By Jennifer B. Varela, MSW, LMSW
Note: Names and details have been changed for confidentiality. The events took place in Houston, Texas.
“Thank you for saving my daughter’s life.” These words were tearfully spoken by the mother of family violence survivor Lisa Graham to a social worker with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, Family Criminal Law Division.
With the help of her social worker and the assistance available through the court system, Lisa had just obtained a protective order for her three young children and herself against her abusive husband, Mike. The social worker thanked Lisa’s mother for her appreciation and stressed that it was Lisa who had taken the steps to save her own life. She did it with the help and support of her family and the justice system.
Meeting the Social Worker
The social worker first met Lisa when Mike had been charged with assaulting her. He had severely beaten and strangled Lisa in front of their two young daughters and infant son. Lisa was forced to run out of the family’s home to a neighbor’s house where she called 911. She was then taken to the hospital by ambulance. Once there, she told the medical staff and police what happened. Mike was charged and arrested for assault. When Lisa first met with the social worker, she admitted having second thoughts. Mike had always told her that if she had him arrested, he would kill her. Lisa loved Mike and felt guilty for “having him arrested.”
Soon after her release from the hospital Mike told Lisa that he was very sorry. He begged her to help him and not break up their family. The county prosecutor sent the case to the Family Criminal Law Division. Lisa was asked to come to speak with a social worker who worked in that office. She later said that only reason she agreed to meet with this Family Criminal Law Division social worker was because she wanted to ask about getting the charges dismissed. Lisa told the social worker that even though her husband had apologized in the past while continuing to be violent, she hoped it would be different this time. She had grown up without her father and felt she should give Mike “one more chance.”
The Family Criminal Law Division Staff
The Harris County District Attorney’s Office, Family Criminal Law Division has approximately 25 staff members under the direction of an experienced family violence prosecutor. The staff includes prosecutors, police officers, support staff and ten specially trained social workers and caseworkers. They use a a multi-disciplinary approach to prosecute criminal cases, obtain protective orders, and provide direct services to family violence survivors. Their main goal is to increase the safety of survivors of family violence.
The Director of Family Violence Services is a social worker. She helped create a program based upon social work values including respect, empowerment, and social justice.
All complainants (the abused person) in family violence criminal cases handled by the division are asked to speak with a member of the social work staff. Because this may be the only chance the victim/survivor has to speak with a social worker, it is critical that she or he receive safety information, learn about legal options, and speak with someone who is interested in her or his well-being.
Many victims pursue protective orders. Everyone on staff works to increase the safety of the abused, hold offenders (or abusive partners) accountable, assess the risk of violence, link clients with resources, and assist them on the road to recovery.
Working with the District Attorney’s Social Worker
Like many victims of abuse, Lisa gave the DA social worker very limited information during their first meeting. Lisa minimized the violence and asked that the charges against husband be dismissed. The social worker told Lisa that they may be able to offer counseling for Mike, but he needed to be held accountable for his choice to use violence. The social worker also told Lisa that the prosecutor would decide about whether or not to prosecute the case, but based on the charges and documentation, she didn’t think the charges would be dropped.
The social worker focused on Lisa’s and her children’s safety and discussed options with her. During the meeting the social worker also took the time to point out to Lisa the positive steps she had taken. She praised Lisa for getting help, and for having the strength to deal with this situation and to care for three children at the same time. The social worker admired Lisa’s determination and knew that she used it to survive.
Because the children had witnessed the abuse and were at risk, Lisa’s social worker told her she would have to contact Children’s Protective Services. After Children’s Protective Services contacted Lisa, her DA social worker called her to assure her that she was still Lisa’s advocate. Lisa was upset about the involvement with Children’s Protective Services, yet she stayed in contact with her DA social worker because she knew she cared about her. The Children’s Protective Services social worker worked with Lisa and Mike on a safety plan, that included Mike being apart from the children while they both started counseling.
Lisa soon learned from the DA social worker that a relative of Lisa’s had contacted her and told her that Mike had drug and alcohol problems, had been violent for a long time, and had made many threats to kill Lisa. Like many abusive partners, Mike had forced Lisa to limit contact with her family and they had grown increasingly worried about her.
The Trial Is Pending
During the months the criminal case was pending, Mike tried to kill himself. He was hospitalized for two months. Lisa felt that she wanted to help him even more. She felt guilty and if she left him, he would only get worse.
The prosecutor proceeded with the criminal case and Lisa’s husband eventually pleaded guilty and received one year in jail. The prosecutor and the social worker hoped that the time Mike spent in jail would allow an opportunity for Lisa to evaluate her situation without pressure or violence from her husband. Mike would have the opportunity while in jail to continue receiving psychiatric medication and attend substance abuse treatment. At Lisa’s request, the social worker contacted the jail psychiatric staff to alert them that he needed treatment.
The DA social worker moved on to other cases. The Children’s Protective Services social worker remained involved with Lisa and her children. Lisa’s family could now have more contact with her. They assured her that they loved her and wanted happiness for her. The DA social worker could not do anything more unless Lisa asked her to, or something else happened.
That “something else” occurred when it was learned that while still in jail that Mike threatened to kill Lisa. Lisa decided this would be the final threat from Mike. She could now leave him. She contacted her DA social worker and told her that she was ready to obtain a protective order and change her life.
The social worker emphasized with Lisa that things hadn’t worked out the way Lisa hoped, but assured her that she could look back and know that she’d done everything she could to save her marriage.
Lisa needed that assurance and she needed to be able to leave when it was safe. She knew that leaving Mike had lethal risks. Like all women and children in domestic violence situations, the most dangerous time is during separation. Lisa is now reunited with her supportive family and moving forward with her life. Lisa and the DA social worker stay in contact. Lisa and her children are in counseling and they are enjoying a life that is becoming increasingly stable and peaceful.
If you are a victim/survivor of family violence, know that you do not deserve to be abused. You and your children deserve to live in peace. There are people who can help you when you are ready.
For more information:
- Child Trauma Academy
- Faith Trust Institute (formerly the Center for Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence)
- National Center on Domestic & Sexual Abuse
- National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
- National Sexual Violence Resource Center
- National Resource Center on Domestic Violence
- Office on Violence Against Women