An Abusive New Year's Eve
A night that begins with the sounds of revelry, ends with the sounds of violence
New Year's Eve: the click-clack of noisemakers, the pop of handheld confetti cannons, the clink of champagne flutes -- and for myself and a friend in New York City, hearing the blood-curdling screams of a woman being beaten by a man in the apartment downstairs and one of her two children crying out, "My mommy is dying!"
Initially, there were no screams coming from the apartment directly below us, just loud thuds. We at first erred on the side of blaming booze for the first sounds of commotion downstairs. After peeking down a short staircase, we identified two men fighting in the apartment doorway. No sign or sound of children. No sign or sound of the woman. We figured that the fighting would soon stop. It was New Year's Eve after all and, unfortunately, there’s nothing out of the norm about two men getting into a fistfight after a night of drinking.
Things quickly became worse. The woman, who my friend identified as her downstairs neighbor, began screaming, as if for her life. A man’s voice rang out, “Stop hitting her, man! She’s bleeding!” His cries didn’t stop the ruckus. The physical violence became so loud and forceful that each bang and thud could be felt through the floor of my friend’s apartment above it. And then the children started screaming.
My friend and I had just welcomed in the new year as witnesses to domestic violence and with multiple calls to 911 as one of the woman's children for several minutes pleaded, “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” And, after nearly an hour more of endless screaming and sounds of physical violence, having to call again when one of the children cried out, “My mommy is dying!”
By dialing 911, my friend and I had done what advocates for domestic violence victims say many are hesitant to do and, moreover, are not trained to assess. And it's a situation for which, victim advocates say, there are few options for safe intervention aside from calling the police.
“We all want to do the right thing, and often we’re not sure what that is,” said Lorien Castelle, director of prevention programs for the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
“You really want the first responders (police) to know what they are doing and to do it well,” Castelle said. “But the rest of us who just live in the world, on occasion, are exposed to this kind of thing. We want people to be an ‘upstander,’ not just a bystander. It’s about standing up for what’s right and doing it safely.”
Based on what I'd described to her in a phone interview, Castelle said calling the police was the right thing to do in this instance. She also calmed concerns my friend and I had in the aftermath about incurring possible retaliation by the alleged abuser. Castelle says abusers aren’t likely to come after bystanders because they aren’t the ones that he (or she) wants to control.
“Half of the abusers in the world are also abusing their kids,” Castelle said. “They only feel entitled to beat up women and children because the culture tells them that they are their property.”
“That’s what makes being an upstander so hard; it’s our own fear that can prevent action,” Castelle said.
Veteran abuse victims advocate Marisa McCullough said that that fear is why she’s working to train police officers who can dialogue with the community and make reporting in-progress domestic violence safer.
“That fear of retaliation is a barrier for why people will not call,” said McCullough, director of training for the San Diego Regional Training Center in California. “I’ve worked cases where no one calls. Upon follow-up, people say they heard stuff but no one intervened.”
My friend and I had real concerns about the children of the woman living downstairs as well.
Attempts to obtain a police report of the incident on Wednesday were unsuccessful and requests for available information were not immediately returned.
But before police arrived, the man who I believe beat the woman fled the apartment and the building with the woman’s son. I could hear the woman screaming for her child, and I quickly peered out of my friend's apartment window to see a man and a boy of about 5 or 6 running down the street to the nearest avenue. The woman’s fearful screams turned to guttural cries of rage. She left her apartment, climbed the stairs and began banging on my friend’s door.
“Give me back my son!” she screamed, in between more cries of rage. We didn’t open the door. My friend, through her own tears, yelled that she was trying to get the woman some help. The woman, clearly disoriented, tore apart of full bag of trash sitting outside my friend’s apartment and threw the debris down the stairs leading back to her own apartment. Soon after, her cries were silent and a second child could be heard crying, seemingly out of concern for the woman. Finally, after five calls to 911, squad cars arrived, but their sirens weren’t at all blaring. In my last call to police, I told a dispatcher that an ambulance was likely needed. EMT arrived on scene about 30 minutes after the police.
McCullough says bystanders do the best service to victims by first considering their own safety before getting involved. She also says bystanders should be prepared to be the best witnesses to the incident as possible, even writing down details to aid investigations, especially those that occur days or months after the initial incident.
Both Castelle and McCullough said the work to educate the public about recognizing and preventing domestic abuse is as needed as ever.
According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, on average, 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner in the U.S. This type of violence resulted in 2,340 deaths in 2007 and accounted for 14 percent of all U.S. homicides.
Even though health experts call abuse a public health epidemic, there isn’t much recent study of public opinion about domestic violence. A 1999 survey by the Florida Department of Corrections found that an overwhelming majority of Floridians believed domestic violence was a widespread problem in society.
But if those strong opinions still existed in 2012, they didn’t seem to have a sway over Republican lawmakers in Congress, who on Wednesday ended the 112th session without revisiting the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act. The bill would have extended domestic violence protections to an estimated 30 million LGBT individuals, undocumented immigrants and Native American women – a sticking point for conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives.
Advocates have long championed the VAWA for the funding it provides to prevention programs like the ones Castelle oversees.
“You don’t change the way a whole culture thinks about something in 10, or 20, or 30 years,” Castelle said. “We have a residue that is ingrained in us -- that women get what they deserve and that it’s so easy to walk away from an abuser. It’s not easy to leave. It’s not easy to get the criminal justice system to do something. Women often don’t have the resources to get out and stay out.”
Castelle said she’s particularly concerned with the line of thinking in communities of color, where she says women are protecting men to keep them out of the jail and prison systems.
“There are still women that I encounter today that will make excuses for their men, saying they don’t want to see more men of color in prison. They’ll say, ‘I’m not calling the police. He’s going to get arrested. He’s going to jail. We don’t want to see more men in handcuffs,’ ” Castelle said. “We have to be about establishing an attitude in our communities that this is not acceptable and to stop the violence before it even happens.”
There was likely nothing my friend (nor I) could have done to prevent what transpired early on New Year's Day. My friend says she’d never heard or noticed any signs of intimate partner violence before.
That morning, we watched from a window as paramedics put the seemingly groggy or unconscious woman, strapped to an orange stretcher, into a waiting ambulance. Police handcuffed and put someone in the back of a squad car, but it was unclear how that person was involved in the incident.
It was also still unclear what happened to the children. As of Wednesday, my friend said she hadn’t seen her downstairs neighbor return home.
If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence, call the 24-hour National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).