Let's say that one late January evening your former spouse leaves your 2-year-old daughter alone during his custody period. He knocks on your door, begging you to talk. You decline. He does it twice more, so you call 911, thinking help is on the way.
What you're about to read is a disturbing narrative about Megan (not her real name) and the ex-husband who harassed and intimidated her. When she repeatedly sought law-enforcement help, well-meaning officers told her they couldn't help and not-so-well-meaning officers belittled and insulted her. She called 911 at least 10 times over three months, asking for help, all the while working full time, taking care of her two children, and getting very little sleep because the slightest sound at night could be him again, just outside her window.
"The common thought is, 'Well, he's not inside your house; he's outside your house. So what do you care?" You care, Megan explains, because you're afraid all the time, wondering if he's around the next corner, behind the next window. "We were living like prisoners, and he was doing whatever he wanted."
If you read no further, at least read these nuggets of advice:
• When officers respond to a 911 call, write down badge numbers and insist on a written report. "Officers began treating me very differently when I started asking for badge numbers," Megan recalls.
• To get court-admissible evidence, buy a time-lapse game camera, also called a trail camera (retail cost around $50). Mount it where the abuser lurks. Make sure it stamps the video with the time and date. Print the photographic evidence and insist that authorities provide help.
• Call 211, a local help line that refers to agencies, such as The Julian Center (2011 N.Meridan St.) that can help. The Marion County Prosecutor employs three deputy prosecutors and one paralegal within The Julian Center, and the Indianapolis Marion County Police Department has at least 18 officers stationed there, according to Peg McLeish and Sergeant Kendale Adams of the prosecutor's office and IMPD, respectively.
Anyone on the front lines of domestic abuse will confirm that ex-spouses are the most common abusers, and nine out of 10 times they are male. When they lose the power to control, they want it back. Megan fell for such a guy. When friends ask her what "she did" to make her former spouse act out in such a threatening manner, her short answer — in fact, the only answer — is this: "I left him."
Immense amounts of training have improved police response to partner abuse over the last generation, but as you read on, you'll see that more needs to be done. The sidebar on U.S. Supreme Court decisions offers another view of how large the gap still is.
Calls to 911
"[The] Indianapolis Police Department was the first place I went for help," Megan said. Officers Joshua Reynolds and K. Dancler were dispatched at 1:20 a.m. on January 16, 2014, but a record of the event wasn't filed until March 4, following a request by Megan's attorney. Responding officers did not alert Child Protective Services upon confirming that a 2-year-old was left untended by her father, who henceforth will be referred to as "the ex."
To their credit, these officers were the first to indicate, Megan recalls, that she was in serious danger, that they were familiar with guys like the ex, and that this sort of situation often ended badly for the woman in question. When the officers suggested that she get a protective order, Megan realized that the ex wasn't just being a jerk; he was dangerous.
Protocol suggests that responding officers put victims in touch with a police advocate, and it often works that way. Patti (not her real name) confirmed during her second stay at The Julian Center that a female police officer who responded to her 911 call offered a police advocate to later accompany Patti back to her Johnson County home to pick up clothes and other supplies. Patti's husband had discovered her south side address, scaring her enough to move with her son and her infant grandson back to The Julian Center. Megan, on the other hand, said she never had a female officer respond to her 911 calls—she got male teams—and she got no effective help until she went downtown and demanded it.
Patti's IMPD advocate also told her that between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Thursdays, she could get a restraining order or protective order from a prosecutor working at The Julian Center. Patti said she knows that The Julian Center helps many thousands of victims in addition to the ones sheltered there, but Megan said she remembers no hint of in-house law-enforcement help during her 45-day stay at the shelter.
'Jiggle your boobs'
Megan wishes now that she known to ask for badge numbers when the ex first violated her protective order, lurking under her bedroom window at night. Megan remembers a dispatched officer who was white, 6'3" and balding who suggested that she should "jiggle your boobs" next time to keep the ex on her property until cops arrived. "If you don't have their badge number, there's nothing anyone can do" about such unprofessional behavior, Megan said.
When told of that encounter, IMPD Sergeant Kendale Adams said, "I highly doubt that." All officers receive regular training in domestic-abuse protocols, including a recent training on the hidden signs of strangulation, said Adams, who is a media relations officer, and he can't imagine any police officer risking such a comment. Adams also pointed out that officers must, by law, treat harassment as distinct from domestic abuse. A series of harassment incidents might result in an arrest warrant—as occurred with Megan—but one incidence of physical abuse can be enough for legal intervention.
A badge number would have been useful again the night a friend of Megan's brought his gun and stayed overnight. Even though the ex was caring for their 2-year-old, Megan said that he prowled outside her back door late that night, so she called 911 again. By the time a cop was dispatched to her place, the ex was long gone. According to Megan, the responding officer asked Megan why she was concerned about the ex when she had another man right there with her.
Megan's male friend, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is currently training for the Police Academy, recalls that night. One of the officers asked, "How big is this guy [the ex]? Why don't you deal with him?" This wasn't the first time her friend had witnessed unprofessional police behavior in response to Megan's 911 calls — in fact, it motivated him to get police training, he said — but it surprised him: "Assault and battery does not sound so great to me. I don't want that on my record."
Having a badge number would have helped on another 911 call when the ex, again, was outside her window at night. The dispatched cops, arriving after the ex had left, belittled her, saying, "There's obviously nothing here; there's no reason for this," Megan recalls, and they indicated that she needed hard evidence. One officer volunteered his opinion, Megan said, that she was putting her children through unnecessary trauma by calling 911. Frustrated with IMPD's response thus far, Megan decided that evening to buy a game camera, a time-lapse video recorder with night illumination, so she could mount it outside her window and record any future protective-order violations.
"Her video camera was brilliant," said Laura Berry of the Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Upon hearing details of Megan's story, Berry said such behavior from law enforcement is "not atypical. Had she known more about her rights, though, Megan would have had better response." Berry added that victims shouldn't have to know their rights when they call 911: They should be informed by law-enforcement officers. Her agency's legal counselor "often has to get involved with law enforcement to get them to do their jobs," Berry said. On the other hand, "we're seeing really good progress." Too many women still give up when faced with cultural barriers that blame victims and the systemic barriers that remain in law enforcement agencies, Berry said, but immense progress has been made.
Upon hearing about the absence of official reports from Megan's 911 dispatches, Kelly McBride, director of the Domestic Violence Network, said, "Officers should be taking a report, and it's your right to get that report." For women in Megan's shoes, McBride suggests this: If officers balk at writing a report, "ask for their supervisor," she said. "We've been training IMPD officers for several years now," McBride said, and she sees tremendous results. Still, if police officers refuse on scene to file a report, "Document everything and report it immediately" by going to any IMPD district office to get a report filed, McBride said.
After learning that she could have filed her own reports, Megan checked in with four law-enforcement officers that she either knows from high school or has recently gotten help from. None of them has ever heard of filing your own report, Megan said, and one suggested that anyone who tried might not get much help at a busy district police office.
"All police agencies understand and take domestic violence very seriously," countered Jim White. (NUVO was referred to White by IMPD media relations officers.) After 40 years as a public safety officer, White is now a clinical lecturer at IUPUI. "Cops used to say, 'Work it out.'" Now, though, "We're all trained to provide name and badge number if asked. The response compared to 30 years ago is night and day." A follow-up email to IMPD asking for additional response was answered more than 45 days after it was sent, perhaps because one media relations officer had been re-assigned during that time period.
Because she was largely unaware of her rights on January 27, 2014, the day Megan received a protective order, the judge was powerless to extend protection to Megan's 2-year-old daughter because the January 16 police report could not be located. Without it, there was no evidence that the ex had left his daughter alone to stalk and harass her mother. Months later, after Megan's prosecuting attorney requested a copy, the missing police report finally emerged.
Nearly three months had passed since her first 911 call, and Megan didn't yet know to ask for badge numbers, but she finally knew how to nail her stalker. Thanks to the game camera, she had dozens of photographs of the ex peeping in her windows, and each photo was properly marked with the time and date so as to be admissible in any court of law. "I was elated, thinking, 'This is over. They are going to arrest him.'" Weeks of fear, sleeplessness, and frustration were about to end.
Megan developed her photos and had called the police. An officer came to her house, looked at her photos, and declined to help. "He felt bad for me," Megan said. "He said he would put out extra patrols," but without an existing police report, he could not make an arrest. She would need to ask a judge to issue a warrant, she was told.
Lying awake at home that night, seeing the ex three times outside her bedroom window, Megan decided enough was enough. "Every person I had spoken with who had seen the photographs said, 'It's not safe for you to stay there,'" Megan said. In the middle of the night, she gathered her two children, opened a window that the ex didn't frequent, and climbed out. She drove to a hotel.
Determined to find someone who'd take those photos seriously, "I took time off work the next day and went back to the court that issued my protective order to ask for advice." She learned that if the ex hadn't already violated the protective order, Megan would have been able to report a first violation, document it with photos, and get help. But he had violated the order, and she had already reported it, so her only recourse was to appear in court to prove the new violations.
Deputy sheriff helps
As she considered the tire iron the ex left outside her bedroom window from the prior night's stalking and the hotel bill she had just paid, Megan realized, "I can't live like this for four months," but she didn't know what to do. Noticing her dismay, a deputy sheriff in the basement of the City-County Building scanning area asked Megan if she had been helped. She said no and showed him her photos. That deputy sheriff assured Megan that an arrest would be made, and he began writing a report.
Her relief was temporarily shattered when a superior officer walked over and instructed the deputy to stop writing; that Megan's case was out of the sheriff's jurisdiction. When the superior officer left, the deputy finished his report and filed it, explaining to Megan that his aunt once was in her shoes, and her former stalker is now serving a life sentence for her murder.
The helpful sheriff's deputy, who asked for anonymity, said it's unfortunate that so many police officers fail to write reports and fail to add notes to computer-added dispatch records in case there are subsequent 911 calls. He confirmed that his supervisor suggested it would be best to let IMPD deal with Megan, "but after seeing the pictures that she had and hearing her story, I went ahead" and wrote a report. If he hadn't, and Megan had given up, "I think she would have lost her life," he said. Police response to people in Megan's shoes can make victims feel as if they are "one against 1,000, and it shouldn't be that way," the deputy said. "Never give up," is his advice.
That same deputy put Megan in touch with a victim's advocate from the prosecutor's office. The advocate was on her way to a dentist appointment, so she offered Megan another phone number that went unanswered. Megan left a voicemail message about photos, stalking, harassment, violated protective order, missing police report and having nowhere safe to stay. A response to that voicemail took three days, Megan said.
Armed, finally, with a police report but lacking a prosecutor to process an arrest warrant, Megan called the newsrooms at Channel 8 and Channel 13 and described her ordeal. Within hours of telling her story to reporters, Deputy Prosecutor Linda Major called Megan. Major, who works from The Julian Center, asked if the detective who had been assigned to Megan's case back in January had contacted her. "I said, 'Obviously, no,'" Megan recalls.
Thanks to Major, Megan finally met with Detective Richard Stratman of IMPD's North District office, ten weeks after her first 911 call. "He was very helpful." He told her he had mailed her a letter in January — a letter she never saw. (Abusers often rob victims' mailboxes, looking for clues on how to track them down.) Since she hadn't pressed charges then, Detective Stratman said he could not have done more in January, but "He told me, 'It sounds like we've dropped the ball in every way possible,'" Megan said. A follow-up email to both Linda Major and Det. Stratman was not answered.
The prosecutor assigned to the case was "really wonderful, terrific" and was concerned that Megan's 2-year-old daughter was not included in the protective order, so "even if he killed me, he would still have rights to her," Megan said. Her prosecutor urged Megan to stay at night only with people that the ex didn't know — The Julian Center was full — which meant co-workers' couches and hotel rooms until the ex was arrested.
Arrest warrant issued
Six days after Megan finally got some official help, an arrest warrant was issued, alleging felony counts of stalking, harassment, and child neglect. Megan stood outside the ex's house at the time of arrest because he had taken their daughter home early from daycare that day. Megan said she will never forget the final insult: The arresting sheriff's deputy suggested that Megan "stop putting my daughter through this trauma for such petty problems, and he asked if I was having a sexual relationship with [the helpful deputy]" whose name was on the warrant. Incensed, Megan reported those comments to the helpful deputy. "Within 10 minutes the deputy who made the comments called to apologize. He said he hates to see kids lose child support."
Usually polite to a fault, Megan finally lashed out over the phone. "I went off," Megan admitted. "I told him I had never gotten child support, that at one point [the ex] had refused to see his daughter for three months, that I had hundreds of photos of him outside my window." After her tirade ended, the arresting deputy apologized again.
Even though the ex would soon be locked up, Megan was advised to move at least 30 minutes from his address because he would be out of jail soon. That meant she couldn't return home, so every day she called or visited The Julian Center, only to be repeatedly told they were full — as was The Salvation Army and Sheltering Wings in Danville. On her second in-person visit, The Julian Center referred Megan to a shelter in Kokomo, but with traffic, her first drive there took more than two hours. She knew she couldn't commute that far, manage her family, and keep her job, so she turned around and stayed on a friend's couch once more.
Megan remembers three in-person visits to The Julian Center, where she begged for space, but intake workers never referred her to any IMPD victim advocates or deputy prosecutors who work there on the second floor. One intake worker studied Megan's photos and said, "I really wish I could help you, but I can't.'" Megan remembers that the reason given was that Megan wasn't a resident of the center, and funding was tied to residents.
The Julian Center response
Catherine O'Connor, director of The Julian Center since early last year, said that most intake encounters go vastly better. "That's unfortunate, and that's something we can continue to work on in training," O'Connor said. "We need to be sure that we're very, very clear when talking with people who are not at their best."
Even though Megan eventually did find shelter for 45 days at The Julian Center, "It was never brought to my attention that those (law-enforcement) services were there," she noted. By her third visit to The Julian Center, Megan had a prosecutor, a detective and an IMPD victim advocate from the North district office helping her. The victim advocate told Megan on a Friday that she had been promised a room at The Julian Center the following Monday. But on Monday there was no room, Megan said, and the center's intake staff had never heard of the North district victim advocate who had promised it. "That is probably the most crushing thing," Megan said: to count on a safe place to live — and have it vanish. So she begged again, offering to sleep on the floor. She was finally was given a shared room where for two nights she slept in one bed with her two children.
"I think they do the best they can with what they have," Megan said, but, "The Julian Center isn't set up for people who work. Breakfast was at 9 a.m. but [her son's] bus came at 8:45, so we couldn't eat it. By the time I left work and picked up my kids, dinner was over." Her assigned advocate worked to get sack lunches for the family, but her kids wouldn't eat the over-ripe fruit, and her son was allergic to the sesame seeds in the buns. By the 40th day, the center was providing Megan's family with three meals a day that they could eat, but by then she had spent more than $1,000 at the three fast-food restaurants where The Julian Center allowed her to buy take-out food. During meetings with her advocate and therapists, Megan remembers hearing, "It's not that we don't want to help you, but we're not set up for people who have jobs and are independent."
Catherine O'Connor confirmed that Megan's stories are "examples of challenges we face here every day." She acknowledged that most residents are nonworking women with self-esteem issues (common factors in domestic abuse situations). Most food comes from Gleaners and Second Helpings, and much of it doesn't appeal to children. "We work with what we have. We get a fair amount of grant support for our programming," O'Connor said, but day-to-day operations and food are based on donations. In response to Megan's complaint that none of her family got a pillow while living at The Julian Center, O'Connor admitted, "We're consistently low on bedding. When families leave here, they need those things." In response to Megan's comments about theft and fighting by residents, O'Connor noted that residents are understandably demoralized and not at their best. "This is not an ideal situation," O'Connor said, yet it is safe. Anyone who fights is asked to leave. The center shelters more than 1000 people every year — at least 120 people each night — and 40-50% of them are children. "We've been at or over capacity for more than a year," O'Connor said. The center also counsels more than 6,000 victims annually.
Megan said she felt especially bad for mothers of babies because there was no dish soap at The Julian Center for cleaning bottles. She noted that purses and backpacks were checked every time anyone left or returned to center. "It was very much like a prison," Megan said, adding, "You'll sacrifice whatever you have to be safe."
Life for Megan's family is better now, yet the game camera is out again. As part of his plea bargain, the ex will wear an ankle monitor for two years. But Megan worries he'll violates the protective order again. Since the ex had no prior police record, most felony charges against him were dropped in the plea bargain, and he was not held in contempt for protective-order violations, Megan said, but he is required to take a year of therapy and a year of parenting classes. Megan believes that "he got off very lightly."
Laura Berry, however, was impressed that he is required to wear an ankle monitor. "That is a huge success," Berry said. "There are minimal sanctions for most domestic abusers," she added.
For 10 years, people like Megan didn't fall through the cracks as often. A grant that was not renewed this year paid the salaries of several IMPD victim advocates, housed at The Julian Center, who were responsible for scanning 8,000 police reports each year, looking for keywords in order to track domestic abuse cases, explained Kelly McBride. Even if a report wasn't labeled as domestic, the keyword search would probably find them, and the victim advocate would follow up. McBride lamented the loss of that grant because now only one IMPD victim advocate serves all police districts.
Still, IMPD detectives and deputy prosecutors work from The Julian Center, O'Connor pointed out, so the center is poised to be the first stop for female and male victims of domestic abuse, whether they need shelter or not.
Had Megan known that, what a difference it might have made.