Starting Again: Mississippi Laws Trap Women In Abuse | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Starting Again: Mississippi Laws Trap Women In Abuse

Photo by Tony Davenport

(To protect their identities, the names of victims and their abusers have been changed.)

Claire sat with her back to the wall on the washed-out blue bedspread covered with big cabbage roses, once pink, now faded nearly to white. The neat little room barely had space for the old-fashioned wood-framed double bed, a black desk and office chair, and a high bookcase stuffed with official-looking 2-inch binders and children's movie DVDs. The big single window overlooked a trim grassy yard dominated by a children's play center in bright primary colors and an octagonal wooden gazebo, all of it surrounded by an 8-foot-high privacy fence.

The modest room was Claire's weekend home. In her late 50s, she works part-time in a women's shelter that is helping her get her life back together in the wake of a violently abusive 12-year marriage. The flat-screen computer monitor on the desk showed a split-screen view of every door to the building, and no one gets in without Claire's say-so.

Dressed casually in a navy-blue Saint's T-shirt and denim shorts, her long legs comfortably crisscrossed, Claire leaned forward to tell her story.

"The (shelter) got me an attorney, finally, and I got the divorce papers filed," she said, fingers combing through her short reddish-brown hair. "I simply can't get him served."

Claire freely admits she's a recovering alcoholic; she has been sober for almost 20 years, though she continues to attend AA meetings. That's where she first met her husband, Johnnie, in fact. But it was five years before they had their first date and another six months before they got married.

"I don't know how I stayed sober through this," she said. "But my husband is a drug addict and alcoholic; he's probably one of the worst. I guess I didn't know what it entailed, being a drug addict.

"... His drug of choice is dilaudid"opiates," she explains, "like heroin. But now he's just progressed so far into his disease that he just does everything, like crack, pills and all kinds of stuff."

Johnnie wasn't abusive before they married, Claire said, but three weeks after they said, "I do," he was back on drugs, and the abuse began, verbally at first. "I should have known, but I didn't. Didn't want to know," she said. She laughed bitterly at her own ignorance and shook her head.

"... He'd go into rages and just say horrible things to me. ... The first night he stayed out and did crack all night long, we hadn't been married very long, and I'm standing there yelling at him. 'What did you do that for? Where have you been all night?' ... [A]nd he said, 'Both of my ex-wives cooked better and cleaned better than you do.' He was raging when he said it. I can't begin to sound like him. That should've clued me in that there was a problem.

Like many victims of domestic violence, Claire has a long history of leaving and returning to her husband.

"I left (him) so many times," she said. "In fact, before we'd been married a year I had left. But I just kept going back. ... The first time I left, I kept thinking there was something I could have done to help him. I'd be OK for a little while, and then it would just be, 'I wonder what he's doing.' All this stuff going through your mind."

Domestic-abuse experts say, on average, women will leave an abusive relationship seven times before finally getting away, but Claire said she had left Johnnie many more times than that.

"I didn't want to give up my home," Claire said, and explained that she had sold her house and moved in with Johnnie when they got married. "... So I'd go back, and he'd stay sober for a while, and then he'd relapse, and the abuse would get bad again."

Claire swore that this time it's over. The final straw came when Johnnie threatened to burn up everything she owned. He got hold of a gun, too, and declared that he was going to kill Claire and then himself. Then Johnnie literally picked her up and threw her out of their house.

It was January, and Claire was in pajamas. She finally called the police.

"I can't live like this any more," she said. "I don't want to spend the little bit of my life that I have left in this kind of hell, because that's what it is.

"... At the end, before I left, I slept in the other bedroom with my keys hidden (along) with my credit cards and stuff in the pillowcase so that he couldn't get to them," she said.

Was she in fear for her life? "In the end, yeah," she said.

"Now, I'm just trying to get him served and get on with my life."

'Habitual Nature'
Domestic abuse, whether it involves physical or emotional abuse or both, is all about control. And for an abuser, refusing to grant a spouse a divorce is, in Mississippi, the last little bit of control they can exercise over their victims, often keeping them chained to violent relationships for years.

"People out there assume ... that you can individually get an irreconcilable (differences) divorce. That's so in a lot of states, but not in Mississippi," said Sandy Middleton, executive director of the Center for Violence Prevention in Pearl, who frequently lobbies the state Legislature on behalf of domestic-abuse victims. "You both have to agree to get a divorce on irreconcilable differences."

Technically, Mississippi's divorce statutes qualify as "no-fault" with the irreconcilable differences statute, where neither party has to prove grounds for the divorce. California enacted the first no-fault divorce law in the U.S. in 1970, and the New York state Legislature passed a no-fault law July 1 of this year. If New York Gov. David Paterson signs the bill into law, every state in the union will allow no-fault divorces; however, Mississippi's law, like that of only a bare handful of other states, is not unilateral. In other words, both parties must agree to a no-fault, irreconcilable differences divorce.

For Claire, and for many other women who want to leave a toxic marriage behind, it's not enough that she wants the divorce; Johnnie has to sign those papers, too, and she can't find him. She has grounds (with corroborating evidence) for her divorce. Mississippi recognizes 12 reasons for divorce, including adultery, desertion, habitual drunkenness or drug addiction, along with habitual cruel and inhuman treatment.

"When I first started practicing in '94, basically, you could prove hostility or unkindness, and the chancellors would grant you the divorce," said Jon Powell, a partner in the law firm of ShowsPowell in Flowood.

"Nine times out of 10, your divorces would go off on habitual cruelty; that was just an easy ground to prove. The Mississippi Supreme Court came back- "it's probably been about five, maybe even 10 years ago"they came back and started slapping these judge's hands, saying, 'No; that's not what the Legislature intended. It says habitual. It's got to be habitual and it's got to be more than mere acts of unkindness.'"

The state Supreme Court has not defined what "habitual" means, however.

"The law does not give you a measuring stick and say, 'five times,'" Powell said.

"You just have to be able to prove, with corroboration ... the habitual nature. Or the case law says one act of something really severe. For instance, the example that's always thrown out is: He's got the woman on the floor with a shotgun to her head saying 'I'm going to paint this room red with your brains.' Something that severe--"one act that severe that is corroborated would be enough."

Powell admitted, however, that corroboration of domestic violence can be problematic.

"Most of the time, these acts of violence are behind closed doors, and the only people who ever witness it is the man and the wife, and maybe the kids," he said. "So if you don't have something to at least document that the violence is going on"and I'm not talking about a conviction ... but if you at least call the police and get an incident report written, that gives the lawyer, a perspective of, 'Yeah, the police were actually called, the police noted bruises, a red ring around her neck, bruises on her arm,' whatever it is."

But abuse victims are frequently afraid of calling the police, often because their abusers threaten them with more violence if they do.

"If the woman has not left and doesn't have an effective safety plan and has not moved out and moved on, then she's going to pay for it," Middleton said.

Even when abuse victims have corroborating evidence- "police reports, for example, or medical records showing injuries consistent with beatings" an abusive spouse can force his victim to spend thousands attempting to prove those grounds.

It's even more difficult if the abuse is psychological and emotional, when the abuser uses everything but physical violence. The abuser's lawyer can quickly run up costs, demanding depositions and documentation on every bit of minutiae from years of marriage, for example, and legal fees can skyrocket when you add property and child custody issues into the mix.

"(Costs) can be driven up based on how (an abuser defends) it, what they do. That's where the costs get driven up. ... f you have corroborating evidence, supporting medical documentation and a client that's willing to get on the stand with the corroborating evidence, that's not that expensive to put on. What's expensive is getting from the start to the finish to putting that stuff up," Powell said, adding that even the simplest divorce for grounds could cost upward of $2,500.

"But if you don't even have a deposit for an apartment or (money to) turn your electricity on in a new place, how can you (afford that)? I mean $2,500 might as well be a million," said Brynna Clark, an attorney with the Center for Violence Prevention. She added that proving grounds puts the onus on the victim, who not only has to come up with cash, she has to gather her evidence, make a safety plan to get out of her situation, and frequently, it all has to be done under cover of secrecy so that her abuser doesn't find out.

'He Took It'
It's enough to discourage many women from moving forward.

"It's frustrating," said Shania, a soft-spoken mother of two in her mid-30s with flawless, caf (c) au lait skin and a delicate, fine-boned build. "A lot of times I've gotten to the point where I've given up, I was just like, 'Forget it.' ... It puts you in a situation where you'd stay in a violent situation."

Shania and her husband, Jerome, had been together since high school. She stopped sleeping with him after seeing evidence of his infidelity. "I didn't want an STD," she said simply. "I didn't want (anything) that could kill me."

Jerome didn't take it well, becoming violent and demanding sex from her.

"This is mine," he told her. "You're mine. I want it."

At one point, Jerome wrestled her to the floor and then kicked her, calling her a b*tch. She was able to escape his anger that time, and she didn't report the violence. She didn't fare so well the second time.

Shania's voice dropped almost to a whisper as she described how he hurt her, flipping her onto her belly and twisting her arm to hold her down:

"I remember one hand came around, and he put it over my mouth and my nose because I was trying to call my son. ... I was trying to call his name, (thinking) maybe if I call his name, he'll get up. But he didn't. ... Then I couldn't breathe, and I got scared and calmed down. I just stopped moving. ... [H]e ejaculated. Then he got up," she said. "... He took it."

For a while afterward, Jerome followed Shania around the house, watching her to make sure she wouldn't try to get away or make any phone calls. Battling through her terror, she had to wait for the opportunity to call the police.

"They finally came," she said. "It was a while."

But the police believed Jerome when he told the responding officer that there wasn't a problem.

"The officer was like, 'I can't take him. I can't take him because you don't have anything for me to see,'" she said, meaning that she didn't have any visible marks. Shania added that the officer never asked for her version of what happened. At some point, he did ask if she needed an ambulance, but Shania told him she didn't.

"I wasn't hurt bad enough for the paramedics," she said. "If I go in an ambulance, where are my babies going to go? ... I was not going to leave my babies. No. I was not going to leave my babies."

Shania said she had thought about getting a divorce even before the violence started, but the second incident removed any doubt. She was sure it was the way to go, despite Jerome' threats: "I'll kill you before I see you with somebody else," he told her, at the same time professing his love for her.

"All in the same breath," she said.

Shania, who filed assault charges against Jerome the day after the second attack, and secured a protective order to keep him away from her, soon began contacting lawyers, getting various estimates on what it would cost to secure a divorce from Jerome, who had left their home on his own accord.

"[O]ne person said he would start at $2,000," she said, and a woman lawyer quoted a starting fee of $1,000 plus another $100 for every hour of her time.

She echoed what others had already said: "When you're coming from nothing, it might as well be a million."

By the day of Jerome's assault hearing, she had been to county legal services, which eventually referred her to the Volunteer Lawyer's Project when Shania couldn't give the county attorney an address for Jerome. "Y'all don't have anything to fight for anyway," the lawyer told her. "I said, 'Ma'am, I do. I have my kids.'"

But finding a lawyer through VLS isn't guaranteed, and Shania said it took a couple months just to get her first appointment. Five months after that, Shania's case is in the queue: first come, first served.

"It's going nowhere, slow," she said.

Meantime, Jerome has changed his mind several times about giving her a divorce. He blames Shania for his conviction: It's her fault that he can't go back to his old job or go forward into a new field, he told her. It's her fault that the family is destroyed and divided. At the moment, he says he'll give it to her, but it's still up to her to secure a lawyer.

"If you want a divorce, then you send me the paperwork," he told her recently.

"That means it's thrown back on me to find money to pay," Shania said. "... I end up being abused again."

"It's hurtful," she said, collapsing in on herself and crying in frustration. "Me being a Christian, you try to do the right thing, stay in the will of God. Not that I want another man, anyway; I don't care about that. But I'm just tired of him. He has the power, control over my life. I want to go on with my life, and you've got this door that won't close."

She folded and refolded her damp tissue, then started shredding it methodically, all the while looking down at her hands.

Shania didn't tell her kids what really happened. "Daddy's gone because he hurt mommy," she told them, even when they blamed her for his being gone. Finally, he came and told the kids that it was his fault, not hers, that they were no longer together.

"He apologized that he wasn't there, that mommy did nothing wrong, that it was his fault," she said.

"I will get a divorce somehow," she said softly. "Somehow."

'How do we fix it?'
Those opposed to making divorce easier and less expensive frequently say that divorce destroys the sanctity of marriage, making it less likely that couples will work to save a relationship. This slippery slope, they argue, contributes to the breakdown of marriages and families, and is ultimately harmful to children and society as a whole.

In the recent New York state debate, Rev. Jason McGuire of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms said that no-fault divorce changes "'til death do us part" to "until we feel differently," reported the Albany Times Union. McGuire said the New York bill should be renamed the "mid-life marriage crisis bill," because it gives aging Lotharios an easy way to trade in their current wife for a "younger, sleeker model."

Opponents of unilateral no-fault divorce cite increased divorce rates in states that adopt the practice, along with the oft-quoted statistic that 50 percent of all marriages already end in divorce. But while divorce rates rose during the 1970s, possibly due to pent-up demand, the rate has steadily fallen since then.

Whether pro or con, however, divorce rates are difficult to ascertain and even more difficult to trace back to specific causes.

"It's a very murky statistic," Jennifer Baker, director of the marriage- and family-therapy programs at the Springfield, Mo.-based Forest Institute, told Time magazine in May about the 50 percent rate.

For victims of abuse, however, no-fault divorces appear to be hugely beneficial.

"[S]tates that adopted unilateral divorce laws saw a large decline in rates of domestic violence (and also spousal homicide), while other states actually saw domestic violence rates rise," wrote Justin Wolfers, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania, in Legal Affairs magazine in 2006. "... [W]e suggest that the decline in domestic violence may decline by as much as a third following the adoption of liberalized divorce laws. The logic for this result also seems quite powerful: If a woman is empowered to leave an abusive marriage even against the objection of her abuser, she may leave. Or he might get the message and cease being so abusive. Or perhaps, the threat of divorce prevents violence from being used during everyday conflict resulting in less relationships escalating to abusive situations."

Opponents of liberalizing divorce laws rightly point to the deleterious effect of divorce on children; however, for the children of a toxic, abusive relationship, witnessing and living with abuse is even more traumatic.

"[C]hildren in this country are more stressed and more anxious at a young age than we were as adults. And now our children, in huge numbers, are suffering from PTSD. That's post-traumatic stress disorder," Middleton said.

"To think that our children have PTSD because they're living in violent homes. They're living in violence. And you wonder: They go to school, and they get in all this trouble, and we have all this violence in school, and lack of discipline and 'what's wrong with this kid? Why can't they learn?' ... t all goes right back to the home. It's ironic that in our efforts to protect the home that we're creating this sick environment for our children and expecting them to thrive in it and reverse their suffering from all these disorders like PTSD. It's pretty alarming."

Middleton, daughter of a Southern Baptist preacher, argued that providing the legal means for abuse victims to leave their abusers is not counter to Christian ethics.

"[W]e can preserve the sanctity of marriage and still keep victims safe from violent offenders in their homes," she said. "The politics has removed the logic from this argument. I don't believe, that as a Christian myself and as a Baptist, I don't think that the religion that I have will sign off on saying that this is appropriate to leave a woman and her children in the home with someone who abuses them, whether it's physically, or emotionally, or verbally, I don't think that's intended in the scripture. I just don't believe that's the way that God intended for marriages and homes to be."

Domestic-violence victims frequently find themselves between that proverbial rock and the hard, cold spot that is the reality of the law. And dealing with any legal situation requires money and support, whether it's a divorce, child custody, or resolving leases or other property issues. Middleton intends to set up a legal defense fund at the Center for Violence Prevention through funds from benefits like the Jackson Free Press Chick Ball and grants through the federal Violence Against Women Act.

"Clearly, we're not going to snap our fingers and change the laws. And we're not going to snap our fingers and change the courts. So, in the meantime, we have so many woman, so many victims who are being re-victimized through the whole court process. So what we want to do is to at least provide the funds to allow women to go to Chancery court and file for divorce or at least address their child custody issues," Middleton said.

Connie Smith, another attorney with ShowsPowell, pointed out that many victims, already traumatized through abuse, are further stressed by the legal system. "The biggest obstacle ... (is) the emotional issues of the victim; usually they are they're own largest enemy in a lot of ways; such as having the strength to push forward ... with what they need to do. ... t's just automatic that they just avoid any conflict, anything that is going to upset that person," she said.

Having lived through an abusive marriage, Clark agreed. "They're conditioned. I mean, this man, this person, has broken down all of their defense mechanisms to where that's just normal.

"... I used to live in Omaha, Neb., and I went there because I was married to this lawyer. I'm an attorney, and I was in this horrible, emotionally abusive marriage for three and a half years," Clark said. "... t took me, as an educated person with my own means and family and support, three and a half years to get out of that cycle (to) 'I'm good enough,' and 'I should have my own; and I need to be independent.' I can't imagine what women who don't have the resources or education or support, who have children ... How do they get out of this? No wonder it's a problem. No wonder it's a cycle. It really completely breaks you down.

"So when they come, and they've said 'I need help' and we don't have the resources to meet their needs, it's devastating. It's done. It's your last chance. So I, personally, it breaks my heart that they think we've identified this problem but identified so many problems that are extrapolated from it.

"How do we fix it?"

'I just love 'em'
"Had I had access to the funds, I believe I would have gotten a divorce a long time ago, but I didn't have the money for a divorce," Claire said.

"I live from paycheck to paycheck"most people do, if they're lucky enough to be working," she added.

The Center for Violence Prevention was able to find a lawyer to represent Claire pro bono.

"When I saw the divorce papers ... I felt such a relief," she said. "I felt so good about it. It was really strange, because you wouldn't think that it would have that affect. ... You just want to know somebody's in your corner, and they're trying to help you."

Claire's divorce may still take some time, however, even if Johnnie doesn't put up a defense. Six to nine months would not be a stretch.

"Generally, it's 30 days to answer once (the spouse has) been served with a complaint," Powell said. "The chancery court rules that you have 90 days for discovery; that normally goes into 180 days to be honest with you, and they you get on the court docket. You're looking at an earliest possible time, six months, realistically, from the day the complaint is filed."

In Claire's case, she might get lucky and be shed of her toxic marriage within that minimum time period, but no one can give her a realistic estimate until she manages to get those papers served and finds out how Johnnie responds.

"I'm in limbo land. I need my divorce. I need to get it," she said, confident that he'll sign off on the papers once he's served. "All he cares about is drugs. He doesn't care about me or keeping the marriage going," she says, but expects some push back over the house where she lives. She and Johnnie had the property put solely in her name because he was in constant trouble.

"I would like to have a roof over my head, and he doesn't care ... he just wants to sell the house and use the money to buy drugs," Claire said. "I don't even know where that man is any more," she added, referring to how much Johnnie changed with the progression of his disease. He moves around a lot, she said, and she believes he's pimping crack addicts, most likely.

"I don't want to get AIDS or hepatitis," she said. "He's an IV drug user. ... I think I can do better. I bet I can. When I'm by myself, I can do better."

For now, Claire is content to keep trying to get Johnnie served. Simply having the documents drawn up and in her hands is giving her strength to begin again.

"I just love these divorce papers ... I just love 'em. If we never even get a divorce, I just like 'em," she said, hugging the document to her chest and laughing. "(My attorney) says in here I 'was forced to discontinue normal marital cohabitation with the defendant and to sever her normal marital relations because of his misconduct, physical abuse, illegal drug use, insincerity and hostile attitude, all of which have been pursued by defendant over a long course of time, and which conduct has severely and adversely affected the plaintiff's physical, mental and emotional wellbeing, therefore forcing the separation.'

"I just like it." Claire said emphatically when she finished reading, and then she laughed again. "I'm very proud of them."

Powell is clear that to protect Mississippi's victims of domestic violence, the state Legislature will need to pass new laws.

"From a legislative viewpoint they've got to add a grounds for divorce, maybe after so may convictions for domestic violence," he said, indicating that he'd like to see a specific statue added that addresses the problem, even minimally.

All of the attorneys interviewed for this story agreed that support from the legal community would go a long way toward fixing a system that is not friendly toward victims.

"It would give all the lawyers in this city a unique perspective if they just did one domestic violence case. Just one. And they see what really goes on," Powell said. "It would open their eyes; it would make them look at things a little bit differently."

The JFP Chick Ball presents the 2010 Hero award to ShowsPowell at 8 p.m. July 24 at Hal & Mal's.

Also see: JFP Domestic Abuse Archive

CORRECTION: Ronni Mott originally identified attorney Jon Powell as John Shows in this story. The JFP apologizes for the error.

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