Reducing CASA funding sends complicated message

By Deborah Mitchell Contributing Columnist

March 14, 2014

I read in the Democrat that because of federal and Missouri funding cuts to programs assisting victims of domestic violence, CASA (Citizens Against Spouse Abuse) is losing a significant portion of its funding — $50,000. My former student and friend Lori Haney is the director of CASA, and I could almost hear the disbelief and panic in her voice through her quote in the paper. This news is distressing to me, too, because I think it is important to provide a safe place for women and children who suffer abuse at the hands of those who are supposed to love them. Taking away funding for this important mission sends two messages: first, that people who are abused are not worth our money and protection; and second, that abuse itself, as well as its effects, are to be tolerated and accepted.

Abuse is a very complicated issue, and many theories exist as to its cause, its prevalence, and its acceptance. Some of those theories include power over the powerless, learned behavior, and even the general historical insignificance of women and children. Throughout the now 24 years of my law practice, no story about abuse has rendered me as speechless as the one told to me by two women who were seeking divorces from their abusive husbands. The first, an educated and employed woman, described in detail her husband’s actions throughout their marriage and the violent fight that ended her willingness to stay in the marriage regardless of his abusive behavior. I had never heard such a story, and I was happy to be able to help her, along with her young daughter, exit that terrible situation.

And then, a couple of years later, the second woman with the same last name came to me for a divorce. She described her husband’s behavior in detail, and my mouth fell open. Was it possible that this woman was married to the same man? That it had taken only two years for him to exhibit that intense violence? No. She was describing her husband — the brother of the man from the case two years before. And then she told me that the men’s father had done those exact things to their mother — and that they had seen it all, believed it to be the way husbands treated wives, and thought it was fine.

Interestingly, though, the father had seen the error of his ways, had become devoutly religious, and no longer hit his wife. The sons had yet to catch on.

Those women, my clients, were both educated, had jobs, and could provide for themselves, as opposed to what we probably believe to be the archetypal victim: uneducated, without a job or money to support herself and her children, and without any personal power to leave the situation. Those words describe most of the women I wrote about in Afghanistan, whose husbands and mothers-in-law beat and killed them at will, with few or no ramifications, because that society tolerates, accepts, and even expects that women will be treated in that manner.

In fact, I was surprised to discover that only four women’s shelters exist in Afghanistan — and the United States, to our credit, built all of them over the past 10 years. Not many women use the shelters, though, because those women truly have no place to go after leaving their abusive husbands — they can’t go home, because to leave a marriage is to dishonor a family, inviting honor killing, and they can’t find their own homes, because women are not allowed to live alone. The shelter, then, becomes their only refuge.

Not all abused Afghan women, though, are powerless. The week before I left, I met Judge Lily, who showed me her broken jaw and bruised face. For 20 years she has been suffering beatings at the hands of her husband. She is educated and is a judge, and yet for 20 years has accepted this fate because — well, I’m not sure why. Abuse is a complex issue.

Offering women and children shelter, though, if only temporary, seems to be the humane and civil thing to do. I wonder why we are choosing something else.