are that such groups are eager to get involved.

Ask her whether it will be onerous getting all the various agencies and groups to work together, and Wynn seems undeterred. “Everyone we’ve discussed this with is very supportive, but I’m not naive,” she says. “This is going to be about getting people to work together, which is always a challenge.”

But, in the end, Wynn views the Mary Parrish Center as the only real solution to a situation that has festered far too long. “It’s a holistic approach to healing a problem that affects a whole person—and when you rob a person of everything and you devastate their soul, you can’t do it any other way.”

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