Erie at Large: Cultures of Abuse
How the judicial system favors abusers over the abused
What has played out in Erie County over the past few weeks has not been a good look for our community. It also wasn't a great outcome for the victims of domestic violence and the people who advocate for them.
That's because victims of domestic violence who choose to speak out have to balance the potential outcome of their situation against the many structural forces in place that repeatedly victimize them throughout the process of trying to defend and protect themselves and their loved ones.
While I understand that people who face cycles of domestic violence every day and the organizations who support them don't necessarily need or want the musings of another person dissecting their situation, after consulting with several women, and acknowledging that this is not an issue that's exclusive to male-female relationships, I decided to use this usually political column to weigh in on a highly personal crisis that requires us all to reserve some judgment. There is plenty to unpack as we reconcile the not-necessarily confluent forces of the truths we seek and the outcomes we face.
Of course, we're talking about the recent allegations against County Executive Brenton Davis by a woman with whom Davis had a relationship. She alleged on April 20 that Davis had violently dragged her around his home by her hair, as she explained in her victim's statement. The event on Easter morning, she alleged, was the most recent in a series of physically and sexually violent attacks. She also alleged that he had physically and emotionally abused her children, ages 10 and 11.
"He threatened me by saying I could go to jail for coming to his house to return his unloaded rifle," she wrote in her complaint. "He said I would lose my job and my children would be taken away from me." Later she added, "I felt intimidated to call law enforcement after the incident because of his past comments about being the most powerful man in Erie and that he could get away with anything."
Both a temporary protection from abuse (PFA) order for the victim and two temporary protection from intimidation (PFI) orders for her children were granted by the judge on April 20.
In Pennsylvania, The Protection from Abuse Act of 1990 allows victims of domestic violence to report and receive protection from an abuser without a criminal complaint being filed against the abuser — at first blush, this may seem like a merciful legal step that favors the victim but often times it can be an additional layer of trauma that leaves the victim vulnerable and further exposed.
Because in this case the accused is the current county executive, all county judges recused themselves and a retired Venango County judge, Robert Boyer, presided over the hearing on April 20 and subsequent hearings, which were held the following Monday, April 24.
At Monday's hearings, the judge was to determine whether there was enough evidence to convert the temporary PFA and PFIs to a permanent status, known as a final protection from abuse order.
The standard of proof required to convince a judge that a permanent solution is needed rests solely with the victim. They must prove their case by a "preponderance of evidence," a legal standard similar to those used in criminal prosecutions. In these hearings, the judge is the only person to decide if the victim can meet the burden of proof, and defendants are not required to say anything in their defense — only the victim must defend themselves. Indeed, in most cases of domestic violence where the victim doesn't meet the preponderance of evidence required by the judge, the defendant doesn't have to say a word.
That's what happened on April 24.
Davis, the defendant, had two options. He could consent to the permanent orders without acknowledging or admitting to any wrongdoing or he could contest the allegations forcing the victim to plead her case, in pursuit of a more permanent protection from abuse order.
Davis did consent to six-month PFI orders without admitting to any of the allegations made against him regarding violence toward the children, but he contested the victim's allegations. This led to a five-and-a-half hour hearing in which a single witness, the victim, answered questions from Davis' attorney.
After Davis' attorney was done with her, he asked the judge to rule that the accused had not met the preponderant standard of evidence, and the judge agreed. Those are the realities of this case. The accused won; the victim lost.
The realities of far too many cases like this — when physical and sexual abuse is alleged during a relationship — often causes family, friends, and onlookers to opine on whether or not personal boundaries have been crossed. To explore those intimate and private rooms of experience, and level our own judgment. Far too often those dangerous rooms that we have never lived in become fodder for gossip and theorizing that can dissuade others from coming forward.
Too often in cases of domestic violence, and particularly in cases of sexual assault against a partner or spouse, the victims are forced to experience what is commonly referred to as "slut shaming" during their testimony because, at some point in the relationship they had consented to activity that might be considered taboo within the socio-cultural context in which the allegations were brought forward. This maneuver, leveled by the lawyers who lean into slut shaming, I've always found to be an ironically cruel — and widely accepted — injustice.
In these cases, text messages or previous statements inviting or accepting an intimate act are used against the victim in an attempt to diminish, defend, or erase the alleged violence. It's the challenge of self-determination, isn't it? People should be allowed to communicate their desires and needs without being forced to perform those acts on demand — and shouldn't our free will allow us to change our minds? That's not always how it works when a relationship turns dangerous — in those cases choices are more difficult and can become a trigger for violence. It's often just another cruelty in a cycle of violence that includes emotional abuse, weaponizing children in a relationship, and asserting male privilege as part of the arsenal of violence in a culture of abuse.
As a community we must all consider how to talk about this case with consideration for the people involved. The Trump era that introduced our relatively civilized society to a shocking and vast array of now accepted derogatory language against women (and men) should not be the standard by which our Erie community explores it. I encourage us all to listen carefully and avoid the sharp elbows of politics during a particularly vulnerable moment in our public dialogue.
Locally, organizations like SafeNet attempt to serve as a landing pad for victims of domestic violence. Nearly 2,000 people seek their help each year. If you are the victim of domestic or sexual violence, you can contact them at safeneterie.org or by calling their 24/7 victim hotline at (814) 454-8161.
Jim Wertz is a contributing editor and the Chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party. Contact him at jWertz@ErieReader.com and you can follow him on Twitter @jim_wertz.