Gravity of Abuse (Chapter Four: Three Strikes)

Non-Fiction | published in Real Change on May. 30th, 2012

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The happiness

In early April 2012, as Brandy Sweeney, 29, sits in a friend’s apartment somewhere in Washington, two-and-a-half year old Ian dances with a Rock ’n Roll Elmo across the room. As she watches her son, she says she feels hopeful about her future.

When she heard the verdict, she felt the opposite. “I was devastated,” she says. “I was just like, ‘Are you freaking kidding me? I went through all of that?’ [Testifying] was one of the worst things I’ve had to do.”

On the stand, she says her emotions tugged her this way and that: love for Richard, but also a fear of him. And even though she didn’t necessarily want him to go away for life, she hoped to send him a message: “That I really don’t want you in my life anymore.”

She says the state prosecutor’s office told her Richard’s conviction and sentence, even at 29 months, represented a victory. To thank her for testifying, Brandy says the state prosecutor’s office sent her a check. For $10. She stuck it to her refrigerator with a magnet. It’s still there.

Hearing the verdict initiated a tough period. Not long after the trial, she learned her mother, Joy, in Pocatello, Idaho, was gravely ill. Brandy arrived hours before she died. To honor her, she got a tattoo of “Joy” on her throat, not far from where the red mark was the night of the April 2010 assault. While in Idaho, Brandy says she reconnected with her 9-year-old daughter, Skye. Her mother and brother had joint custody of the child, and Brandy hopes Skye and her brother will move out to Washington some day, so the whole family can be together.

Brandy says when she’s in the area, she attends church with her old friend Morgan Price and stays in touch with Karen Ciruli. She hasn’t spoken to Francisco Mitchell since before the trial.

As for Ian, she says he’s happy — and he looks it. Ian is a flurry of activity, and he resembles a little linebacker. In their apartment in an undisclosed part of the state, he’s taken to diving down the stairs, which Brandy doesn’t like so much.

But what she does like is where she finds herself now that she’s sober and has pulled free from her relationship with Richard. “It’s like when you’re in the middle of a storm, you can’t see anything beyond what’s going on,” she says. “But once it stops, then I can start to piece together my life and get things back together, and to know what I’m supposed to do and where I’m supposed to go.”

And yes, she expresses some trepidation that Richard will be out of prison soon, that something bad could potentially happen. But she says she’s come too far to let anything — or anyone — control her. Besides, there might not be any trouble from Richard at all. “I’d be living in fear for nothing,” she says. “And why waste the happiness?”

The release

Unless Richard commits an infraction, he will be released from prison on Saturday, June 9, 2012 — in less than two weeks. In January, he had said, upon his release, he would consider a paternity test to prove he’s Ian’s father, if that can help him have joint custody. He really wants to see his son.

But that may prove difficult. Anticipating Richard’s release, Brandy contacted a domestic violence advocate to set up a safety plan. Part of the plan led her to file a protection order against Richard, which bars him from not only having contact with her until June 2013, but Ian as well. Brandy says she also plans to keep her and Ian’s whereabouts a secret.

As far as Brandy Sweeney’s concerned, that better life she dreamed of years ago is here, right now. And she intends to live it without Richard Duncan and abuse.

If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, call: the Washington State Domestic Violence Hotline, 1.800.562.6025; the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1.800.799.7233

You can also contact the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence,

“Gravity of Abuse” grew out of a three-month 2010 Seattle University fellowship to study family homelessness in Washington state. The fellowship was funded by the Gates Foundation. All quotes, thoughts and feelings of individuals stem from interviews, personal correspondence, police reports and court documents. Research for the series lasted 22 months.

Photography by Kate Baldwin

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