Feb 12, 2018

Laurie and Ly: #theytoo

I saw a lot of battered women*** when I worked in legal aid. A lot. One was Laurie (not her real name) who showed up with green and blue and yellow bruises covering her freckled skin. But what I remember most was Laurie's eye -- I didn't think it was possible for an eye to look like that.

Laurie's husband had beat her up. The ER called the police and her husband was arrested. It was the city's job to prosecute her husband; my job was to explain this to Laurie and discuss her options (divorce, etc.). Laurie could leave him or stay with him. The courts and the police were not going to provide security for her. She'd be on her own regardless of her choice. There were no battered women's shelters then, so I advised Laurie that if she left, she should do so when her husband was not around, as leaving can enrage the abuser. I also told her that no one deserved to be beaten.

Laurie decided to press charges and to leave her husband. This was unusual. Many of the women I counseled returned to the men who had promised them love only to beat them, hoping and believing that they would change. And who knows the other reasons -- lack of options, fear, depression were all probably part of the mix. It's complicated.

So I was thrilled that Laurie was leaving and I told her I was proud of her. Laurie used the 13 hours that her husband was in jail before being released to pack and move out. Laurie worked as a waitress -- she had no savings, so she moved in with her sister.

Laurie's husband left the jail, got in his car, and went home. When he got home and saw Laurie was gone, he got his gun, drove to Laurie's sister's apartment, and shot Laurie. Two weeks later, Laurie died. They played Louis Armstrong singing What a Wonderful World at her funeral. I still cry when I hear that song.

I grew up fast after that. Every time I saw a woman who was being abused, I feared for her life. I never urged them to go back, or to leave, because I was afraid I'd say the wrong thing. I was no longer thrilled when they left. I just explained how the system worked and didn't work. I would handle their divorce if that is what they wanted, but I stayed neutral. I never thought I was responsible for Laurie's death, but I didn't want to put my finger on the scale again.


John (not his real name) was in the US army and, went to Viet Nam to fight in the war. John met Ly (also not her real name), in Saigon. They fell in love, married, and settled in Northern Virginia.

Fast forward a few years and John and Ly had 2 boys. John moved to Texas, leaving Ly and the boys behind. Ly came to see me because she wanted child support from John. Ly worked in an office but made so little that she qualified for legal aid.

There's a legal process now for dealing with child support across state lines, but back then it was much more difficult, and for many, impossible. We went to court in Virginia and got a court order giving Ly custody of the boys and requiring John to give Ly child support every month. All Ly had was a court order, but no actual child support.

I really liked Ly. She was tiny, but a firecracker. Ly told me fascinating stories about growing up in what was then called South Viet Nam. It was noisy and hot and crowded. Nevertheless, she wanted to go back and visit so that she could see her parents, but doubted that would happen. She loved living in the US ("This place is a dream. The streets are clean and there is so much food around here. No wonder everyone fat.")

In the meantime, Ly wasn't about to give up on getting child support. I contacted the legal aid office in the town in Texas where John was living but they declined to take the case. When I told Ly, she said: "How do I get my money?" I told Ly that the only way was to go to Texas and fight John in a Texas court. Ly left my office frustrated and angry. She had 2 small boys and no resources to fight John in Texas.

About 4 months later, Ly came back to see me. John had sent her plane tickets so that the boys could visit him over Christmas. The boys were 4 and 7 and she wanted them to see their father so Ly had sent them to Texas. Ly was back in my office because John refused to return the kids. Even though Ly already had a valid custody and child support order from Virginia, John went to court in Texas and got custody. (There are laws now that limit parents who live in different states from doing this).

Now Ly was really angry. "I'm not sure what I'm going to do, but he isn't keeping my kids." There was no history of abuse between this couple, so I didn't worry. Nevertheless, I urged caution. Ly responded: "What do you want me to do? Sit back and let John keep my boys? Not going to happen."

About two weeks later Ly was back in my office with her kids. She told me what had happened.

Ly got on a plane with her Virginia custody order and found John and the boys living in a fairly remote area. There were no neighbors around. Ly banged on the door. John came out and punched her in the face and went back into the house. Ly banged on the door again, screaming for the kids. John yelled for her to go away. Ly refused. John came back out with a gun and threatened her.

Ly got in her car and found the Sheriff's office. Ly had a bruise starting to show on her face and her Virginia court order. She demanded that that one of the deputies rescue her kids. Amazingly, two deputies drove Ly back to the trailer and extracted the kids, even though John showed them his Texas custody order. Within an hour, Ly and the boys drove to the airport and took the next flight back to Virginia. I don't think Ly ever understood how lucky she was to get out alive.

We went back to court in Virginia and Ly told her story. The judge loved it. He was impressed because women just don't get on planes and get sheriffs in Texas to get their kids, particularly when all they have is a Virginia court order. The Judge revoked John's visitation rights. John wasn't sending child support, but Ly decided not to pursue collection. ("I learned a saying in America. I quit while I'm ahead.")

I hadn't done very much for Ly, but at Christmas I found a box of gold earrings on my desk, 4 one hundred dollar bills, and a thank you card from Ly. Our office had a policy of not accepting gifts from our clients, and my clients certainly didn't have that kind of money. Ly refused to accept a return of the gifts, telling me it would dishonor her.

I don't know where Ly got the earrings or the money, but after discussing with my boss, we donated the money and the earrings to a silent auction for a nonprofit that was raising funds to create a battered women's shelter. It seemed a fitting place for these gifts. I went to the silent auction and saw a lot of lawyers, social workers, judges, doctors, and others raising funds for the cause. Everyone wanted this to happen and it did.

Laurie had no good choices. Ly didn't appear to have any choices, but she took action, and, luckily, got back her kids and survived to tell the story. I'm glad that, in some ways, things have changed since then. We have shelters, counselors, and a lot more awareness. But, sadly, there are still many, many Lauries and Lys. We still have work to do.


If you need help, or suspect that someone else does, please call the National Domestic Abuse Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. If you think your phone is being monitored please don't use your home or personal cell phone. I've included a link to the organization but if you think your computer use is being monitored, please do not click on the link. The link will tell you the following:

Safety Alert: Computer use can be monitored and is impossible to completely clear. If you are afraid your internet usage might be monitored, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224. Users of web browser Microsoft Edge will be redirected to Google when clicking the “X” or “Escape” button.

*** I'm aware that some women batter and kill men, and that most men are even more reluctant to report it than women are. They need assistance as well, although their issues are often different.

I'm also aware that, particularly in the middle of custody and divorce proceedings, some people falsely accuse each other of all sorts of horrible things. That's not an excuse for ignoring the overwhelming majority of truthful complaints.


Susan Raihala said...

What a devastating end for Laurie. These situations are so very hard because we want to help and often can't. I called the police on our below-stairs neighbors in an apartment complex in Durham, NC. The woman, who moments before had yelled, "Don't hit me, don't hit me!" (and I heard the blows through the floor) refused to acknowledge the beating and told the police she was fine. I could tell they didn't believe her but they couldn't do anything if she wouldn't tell them. It was a horrible moment of realization for me.

And I find it so oddly coincidental that you mention What a Wonderful World in this post, and I just mentioned it in my post...though here it's poignant and sad and incredibly ironic, and on my post it's happy.

Joan, thank you for sharing these tough stories with us. You and your coworkers and all others who do this difficult (and often futile) work are amazing. Thank you.

Ginger said...

Thank you for your post and information. You gave (and continue to give) a voice to the hurting, needy and invisible.

Trish said...

Thank you, Joan for your heartrending stories of abuse. Your honesty will help anyone in these situations go for help with eyes wide open. And I do hope they will ask for help. Today I will pray for strength and courage and safety for all those in these situations.

Unknown said...

Oh Joan - what amazing stories of bravery and sadness! These women were both heroes and there are so many others (men included) who have lived and died going through domestic violence and divorce. I got chills reading this - thank you for bringing serious sobering stories to remind us to help and bless others if we can and just be damn grateful for our blessings.

Janet said...

As you tell your stories, maybe we begin to know what happened to your heart: It both broke and grew.

Cat Craig said...

You have a gift for not only creating beautiful cards, but telling meaningful stories. Never a wasted visit.

Leslie Miller said...

How badly all these people in your real-life stories needed you, Joan. Reading about the extreme other side of life makes me feel all the more fortunate, but also more empathetic. It wrenches my heart. People... we are a confusing lot. Thank goodness for the good ones, like you.