The Family Court Crisis in the US


Jennifer Collins wrote the following column about the tragic flaws in the system that supposedly protects victims of domestic violence.  The story she tells is distressingly common.   Find the original story at this excellent website.

The Holly Collins Case: recognizing the Family Court Crisis in the US


A few months after Holly Collins turned 22 years old she opened the front door of her family home in St Louis Park, Minnesota to Hennepin County Child Protection investigators. They made it known that they were aware of her husband’s abuse to her and her children, specifically citing a recent fracture to her little boy’s skull. This young mother was warned that if she didn’t flee immediately with her children and file for an Order For Protection her children would be removed from her care as well and there would be a procedure of Failure To Protect charges filed against her.  This is one way to force a battered woman to leave her abuser and protect her children.

One may think it is a bit harsh to threaten an abuse victim with criminal charges but perhaps necessary to protect her and her children.

It is incomprehensible that as a result of the Order For Protection, which was granted and forbade Mark Collins from abusing his wife and children, the father was simultaneously granted unsupervised visitation with the very children he abused.

This girl, barely a woman couldn’t understand the ramifications of the family court system.  Holly Collins sought out the Child Protection Investigators who forced her to take her children away from their abusive father and went directly to the Child Protection office in a panic begging them to protect her children. “This is why I stayed” She wept “At least I could protect the children MOST of the time. Now my children have to go alone with him and there is no one there to protect them.”

The child protection desk agent was sympathetic but explained that once this battered woman took actions to protect her children and left her abuser the case was then transferred from Juvenile Court to Family Court and it was her duty as a mother to get the family court judge to protect her children.In the meantime Holly’s young children would return from court ordered visitations battered and bruised. Holly’s little boy was treated by their pediatrician for injuries sustained from his father‘s abuse.  The doctor’s report documents the bruises to the young lad and clearly states “Mother will be alert for abuse potential situation.”

For 5 more years Holly Collins was alert and vigilant to protect her children but time after time and one court hearing after another Mark Collins somehow managed to convince the judge that Holly was trying to “Alienate” him from his children’s lives.

Eventually a family court judge instructed Holly to take the children to the Boston Children’s Hospital to be evaluated by the Child Abuse Trauma Team and he simultaneously ordered a custody evaluation.

Both Dr. Eli Newberger and the entire investigative team at the Boston Children’s Hospital found that the children and their mother were severely abused by the father.  Back in Hennepin County the Family Court Investigator also confirmed domestic violence but conceded that Holly’s fear of her husband was (although unwittingly) indeed interfering in the children’s relationship with their father.  And just like that custody was reversed to the very man who terrorized, beat and battered this woman and her children.

Holly eventually fled the country with her children and was the first American citizen granted asylum in the Netherlands.  After 14 years in hiding she was found by the FBI. After a lengthy investigation ALL international and domestic kidnapping charges were dismissed.  When questioned by reporters in the lobby of the Minneapolis Court House Holly Collins responded that the biggest mistake she ever made was leaving her abuser.

Is this really the message we want to send to abuse victims?

Some Thoughts about Feminist Teaching and Feminist Advocacy


I have begun volunteering my time and skills at the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh in their legal advocacy program.  The work is challenging, fascinating, and compelling.  Working here I feel the same exhilaration that I have when leading discussion on feminist topics in the university classroom.  This is the work I want to do.  In many ways it is more satisfying than teaching, because I know that everything I do or say will immediately affect another person’s life.  This factor also makes the work daunting and pleasantly challenging.

In the classroom, I teach women and men to think critically about the formation and practice of gender in the world.  I ask them to consider the structures and institutions that have shaped their identities and their choices in the world: their families, their churches, their schools, their governments, their workplaces.

As a legal advocate, I work to support women who have suffered intimate partner violence and taken the first step to protect themselves and her children.  I guide each woman through the confusing and intimidating legal system.  I urge her to make her own choices, after thinking critically about her options and their consequences.  Obviously,  the woman sitting and weeping across from me with blackened eyes and broken facial bones neither needs nor deserves a lecture on gender and prejudice.  What she needs is my support, my compassion, and my discretion.   I have to set aside my own prejudices and cultural expectations, and respect her as the person who best knows what will keep her safe, and what she really wants.  (Note: I am not yet fully trained in this job, and therefore am only describing the position as I understand it after observing other advocates in action.)

So, here’s how I see the parallel, the similarity, between what I do in the classroom and in the anterooms of the court:  in both places I am trying to get people to think for themselves and to understand that they have choices about how they live in the world.  Of course, when teaching people to think about gender and sexuality as social constructs, identities created and enforced over a long period of time, I am asking them to consider themselves on an abstract and esoteric level.  When I am working with women as a legal advocate, I am teaching them to think about the court system, the laws pertaining to their situation, and the consequences of their and their abusers’ actions, so I am working on a much more concrete, practical level.   But in both situations my single, driving goal is to enable each individual to speak and choose for herself.  In both situations I am working to support the subjectivity, the active agency, of another person.

Although I will not bring up the topic of gender as an abstract concept when I’m working with a woman who has been beaten, stalked, harassed, raped, stabbed, assaulted, or threatened by an abuser, she will often raise questions about sexual prejudice and common myths about how men and women are supposed to behave.   She will often say, “I don’t have to take this,” or “he thinks he has the right to control me,”  or she will name some of the common insults that men hurl at women in order to demean and manipulate them.  One doesn’t need a college education, or even a high school degree, to understand that when men physically or emotionally abuse women, they are acting out of contempt for women.

Obviously, intimate partner violence is not limited to heterosexual couples, nor is the male partner in a heterosexual relationship always the aggressor, but men commit the overwhelming percentage of intimate partner violence incidents against women.  As the Pennsylvania Coalition of Domestic Violence states,

Domestic violence can happen to people of all racial, economic, educational, religious backgrounds and in heterosexual and same gender relationships. While both men and women may be victims of domestic violence, research shows that the overwhelming majority of adult victims are women and that domestic violence is a major cause of injury to women.

The underlying cause of intimate partner violence–and victims’ greatest enemy–is masculinism, the wholly arbitrary and erroneous belief that male beings are inherently superior to female beings and that, therefore, men justly have greater political, social, economic, legal, spiritual and psychological rights than women.

Unlike in Saudi Arabia, where women are not permitted to vote or drive, women in this country enjoy many of the same privileges that men do.  What we often forget is that women had to fight hard for these rights.  We still have not managed to elect a woman to the Executive branch, and very few State governors are female.  The GOP is currently waging a “war on women” and seem to care more about shutting down funding for programs that provide medical care, food, shelter and education primarily to poor women than about any other political agenda. A right-wing, mostly Christian minority has recently had great success in rolling back women’s hard-won right to sovereignty over their own bodies.  These “forced-birthers” want to force women to bear children against their will, even if pregnancy will kill them, and have introduced legislation to make the murder of an abortion provider a justifiable homicide.  As Amanda Marcotte notes, “It’s hard to overstate how much Republican energy is invested in bringing the uteruses of America under right-wing control.”

Moreover, we too often forget that our male-dominated legislature still actively opposes adding this language to the Constitution of the United States of America:

Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.
Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

Yes, that is the entire text of the Equal Rights Amendment.  Finding it hard to believe that we have still failed to pass this protection against sex discrimination?  Consider this also unbelievable fact: every 30 seconds, a man batters a woman in the United States.  See if you can figure out the connection.

The Media Assault on Women and a Lecture on Gender


The Mis-representation of Women in the Media, Or, Insidious Violence Against Human Beings Gendered Feminine is the subject of today’s rant, and it is prompted by Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s  documentary, Miss Representation:

We’ve seen many of these images before, of course, but not while thinking about them as Newsome allows us to.  She skillfully juxatposes the pornographic male gaze with a more honest look at actual women and girls.  Seeing these images out of context, away from the narratives that lull us to sleep, or encourage us to buy products, or vote the way particular corporate interests direct us to think about ourselves as women or men, allows us to understand how they damage us.

Distorted and insulting portraits of women as sex objects for men to use, deride, revile, and torment with abandon express the fantasies of adolescent porn addicts.  Sut Jhally makes a similar point in his compelling Dreamsworlds 3: Sex and Power in Music Video. These phantasms of the misogynist mind do real harm because they seep into the collective unconscious and register there as accurate, acceptable, even laudable.  That is why we see eleven year-olds vamping up in sexy outfits and heavy makeup and housewives taking up pole-dancing, or imagining that such activities are appropriate and authentic means of self-expression, even artistry, and that dressing and behaving like slaves will garner them genuine love, affection, companionship.

These perverted images do not directly rape women, but they do a symbolic violence that is as devastating and long-lasting as rape, and this symbolic violence, this grotesque representation of women as sex-starved sluts desperate for male attention, or as “bitches” or “dykes” when they refuse to defer to men and stand up for themselves, leads to actual, physical violence.  This symbolic violence encourages men to rape and to brutalize women, and then trivializes these horrific crimes.

Media symbols of degraded femininity do real violence not only because they broadcast a particularly narrow and misogynist message, but also because they reinforce the underlying patriarchal structure of our society.  They reiterate the male/female dichotomies that organize our culture and guide the way that we learn to understand ourselves narrowly as masculine or feminine, rational or irrational, subject or object, light or dark, good or bad.

As my favorite Spinster Aunt at I Blame the Patriarchy notes, femininity is not inherent or natural, but rather a way of being that is acquired, developed, within a patriarchal and heterosexist culture:

That’s right. Femininity is not a natural expression of femaleness. It is not an hereditary, hormone-based fascination for fashion, submissiveness, mani-peddies, baby-soft skin, or catfighting. It is not a fun-loving lifestyle choice. Femininity is a rigid system of behaviors imposed on us by the Global Accords Governing the Fair Use of Women as a means to control, subjugate, and marginalize us, entirely at our expense, for the benefit of the male-controlled megatheocorporatocracy.

While some people believe that

the practice of femininity is but one facet of an exciting smorgasbord…of lifestyle choices available to today’s busy autonomous gal-on-the-go. They feel that “choosing” feminine conduct is an act of feminist rebellion, on the grounds that the choicing is entirely the chooser’s own personal idea. They aver that femininity can be an expression of a woman’s personal personality, and that it is “fun.” It is irrelevant, apparently, that femininity just happens to align precisely with the pornified desires, yucky fetishes, and vulgar business interests of the entire dudely culture of domination.

…It’s so much easier to go with the flow and comfy up with the familiar old gender stereotypes than it is to come to grips with the fact that our woman-hating world order enforces femininity with a rigorous system of hollow, joyless rewards and uncompromising, murderous punishments, and that the enforcement of feminine behavior is a global humanitarian crisis.

Twisty has it right. The enforcement of feminine behavior–feminine as defined by the media who pander to adolescent porn-addled male fantasies, which the media reinforces and sustains in order to perpetuate itself–is a global humanitarian crisis because women constitute more than 50 per cent of the global population and women across the world have been under siege for thousands of years, since patriarchy was invented.

Feel like watching another video?  Check out this great ad by the Dove Self-Esteem fund:

Feel better now?  No?  The director is sending an message, but also shows us how the media assaults us in order to manipulate us! It blasts away at us every day all the time.  Actual men assault actual women every day, all the time, too.   Officially estimated, men rape women and girls every 15 seconds in this country, and 1 in 4 women has been or will be sexually violated in her lifetime.   But when you consider the whole picture of Intimate Partner Violence, it is no overstatement to say that every single second of every single day multiple men demean, insult, harass, beat, rape, and assault women or girls they know.

I volunteer at the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, which is one of the oldest and best-respected institutions of its kind.  Please consider supporting them. They need your help very much.

Because of the economic crisis in this country,  battering has increased at the very same time that funding for crisis shelters has dried up.  The GOP’s war on women and disingenuous and foolish campaign to slash federal money for all agencies that offer support, medical assistance, and psychological care for women (Planned Parenthood, WIC and Head Start are all under attack) will make the situation worse.  This is not to say that poor people commit domestic violence at higher rates than the rich.   Men of every station, race, income level, and education batter and abuse women with impunity in this country.   The media, which makes billions of dollars portraying women in disturbingly demeaned and perverted roles, encourages this criminal abuse.

Speak out.  Represent yourself, in all your complex gender-bending beauty.

The Women the President forgot to mention


It just wasn’t the most stirring speech I’ve ever heard, and the even the wacko response from the tea-party did not liven things up much.  Ho-hum.  Does the president really think that a rhetoric of “competitiveness” is going to set us back on the road to prosperity?  As Paul Krugman points out, this may be good politics but the diagnosis is wrong.  A bipartisan committee has proven that the economic catastrophe we’ve all been suffering through was preventable.  What brought misery upon most of us was not lack of competitiveness but rather

widespread failures in government regulation, corporate mismanagement and heedless risk-taking by Wall Street”

Widespread failures in government regulation, corporate mismanagement, and heedless risk-taking have severely hurt both sexes, but women have borne the brunt of the Great Recession.  And women are still suffering.

Women LOST jobs while men gained from July 2009 to December 2010.  In fact, the National Women’s Law Center reports that women lost 99.6 percent of the 257,000 jobs cut from the public sector. MORE AND MORE WOMEN have been unemployed for a long period of time.

When women lose their jobs and become economically vulnerable, they are much more likely to become victims of domestic violence.

Now, more than ever, women need our support.  Please give what you can to your local Women’s Shelter.  If you live in Pittsburgh, please donate to the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh.  It’s one of the oldest and finest facilities of its kind in the nation.

Patty’s Story


When she got pregnant and wanted to keep the baby, the father of the child said he would have her beaten until she miscarried.   Terrified, she hid from him.  She eventually went back and stayed with him after the baby, a girl, was born.  She stayed for years, even after he began to hit her.  She was smart, educated, and never thought that she’d become one of “those women.” How did she join the substantial numbers of women in our country–one in every four–who have suffered domestic violence?

He was wealthy and powerful.  She was 20 and just out of school and landed a job working as his secretary.  He quickly became the center of her world.  He isolated her from her friends and family.  He owned the car she drove and the house she lived in.  He was her boss.  During the beginning of their relationship, she thought that his demands on her time were an expression of his love for her.  She did not recognize the patterns of emotional and financial abuse closing around her.

When their daughter was born, Patty wanted to file with the court to ensure that he would support the child. He talked her out of it.  He needed to control the situation completely.  She believed him when he said he would take care of her and her child, but her fear grew.

Four years later, the little girl discovered her father strangling her mother.  “Daddy!” she screamed.  He threw her mother onto a cement floor, knocking her out.

When their daughter began telling people in the neighborhood that her daddy hit her mommy, Patty tried to hush her.  She was afraid of what he would do to her if he found out.  But then she realized that she didn’t want her daughter to grow up thinking that it was normal and acceptable for men to treat women this way.  She enrolled in counseling sessions at the Women’s Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh.  With the help of their legal services team, she began the long fight for her freedom.

He fired her.  He took the car.  He took the house.   She faced homeless and poverty, but she refused to live in fear any longer.  Patty found a job at a church, and later took another position in a law firm.  Thanks to her determination and the support she received from the Women’s Center and Shelter, she extricated herself from her abuser, and eventually bought her own house and her own car.

Why didn’t Patty leave earlier?  It’s simple.  He had terrified her.  Thank goodness she found help for herself.  Thank goodness for the fantastic people at the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh.

Domestic abusers like Patty’s boss and partner terrorize and erode their victims’ self-confidence in many ways without bruising their bodies.

  • They isolate them from friends and family by pretending to care for them more than anyone else ever could.
  • They threaten to withdraw their affection from the woman who has no other support system.
  • They dominate their lives by controlling their finances, by setting themselves up as the sole source of income, the sole source of food, shelter, and clothing.
  • They treat their victims like children, encouraging them to think that they are helpless or too stupid to take care of themselves.
  • They react jealously whenever their victim shows the slightest interest in other human beings, particularly other men.
  • They demand that their victims demonstrate their devotion continuously, with greater and greater displays of affection.
  • They belittle their victims through allegedly harmless “jokes,” negative innuendos, and put-downs.
  • They deliberately manipulate their victims with guilt trips in order to keep them under their thumbs.

The most telling sign of an abusive relationship is fear of your partner. If you find yourself walking on eggshells, worrying that the slightest mishap will set your partner off into a rage,  the chances are that your relationship is abusive.

If you believe that you are in an abusive relationship, please do not hesitate to reach out for help.  Immediately call the WC&S 24-hour hotline:  412-687-8005. Someone will help you.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-799-7233

Note: Patty recounted her story at the 2010 Spring Clothes Out Fundraiser for the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh.  You can read more about her in the Summer 2010 issue of Rosewood.

Feminist Discovers New Love for the Steelers


It has been hard for me to cheer for the Steelers ever since we found out that Ben Roethlisberger sexually assaulted two women, and that he wasn’t going to be prosecuted for the crimes.  But I’ve just found a reason to root for them with full-throated passion.

No, not because they’re poised to win the Division Finals, but rather because of William Gay, who lost his mother to domestic violence, and has spoken out about it to help the Women’s Center and Shelter of Pittsburgh.  Listen to William Gay here:

What is domestic violence?  According to the National Institutes of Health,

Domestic Violence is control by one partner over another in a dating, marital or live-in relationship. Domestic violence occurs in every culture, country and age group. It affects people from all socioeconomic, educational and religious backgrounds and takes place in same sex as well as heterosexual relationships.

Domestic violence is difficult to quantify because the crime is often under reported and police and social service agencies have no uniform method for collecting statistics.  We know that it is pervasive in our culture and that most perpetrators of domestic violence are male.

One in four women has been a victim of domestic violence.

(Sources: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and The National Institute of Justice, Extent, Nature, and Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence, July 2000;  The Commonwealth Fund, Health Concerns Across a Woman’s Lifespan: 1998 Survey of Women’s Health, 1999; Matthew R. Durose et al., U.S. Dep’t of Just., NCJ 207846, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Family Violence Statistics: Including Statistics on Strangers and Acquaintances, at 31-32 (2005), available athttp://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/fvs.pdf )

Domestic violence includes verbal abuse, intimidation, isolating a person from friends and family, emotional and financial control, and routine “joking” that amounts to putting another person down.   Abusers are often charismatic and deceptive, seemingly caring and considerate when friends and family around, and frightening and violent when they have their victims to themselves.  People who have suffered domestic violence commonly speak of their abusers in terms of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

I’ll be cheering loudly for the Steelers this weekend.  Whoever you’re rooting for, I urge you to be like William Gay, and work to support the Women’s Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, which provides a 24-hour crisis hotline, temporary shelter, counseling and support groups, advocacy and support services for women victims of domestic violence and their children.

You can donate money, items (needed: new clothing, especially size 14 & up, pajamas, socks, underwear, bras, especially larger sizes, slippers, casual shoes, baby soap, lotions, toiletries, journals and notebooks for women), or your time.