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Gilded cages

Even Santa Fe women of wealth and status get trapped by domestic violence

October 14, 2009, 12:00 am

Unlike many convicted abusers, this man, Michael Snideman, could afford to hire a private attorney, who presented him as a sympathetic character, solicited expert defenses on his behalf and filed motions delaying his appearances in a busy courthouse where judges are often overwhelmed. (Miera did not return a message.)

Snideman lives on one of Santa Fe’s most famous and upscale streets, Canyon Road, in a $573,000 condo, and is president of the owners’ association. Before retiring, the victim of his abuse had her own successful career. (She did not return SFR’s call.)

On the surface, this incident seems tame next to some of the horrific domestic violence cases Santa Fe has seen over the last six months. One ended with a 17-year-old dead in her own home, a bullet hole through her pregnant womb, her father’s body lying next to her. Others featured arsons, stabbings and, quite often, guns pointed at women’s heads.

The rising alarm of victims’ advocates and law enforcement has begun to capture the attention of a few local politicians. Recently, they gathered in the Santa Fe County Commission chambers to talk about how they might prevent more women from getting killed by their boyfriends or husbands. They talked about the role of drugs and alcohol. They talked about the stresses this hard-times economy puts on families.

They spoke less about the true scope of the problem.

In each of the recent, highly publicized domestic violence cases, the couples lived in housing projects, trailer parks and other less-than-chic corners of Santa Fe. This fact appeared to confirm what some already assume: The occasional OJ Simpson case aside, poor people are the ones who go around beating their spouses, children or partners. But those who work in the field—knocking on doors after the neighbors hear screaming, consoling a weeping woman afraid for her life—know nothing could be further from the truth.

“It’s everywhere here. It’s everywhere. I have no doubt,” Santa Fe Police Department Lt. Tom Wiggins, a 16-year police veteran who takes a special interest in domestic violence cases, says.

There are many reasons why wealthy wife-beaters don’t make the local police blotter as often as their poor counterparts. For starters, this country’s upper class is very small compared to its rapidly shrinking middle class. But more important is the stigma that still surrounds crimes of sexual and family violence, and the widespread expectation that a person should keep such matters private.

“If you’re in a position like us, a police officer, or you have a political career, it’s an easy thing to say, ‘I was a victim of a burglary.’ But if you’re a person of some importance, it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to say, ‘I’m involved in an abusive relationship,’ or, ‘I know someone who’s involved in an abusive relationship,’” Wiggins says.

To get a better sense of the scope of the problem across demographic lines, SFR requested more than a year’s worth of domestic violence reports from the Santa Fe Police Department in three patrol areas that cover downtown and the northern hills—areas of the city that have some of the higher property values. SFPD returned with a list of nearly 250 incidents in which its officers made reports. (That number makes the problem appear smaller than it is: Last year, city and county police wrote reports on fewer than half of the 2,855 emergency calls made regarding domestic or sexual violence in Santa Fe.) Though many incidents occurred at lower-income areas downtown, others took place at prominent public spots such as Rio Chama, Temple Beth Shalom, the Inn of the Governors and the Frank Ortiz Municipal Dog Park. SFR then ran address-by-address searches from the SFPD list, looking for property values or any other information that might give a clue as to the status of the people who live there.

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Julia Goldberg

Domestic and Sexual Violence Liaison Carol Horwitz says there isn’t less domestic violence in wealthy areas, it’s just more spread out.

The results should surprise anyone who thinks domestic violence is a problem for The Jerry Springer Show set, as one letter-writer to SFR recently complained. But they didn’t surprise Carol Horwitz, who, as Santa Fe’s domestic and sexual violence liaison, sees every single case report local police produce. Last year, she had a records clerk make a map of every domestic violence call where police responded. Its appearance is somewhat deceptive, as the pinpoints marking each incident appear dense in the projects and spread out over the hills. But, as Horwitz says, “It’s not that there’s less incidents up there.” Rather, “when you live in a half-million-dollar house, you buy space.”

From the bird’s-eye view offered by police statistics, it seems domestic abuse is no less common among the wealthy but is, for a variety of reasons, often less bloody. And while families everywhere tend to keep secret violence within the home, those at society’s upper echelons guard that secret all the more diligently—and often more successfully, thanks to inconsistent law enforcement record keeping.

The pervasiveness of the problem raises questions about what really lies behind domestic violence. Clearly, it is not purely a result of poverty, substance abuse or “culture,” a phrase some use as code for machismo. From where, then, does all this rage and sorrow spring?

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