Her name is Kristen, and last Tuesday she was murdered, allegedly by her estranged bigamist husband and his other wife. Kristen was 9 months pregnant when she was killed. Also killed were her 8-year-old son Clayton, 1-year-old nephew Eli, and her mother Jean. At the time of their murders, Kristen had a protection-from-abuse order against her husband Christopher Henderson (Source: AL.com).
I didn’t know Kristen or her family. But I do know about family violence.
I have many times sat and listened to a child talk about seeing his or her mother being beaten by a father or step-father. I remember listening to one child, barely 3 years old, tell me about seeing mommy knocked to the floor and kicked repeatedly by her boyfriend.
I have seen the bruises on women who were beaten by men who claimed to love them. I have heard their stories, how in 2015 they do not call the cops because the cops believe him when he tells them she’s crazy and off her medication, or she’s on drugs and she’s hallucinating. The cops shake his hand, turn around, and leave her to suffer still more of his physical and psychological torture.
I’ve sat in court and watched in wide-mouthed disbelief while the judge aligned with the abuser and returned children to him, which the abuser held out as pawns to force her return to him.
I’ve read police reports and child abuse report summaries, and wondered why the children were left in a home where such abuse goes on with no protective services put in place.
And I’ve read the media reports of women who, like Kristen, were murdered after daring to leave.
It’s often men who are making those decisions to side with the abuser over the victim. I don’t know why, and I don’t think that they realize what they’re doing. Of course not all men see women and children as property for men to do with as they please, but many do. Some men don’t want to believe a fellow man who puts on such a good public front could be so sinister and cruel behind closed doors. Some are just lazy and don’t want to have to do the extra work to arrest him, or charge him, or force him to go to a batterers intervention program.
Besides, they all reason, if it were that bad, she would have already left him, right?
Make no mistake, there are hundreds of women right now living in abusive relationships who would love to leave, but they don’t, because they know that leaving would antagonize the abuser further. It may make her the next Kristen. Abusers are at their most dangerous after she decides to leave. That’s why there are so many domestic violence shelters and they’re always full.
There are candlelight vigils and GoFundMe accounts set up to comfort and help Kristen’s family, and that’s all well and good. But if you really want to help women who are victims of domestic violence, there are things you can do to keep them safe while they’re still alive.
Rule #1. Believe her. Don’t be yet another who passes off her behavior as odd, and him as a long-suffering husband. If she says he’s beating her, or is giving her the drugs, or he’s not letting her get mental health care and meds, believe her.
Rule #2. Trust her decision-making. She knows him better than anyone else and what he’s capable of. If she has a long-term plan of escape, support it. She knows what she’s doing to keep herself and her children safe.
Rule #3. Help her. Help her get herself and her children to a safe place. She may cannot contact a DV advocate because he monitors her phone, so let her do it on your phone. Hold her money she’s socking back. Help her hide valuables or identification papers such as birth certificates or social security cards. Take in her pets on a short-term basis until she can get on her feet.
Rule #4. Tell the truth. One way abusers hide in plain sight is because others will not file charges or testify. If he shows up at your house looking for her, call the cops and have them make him leave. May not seem like much but it will help create a paper trail that attests to his pattern of behavior.
I have worked with women who were not believed by the men who had been called to their aid, but I am often heartened to be a part of a group of strong women who surround those women with support and protection. To be sure, these women are not safe, just as Kristen was not safe despite having a court order of protection. But they are believed, and are no longer alone.
There are far too many Kristens and Claytons in this world.
And there are far too many Christopher Hendersons.