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.