Should Domestic Violence Counselors Have ‘Reached Out’ to Eliana Lopez?
by Laird Harrison and Jon Brooks
We fully understand that many San Franciscans would rather repeatedly watch last year’s video of Buster Posey getting his leg broken than delve further into the Ross Mirkarimi situation. But it appears, even after last week’s climax of a vote to deny the mayor’s move to oust the sheriff from office, that the old Yogi Berra maxim of “It ain’t over till it’s over” is going to apply for the foreseeable future.
Last Wednesday, for instance, San Francisco DA George Gascon called on Mirkarimi to recuse himself from any official duties related to domestic violence, saying that “at a minimum,” he is “incapable of adequately performing the functions of his office that relate to crimes of domestic violence.” Meanwhile, Supervisor Jane Kim, one of the four votes on the Board against removing Mirkarimi from office, issued a statement on her web site that “the electorate has every right to recall the Sheriff, an action which I would support.” Supervisor Malia Cohen, who voted for removal, has said she would also support a recall. And the Chronicle reported that Tony Winnicker, Ed Lee’s former press secretary and a current mayoral adviser, called Mirkarimi a “wife-beater” on his Facebook page. Winnicker also sent Supervisor Christina Olague, who was appointed by Lee but failed to reward her political patron with a “Yes” vote on ousting the sheriff, a nasty text:
“As your constituent, you disgust me,” the Chron reports Winnicker as saying. “You are the most ungrateful and dishonorable person ever to serve on the board. You should resign in disgrace.” Mirkarimi, for his part, didn’t exactly tamp down the rhetoric on his appearance on KQED Public Radio’s Forum show last week when he made the following statements about some of the institutional forces that have both prosecuted and lobbied against him:
“To this day, nobody from the domestic violence agencies, nobody from the police department, district attorney, has ever reached out… [to] the very person they claimed to defend, the very person that they have tried to use,” Mirkarimi said, alluding to his wife, Eliana Lopez. “The narrative that Eliana has not fallen into is what’s bothered them, which is why I think they’ve intensified their attacks.” (Lopez herself wrote in a San Francisco Chronicle piece in April that “From the beginning, my public voice has been ignored and treated as irrelevant.”)
So we wondered: Should law enforcement and/or domestic violence workers have tried to contact Lopez?
To recap the situation: a neighbor videotaped Lopez saying that Mirkarimi had bruised her arm in an argument on New Year’s Eve, 2012. Police arrested the sheriff and separated him from Lopez and their son, but Lopez said she had no complaint against him and wanted to be reunited. Mirkarimi eventually pleaded guilty to falsely imprisoning Lopez.
We called an expert far from the hue and cry of San Francisco to see what
Darald Hanusa is a PhD psychotherapist who specializes in domestic violence, and he lectures on the subject at the University of Wisconsin. Hanusa says that victims’ advocates had excellent reasons for not asking Lopez how they could help.
“Most agencies that deal with domestic violence are very careful not to cross boundaries and reach out to victims if their help is not wanted,” she said. “It’s a matter of safety and it’s a matter of respect for the individual’s autonomy.”
Hanusa said domestic violence workers long ago decided that they shouldn’t pick up the phone until the victim calls them. In the first place, an abuser might pick up the call and retaliate against the victim.
In the second place, Hanusa said, the victim “needs to have autonomy and self-efficacy. If you preempt that you are dis-empowering them.”
In many states, even health care workers are not required to report evidence of abuse against non-elderly adults, he pointed out.
Conversely, many jurisdictions require that police make an arrest if there is probable cause of domestic violence, even if the alleged victim sides with the alleged abuser. That’s because victims are often afraid to testify against their abusers, may still be attached emotionally, or may be economically dependent on them, Hanusa said.
But domestic violence counselors don’t always refrain from contacting alleged victims, said Kathleen Krenek, executive director of San Jose’s Next Door Solutions to Domestic Violence. “We want everything to be in her power and control, but it’s not such a hard-and-fast rule.”
For example if her agency hears from a third party — such as a sister — that someone is being abused and doesn’t have the will to get help, a counselor might try to find a safe way of calling, disguising the call if necessary to keep the abuser from finding out.
She pointed out that Mirkarimi might not know if a domestic violence counselor contacted Lopez. “She might not be comfortable telling him,” said Krenek.
But shouldn’t the district attorney’s office have offered Lopez help or asked her side of the story?
In fact it did, said Alex Bastian, a spokesman for San Francisco Attorney George Gascón. “A victim service advocate was assigned,” he said. Advocates offer assistance to alleged victims, and also take evidence, including whatever statements the victims want to make. But Lopez’s attorney told the advocate to stop trying to contact Lopez, Bastian said.
After that, DA’s staff approached Lopez in court and in the presence of Lopez’s attorney, he said, providing her with a “safety plan” in case she felt herself to be in danger, and with the business card of an assistant district attorney who spoke Spanish, Lopez’s first language.
Mirkarimi did not return our call seeking to clarify his comments. Our call to the San Francisco Domestic Violence Consortium also went unanswered, and Kathy Black, of Casa de las Madres, said she was not able to comment. But she said to the Chronicle after the vote that “Right now, I’ve seen a lot of high fives. That doesn’t feel too humble or like he’s taking it too seriously to me.
And others who work on domestic violence issues said they were concerned about the effect of Mirkirimi’s reinstatement. “I think part of the fallout is that battered women are going to be much less likely to call the police,” said Nancy Lemon, who teaches domestic violence law at the University of California, Berkeley, and served as an expert witness in both Mirkirimi’s criminal case and the Ethics Commission hearing. “It may have an effect on batterers who will be told that it’s not a big deal, that it’s a private family matter.”
Krenek, who attended the Board of Supervisors Meeting, said she was disturbed by comments she heard in the halls minimizing the incident in which Mirkarimi injured Lopez.
“To me it was like what we used to hear 20 years ago,” she said.