Woman on a Mission | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Woman on a Mission

Photo by Rachel Bush

Standing an easy 6 feet tall in her fashionable beige wedge sandals, Sandy Middleton strode into the Copiah County sheriff's station. She breezed past the unmanned reception desk, barely pausing, pushing her sunglasses up into her blonde hair and out of the way. Her long, tanned legs carried her down the most likely hallway.

"Hey, how are you?" she asked the first person she met. Her bright smile lit up her face. With a slightly confused expression, the deputy struggled to place where they'd met before and failed.

"I'm Sandy Middleton from the Center for Violence Prevention," she said, reaching out her hand to shake his. "I've met you before, haven't I?" She barely waited for a response. "Is the sheriff around?"

The fact that she had just missed Sheriff Harold Jones deterred her not a bit. She simply corralled the next person who came in her direction with a badge and a willingness to talk.

That next person was Chad Sills, an investigator. Unbeknownst to Sills, he was about to enter the "Middleton School of Domestic Violence Prevention."

Like any student who finds that what he thinks he knows just ain't necessarily so, he was about to start squirming.

The Lady and the Law
    At 51, Middleton is a cool mix of southern elegance and graciousness and resolute determination. She's the executive director of the Center for Violence Prevention in Pearl, a position she came to in 2004 after running a successful management-consulting business.

Hearing that the center had to close its doors because of a lack of funds, Middleton's response was to volunteer her services. "We did a big fundraiser to get the place reopened," she said, after which Middleton helped the center get additional grant funds. The CVP then asked her to serve on its board, and Middleton brought in additional "driven, passionate individuals." When the directorship became vacant, she came on as interim director "for six months," she said. The board made it clear they wanted her to take the job permanently.

"It was a tough decision for me," Middleton said. "I prayed about it and wrestled with it." Eventually, she realized that it was meant to be. "It's where I'm supposed to be, and what I'm supposed to be doing right now."

Her husband, Fred Middleton, is completely supportive of her work. "He just takes care of me," she said.

Middleton spends her weekdays in the Jackson area, staying with her mother, Joann. Weekends, she commutes to her home in Ferriday, La., to be with her husband and family. She and Fred each have two grown children from previous marriages.

Every day, Middleton works to educate the community—from victims to police to lawyers to judges to legislators—about the scourge of domestic violence. Depending on whom you ask, Mississippi is either the second or fifth most dangerous place for women, but domestic-abuse statistics are notoriously difficult to pin down. Experts on the subject say at least half of all abuse is never reported.

Some victims are convinced the only way to stay alive is to stay silent. They believe their abuser's threats. These women, and it's mostly women on the receiving end of batterers' fists, believe that no one on their side is strong enough to stand up against their abusers. Some believe no one is on their side at all.

Middleton's drive to end domestic violence in Mississippi frequently puts her into the halls of power at the state capitol. She works side-by-side with people like Attorney General Jim Hood and Heather Wagner, director of the Domestic Violence Division in Hood's office, lobbying to change and strengthen laws to protect domestic-violence victims.

In partnership with the attorney general's office, other agencies in the field of domestic violence and concerned citizens, Mississippi's legislators have passed a small raft of new and amended laws over the past several years.

This past session, the Legislature passed a law making it illegal to obstruct a person from seeking emergency assistance, and another authorizing the use of global positioning, or GPS, to keep track of convicted abusers.

The Legislature also killed several bills this year: One would have established a felony attempted murder law; another would have added to the state's 12 valid reasons to divorce; and a third would have allowed chancery courts to establish domestic-violence courts.

Mississippi legislators sensitive to the issue, such as Rep. Brandon Jones, D-Pascagoula, and Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, have worked hard to push laws through. In the past few years, they have added strangulation as an aggravating factor in domestic-violence assaults, strengthened stalking statutes and prevented insurance companies from denying abuse victims coverage by categorizing as pre-existing conditions the results of their abuse.

Getting laws passed is just one part of the battle. Law enforcement and judges need to be trained. The CVP runs an intervention program for abusers—one of the few of its kind in the state—that needs trained facilitators. Most importantly, victims need to know that someone's on their side.

Victims won't report abuse when they're convinced no one cares, Middleton pointed out. Why should they?

It's especially difficult for victims in isolated rural areas. "It's not like they can call a cab and come to the shelter," she said.

Away from the Jackson metro in central Mississippi, many victims find themselves alone. "The whole west side of the Delta is completely poor and underserved," Middleton cited as an example, adding that one shelter exists in the north Delta, and a few others are scattered in the broad area the CVP serves. The Mississippi Coalition Against Domestic Violence lists five shelters in the central part of the state, including the CVP.

'That Doesn't Make Me Happy'
    Middleton has dealt with and trained dozens of police officers just like Investigator Sills. As he cited procedures in domestic-violence cases, he bragged that if he responded to a D.V. call, someone would be arrested about 95 percent of the time, often both parties.

"I'm not the judge, so I don't determine whether he started it or she started it," he said. "If you've got blood and scratches on your face, and your husband has blood and scratches on his face, y'all both going to jail."

But procedures have changed, and law enforcement is required to determine the primary aggressor, Middleton countered. She related a story from a case the CVP had worked where both parties had scratches and cuts. Then she gave Sills a lesson on defensive wounds.

"Now don't arrest me. Let me show you something," she said as she got up behind Sills and wrapped her right arm around his neck, locking it with her left into a chokehold.

"He had her in this move, and she was trying to get away from him. So she clawed him all over his arm, and did a pretty good job of messing him up," Middleton said. "... But he was trying to choke her. So what do you do in a case like that?

"If there's physical abuse on both of them, both of them are coming to jail," Sills repeated.

"That doesn't make me happy," Middleton said. "I'm just not cool with the victim going to jail."

She chided Sills for putting the decision off on a judge. "When the judge is let in on the case, he doesn't get to see what you see," she said.

Sills backtracked: "My going on my instinct may not be right every time."

"Is a judge smarter than you?" Middleton asked, stopping Sills in his tracks.

'Somebody's Got to Die'
    CVP covers a 10-county area: Hinds, Rankin, Madison, Claiborne, Copiah, Issa­quena, Sharkey, Simpson, Warren and Yazoo. Most of the area is rural—little towns tucked behind and between the interstate's exit signs—towns on state highways and county roads that no amount of zooming on a Google map seems to find. But Mississippi, like much of America, lives in these communities that existed long before the interstates. The people here work the land, labor in the transformer factory where their daddies worked or the furniture factory across town, or they commute to Jackson for an hour or more every day.

Crystal Springs is one of the larger of those small towns. Technically, it's a city. With a population of about 5,500, it has a mayor, a board of aldermen and a police department. Crystal Springs' website proclaims that it was once known as the "tomatopolis of the world."

Without knowing the turns to make, you might never find the police station situated in a row of storefronts on one side of the Illinois Central railroad tracks on the aptly named West Railroad Avenue. It is part of the track that still sees daily trains running from New Orleans to Chicago. But you can't catch the train here.

"You can get on 'n' off in Hazelhurst," Police Chief Cairl Robinson said.

The chief's tanned, olive complexion and robust features suggest an exotic mix of ethnicities, and his unusual dialect strongly hints of a Cajun background, but his people have lived in the area for generations.

"I was born and raised 'bout five miles north of here, in the country," he says, laughing. It's not the first time Robinson's been asked where he's from. His musical patois underscores how isolated these small towns can be, where unique speech patterns have yet to be homogenized by outside influences.

Robinson is hard to pin down about resolving his town's domestic-violence issues. He points out that 80 percent of abuse victims drop charges when they get into court.

"They're mad at 'em when it's happening, and the next day, it's OK," he said, echoing a common complaint from police and prosecutors. Still, it is incumbent on police to file charges if abuse is obvious, even when a victim recants. Like murder, domestic violence doesn't require the victim's complaint.

Robinson believes some women abuse the system by dragging their men into court trying to control them. The women know the men won't face any real consequences.

The solution is to zealously prosecute all domestic-abuse cases, Middleton countered. "All these trumped-up charges aren't going to stop until the judge quits dismissing them," she said. It's what happened in Ridgeland and Yazoo City, she said. Once the consequences of making a domestic-abuse complaint became real, the bogus cases dropped.

Robinson said judges are hesitant to put abusers behind bars or to fine them.

"The judge is trying to keep the families together," he said. "... He's not trying to put a strain on the family, 'cause most of these folks, they don't have nothing."

Nine times out of 10, Robinson said, the couples really do love each other. Still, he realizes that abusers will lie to get back in the good graces of their victims: "Usually what they do is kill 'em with kindness and tell 'em they not gonna do it anymore. They don't threaten 'em. They'll tell 'em, 'Look. I apologize. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have done it. I won't do it anymore.' That's usually how they'll swing 'em back."

It's an uphill battle for Middleton. Even after she told the chief that judges have an option to send offenders to the CVP Batterer's Intervention Program, Robinson insisted judges really have only two options.

"Folks gonna have to be made to pay, either by jail time or financial," he said.

Middleton has been working to make inroads into the city for a while now. The CVP held a training for the Crystal Springs force about two years ago, just about the time Robinson became chief.

Crystal Springs police dispatcher Jerry Youngblood is a knowledgeable CVP ally. He keeps the center's brochures readily available at the station's front counter, and he counsels victims not to drop charges.

"What (the victim) doesn't know is that this escalates," he said. "It's not going to get any better; it's going to keep on getting worse."

Despite his best efforts, though, women will drop charges. "We're fortunate to have people who understand this and who know how to talk to these people like (the CVP), and say, 'Look: If he beats you up one time ... you're gonna make him mad. You're gonna piss him off about something, and he's gonna jump you again.'"

Youngblood said that alcohol acts as a trigger, intensifying violence.

"It might be something that's small," he explained. "She didn't fix what he wanted for dinner because she's not a mind reader. ... She didn't have the kids out of his hair."

Youngblood encourages officers to file abuse complaints on their own, coaching them in how to speak to victims. "I don't have to have you to prosecute the case," he said. "I can prosecute based on what I saw."

Despite allies like Youngblood, Middleton said the baseline knowledge about abuse in many rural communities as "scary."

She recalled one officer telling her that his town just didn't have a problem with abuse. His attitude was that what goes on behind closed doors is personal business and shouldn't become a police matter.

"Law enforcement will say, 'We don't get a lot of domestic-violence calls,'" she said. "Well, you don't get them because they don't trust you. They have no confidence in you that you're going to do the right thing, so they don't call you.

"Somebody's got to die before you'll get the phone call, and that's just the brutal truth."

A Day in the Life
    It was a Thursday in May, a few minutes after 9 a.m., and the Center for Violence Prevention was gearing up for another day. The center's treatment team was meeting in Middleton's lavender-walled office, the color offset by the bright yellow "Rosie the Riveter"-style chick on the oversized 2009 JFP chick-issue poster in one corner.

The shelter is full, and each team member has a binder of information on the shelter's residents and other victims in the system.

The woman in room seven has lost her job, reports Kristina McCool, client services coordinator. She has food stamps, but needs housing for herself and her children. She remains hopeful about her abuser, McCool said. "She feels like he might could change."

Case manager Jimesha Rule jumped in. "She needs it all," she said. The woman wants to go back to school, but has a problem with paperwork. "And she's pregnant" Rule said.

The woman's kids are "amazing; super, super smart," said Teresa Luckey, who heads up the center's children's services division.

Luckey explains that when they first come to the shelter, children usually have the same behaviors as their abuser, reacting with distrust and violence. An abusive parent may be the only role model many of these kids have, she said, and developmentally, they frequently lag behind other kids their age. The center's environment changes them.

"They learn that there are people they can trust, loving them unconditionally," Luckey says. Middleton called the work Luckey does "magical" for children, who are traumatized at an early age by abusers.

Rule was exasperated about another woman, describing her situation as "a mess." A victim of sexual abuse, the woman's mother has threatened to take her children away from her. She has car repair issues in addition to being behind on her car note.

As the team discussed the cases and next steps, Middleton brought up a success story: a woman who had been stuck in "fight mode." Even after divorcing her abuser, she just couldn't get her life going again. The woman reached a decision during a group therapy session (a service the center facilitates) to find an apartment and move out of the single room where she'd been living for more than a year.

"It's good to see her there," Middleton said of the woman's newfound momentum. "It's kind of a caterpillar to a butterfly."

Mail-Order Brides
    Later that morning, Middleton and her team met with a victim in an immigration attorney's office. The woman did not speak English and spoke through an interpreter.

It's a situation that's becoming more common. Foreign-born victims of abuse—even those who did not enter the United States legally—can seek asylum here. Their path to citizenship, while not assured, may be expedited by their circumstances.

For this woman, the path she chose will not be easy. Her husband, her abuser, found her through one of the many websites promising to match men with foreign-born beauties. Sites such as goodwife.com and planet-love.com provide matches from Latin America, Russia and other Asian countries. The sites guide the men through courtship, including how to impress her parents. They give travel and cultural advice and even give the men the basics of immigration issues they might encounter returning with their chosen brides. They advise courting more than one woman at a time in case one doesn't work out.

A mail-order bride is a tailor-made opportunity for an abuser, Middleton explained. Isolating his victim is part of the power and control an abuser exerts on his victim. How much more isolated can a victim be when she's thousands of miles away from her family and friends, unable to speak English and unemployable? Even when a victim finds the will to escape her abuser, she faces tremendous hurdles, from finding therapy and other kinds of assistance to convincing law enforcement and a judge that she's being abused to getting a job and supporting herself.

Some of these women find themselves unable to return home because of financial limitations or cultural circumstances. And the men, having spent thousands of dollars and months, perhaps years, to put a compliant woman in their house, won't let them go without a fight. Domestic violence and sexual abuse, Middleton said flatly, is "something you're groomed for."

It can turn into a major ordeal, especially when there are no obvious signs of physical abuse, as in this case. The victim wants to become a citizen, but as the attorney said, "It's quite a process."

Despite the barriers, the victim wants to get away from her abuser. He is mentally unbalanced, she claims. She's also pregnant and fears for her child.

Providing support and therapy for victims in the Hispanic community, by far fastest-growing immigrant population in Mississippi, is on Middleton's to-do list. "Even if it's once a month," she said. "Even if it's by phone."

'It's Just Part of Life'
    At the Copiah County sheriff's office, Chief Deputy Tony Hemphill joined the discussion. The department had already had two domestic calls that morning, Hemphill said, one from a woman who had filed charges before but dismissed them and went back with her abuser.

"I'm always frank with these people, because this is a very serious matter," he said. "You're gonna keep on, and you're gonna let him talk you out of this ... until he's gonna kill you, or you're gonna be forced to kill him. Either way, you're not gonna be free any more."

Sills said that domestic-abuse calls make up the majority of the station's complaints, and Middleton was frustrated.

"We've got to have a plan. Y'all can't be having this many domestic-violence cases, and we're not even hearing from the victims," she said, her voice rising. "... We want to help y'all. This obviously is not working. We've got to figure out something."

Hemphill went to the wall calendar and told Middleton when the best days and times would be to meet with Copiah's 35 deputies and investigators. It was a hopeful sign.

Beyond training law enforcement, a big part of the CVP's impact is its Batterers Intervention Program, which Middleton is working hard to expand. The program gets down to an abuser's core beliefs, she said, getting to the root of the belief systems that keep the cycle of violence in place.

Courtrooms, like that of Judge John Donaldson in Yazoo City, see the effectiveness of the program to change abuser's attitudes, making them far less likely to re-offend.

"The prosecutors (and) the judges are loving it, because they've never had the opportunity in their community before to do anything different than throw these guys in jail for 24 hours," Middleton said.

The CVP trains every BIP facilitator and scouts courtrooms throughout its 10-county area for likely program attendees, working with prosecutors and judges.

"In a small community, you see the impact in a hurry," Middleton said.

On a balmy April evening, 20 or so BIP participants gathered at the Yazoo City police station on East Jefferson Street. The meeting room was typical municipal drab. The black upholstered stackable chairs were in a rough circle on the gray linoleum tiles. Not a single print decorated the pale gray-blue walls.

Leading the 90-minute session was Jackson-based BIP facilitator Whitney Barkley, a lawyer for the Mississippi Center for Justice, and facilitator David Greene, a counselor with the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation. Each participant pays $25 for each weekly session over six months. The facilitators' base pay is $50 per session. Those with special expertise receive a bit more. Detective Tilmon Clifton of the Yazoo Police Department was on hand as well, a requirement for the sessions.

The offenders, all sentenced to complete the program in lieu of jail time or fines, were black and white, young and middle-aged. Most were intimately familiar with a hard day's work. Their baseball caps weren't pristine.

In the Yazoo City BIP, consistent with programs throughout the CVP area, recidivism for domestic abusers is less than 1 percent. The process begins when an abuser is brought to court on an abuse charge. The judge, instead of slapping a fine or jail term on the abuser, sentences him or her to attend the six-month program, with the caveat that if the abuser misses a session without an excellent excuse, he or she will serve jail time. Most batterers don't miss sessions.

During the course of the program, abusers confront their beliefs about relationships, allowing them to make fundamental changes in their behavior. The Yazoo City session began with Barkley asking the men about the first time they saw a violent act.

"Mama and Daddy," said one man, while another recalled his brother-in-law hitting his sister with a hammer. Most first saw violence in their families, and they eventually grew numb to its effects.

"It's just a part of life," one man said. "People die."

The men talked about how violence just "rubbed off" on them, and they naturally adopted it. "I came from a big family," one said, where fighting was the norm. Being born into it, you have to fight to survive, he said. "Roll with it or get rolled over."

Barkley asked the men how it felt to be violent. "Give me a high," a young man said candidly. "Like a rush."

Another admitted, "It can be fun if you get into it."

It was a perfect segue for Barkley to touch on the physiology of violence. With an expenditure of energy comes an adrenaline rush, she explained. The "thrill of success" in a fight acts like an addictive drug.

The facilitators encouraged all of the men to participate. One man, older than many in the room, talked about how the names he had used stripped people of their humanity, making it easier to hurt and even kill in times of war. "B*tch, n*gger, gook, spic," he said with hard-won insight. "They're all the same."

The men saw themselves in each other, too. Barkley challenged one participant who insisted his woman "made" him angry, forcing him to react with violence. "What can't you walk away from?" Barkley asked him pointedly. "What would cause you to lose control?"

The others got the point long before the guy talking with Barkley. "Walk away," one man offered. You have the power to diffuse the situation, another said. Let things cool down.

Middleton is matter of fact about the program. "BIP isn't perfect," she admitted, but it's still the best option Mississippi has to curb domestic violence. "Some of these guys need to go to jail," she said about the worst, most violent offenders. For the rest, the Batterers Intervention Program gives them an opportunity to turn their lives around.

Seamless, Constant Response
    For a small police department that understands domestic-violence issues, go no further than Byram. The city incorporated it in 2009, and Chief Luke Thompson has been building up his force since 2010. In June, Byram "flipped the switch" to go full-time, relieving the Hinds County sheriff's department from responding to Byram's calls after 11 p.m.

Thompson's principal advocate for training his force about domestic violence is Sergeant Reginald Cooper, an 12-year police veteran with stints on the Jackson and Yazoo City forces. He went to Yazoo City on a U.S. Department of Justice grant to address the issues of domestic violence there. Among the changes he implemented was to have officers really work the abuse cases.

"Really, if you're going to work a domestic-violence case, you need to treat it the same way you would an aggravated assault," Cooper said, "Do your follow-ups; talk to your witnesses; get your medical records. A lot of that stuff they weren't doing."

Under Cooper's direction, Yazoo City  officers also began taking photos, running criminal histories on abusers and enforcing protective orders. They're doing it now in Byram.

"What he did is still carrying on," Middleton said. "Most of the time, law enforcement, they want to do the right thing, they just don't necessarily know how."

Cooper mentioned that victims dropping charges may demoralize officers, but said that shouldn't affect how they complete investigations. They need to stop making judgments about the victims in those cases, he said, and move forward to get convictions.

At first, Yazoo City victims didn't want to talk. They were afraid of their abusers punishing them. That changed when police began enforcing protective orders, Cooper said, at which point Middleton reached over and enthusiastically patted him on the back.

"That's how it's designed to work," she said. "You arrest them; you put them in jail; you get the protective order; and if he violates it, he goes back to jail. There's just that seamless, constant response."

"If a victim believes this officer cares, it makes all the difference," Middleton said.

Digging a Hole
    In contrast to Byram, Copiah County Investigator Sills continued to dig himself a hole with his assumptions.

"The stereotype is that most of the time the woman is the victim, but really that's not true," he said. "I mean, it really isn't. The women are the ones that speak up, and a lot of them don't even do that."

Middleton assured him that she understands that women aren't immune from being abusers and told Sills about the BIP classes strictly for women.

Sills backtracked, saying he wasn't implying that women are usually the offenders. "Men just aren't going to call," he said, implying that was the reason statistics are weighted so heavily toward male offenders.

But Middleton knows that victims who don't believe police and judges will protect them will not reach out for help.

"Until you can offer some hope and some help to legitimate victims, the fact probably is that you aren't hearing from your legitimate victims," she said. "They don't have any faith in the system, so they're not going to call you for help. You're going to get the call when somebody's dead."

After nearly 40 minutes, Sills still insisted that he would arrest both parties on a domestic-abuse call, leaving the decision on who's at fault to a judge.

"That just makes me want to get up and kick your butt," Middleton said flatly, disdain on her face. She was at a momentary loss as to how to get through, but then she forged on.

"If somebody expresses some kind of aggression toward you as an officer, what are you gonna do?" she asks him.

Sills laughed and shook his head as if the answer should be obvious.

"See what I'm saying? You want to be able to deal with them harshly; otherwise, you'd be the victim," Middleton said. "Doesn't that victim have the same right?"

Sills fell silent momentarily.

On the way back to Jackson, Middleton's frustration spilled out. She had been trying to get with Sheriff Jones for months now, and it seemed he was always out or in a meeting. In the meantime, Copiah County has seen at least four domestic murders in the past few years.

"Chad (Sills) is strictly dealing with old-school law enforcement," she said, and then added with a hint of remorse: "I tried to restrain myself. I know I threatened to kick his butt. I don't know how smart that was."

She reiterated the difficulty in getting law enforcement to understand that domestic violence is not inevitable. "Until (police and the courts) start responding to these cases, nothing's going to change," she said.

The way Copiah County is handling domestic violence, the system is stacked against the victims, she said.

"By the time they get to court, the bruises are gone (and) the house is cleaned up. More than likely, they're back together. ... She's had no other options, because they've given her none," she said.

"He's gonna win every time," she said of an abuser. "He's a master at manipulating, and a master at minimizing, denying and defending his behavior. He's usually charismatic, so the judge is going to be like, 'Well, I don't really see that big of a problem here. Never mind he tried to kill you six months ago. You look fine and you've taken him back,' so bam, case dismissed.' Then they get a call six months later that one of them is dead."

"There's so much ground to cover and so much to do. You just physically can't get to it all," she added. "I can never sleep and still not get it all done."

See http://www.jfpchickball.com for ways to help Middleton and the Center for Violence Prevention.

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