My inaugural blog post here was going to be an introduction to my life as a mom who is disabled and sometimes works, sometimes can’t, and who sometimes has a funny story to share about trying to chase small children from a wheelchair. But something is weighing on my heart, and I think it’s worth talking about. Baby Aaden lost his life last week, allegedly at the hands of his suicidal father, after his mother attempted and failed to get a protective order renewed for herself and her baby in the Middletown court system.
We will never know if that renewal would have saved Baby Aaden, and I have no doubt that the judge involved in his case is heartbroken.
This tragedy strikes close to home, and makes me think “there but for the grace of the heavens go I.” A close family member of mine went through a similar experience, in the same courtroom, and I vividly remember how daunting it was for her to navigate that process as a young parent who was in fear of her life and those of her children.
The first hurdle was retaining a lawyer. Like many of us, she had never needed a lawyer before. Finding a good lawyer was daunting. She wasn’t sure she needed one. After all, she had facts on her side — and no resources. It’s hard to afford legal counsel while supporting two children without receiving any child support whatsoever. Through family, she was able to retain a lawyer with an ongoing loan to be paid back as they went along.
Her lawyer recommended that she cover all her tattoos, take out her piercings, dress soberly, and speak softly when she went into court. Basically, he felt that she should hide everything about herself in order to present herself to the judge as a person worthy of being believed. (He also recommended that she return to her abusive ex-partner because he didn’t believe that she, as a young single woman, would be able to support her children appropriately, and that if she just made nice with her ex, maybe things would be ok. But that’s a different rant….)
I remember reviewing her written depositions for grammar and spelling, helping her to word her case effectively so that the judge would understand how much of a threat she and her children were under. I remember gathering community support and writing letters testifying to her commitment to her children, and collecting letters from others in my little circle of Caucasian, educated, middle-age and middle-class mothers and professionals to testify on her behalf and about the craziness they had personally witnessed from her ex. Because we all knew that if she went in, young, tattooed, pierced, having had her education interrupted by parenting, not having the best spelling or grammar — she was less likely to be taken seriously. And that doesn’t even account for her already being scared to death of her ex, who made sure to intimidate her inside and outside the courtroom as often as possible, sometimes right in front of the courtroom marshal. She was supposed to speak up about his abuse to a stranger while her ex had full physical access to her while sitting in the benches waiting for their turn to be called and in the hallway when they were excused.
I firmly believe that when interviewing for a job, you should dress neatly, present yourself as professionally as possible, and put your best foot forward. Even if that’s not the mask you wear at home when you’re kicking back with your friends. But when you are reporting to police or a judge that you are in danger, that your children have been threatened, it shouldn’t matter how educated you are. Or how you are dressed. Or how you did your hair that morning. Or whether you can afford a lawyer. Your age, your skin color, your socioeconomic class — none of that should make one whit of difference. But it does. We all know it does. It’s human nature to evaluate someone’s veracity and reliability in how they present themselves. Professionals who take reports from people under an immense amount of stress and who are sometimes in very unstable home environments with little support need to train themselves out of that very human tendency, because the last thing a victim of domestic violence needs to be thinking about is how to make herself more believable when speaking to — likely — a white, middle- to upper-class male judge who may have the best intentions but has little basis of comparison on what it feels like to be in her shoes.
We were lucky. She got the protective order extended for herself and her children, and it worked. It acted as a deterrent against her ex some of the time. And when it didn’t, it was in place every time we needed to call the police, and its existence weighed in every time he came up for bail, until eventually bail was not an option. But I vividly remember how hard we worked to get a fair hearing for our loved one, and how often we were told that she needed to change her appearance if she wanted to have her words be heard. And it strikes me that this is a real weakness of the system. Judges and lawyers need to hear parents and children from where they are, not require them to attain financial resources and social and emotional skills they don’t have before they can gain much needed protection.
We have no way of knowing what would have happened for Baby Aaden and his mother if that protective order had been extended, and we will never know. But I do know that it took a village of people to get that protective order in place for us, and not everyone has a village.