names in this story have been changed.)
When Liliana first
came to us she couldn't tell us more than a sentence or two of
her story before she would be overcome with inconsolable grief.
"My baby! My baby!" was all she would say, "He
took my baby!" From there the rest of Liliana's story would
be drowned out in a torrent of tears. It took a week in the home
of loving Latina family before Liliana could even begin to reach
out through her grief.
Lilian's husband, we
were finally able to understand, had gone into family court and
gotten a domestic violence restraining order against her, had
obtained full legal custody of their baby, and had gotten Liliana
ordered out of the home. After years of suffering her husband's
abuse, Liliana, along with her five-year-old son from a previous
relationship, was now homeless, pennyless, frightened, and unable
to speak English in a foreign land. On top of the awful injustice,
Liliana was near paralyzed by the loss of her baby.
Here's how this terrible
situation came to be, and the steps we took to turn the case around.
In just a matter of weeks we were able to get Liliana full custody
of the baby, and a measure of justice, too. The details of the
steps taken in Liliana's case aren't necessarily the same steps
that will work with other domestic violence victims who find themselves
in similar circumstances. But the general principle of action
will almost always apply. Where ever there is a violent intimate
relationship, there is almost always a long trail of unexplored
evidence that, when documented, can be brought forth to expose
the truth and obtain justice.
Rick, was born and raised here in our county. As a high paid executive
in a large corporation he could easily afford sex tourism trips
into the third world. It was on one such trip where 49-year-old
Rick encountered 21-year-old Liliana, a single mother of a toddler
son, living in desperate poverty, and working the streets. Rick
bought Liliana for three days of prostitution, and then he offered
to pay her way to the states and marry her.
The next stage of violence
began within weeks of Liliana's arrival in the US. In the middle
of one night when Liliana's son began crying, Rick jumped angrily
out of bed, charging toward the boy's bed. "I didn't bargain
for this," he roared. As Rick reached down to press his hand
over the child's mouth, Liliana jumped up to intervene. Rick turned
and grabbed Liliana, threw her back on the bed, tore off her gown,
and raped her. Over the years they were together, Rick raped Liliana
again and again.
As intolerable as the
rapes were, they were still just the punctuation points in a regime
of humiliations and violence with which Rick enforced servitude
from every moment of Liliana's life. He constantly told her she
had no rights, and that she had to obey him. As just one of her
daily duties, when Rick arrived home from work, Liliana had to
kneel down and take off his shoes. Rick also told Liliana that
if she ever called police, the police would just laugh at her.
On that point, he wasn't too far from wrong.
Somehow, from some
reservoir of courage in her soul, Liliana began to protest and
rebel. Rick soon got sick of her, and sick of what he called her
'bastard child'. He began to plot a divorce in which he would
use the system to get all. One day he tried to make Liliana sign
a paper giving him full custody of the new baby they had together.
When she refused to sign, Rick called the police, and told police
that Liliana was suicidal and had threatened to kill herself.
Liliana urgently tried
to tell police in her limited English that her husband was lying.
When police didn't understand her, or didn't want to understand,
Liliana begged for an interpreter. Police responded by putting
Liliana in handcuffs and carting her off to the local mental hospital.
At the mental hospital Liliana had to wait a full day and a half
before the mental hospital got her an interpreter. The interpreter
the hospital provided for Liliana was the cleaning lady.
Still, Liliana used
the opportunity to tell all. But even after listening to her story,
the details of which are nothing less than modern day slavery,
the doctors merely decided that Liliana wasn't suicidal and sent
her home with her husband on the condition they both go to counseling.
It was only a couple sessions into the counseling before Rick
put an end to it, but not before Liliana had laid out her story
out here, too.
The rapes and humiliations
continued and so did Liliana's attempts to fight back and run
from the house. On one occasion when Liliana scratched Rick's
face in an attempt to avoid a rape, Rick again called the police
to make a criminal report of his wife's domestic violence. The
police obliged. When police found Liliana on the street and Liliana
tried to tell her side of the story, police again failed to provide
her with a interpreter. Liliana did, however, write out her statement
in Spanish. But even though she had written of her attempt to
escape sexual assault, police went ahead anyway with their domestic
violence crime report, with Liliana named as the suspect perpetrator.
With Liliana now the
suspect of a domestic violence crime report, Rick didn't waste
a minute. He went straight to family court and requested a restraining
order and full legal custody of the baby. Family court granted
him both. Liliana and her five year old son were kicked out of
the home and into the street.
The inequalities of
power in domestic violence relationships, combined with the pervasive
sexism of law enforcement, combined with the flaws of family court,
doom many women to the same or similar outrageous injustices that
came down on Liliana. Here's how we turned it around in Liliana's
- We explained the
legal situation to Liliana, and engaged her in going back through
her story with us on a search for evidence. Like most other
victims, once informed of basic legal points and what to search
for in her story, Liliana became very effective in leading us
to evidence and in helping us build her case.
Key to doing
this successfully with your client (or with your friend, or
yourself) is that you make very clear at the beginning that
you're going through the story, not in a therapeutic mode, but
in a focused search for evidence. If that isn't made very clear,
victims often become confused or hurt by the line of questioning.
Or at the very least, when the victim doesn't clearly understand
the purpose of going through the story again, you lose the essential
partnership of the person who is most capable of spotting the
evidence, i.e. the victim herself.
- Liliana pointed
us to the interpreter at the mental hospital, to the counselor
she and her husband had seen however briefly, to neighbors and
friends she had run to when she was trying get away from her
husband's rapes. She gave us names of people whose shoulders
she had cried on, and more. We contacted each of these people.
Most, though not all, were willing to write and sign brief statements.
- We gathered up as
much of the medical and legal documentation in the case as possible;
i.e. the police reports, hospital records, etc.just to make
sure we weren't missing anything.
- With Liliana's statement
and the statements of witnesses, police opened a rape investigation
against Liliana's husband.
- We presented family
court with copies of statements by witnesses; acquaintances
who stated she had run to their home seeking protection, the
interpreter, and the counselor who had briefly seen the couple.
We wrote a one page cover letter to the court. The letter gave
a summary story of the husband's abuse, a summary of the attached
evidence, and informed the court of the open criminal investigation
against the husband for rape - all condensed onto one page to
make sure the judge would actually read it.
- The above packet
stopped the family court in it's tracks, and in a matter of
weeks, the court completely reversed itself on the matter of
custody, and gave a just and generous settlement to Liliana
on the many other issues of the divorce. Liliana now has full
legal custody of her baby. And, given her ex-husband's high
economic status, she and her children are getting all the remedies
and resources they need and deserve.
In some ways Liliana's case was unusually difficult in that her
husband had already established a false legal record against her.
In addition, he was a powerful business person in the community.
In other ways, the case was easier than many, in that once Liliana
got going, she was an ace detective on her own case.
But it's worth repeating
the main point we want to make by telling Liliana's story. In
every domestic violence relationship, there is almost always a
trail of unexplored evidence. Engage the victim in a search for
this evidence, document it, strategize how best to use it legally,
and obtain justice for women.