Earlier this month the Fort Worth Star-Telegram ran a story about a 20-year old sexual assault case with a perpetrator from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS). That same day, I was working closely with the staff of our high risk team. The story talked about a grown man with ties to SWBTS who reportedly assaulted a then 17-year old female. I read the story in the morning paper and then, unrelated, left the office to observe a court proceeding for an offender whose victim is currently served by SafeHaven.
When the offender walked into the courtroom with his attorney, he looked like a regular person. He wore a crisp and clean grey suit. He had glasses. His hair was trimmed and combed. He behaved so well, truly blending in with the professionals around him. Before we walked into the courtroom, the SafeHaven staff member I was with remarked she was nervous as she had always worked closely with victims, but had never seen an offender face-to-face. You actually see offenders every day, I said. At the grocery store, at the bank, at the gas station. Even in church. You just don’t know they are offenders because they look like this guy. They blend in.
I bet that’s what students and others affiliated with the SWBTS feel like these days. I bet they think to themselves, how can this be? “I know him – he wouldn’t do something like that.” In some cases, it is so hard to believe victims because the awfulness of their stories is too much to bear. It’s our defense mechanism – our brains cannot manage knowing this information, so we jump to “that’s not true” or “that’s not possible.” What makes it easier to manage that jump is when the offender doesn’t display any abusive behavior publicly. In those cases, it’s hard to believe victims when the offender is charismatic and handsome and charming. When the offender wears a crisp and clean gray suit. When the offender has glasses, a close shave, and a fresh haircut. When he looks like every other person in your peer group.
The first rule of SafeHaven is: When victims outcry, we believe them. SafeHaven is not an investigative body; we don’t explore abusive relationships and aim to discover hard evidence. The nuances in domestic violence are such that by the time a victim provides an outcry, she has likely already assessed the pros and cons to speaking out. She has determined when and how it will be safest to do so. She has a plan. She knows her abuser and her relationship best. It’s such a painful dichotomy, isn’t it? On the one hand, early on we shame victims by asking them, “Why didn’t you tell us sooner?” Or “Why wouldn’t you just leave?” And when they do just that, when victims outcry or leave the relationship, we say, “Are you sure that’s what happened?” Or “What did you do to make him hurt you?” It’s no wonder victims don’t speak out – when they do, the system rarely believes them. Not only are they not believed, they are blamed for the abuse happening in the first place. The system sometimes doesn’t work for victims. It sends mixed and conflicting messages and there’s not a whole lot of trust between the system’s stakeholders and victims.
Thankfully, that’s changing in Tarrant County – I would argue, Tarrant County is far ahead of the curve, both statewide and nationally. It’s changing for the better. Yes, due process still triumphs (as it should), but police departments, judges, prosecutors, and others are taking this issue seriously. It is more and more difficult for an offender to get swallowed up in the system because we – all of us together – are paying attention. There is no better time to be involved in systemic change on the issue of domestic violence than now. And there is no better place to loop in than Tarrant County.
If you want to learn more, check out our website. If you want to see us in person, call us and we’ll schedule a tour. If you want to positively contribute to solving this problem, believe victims when you hear an outcry.
With best regards, I am
Kathryn Jacob, LMSW
President & CEO