This past spring, Dana Hall senior Lindsey Cohen had the unique opportunity to accompany some of REACH’s advocates to court as part of her senior project. Her journal about her experiences offers a glimpse of what life is like for our advocates and survivors as they navigate the court system…
Today I went into REACH for my first day, which, given the nature of a domestic violence agency, was a day full of scheduling changes. I was going to sit in on a meeting, but due to the unforeseen conflicts the meeting was cancelled. So my first day at the office was uneventful, but I got situated with the building, the security codes, and my schedule for the upcoming days.
All I can say is wow from today. First, I went to Cambridge with my mentor, Maria. And honestly, even the car ride was fascinating. I learned about the presentation she gave the previous afternoon to law enforcement and other domestic violence agencies, talking about sex trafficking and related issues. She talked to law enforcement about the importance of using a trauma-based approach (which among other things means to talk with a caring tone to victims of domestic abuse. Victims suffer from trauma; therefore they might not recall certain events because they blocked them from their minds to cope, and inability to recall events does not necessarily undermine them). It was my first time ever in a courthouse and I sort of felt like a tourist going through a metal detector. Then, we searched for a woman for whom Maria was acting as an advocate (REACH often does this, where people like Maria are present in the court room as a support for the domestic abuse victim). Eventually we found her walking out of a court room, having learned that her court date was moved.
Then, we made our way to the courthouse in Concord, where we went to a criminal trial for a woman who works with REACH, and Maria was present for support. I got to see jury selection, opening statements, recesses, cross examination, and drum roll please… a mistrial! Due to circumstances in the trial, which I will not disclose, there was a mistrial, which apparently does not happen often. So this woman’s trial was for an event two years ago, and after the mistrial today the next court date is five months away. I simply cannot wrap my mind around how a victim of domestic abuse could be so brave to testify and will now need to prepare again and repeat the trial.
Today I accompanied Maria to the Waltham District Court. I must note that Maria spent all of the previous afternoon and evening with this survivor and all morning before I met her at 12. The cases in this court pertained to probation violations and restraining orders. Overall, the entire day was interesting, but somewhat draining for Maria, understandably. This survivor disclosed many details about her abuse. The case got pushed past the recess for lunch. Maria and I went back to the office while the survivor left for lunch, and when we returned to the court house the survivor did not show up for her case. It was frustrating, but at the same time, it taught me that some victims of domestic abuse are still in love with their abuser.
I spent today first in the REACH office for the shelter team meeting and then I traveled to yet another court room (this time in Woburn). At the court I witnessed three restraining order cases all with various outcomes.
Today I spent the majority of my time in the REACH shelter. I need to start by saying, wow! My family has donated money to REACH for longer than I can remember, and much of this money went to building their shelter. But hearing about the shelter and seeing it were two entirely different things. It was such a nice house, honestly. There were several bathrooms, playrooms, kitchens, bedrooms; anything one would find in a typical house. It was so incredibly clean and it impressed me that the staff and the residents at the shelter take pride in where they work and its presentation. Also, I applaud the amount of security that goes into creating a safe space. For example, when Maria and I went to the shelter she had me follow her in another car, rather than give me the address. On the REACH website there are no addresses listed in order to protect the confidentiality of the organization and its individuals.
After my time at the shelter in the morning, I returned to the office to sit in on a meeting between Maria and another advocate to discuss new intakes. They discussed the respective survivors’ stories, situations, backgrounds, and need for safety planning to leave or deal with their abuser.
Today was full of excitement. I began the day in the Waltham Court for a restraining order case. This was the first time I truly realized just how slow the court system is and how unlike the way TV portrays it. For example, perhaps 6 of the 10 cases reviewed in the session I sat in on were only cases where a new date for trial was determined. After about 2 hours of these tedious date changes, the woman REACH was accompanying told her case for maybe two minutes, and because the other party did not show up she was granted the restraining order.
That evening I attended a training session for new volunteers, board members, REACH supporters, and police officers on trauma. We discussed what trauma looks like, feels like, and what the coping mechanisms are to deal with it. What I learned from this training was that most coping mechanisms are ways to regain control. For example, acting out is a way to control one part of one’s life while others are so confusing. Also, inflicting self harm is a way to control oneself. And self- blame is another way people deal with a situation to help reason why such a tragic event can occur. It was a long 13- hour day and I am now, honestly as I’m writing this, realizing just how tired I am. But it was completely worth it.
Once again I traveled to Canton for a day in court shadowing another REACH advocate. Among other things in court today, I saw somebody arrested. It’s not like I haven’t seen anybody arrested before, but seeing a man in a savvy suit handcuffed was a different experience. He was arrested for not paying child support on time, even though he promised that he would pay it gradually over the subsequent couple of weeks.
Most important though was the custody case I was in court for. This survivor had recently hired a new attorney for the case, and she could not have been more content with her new attorney because this attorney acted as an advocate for her. For example, when the abuser was pacing back and forth in the lobby and murmuring rude comments near the survivor, the attorney politely, yet firmly, asked him to distance himself and said that his comments were inappropriate (there is a restraining order in place). This woman’s past attorneys simply told her to ignore her abuser’s actions, and it seems they were more focused on the job and not on their client’s well-being. Over the past couple weeks, I have seen some of the frustrating parts of the court system, but this attorney showed me how much of a difference one person can make for a client, how much of an advocate each person can be if they put their mind to it. Lastly, as the two parties were leaving the court room and the verdict was not entirely in the abuser’s favor he started running after the survivor, and his attorney had to grab him by the shirt and hold him back. Such an action can only be summarized by what the survivor said, “You see. That’s why I don’t want him around my children.”
I can’t believe my time at REACH has come to an end; it could not have been a better experience. I learned so much; for example, how it is possible for a victim to be less “charming” than their abuser and thus the victim’s credibility is undermined. Additionally, I recognize that the legal system alone cannot give the survivors all of what they want. I recognize that sometimes safety planning is necessary to identify when the best time is to leave a relationship.
After my time spent with REACH I realize how important it is for law enforcement and the court system to understand the vulnerability of victims. I am glad that REACH is teaming up with the Waltham police for an educational course on domestic cases and the behavior surrounding them. I am sad that my time at REACH is over, but as my family will continue to have a relationship with the organization I know I will be in attendance at events whenever possible. I know that if I become a lawyer I would utilize everything I have learned here to be an attorney, like the woman I witnessed on Friday, who made her clients feel respected and heard.
Lindsey graduated from Dana Hall this past spring and is off to study philosophy, political science, and business at Johns Hopkins in the fall. She is interested in exploring a career in the legal field. Congratulations Lindsey and we wish you all the best!