I am struck by the irony of October being National Domestic Violence Month, and that I failed to commemorate it in this blog.
I have been drawn into a neighbor’s struggle to begin her life anew due to domestic violence. Her lift to flight is occurring now and she will soar by the end of the month to a new county, and hopefully, a better life. Perhaps this is October’s best tribute.
If there is anything I have learned from this experience, it is that from the outside, a person’s struggle to break free can appear to be something very different. At various times many of us in the neighborhood, including me, have thought her to be a liar, thief, drug user, public resource manipulator, and certainly, an indifferent mother.
I came to know that “Jane” had a fifth grade education, a lifetime of abuse, internal and back damage because of that abuse, trouble with memory, a mood disorder requiring medication, a self proclaimed docility that disallowed her standing up for herself, a love for small furry things and a great desire to forgive her significant other and live peacefully with the man she thought he could be.
When the little family moved in to our CA neighborhood over a year ago, Jane, at 42, had left behind, in her wanderings across the country: a predator male relative and non responsive mother living a rural Carolinian life on SSI, and lost four other, now adult, children and an abusive husband to the system and her past drug abuse. She had been with her significant other, “George” for seven years. Her youngest child, living with her was a daughter, an eleven year old named “Cathy”, and had known this man for all but three years of her life.
Jane was excited to be in our neighborhood, because it represented stability, had other children, and appeared safe for Cathy. It was her first home in CA with a yard and she was very interested in gardening as she had some experience with it.
They moved in on Section Eight, assigned to him with a family, on a special project designed to help veterans. This meant that though Jane and Cathy were listed as residents he had control over the housing. Though he worked, he required that she contribute to house finances and he was in charge of those. This seemingly common arrangement began to abrade when Jane’s monthly welfare checks of $400 failed to arrive. He had purchased cable using the Cathy’s social security number, and he spent other money on porn sites. She bought things too, a vintage sewing machine, a bike for Cathy.
One night there were noises of pain and a neighbor called the police. That week Jane took one of the days that Gorge was at work and came down to talk to me. It turned out that she couldn’t leave the house when he was home and had to plan the day to his return. She showed me bruises on her arm. They were the blackest I’ve seen outside of car injuries. The striking grouped lines of four fingers and thumb were in several places and it was clear he had spent some time twisting her arm.
She stayed however. Twice I saw Jane and Cathy walking out of the house and down the street in the middle of the night and the police arriving. They went to emergency housing and back. Cathy was acting up, and dressing in a questionable way. Other neighbors refused to let their children play with her. Jane or Cathy often came to visit me. Her stories about the household goings-on would change. As a neighborhood we were concerned and among us compared stories. Call it gossip, but we had prison guards, grade school cafeteria managers, Social Security administrators, and retired social workers on our street-all folks with public service in their soul.
On George’s workdays Jane contacted and engaged us as neighbors frequently. It was conflicting because it appeared as though she was doing the right thing to outreach and set up a safety net, even though she often told us different things and continued to stay. Jane barrowed things and didn’t return them. Cathy started coming more to my house to say hi and spend a little time. She was angry that her mom stayed.
He went to jail one night. When he came back she did as well. She received her back welfare and it was a great deal more than she expected. The check apparently had an extra “0” and so her spending it will probably come back to bite her. However, conditions with George improved significantly for a while. Then of course the money was gone, and her use as cash cow vanished. Additionally, Jane’s monthly allotment was reduced to half, because she said though a public service doctor confirmed she had memory problems, another public service was refusing to send her full allotment until she completed testing that she could not do.
George went to jail again and again, each time for a longer stay. Without him she and Cathy were surviving on $200 a month, plus food stamps, and the entire neighborhood knew that was impossible. Some things went missing in the neighborhood. I had ordered small plants and left them on the porch in opened boxes to let in the rain overnight. They disappeared. She liked plants. The inhabitants of the local drug house at the other end of the street were more suspicious, but who knew? We neighbors were disenchanted with the situation. That Jane had not put Cathy back in school for the year added to the disenchantment, and we were concerned for Cathy’s health and safety.
I called Social Services over Cathy’s failure to return to school, and relayed general information. They made note, but said the situation had not risen to the level where they could act. A neighbor called the school board and they said the same thing.
The third to last time George went to jail the DA herself put a three year restraining order on him for Jane. She moved back to the house from the emergency shelter and brought another woman with two children. The DA told Jane to get George’s name off the lease. Even though she was now squatting it was legally her address for the Court’s purpose. Jane said she hoped “Grandma” would help with the rent. Maybe that was a true sentiment, but at $500 a month for the kids, it wasn’t reality. Rent alone for Section 8 in our neighborhood is around $900, with full rent at $1200-$1400. Jane told me later that Grandma had been refused entrance to the emergency shelter because her letter from the children’s’ addicted mother, authorizing her as guardian, was not notarized. Jane had felt sorry for the children. At the first of the month an eviction notice was served.
George got out, and immediately went to the house, broke in through a back window and spent several days wooing Jane. Cathy came to my house, told me he was there and I called the police. He was gone. He showed up again, and another neighbor called the police. Jane went to visit him overnight at a hotel; friends saw the two of them together in the street. Cathy was terrified that her mother would be hurt and angry too. I think Jane was trying to negotiate for some money and the keys to the storage unit where he had placed her things. Despite all, she loved him too. Finally he was caught and went back to jail.
Jane found a few things out about George from the DA. It turned out he had done this before to another woman in 1992. He had violated parole and not completed mandatory counseling. Though in another city, Solano County still had it on the books. Then, George got out one more time. I heard him caterwauling on the sidewalk in front of her house and certainly inside the restraint zone for her. Jane called me and was clearly terrified. Grandma called the police as I did. He ran but was eventually re-jailed.
There are no clean endings. On the 22nd, Jane and Cathy went to court to testify, only to discover that George had pled guilty to receive 6 months, and was about to get out for time served. CA has an overcrowded prison system. The travails of one woman and child (and their neighborhood) do not impact the overall scheme of planned prison releases.
On the 23rd, Jane and Cathy were forced out of their home. Not the eviction notice, but Grandma and her friends precipitated the move back to the shelter. Grandma allowed first her girlfriend, then the addicted mom, and eventually as many as ten people known to be drug users, and prostitutes to live in the house. I took in Jane and Cathy’s pets, drove her to another city to turn off the utilities, water and change the address at the post office. On the 25th we took the truck to pick up Jane’s things. Grandma’s friends had changed the locks and would not let Jane in. On the 27th, the new squatting occupants were selling her things at their garage sale. Grandma tried to tell me that Jane had abandoned her possessions, and also that George was out of jail. The window of safety had passed where Jane could come to the house. I called a friend who was familiar with the shelter and he rode his bike over to leave notice for her.
Hopefully Jane will be relocated in the next few days. The trick is in the timing. The shelter requires that occupants leave the site during the day, forcing Jane and Cathy to roam the streets. My house would not be safe. George is well known and has allies. Even though she is terrified of him and has come this far on her own, if she sees him she may fold because she is afraid of confrontation and is trying to fly without an adequate net of coping skills and support that she needs. It’s hard for anyone to give up seven years together, much less dependent ones.