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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

A couple dozen people, most of whom work in criminal justice or social services, have come for an evening meeting on domestic violence in the Santa Fe County Commission chambers. It is, as Lt. Wiggins puts it, “choir time”—a small gathering of like minds for the purpose of mutual hand-wringing over the grave state of affairs. At a table up front sits Wiggins, the county sheriff, two nonprofit directors, the mayor, the district attorney, a family court judge and, as if to emphasize the low attendance, an empty chair.

“This is a serious and difficult issue,” Mayor David Coss says. “It is holding back our community. We’re 400 years old. We’re one of the most famous communities in the world. And this is hurting us. This is killing us. And this can’t go on.”

After the invited speakers have taken their turns, a woman in the back of the room stands. She tells her story, at moments through tears. It is a common story.

“I’ve never had to deal with domestic violence until now. I also feel that the resources I’ve had have failed me,” she says. “I went to the courts, had an order of protection issued. My ex continued to violate it. As we left the courthouse, he was trying to run us off the road. I called SFPD…they told us there was no probable cause because they did not witness the violence. They would not even take a report from me…I feel like it’s going to take a body bag in order for law enforcement to enforce an order of protection.”

It’s not necessarily surprising that people without the means to hire a lawyer have trouble navigating the criminal justice system or find social service agencies unhelpful. It’s even less surprising that women with money to spare have some real advantages when it comes to escaping a violent partner.

“Women who are wealthier might go stay at a hotel,” Horwitz says. “I had one victim say, ‘I’m going to the Bahamas for a month. I’m going to a spa.’ It was like, ‘That would be nice. I could use a week in a spa.’”

There is a flip side, though. Simply having more to lose can make the decision to leave a relationship gone bad—already agonizing, for many people, especially when children are involved—that much harder.

“When there’s money, there can be even more control,” Horwitz says. “People who love each other and who do have a lot of money, they are so hideously horrible to each other…If you’ve ever been through sitting through one of those [domestic relations] hearings, it’s kind of disgusting. You want to shower when you leave.”

Horwitz recalls one wealthy couple—at least, the man was wealthy—in the process of separating. “She had to ask him for money for food for the children. He would give them nothing. She had to beg,” Horwitz says. “He completely turned off everything she had been counting on. There’s that. Then there’s the attorney stuff. When there’s access to money on one side and the other person doesn’t have access, there can be attorneys hired who do a lot of damage.”

At its worst, domestic violence exposes gender inequities in American society that many would prefer to think exist only in places like Afghanistan, where the law still treats women as property. All over the world, the vast majority of violent abusers are men, and men remain, more often than not, the prime breadwinners. This means, even for wealthy American women, leaving an abusive husband can mean starting from zero.

“People in million-dollar homes are not going to go to [a] shelter,” Sherry Taylor, executive director of the Esperanza Shelter for Battered Families, says. “There’s just certain standards of living you’ve gotten used to.”

Indeed, every woman and child who checks into Esperanza becomes technically homeless. Nine out of 10 “clients” there make less than $30,000 a year, according to Esperanza’s last annual report. One in 20 earn more than $47,000 per year, the highest income category on the shelter’s intake sheet. Taylor believes this higher-income group often includes women in the most dangerous situation—who, despite their apparent financial resources, have nowhere else to turn.

Further, no one can be sure these wealthier victims are getting any help at all because they so rarely enter “the system”—a patchy network of police officers, court staff, probation officers, caseworkers and poorly paid counselors.

Experience shows that for every woman who seeks help, many more suffer alone. The shame of abandoning a failed relationship can be even stronger for those who have more to lose and who, outside of closed doors, appear successful.

“We have a society that doesn’t treat victims very nicely. We treat them like losers,” Frank Ochberg, a prominent Michigan-based psychologist who has treated wealthy domestic violence victims, says. “There are cultural reasons why victims shrink from doing what they need to do to protect themselves and feel good about themselves. And there may be certain biological reasons we’re still trying to figure out.”

There will probably be a Nobel Prize for whatever scientist can answer the question: Why is she with that asshole?

In the meantime, those “cultural reasons” are more explicable.

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Julia Goldberg

Sherry Taylor, executive director of the Esperanza Shelter for Battered Families, says wealthy victims don’t often go to shelters.

Advocates say some wealthier victims feel no one would believe them, given the stature of their abusers. Taylor recalls one case involving a surgeon “who was very, very abusive to his family, and he did horrible things. But he took care of them. The more space you have and the more money you have and the more power you have, the more [likely] things wouldn’t be reported,” she says. “I’ve seen women who are successful in their lives hook up with somebody who is like, ‘You don’t really need to keep your job, because I can take care of you.’ Once you start giving up those things, they have so much power over you.”

As Taylor finds herself repeating to audiences, time and again, domestic violence is all about power and control. It is a crime that damages the mind before the body.

Ochberg, who founded the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, is known for coining the term “Stockholm syndrome.” It refers to the phenomenon in which some hostages develop sympathy for and eventually side with their terrorist captors. Which sounds a lot like what happens in relationships where emotional abuse escalates toward violence.

While Ochberg doesn’t think most domestic violence victims experience Stockholm syndrome, per se, “there are many cases where there’s a sense of relief, where a woman feels like she might be killed and she isn’t,” he tells SFR. “But, by and large, it has to do with other choices and the shame for ending [a relationship] and the responsibility for the kids.”

In that sense, the emotional power abusers have over victims transcends money and class. Nowhere does the role of money seem less significant than in cases where a victim’s assets exceed her abuser’s. American women may be slowly catching up to men in terms of career opportunities and income, but their roles within relationships can still be retro.

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