CHARLESTON – For many domestic violence survivors, the challenge lies in not just breaking free of an abusive relationship, but also in avoiding becoming twice victimized by the judicial system.
"When I scheduled my first court date I almost didn't get it because the judge wanted to go Christmas shopping," said Kim Jones, referring to the Dec. 19 hearing she has for her pending divorce.
Jones, a former customer service manager, was one of four women who spoke at a Nov. 2 domestic violence awareness dinner at the Embassy Suites in Charleston. The dinner was co-sponsored by the Domestic Violence Counseling Center on Charleston's west side and the Healing Through Creativity program of the Museum in the Community in Hurricane.
Now on disability due to Multiple Sclerosis, Jones told the estimated 40 people in attendance she decided to file for divorce from her husband in April after enduring nearly five years of abuse, which included him destroying over $2,500 in medical supplies necessary to cope with her disease. Realizing that any judicial proceeding would take some time, Jones said she was not prepared for the insensitivity she received.
"We're treated worse than the abusers," Jones said.
That realization came to Maria Ormsby after renting a car and traveling to Atlanta, Georgia for her divorce hearing. Not until arriving there was she informed the hearing was postponed.
"I was there and ready to have my case heard when the judge told me my husband doesn't want to have it because he wants to dispute over child custody now," Ormsby said.
Mixed results from law enforcement
For Nancy Kemp, a student at West Virginia State University, dealing with the legal system is especially difficult since her ex-husband is a retired law enforcement officer. According to Kemp, some of his colleagues would discourage her from reporting him for fear it would destroy his career.
"When I would go to law enforcement they would see the bruises all over my neck and body, they would take me aside and say 'Can't we work this out. We don't want you to go public'," Kemp said.
Ironically, Kemp said it was the bold stand taken by a deputy sheriff that encouraged her to leave her husband. When she called police to intervene during an abusive episode, Kemp said the deputy refused to leave despite her husband poking a finger in his chest and threatening to have him fired.
Of the four women who spoke, Elva Bias, a social worker in Huntington, said she probably had the least difficulty in dealing with the legal system. The night she was violently assaulted by her ex-husband in their apartment in Prillerman Hall at WVSU, Bias said campus police quickly intervened when neighbors heard her cries for help.
That incident, Bias said, was the determining factor to leave her husband. Because he did little to contest their divorce, Bias was able to receive a final divorce decree in less than three years.
However, Bias said he still tries to have his way with her.
Recently, after he encountered her at the Charleston Town Center, Bias said he asked if she would take him somewhere.
When she politely refused, Bias said he backhanded her and busted her lip.
Legislation, media could help
Though many improvements could be made to the state's judicial system to aid domestic violence victims, Jones said DVCC, HTC and other organizations plan to push for a mental health initiative to be passed in the 2007 legislative session using existing resources.
Such a proposal, Jones said, would call for those who file for a domestic violence protective order to be visited by a victim's advocate to discuss with the victim the options available to him or her.
Such options, Jones said, would include receiving counseling which, for those who could not afford it, would be paid through the Crime Victims Compensation Fund.
"It's not just enough for domestic violence victims to leave the relationship," said Elizabeth Crawford, DVCC's director and a former chemist at a local chemical manufacturer who was abused by her husband who also worked at the same facility. "That's good, but that's just the first step."
"If we don't get counseling to resolve our issues what we end up doing is going back to that person or going out and seeking a person like the one we just left."
In the meantime, Martin Staunton, a reporter at WOWK-TV 13 in Charleston who moderated the discussion, challenged his colleagues in the media to be more aggressive in covering domestic violence issues. One idea would be for television stations especially to have a "daily domestic" in which at least one call a law enforcement agency receives for a domestic disturbance is featured on that evening's newscast.
"There's going to be some people that's going to be a deterrent to," Staunton said. "Because they don't want their business all up on TV."