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Where law enforcement and community meet

NEWFANE—Sheriff Keith Clark sits at a table in his office at the Windham County Sheriff’s Department in Newfane. With nearly 30 years in law enforcement and the military, Clark has witnessed his share of domestic violence calls.

“I’ve met women who don’t know which way to turn, other than ‘Can I survive today?’” Clark said.

Like learning to hide bruises, women wear a mask to hide mental abuse. They protect themselves until eventually they’ve shut down, Clark said.

He equated the emotional toll of domestic violence victims to soldiers returning from war zones.

Soldiers are encouraged to talk, seek help, and look for signs of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Society erects billboards listing hotline numbers and support groups.

“We don’t have those same systems in place for women,” he said.

“The tools are out there, but who encourages them?” Clark said. “They’re in a war zone. They’re battling every day. But there’s no billboards.”

Clark attended a community conversation on domestic violence with the Women’s Freedom Center on April 26.

Although he said the event had a great turnout, Clark wished more men had attended. Specifically men with “community standing” like business owners or elected officials.

“It’s not a women’s issue,” he said. “It’s a community issue.”

Society puts the onus on women to keep themselves safe, he said, but society should instead focus on what men can do to stop abuse.

Everyone should protect themselves by staying aware of their environment, he said. “But we’ve turned that on its head in a way by saying it’s your [the woman’s] sole responsibility.”

Clark would like to see more men intervene before their male friends’ behavior becomes a crime.

“It would be nice in my lifetime, but I don’t know,” he said.

A matter of power

Clark has a personal reason for wanting to end domestic violence. Two of his sisters, out of five siblings, were abused by former husbands.

People expect domestic violence to come in the form of beatings, bruises, or rape. But mental abuse cuts deep too. He has spoken with women and teen girls afraid to leave the house even for groceries.

“I can’t imaging saying to my wife, ‘You need to bring the checkbook right back. I need to see the receipt and everything in the bag had better match it,’” he said.

Clark has witnessed mostly men’s violence against women, but said an abuser’s behavior follows the same line whether the relationship is heterosexual or same sex.

Even during routine police calls like noise violations or traffic stops, the abuser’s body language is overly assertive — puffed chest, disrespectful compliance with police requests — especially in the presence of his partner. The abuser wants to demonstrate power, control, and strength to show his partner that there is nothing she can do.

Batterers want to control their whole environment. Police challenge that power, said Clark.

If police respond to a noise violation, the batterer will answer the door while the woman stands to one side. Often, she won’t make eye contact or will stare at the police as if saying “help.”

“She’s afraid of what will happen when the sheriffs leave,” said Clark.

“But if I can see all that — as someone who has been with this couple for a few minutes — why don’t family, coworkers?” he said. “If he makes you uncomfortable, how does he make her feel when no one is watching?”

Clark said that, as an authority figure, he doesn’t want to push a woman into any course of action. In his opinion, she has already undergone trauma, she doesn’t need pushing by someone in a uniform. She needs support.

Instead, Clark said law enforcement should push on the abuser in the form of the Legislature passing enforceable laws, with the courts and law enforcement following close behind.

“And not victimize the victim again,” he said.

Young officers ask Clark why they should bother returning to the same house for the same domestic abuse call once, twice, a hundred times.

They don’t understand there’s a tipping point.

“Because every time you go, she knows you’re there,” he said.

Not just a woman’s issue

A domestic abuse victim may not look like she’s not absorbing the information from officers about taking out a protective order, or the number of the closest shelter, he said. “But she’s storing it away.”

“Every situation is unique,” he said. “Because every abuser has his own issues and every victim is an individual.”

Clark said he believes society would benefit all around if situations never reach the law enforcement level. Men can tell men to leave an unhealthy relationship and get help before lives go south.

“Make men understand that just because they’re male, they don’t have [all] the power,” Clark said.

Instead, men must learn that relationships are based on trust, equity, and responsibility.

Clark said society can decide to stop empowering young boys to abuse.

Fathers shouldn’t just model healthy relationship behavior and assume boys will pick it up. They should also talk to their sons, said Clark.

“When you talk with your son about the birds and the bees, talk not just about sex but about long-term, caring, equitable relationships,” he said.

The community can help victims by recognizing that domestic violence is not just a police issue, a women’s issue, or an advocates’ issue.

Everyone knows a victim and everyone knows an abuser, said Clark.

“It’s not even six degrees of separation,” he said. “More like one degree.”

Clark said an Internet search would uncover multiple resources for people looking to reach out to victims.

Vermont’s 2-1-1 system (http://vermont211.org/), a confidential phone service connecting people to local health and human services organizations, is also a powerful starting point, he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #152 (Wednesday, May 16, 2012).

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