By Alison Gene Smith
The Times-News, Twin Falls, Idaho.
The first time Richard hit her, Lindsay was six months pregnant.
Next he broke her nose. But she stayed.
She finally left him when their daughter was a year old.
Lindsay, then about 20, said she wanted their daughter to have her father in her life.
Like many abused women, she wanted to make it work.
“My parents have been married 34 years. I grew up with stability, and that’s what I want,” she said.
The preference toward staying with an abuser for the sake of the family is not only personal, but also drives decisions in the legal system, said Karen McCarthy, a lawyer with Idaho Legal Aid Services in Twin Falls.
“… but he’s a really good dad” is something McCarthy often hears after a victim talks about the abuse. Women refer to an abuser’s parenting skills as a reason to stay with him.
And the law presumes that children benefit from having both parents in their lives, even when one parent is violent.
Religion also can affect a woman’s decision on whether to leave, McCarthy said.
The more devout a person is, the more difficult that decision can be, she said. “You’ve taken vows before God.”
One woman told McCarthy in tears, “I wish my husband was cheating on me and not beating me.” That would be a legitimate reason for divorce in her church.
On the same day, McCarthy met with several pastors, including a Greek Orthodox priest. She asked what advice to give the woman.
The priest told McCarthy to help her get a divorce. “This isn’t a marriage sanctioned in Heaven,” he told her.
Violence wasn’t what made Lindsay leave, though. She said she didn’t look for help, though friends and family often picked her up, battered, outside her house. “I felt so helpless,” she said.
But then she found out Richard had been unfaithful and fathered a child with another woman shortly after their daughter was born.
“He also went to jail. That helped,” Lindsay said.
A district judge had found Richard guilty of drug and alcohol abuse and habitual domestic violence.
Lindsay said that when she finally did leave him, she felt as if the facade of a perfect family was ruined.
“When all that comes down, you feel like a failure,” she said.
But she was lucky. When she told her parents about the abuse, they helped her financially and emotionally. Many others must rely on Idaho Legal Aid Services, a non-profit agency that provides civil legal services for low-income people.
Fighting abusive spouse for custody
Nearly all of McCarthy’s cases are on domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. She represents clients in civil cases of protection orders, divorce and child custody. Other attorneys in the office work on wrongful evictions, government benefits, health issues, consumer protection and assistance for migrant workers.
McCarthy often represents clients whose abusive partners sue for custody of the children.
In one case, she said, a client’s ex-husband finished a prison sentence for domestic violence and immediately filed for custody of their children. His attorney argued that the violence only happened between the parents, not in front of the children.
“Domestic violence always affects the kids,” McCarthy said. “If Legal Aid isn’t here, these kinds of things happen.”
Soon after divorcing, Lindsay met Roger Wilkinson, and the two moved in together. Even after they broke up, Wilkinson wanted to see Lindsay’s daughter, she said in court documents. Wilkinson had been a good father figure, and her daughter seemed to like spending time with him, she said.
But Wilkinson was manipulative, Lindsay said. He got her to sign legal documents that he’d written, including ones to give him custody of her daughter and outlining when Lindsay could visit. The two eventually settled on trading visits every week.
In court documents, a judge said Wilkinson went “above and beyond” what would be expected of a person wanting contact with a minor. The judge also couldn’t find an explanation for why he had Lindsay sign multiple documents. Wilkinson’s actions boarded on obsessive, the judge wrote.
Lindsay said her daughter became anxious, behaved differently and grew paranoid about her mother, always reminding her to buckle her seatbelt. That was a red flag for Lindsay; she stopped the girl’s visits with Wilkinson.
After that, she said, her daughter became more social, slept well and had fewer nightmares. Steven, Lindsay’s father, testified in court that his granddaughter slowly became more “bubbly” and was getting back to her old personality after not seeing Wilkinson for several months.
In court, Wilkinson showed the papers Lindsay had signed. Although they weren’t legally binding, a judge decided Wilkinson had spent enough time with the girl as a father figure that visitation would be good for her, even though he is not biologically related and it was against Lindsay’s wishes.
“The child is simply best served by some contact with Roger but minimal contact that does not interfere with Lindsay’s parenting,” the judge wrote. “If the parties both truly care about this child, they will accept that (Lindsay) is the mother and decision-maker concerning (her daughter); that Roger has a role to play — as a supportive and important friend for life. …”
On Mother’s Day 2013, Lindsay’s daughter broke down and told her Wilkinson had sexually abused her multiple times, starting when she was 4.
On May 28, 2013, Wilkinson was charged with five felony counts of lewd and lascivious conduct. Last Oct. 24, the case was dismissed for inactivity.
Steven said they had been waiting for the state lab to return evidence. Prosecutors told Lindsay they would refile when all the evidence was in.
Because the case was dropped, so was the no-contact order between Wilkinson and the girl. With the custody order still in place, Wilkinson was legally entitled to visit her two days a month, Lindsay said.
She got an emergency protection order, but the thought that WIlkinson could have come to her door and taken her daughter for the weekend terrified her.
On Nov. 1, the charges were refiled. Nearly two weeks later, Lincoln County sheriff’s deputies and local authorities found Wilkinson in Salt Lake City. “Basically, we had a warrant, and a warrant team went to serve him at his place of employment and he ran,” Lincoln County Sheriff Kevin Ellis said.
A trial is to begin in August.
“The burden is on us to keep our life together and stay healthy,” Lindsay said.
Small towns, long distances
Idaho’s rural landscape makes it difficult to get help to victims.
In 1999, Idaho Legal Aid Services created its first legal advice line. “It enabled us to serve all 44 counties for brief but important legal advice,” said Jim Cook, the agency’s state director.
A similar challenge is posed for the Mini-Cassia Shelter, which serves 14 towns across 3,000 square miles encompassing Cassia and Minidoka counties and part of Jerome County, said shelter Director Pam Harris.
Harris said she struggles to balance getting the word out about the shelter’s services and maintaining safety for the clients.
People often recognize her car. One abuser followed her from court to the shelter. And former clients or their abusers are everywhere, she said. That can be good and bad.
“I can’t even walk into Walmart without seeing somebody,” she said.
For clients from Burley, Albion and Hazelton, getting to Rupert is difficult, especially for those with a controlling abuser.
In one of her cases, Harris said, the abuser regularly checked the odometer on his wife’s car.
“Who else did you see?” he’d ask. “I’ll know. I’ll see it.”
On the other hand, many people don’t even know help is available.
“We’ve been here nine years, and it’s still like, ‘Oh there’s a shelter here?'” she said.
Harris said she has trouble keeping shelter board members. It has five now but needs a dozen.
“Why can’t we shout out that we’re in this field?” she asked, rather than keeping mum about involvement with domestic violence.
McCarthy said she does a safety plan with every client. Before any legal paperwork is filed, the person must have a way out of the relationship.
They also have to change their daily routine, which is difficult in a small town.
“We’re habitual people,” McCarthy said. People drive the same way to work, park in the same spot, eat at the same places. You know when someone’s not at church, because they often sit in the same pew week after week.
An extinct mindset
Cultural norms about domestic abuse are changing, Cook said.
On one of his first cases in the early 1990s, he said, the offender and many around him didn’t understand what the man had done wrong.
“They called it ‘training up your woman,'” he said.
While many batterers still don’t understand why abuse is wrong, that attitude is fading, Cook said.
In Idaho and nationally, partner violence is waning. While some service providers worry that will mean less funding for people who need help, Cook is optimistic. “We’re winning. It’s actually getting better.”
Abuse victims often show up in Twin Falls County Prosecutor Grant Loebs’ office, trying to get charges against their partner dropped.
Loebs said his staff tries to advise the women that cooperating with the prosecution is the best way to get treatment for their husband or boyfriend.
“If he doesn’t get treatment, it will happen again,” Loebs said.
McCarthy agreed. If no one is treated after the relationship ends, both will get worse. The victim may find an even more controlling partner, and the abuser will get more violent, she said.
Loebs’ office covers domestic violence cases in Twin Falls County outside Twin Falls and Filer. It also prosecutes all felonies countywide. That leaves the vast majority of domestic violence cases, misdemeanors within city limits, to prosecutor Fritz Wonderlich.
If police show up and see visible trauma, that can instigate an immediate felony charge, Loebs said.
But if prosecutors have only the victim’s statement, and she recants, they’ll still try to charge the abuser with something, Loebs said. Sometimes a felony charge is reduced to misdemeanor domestic violence or to disturbing the peace or disorderly conduct.
“The goal in every case is to convict him of what he did,” Loebs said. “We don’t reduce to disturbing the peace or a misdemeanor unless the evidence will not allow us to go forward.”
Sometimes prosecutors can use evidence such as photos of injuries or statements to police even if the victim refuses to testify, he said.
“We have to look at the case like there’s no victim. Sometimes we can prosecute, sometimes not.”
Even then, it’s tough. “Juries hate that,” he said. “You have to have really good evidence.”
Even if the jury wants to convict, many people have the lingering thought that the victim might have had it coming.
“‘She pushes his buttons’ is a domestic violence catch phrase,” Loebs said.
Despite such thoughts, he said, attitudes toward such abuse have changed. Twenty years ago, police usually would separate the two people and tell them to take a cooling-off period. Now officers are specially trained in how to deal with such cases.
In the late 1990s, Twin Falls received a grant for domestic violence training and designated a special prosecutor and special police investigator.
But things first began to transition in the early ’80s, said Don Thueson, an investigator for the prosecutor’s office and former police officer.
“It took a lot of time and training to break the old mindset,” Thueson said.
In 1993, domestic violence became its own law in Idaho’s legal code. That helped a lot, he said.
Often, a woman didn’t want to press charges, so the officer just drove away, Thueson said.
Loebs said “disturbing the peace” was the code word for a domestic violence call. Now, “That mindset is extinct.”
Stages of recovery
After holding herself together for so long, Lindsay said, it was tough to admit she had been abused. If she told someone and they responded with a furrowed brow or accidental frown, she felt as if they were disappointed in her .
“There’s 100 different thoughts going on,” she said.
But after finally telling her family, Lindsay said, her thought process began to change, and independence began to emerge.
“I’m a lot stronger now.”
Loebs said victims are sometimes reluctant to participate in a case because they depend on the abuser financially, even for shelter.
And, he said, “They love the guy — and they really do.”
Abuse is isolating, McCarthy said. Victims are shut off from friends and family and left to rely only on their abuser.
“Nobody wants to be an abuser; nobody wants to be abused,” she said.
But some women find a controlling relationship appealing. “It looks good at first,” she said. “It’s proof of love.”
Then the victim becomes isolated. She has no job, she’s far from her family and she’s lost her friends.
“You get into the situation where you’re in love and you don’t want to admit it’s happening to you,” McCarthy said.
She said she ran into a law school friend in a grocery store. The woman recently had left an abusive relationship in which she only bought grocery items from the list her abuser gave her.
“I have no idea what I like to eat,” she told McCarthy.
Victims are told they’re incompetent for so long that they come to believe it, she said. “They do not believe they have the power and control to make it on their own.”
Many women who come to the Mini-Cassia Shelter have trouble moving forward in their lives, Harris said.
“It’s like telling someone to swim, but they’re afraid of water. They don’t know that they can take care of themselves.”
Moving on takes time, courage and determination, Harris said.
McCarthy said Idahoans’ independent nature makes it tough for many to seek help.
“Our culture is we’re independent, conservative, help-yourself kind of people.”
For a long time, abuse was considered a private issue, to be handled behind closed doors.
For the most part, McCarthy said, those ideas are gone. But some still internalize such feelings.
“We’re an independent group. Sometimes that’s wonderful. Sometimes it’s not.”