October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. (#WeAreResilient) Gabby Petito’s disappearance, search and painful death has captured the national spotlight. Domestic violence cuts across all cultural, economic, racial and gender divisions. One in three women worldwide experience physical or sexual violence, mostly by an intimate partner.
The body cam footage of the police response to a report of domestic violence involving Gabby was very revealing. Instead of approaching Gabby as a victim of domestic violence, the police threatened her with jail time. She went from victim to criminal in an instant. Their rush to dismiss her as a victim of domestic violence and criminalize her apparently cost Gabby her life. I too understand how surviving domestic violence can be criminalized because I am what I call “a double survivor.”
A Double Survivor
In 1981, I found myself in an abusive relationship with the father of my only child. My baby was only 2 months old when our situation imploded. I was living alone with our child, and the father kept threatening me and my baby. Often he showed up unannounced at the Albany Village where I lived. Despite my multiple calls to the police, he kept showing up. They never arrested him. He broke into my house; they cited and released him. On August 20, 1981, when he showed up and threatened me, I called the police again. This time, the police decided to give my 2 month-old still nursing baby to her father and let him take her away. When I objected, I was arrested in my own home for “fighting in public” and interfering with a police officer or “resisting arrest.”
I was fortunate because I knew lawyers who supported me on my journey. My boss defended me “pro bono.” When I refused to “take a deal”, I went to trial and was acquitted by the jury. It was a frightening and humiliating experience. I survived both the domestic violence in my home and the overzealous Alameda County prosecutors who wanted to destroy my life. Obviously I was a Black woman who did not know her place. I am a double survivor.
A Lens of Life Experience
That experience certainly informs and shapes the lens through which I view domestic violence and the administration of justice in this kind of case. When I am elected in June 2022, I will be the first domestic violence survivor to ever serve as Alameda County District Attorney. As a survivor of domestic violence, I am deeply aware of and sensitive to the needs of survivors. I take these issues very seriously. When dealing with such cases, I will always prioritize the safety, needs, and desires of survivors (and children, if they are involved) and seek long term solutions that will keep families and communities safe.
I am fully committed to addressing violence in our community, including the literally hundreds of crimes labeled as “domestic violence.” Intimate violence cases that result in bodily harm or injury, which include elder abuse, family violence and intimate partner violence, will be prosecuted as appropriate. I will use the full force of the law and the resources of the DA’s office to protect everyone subjected to intimate partner violence, and hold those who engage in unlawful acts of violence and intimidation accountable to their loved ones and the community.
In New York City and other jurisdictions, practitioners, courts, district attorneys and advocates have developed a comprehensive approach for abusive partner intervention. They provide services for people who cause harm as a central part of their work to support survivors, foster healthy relationships and communities, and end violence. We know that “hurt people hurt people.” A restorative justice approach may be more effective in holding offenders accountable while increasing survivor satisfaction and keeping communities safer. This approach is what we hope to bring to Alameda County.
A New Vision for Justice
Alameda County also needs to prioritize spending to protect survivors and not treat them like criminals. I recognize that a woman has a right to defend herself and her children. We need to completely re-focus peace officers in their response to survivors and witnesses of violence in our community. We need to address gang and gun violence and their role in domestic violence in our communities. I will work with the Court and our public health services and other stakeholders to establish a specialized domestic violence court that uses a holistic strategy to both address and prevent domestic violence. We must be vigilant to not make anyone else “a double survivor” of our criminal justice system.
Since COVID-19, violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence, has intensified. COVID-19 has forced survivors of domestic violence to choose between staying with an abuser or living on the streets. In Alameda County, 26% of homeless families with children said domestic violence was the primary reason they lost their housing. And during this pandemic, there has been a wide-spread shortage of beds in homes and shelters. Oakland’s Serenity House provides housing and services for women fleeing domestic violence. Its Director reports a six-fold increase since COVID-19.
Meanwhile, despite the glare of the media attention for Gabby, thousands of “missing” women and girls of color go without media attention. In 2019, a staggering 5,590 Native American women were reported missing. And instead of actually covering these missing cases – the conversation has shifted to the inequity of media coverage. That is an important point to make. Still we cannot lost sight of the fundamental problem: too many women are subjected to violence in the world. Black, Brown and indigenous women are especially vulnerable to being criminalized if they try to protect themselves or their children. Women are too often not believed, or not “deemed worthy” of time or services.
“It’s a long time coming” – 40 years for me – but change is coming to Alameda County.