Gravity of Abuse (Chapter Three: No Contact)

Non-Fiction | published in Real Change on May. 23rd, 2012

A family reconnects; the violence continues

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Safe house

What if no one showed up?

In early October 2009, Brandy Sweeney stood outside a grocery store in an unfamiliar neighborhood, her belongings gathered around her feet, her three-day-old son cradled in her arms. Someone was supposed to meet her there and drive her to a safe place, but the person hadn’t arrived. So she waited. Two minutes, three minutes, four.

As customers walked by, Brandy searched their faces. Is that them? No one approached her. Maybe the person was late. So she waited. Five minutes, six, seven.

Standing in the parking lot, Brandy watched the sunlight drain out of the afternoon sky, felt a damp cold infuse the autumn air. Eight minutes, nine, 10. What if the person forgot?

Several days before, after giving birth to her son, Ian, she’d been accepted into the Eastside Domestic Violence Program. Known as EDVP, the program operates two safe houses for people fleeing violent relationships. During her pregnancy, she’d lived with Ian’s father, Richard Duncan, in a smelly, chaotic motel in Seattle. He drank, she yelled, they fought, their arguments dragging them into violent clashes throughout the summer.

Then, on August 22, 2009, after a flurry of punching and scratching and shoving, Brandy, nearly eight months pregnant, suffered a black eye and fractured foot. Police hauled Richard to jail, while Brandy spent the last weeks of her pregnancy in the motel scrambling to find stable housing. Her search ended on September 30, 2009, the day she gave birth to Ian, when she received word there was space at the safe house.

Except she didn’t know where it was. EDVP keeps its shelter addresses secret, to protect the women and their children from vengeful boyfriends and fathers. Brandy left the hospital on October 2 and took a cab, while Ian screamed his head off. The cab driver brought her to a grocery store, a drop-off point. A safe house staff member would ferry her the rest of the way.

So Brandy waited. Fifteen minutes, 20, 30 — and still, no one came. She wasn’t prepared to be outside in the cold with a newborn. Without a phone, she couldn’t call program staff. What if she was at the wrong spot? Brandy saw her life heading down the toilet. “Because that’s where it was at that point,” she remembers. “I had nothing going for me.”

Then a woman walked out of the store. She carried something: a blanket. The woman handed it to Brandy. She burst into tears as she wrapped Ian in the blanket.

Do you want to use my phone? the woman asked.

Yes, said Brandy. She called EDVP.

Oh, said the person who answered. We didn’t know you were going to be there now. We thought later this afternoon.

I’m here, Brandy said. You need to come get me.

Brandy passed back the woman’s phone and thanked her. The woman smiled, walked to her car and drove away. She never told Brandy her name.

Moments later, an EDVP staff member pulled up, apologizing. She helped Brandy and Ian settle in the car, and off they went, her son swaddled in a stranger’s blanket as they rode to a place where everyone would be a stranger.

My Friend’s Place and My Sister’s Home: Those are the names EDVP gave its emergency shelters, both meant to act as screens. Say a mother and child moved into a shelter, and the child’s schoolmate asked, “Where do you live?” The child, in all honesty, could reply, “My Friend’s Place,” without revealing his abusive home life or secret location.

The staff member parked in front of My Friend’s Place, then gave Brandy a tour. The building was divided into a North House and South House, with five women, some with children and some without, living in each section. Downstairs, two resident rooms, a family room, a laundry, a shared bathroom. Upstairs, a living room, a kitchen, more resident spaces, another bathroom.

Brandy’s room, downstairs, contained a twin bed, dresser, nightstand and TV, all squeezed in a small space. She holed up inside, breastfeeding Ian. She wanted to stay there forever and sort out her life, but staff prodded her to meet other residents. Reluctantly, she left her sanctuary.

Brandy, 27, shared little about her life with the other women. They hardly knew about Richard, how he sat in the King County Jail serving 120 days for assault in the fourth degree. Or how the court had issued a no-contact order that barred him from coming within 500 feet of Brandy or communicating through email, texts, voicemail and more, for two years. Or how, by Thanksgiving, he’d be released.

That no-contact order, issued by the Seattle Municipal Court, forbade Richard from contacting Brandy, but it didn’t prohibit her from reaching him. Days before giving birth to Ian, Brandy sought to lift the order in hopes Richard could see his son after his release. A judge denied the request. Brandy knew Richard craved a father-son connection, so she wrote him to share news of Ian.

Writing was her only option, since the jail didn’t permit calls to inmates. Brandy couldn’t receive calls herself — until staff gave her a free cell phone with 1,000 pre-paid minutes. She reached out to old friends and contacted her 8-year-old daughter, Skye, who lived in Idaho. She awaited their messages through a free voicemail service that is not connected to a customer’s phone number. As the days progressed, Brandy realized the life she imagined being down the toilet was now a smooth sea.

Six weeks sailed by at the safe house with nary a ripple. One day in mid-October, Brandy checked her free voicemail account. A message awaited. She listened. It was Richard. He wondered where she was. And Ian? I don’t know if you’ve got a phone number yet, he said, or if you want to talk to me, but I’m sorry.

Richard? Already? And he apologized? Brandy thought he had a right to see Ian, but … Did she want to see Richard? No — though a little part of her did.

A little more TLC

Work release: That’s where Richard was when he broke the no-contact order and called Brandy.

Run by the King County Jail, the Work-Education-Release program provides transitional residences for roughly 160 men nearing the end of their sentences. Program enrollees are chosen at sentencing and, once they enter the program, they can seek work, go to school or attend substance abuse treatment for part of the day. Then they’re required to return to work release for the remainder of the day. On October 21, 2009, after he served 60 days, Richard was shuttled by jail guards into an old-school cell, complete with bars, on the tenth floor of the county courthouse.

Richard wanted to return to TLC, Trades Labor Corporation, the day-labor center where he worked prior to jail. But he needed a messenger. So he’d called Brandy’s voicemail, using the work release pay phone. He hoped she would change her voicemail’s outgoing message to include her phone number — and she did. When they spoke, Richard apologized, then asked her to check if his old boss would rehire him. His boss agreed.

When he’d first been hired at TLC, in February of that year, Richard had met Francisco Mitchell, and the two, often assigned to the same work sites, became friends. From the outside, their friendship made little sense: Richard, with his shaved head and clear blue eyes, sported a gallery of tattoos on his body, including “SKINHEAD” spelled out in blue ink across the upper fingers of both hands like brass knuckles; Francisco, with his thick accent and olive skin, had Mexican and white parents. Why in the world would a skinhead and a biracial man become buddies? For starters, Richard thought Francisco seemed like a cool dude. Plus, they both knew life on the inside, its racial divisions. So once Richard returned to his day-labor routine, he and Francisco reconnected.

Though what Richard really craved was a connection with his family, with Ian. Of course, he couldn’t see them legally for two years. But he’d already broken the no-contact order by calling Brandy. Then there were the multiple times they’d spoken since then. With each new conversation, Richard became convinced of one thing: “She wanted me back.”

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