Tuesday, August 11, 2015

TOP STORY >> Surviving abuse

State Rep. Charlotte V. Douglas (middle) poses with the faces of domestic violence, Laura Ponce (left) Laura Webb (right) and Laura Aceves (in frame).
Leader staff writer

A local woman who was nearly killed in 2012 when her husband ran her over is fighting back by continuing to push for legislation and informing people of new state laws that help victims of domestic violence.

Those laws help by allowing prosecutors to proceed in a case without the victim, requiring law enforcement to conduct lethality assessments that determine how at risk someone is of being killed by an abuser and having “Laura’s Card” — a list of victims’ rights — displayed in more places.

A side effect of all that is the state will now be keeping statistics to show how effective the legislation is.

Laura Webb of Cabot said her abuser never apologized, but uttered two words as he was led away in handcuffs. They were “You win.”

In her victim’s impact statement, a right included on the card, Webb told The Leader, “I said ‘this is my body. This is my life, and you go ‘you win,’ like this is a game. There is something, something lacking in you that you think this is a game.’

“It’s almost as if abusers look at their victims as a purse, or a shoe, a pet, and they can treat it any way they want to, like they own it. It’s not like we’re real people to them.”

Webb had been married to a federal law-enforcement agent — he investigated postal inspectors and workers — for 10 years when they left for a weekend getaway at Mount Magazine.

There had been two instances of physical abuse before then, when he head-butted and backhanded her.

“The immediate issue was over how we had been treated at a family function the week before, and I stood up for myself. I had my own voice, and he was angry that I voiced it,” Webb said about what led to the attempted murder.

“He said he wanted a divorce and I said, ‘Well, that’s fine with me if we get a divorce.’ And, when he realized I didn’t care if we got a divorce, he knew he lost all control, and I think that’s when he went out of orbit.”

Webb said her husband hit her with his truck, backed up over her, and drove forward over her again, before leaving her to die.

“By God’s grace, I was able to crawl to a cabin where there was a family, and they called 911,” Webb said.

She was flown to a hospital in Tulsa, Okla., to undergo experimental surgery. Webb’s right ribcage was rebuilt with five titanium plates and 32 screws.

“It’s hard to wrap your head around the fact that someone is trying to kill you, especially the person who said, ‘I’m going to promise to love, honor and protect you until the day we die.’

“I just didn’t know he was going to be the cause of, supposedly, the day I was going to die. It’s just unfathomable. There are no words to describe it.”

While Webb was in the intensive-care unit, her abuser violated a protection order by breaking into her Sherwood home.

Webb said the city’s police department protected her throughout the year she waited for him to stand trial, but they couldn’t see the protective order until it was faxed from Lonoke County.

That is why she and state Rep. Charlotte V. Douglas (R-Alma) are working toward a protective order database all agencies can access. Another step is a domestic violence registry that mimics the sex-offender registry.

And what became of Webb’s almost murderer? He spent 90 days in the county jail for a misdemeanor charge and then sued her for alimony because the conviction cost him his job.

One bill she and Douglas—“the champion, the driving force” — advocated for would have prevented abusers from seeking alimony.

Webb added, “Supposedly, he’s moved to another state, but he’s said that before and he was living four miles from me.”

The possibility of losing his job kept her husband from physically abusing her more often. “That time, he just didn’t contain himself,” Webb continued.

But, she explained, “There was huge financial abuse. He was in control of all the finances. There was enormous emotional and verbal abuse.”

Webb also said, “What I want other people to understand is our society wants to ask ‘why does the victim stay?’ And the question we need to be asking is ‘why are abusers abusing? And how do we implement stronger punishments on abusers?’”

That being said, she shed some light on why victims sometimes stay. “They need resources to be able to get out,” especially when they are uneducated, without job skills and/or the abuser has control of all finances.

Another complication is children, Webb explained. She said, “There are victims losing their kids in custody cases because abusers are very convincing and charming people. If abusers weren’t so convincing and charming, people wouldn’t be involved with them in the first place.”

And, from attending battered women groups, Webb has found that victims of domestic violence are educated, uneducated, rich, poor and of all races.

She also learned, “I needed to love myself first…Then I could help other people.

“I learned that I wasn’t alone. And I learned this is not only an epidemic, it’s a pandemic.”

The news of her near murder broke while Webb was at the hospital. She said, “I was mortified because there’s so much shame with it. I would like to say victims don’t need to be ashamed. The people that need to be ashamed are the abusers, not the victims…People are either going to fight, flight or freeze.”

Blaming victims for staying re-traumatizes them, she emphasized. “It is almost as if victims have to be detoxed from the abuser because the abusers are so charming and there’s such a pattern that they get into of the ‘I’ll do better.’”

While her husband never apologized, he would imply that he was sorry by buying her gifts, flowers or taking her on trips.

She also explained how a jury could be biased because they look for detailed stories from victims. “What people don’t understand is that, when people are victims of a crime, sometimes, because of the trauma, they’re not able to remember all factors of the event. And they expect us to be television witnesses and remember every aspect.”

Webb said, “Our state really needs to approach investigations with trauma-informed procedures, and we’re not at that stage yet.”

She hopes to inform Arkansas judges that they can stagger arrival times, which would mean victims and abusers not standing a few feet apart in the same line at the courthouse when their case is heard. That’s what happened to Webb.

Another of the victim rights — federal rights officials aren’t required to inform victims of but which victims can receive if they ask for them — is a separate waiting room during hearings.

Although the legislation Webb advocated for focuses on dealing with incidents after the fact, she is helping educate individuals about identifying a relationship as unhealthy.

She shared with The Leader several “red flags” people should watch for.

They include denial of access to finances, being told what to wear, being told what size to wear, being limited on time spent around friends and family, comments about their weight, having to ask permission to go out, destructive behavior, mistreatment of pets and physically intimate acts being forced upon them.

Also, victims need to press charges, especially if it would be a second conviction. Arkansas is one of a few states where the second misdemeanor offense abusers are convicted of becomes a felony, Webb noted.

About the lethality assessments now required when domestic violence is reported, she added, “I even think the person asking them has to see the seriousness of the situation, so it’s a learning tool for both parties.”

As for a victim’s family, Webb said they should look for withdrawal from friends and family, significant personality changes, depression, increased drug or alcohol use and overeating.

“No. 1, victims want to be believed,” she said. “The biggest thing families can do is always say ‘I love you, I believe you and I’m going to be here for you and I’m going to be ready when you go.’”

Webb also advises that victims privately record instances of any type of abuse. For those in her situation — where their abuser is a law enforcement official with the power of administrative subpoena that gives them access to cell phone records, financial records and more — documentation should be done through doctors and hospitals. Those records can’t be assessed because of HIPPA.

Webb also said the road to recovery is a long one and includes mourning the death of a relationship, even though that relationship was unhealthy.

It’s hard to restart, she said. “But, you know what, I’m alive and, by God’s grace, something that was meant for evil turned out for good. And I’m happy to be alive.”
About the legislation, state Rep. Douglas said she and others are continuing to help implement the changes.

She said advocates needed to “flush out a lot of the questions that have been coming in from law enforcement, legal questions: do we have to fill out the assessment if they don’t want to? Can we screen them in even if they don’t want to? Where do we file it? It was just bigger than we thought it was going to be.”

Other measures being worked on include adding shelters, hotlines and asking hotels to take victims in for the night as an alternative to a shelter, Douglas said. There are only 35 shelters for the 75 counties of Arkansas, Webb pointed out.

Alongside her and the state representative is Laura Ponce, whose daughter — Laura Aceves — was killed by her abuser.

The law requiring the lethality assessments, “Laura’s Law,” is named for Aceves.

Together, the three are the faces of domestic violence, Douglas said.