What is Justice?

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If you’re like us, you’ve had a lot more time (or at least more excuses) to watch Netflix, read books, and listen to podcasts. We’ll be sharing some thoughts from our favorite shows and podcasts over the next few weeks and we’d love to hear what you are watching or listening to as you shelter-in-place!

Content warning: Discussion of sexual assault.  If you may be triggered, use caution in reading ahead or call us at 815-756-5228.

We’ve mentioned before that we were listening to Chasing Cosby.  It is a difficult podcast to listen to. You come face to face with survivors who bravely share their experiences with sexual assault, fear, and betrayal.  Not only did they experience a violation of their bodies and their choices, but their trust was violated.  Cosby had built an image of himself as a paragon of virtue, a family man, someone they could trust to help them. And he used that image, that mirage to hurt them.

It took decades for him to be found guilty of his crimes.

In the last episode of the podcast, several of the survivors meet for a live-recorded episode.  They (and the podcast host) answer a series of audience questions. One of the most poignant is the question, what does justice look like for you?

Many of us might assume we know what their answer would be.  Many of us would assume justice was served.  Bill Cosby was found guilty.  Bill Cosby is in prison. Is this justice? For some of the women, the answer is yes.  For others, no.  There is no justice. There can be no justice.

There is no undoing what Bill Cosby did.  There is no way to un-assault someone, no way to erase that crime or all of the trauma that followed. A harm-doer ending up in prison may send the message to others that this behavior will not be tolerated, but it doesn’t fix or change what they did.

Survivors deserve more.

Many survivors feel the deep lack of justice from harm-doers who can’t admit they have done something wrong. Many of Cosby’s survivors noted that what they wanted most was an apology.  They wanted Cosby to acknowledge that he had hurt them, to show that he knew he had done something wrong, and wouldn’t do it again.  They’ve been denied that justice.

Survivors aren’t asking for justice because they want to punish someone or perpetuate a cycle of pain.  They are asking for justice because they believe in a better world, because they want to make the world a safer place.  They want true justice because they are strong.

Many survivors have found comfort in seeing other survivors come forward, in supporting other survivors. The courage and strength in finding justice in fighting for other survivors is the heart of this movement. I believe in a future without sexual assault or violence because I have seen the courage of survivors who life one another up. I believe in a future without violence, because I know survivors are fighting not only for their own justice, but for others.  They fight for other survivors, but also for no one else to ever be put in a position to become a survivor.

The survivors of Bill Cosby not only fought for him to be held accountable, but also fought to change statute of limitations for sexual assault in states around the nation. They have made it possible for victims to report abuse when they feel safe and able to do so.  They not only held Cosby accountable, they changed the world for other survivors.

You have no responsibility to anything but your own healing, but survivor, we hope you know just how powerful you are.

You will change lives, just by healing.  You will encourage other survivors. You have the ability to change the world for the better. Organizations like Safe Passage only exist because of the strength of survivors who came together to create these services and because of survivors who work in this field each and every day.

Justice does not look like a courtroom, a judge, or a sentence.  Justice isn’t found in jail cells or handcuffs.  Justice is a world without violence.  Justice is a world where we are ALL safe.  Justice is what we are fighting for.  And we will never give up.

Child Abuse Prevention Month

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Today’s blog post comes to us from our Children’s Counselor, Jennifer King:

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month. In the children’s counseling program at Safe Passage we provide therapy and counseling for children who witness domestic violence and whose parents are victims of domestic violence, but we also provide services to children who are themselves victims of violence. Did you know that according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) 1 in 15 children in the United States were exposed to intimate partner violence, a total of more than 5 million children, in just one year? Research has shown that witnessing domestic violence can be a traumatic event for children. In the landmark Adverse Childhood Experiences Survey (ACES) done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, exposure to domestic violence was found to be one of the 10 childhood experiences that can be a precursor to negative health outcomes in the future.

 

Another hard truth is that, in addition to the trauma of witnessing intimate partner violence, it is in many cases associated with other forms of violence. 1 in 3 children who witnessed domestic violence are also child abuse victims (according to the NCADV). Safe Passage counselors know this from our work with child clients. Often children are referred to us for counseling who are displaying behaviors that are concerning to their parents and teachers, such as aggression, nightmares, excessive crying, or clinging to parents. It can be helpful for parents to know that many of these behaviors are common among children who have experienced trauma. It is even more helpful to know that the effects of child abuse and other childhood trauma can be alleviated through developing a trusting relationship with a counselor. Children’s counselors at Safe Passage are Master’s-level counselors who are certified in trauma treatment. Talk therapies can be used with some children and adolescents, but more often expressive therapies are used to meet children at their level and make therapy as non-threatening and enjoyable as possible. Our counselors use play therapy techniques to assist children with expressing their feelings, experiencing healthy boundaries and limits and making choices about therapy activities in order to increase their sense of safety and control. Play is the natural language of children and while playing children can explore feelings that they are unable to describe using only words.

 

In our trauma training and working with clients we have learned that the most important part of any therapy is the relationship between the client and the therapist. Children’s counselors at Safe Passage work very hard to create an environment for children where they can have fun while always feeling safe and valued.  As one of the foremost experts on trauma treatment, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk said, “being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.” At Safe Passage our goal is to provide these safe connections in order to help children heal from trauma and abuse.

 

If you suspect a child you know is being abused, you can report that abuse in Illinois by calling 1-800-25ABUSE. Let parents, families, and children know that there is help and support available at Safe Passage by calling 815-756-5228 or call us yourself to learn more about our services.  Together, we CAN end child abuse for good.

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness

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Hey all you cool cats and kittens! We’ll admit it, we jumped on the bandwagon and dove deep into the wild world of Tiger King – and as always, we have some thoughts (Spoilers coming—but if you haven’t seen the show yet you aren’t going to believe us that this is real.) Get your leash on your tiger and let’s go!

Big Cats Thats Fun GIF by NETFLIX

A quick recap: Tiger King is Netflix’s new number documentary. The show tells the story of Joe Exotic, a character to say the least, who runs Greater Wynnewood Zoo. The private zoo is home to hundreds of large cats – panthers, tigers, snow leopards and more. But what draws customers into the zoo is the baby tiger experience. Visitors are able to spend time snuggling the baby animals before taking a souvenir photo. Sounds nice right? One woman, Carole Baskin, founder of Big Cat Rescue doesn’t think so. The majority of the documentary focused on the rivalry between Joe’s GW zoo and Carole’s Big Cat Rescue. Long story short, Carole thinks Joe’s operation (and others like it) are unethical and Joe thinks Carole is a grifter who is out to get him.


Who isn’t, Joe?  Who isnt?

We saw Joe and several of his staff create videos threatening Carole and her husband which eventually led to Joe’s arrest for attempting to hire someone to murder her.

Yes, this is a real show. Yes, these people and these stories are real. We know, it was shocking for us too.

Big Cat Lol GIF by NETFLIX

There are enough red flags in this show to sew a quilt the size of Connecticut. We could talk about the abuse that animals suffer in private zoos.  We could talk about the ways that nonprofits (like Big Cat Rescue) often operate in the same way as those they fight against. We could talk about labor laws and the exploitation of volunteers and staff.  We could talk about OPENING A PIZZA RESTAURANT THAT USES SPOILED MEAT TO KEEP COSTS DOWN. The point is, there is a lot we could focus on. But we’re a domestic violence and sexual assault crisis center, so guess what this blog will focus on?  Yes, that’s right: the blatant abuse of humans that went on with hardly a comment the entire documentary.

Let’s start with Joe.  It is hard to say if he was meant to be the star or the villain of this documentary. He’s a complicated man, but his relationship history is clearly problematic at best. He says himself that he fell in love with and married multiple straight men. Joe and Travis, the first two of his husbands that we meet in the documentary, both seem tied to Joe by a variety of strings, including financial abuse, isolation, and addiction.

The issue in Joe’s relationships isn’t polygamy.  Having multiple partners or spouses can be complicated and different people will have different opinions about the morality of multiple partnerships, but it isn’t inherently abusive.  The problem is when one person in the relationship holds all the power.  That’s true in monogamous AND polygamous relationships.  Joe was much older than any of his partners (Joe, Travis, and later Dillon were all 20-30+ years younger than Joe).  Joe was known to give his partners drugs or expensive gifts to keep them with him. They were isolated and kept from family and friends, forced to rely on Joe for support and drugs.  This is, obviously, not a recipe for a healthy relationship.  In fact, these are some of the more subtle ways that relationships may be abusive.  You may not see bruises or injuries, but that doesn’t mean that someone isn’t being abused. In fact, as one of Joe’s partners (Travis Maldonado) goes on to kill himself, either in a gun accident or via suicide, we can see how the lack of equality and independence in these relationships can be incredibly devastating.

Abusive polygamy is a recurring theme in this documentary, so let’s turn to Doc Antle.


If a white guy riding in on an elephant doesn’t scream trustworthy, I don’t know what does.

Bhagavan Antle is the owner of Myrtle Beach Safari, a cat breeder who has provided wild animals for films like Ace Ventura, Dr. Doolittle, and even music videos for P. Diddy and Britney Spears. Doc Antle seems to regularly hire young women as assistants at his facility, asking them to work over 12+ hours, and often entering romantic relationships with them.  In the documentary, he has 3 female partners who live and work at his facility. He and many others in the documentary note that he is often accused of running a “tiger sex cult”.

One of the women who left Doc Antle’s employ was filmed for the documentary and alleges that women were encouraged (or expected) to sleep with Antle to earn a better position at the facility. Women were told what they could and couldn’t wear.  She herself was pushed to get breast implants, as if that has any bearing on how well she could care for tigers. She said that she was too afraid to say that she didn’t want to have the procedure and she was looking forward to the required post-op rest after the long hours she spent working with the animals.

Like Joe’s partners, Doc Antle’s partners seem isolated at Myrtle Beach Safari, working long hours with only each other (and Doc Antle) for support. The level of control to be able to say what someone was or wasn’t allowed to wear or to change someone’s name is a classic red flag for abuse. Even if none of these women were in romantic relationships, Doc Antle’s sexualization of his employees and clear quid pro quo sexual harassment make him one of the most egregious examples of abusive behavior in the series.

Let’s turn next to someone who made our skin crawl: Jeff Lowe. He was initially Joe’s financial saving grace when Joe’s legal beef with Carole and Big Cat Rescue threatened to bankrupt the zoo.  Their partnership quickly soured as Joe started to feel that Jeff was just out to steal his tigers.  He may not have been wrong. While Jeff certainly seemed more legally savvy and less naïve when compared to Joe, his relationship with his wife Lauren was beyond icky.

A main theme of his early appearance in the series was his need for tiger cubs to attract young women into threesomes with him and his wife. We’re not even going to touch that beyond to say if you can’t get a sexual partner without exploiting wild animals, maybe you need to take a long hard look at your life. BUT let’s look at a scene that took place toward the end of the series when we found out Jeff’s wife Lauren was pregnant. Jeff and Lauren were discussing hiring a nanny to help Lauren care for their child.  Jeff was insistent on finding a nanny he found attractive. THAT’S NOT WHAT YOUR NANNY IS THERE FOR!  They are there to care for your child, NOT to give you a tingly feeling in your pants.  This is so obviously sexual harassment that I almost can’t believe it is real.

I feel like if I used this as an example in a sexual harassment training, people would tell me that my presentation is too over the top and I need to tone down the hyperbole. I feel SO WORRIED for whoever has taken that position.

In that same conversation, Jeff also told Lauren that her first priority after having the baby would be “hitting the gym” and getting back in shape.  Again, he’s acting like the only thing that matters is whether the women in his life are aesthetically pleasing to him. He’s not worried about his wife’s health or the development of their child.  He doesn’t care about her recovery or her learning to be a parent. He just cares that she gets “hot” again.

This shouldn’t need to be said, but treating your partner like a real-life sex doll where the only thing that matters is them measuring up to your [almost always impossible to achieve] physical standards is abusive.

Finally, let’s turn to the star of the biggest question in the series: Carole Baskin and did she or didn’t she kill her second husband Don Lewis?

Just kidding.  We’re not even going to touch that.

Netflix Carole GIF
Us cycling RIGHT PAST that question

The documentary hashed that out and if you’re looking for a true-crime blog, you’ve come to the wrong place.  We’re here to talk about the multiple times Carole disclosed graphic and horrifying abuse that the documentary glossed over like we didn’t even need to care.

In sharing her story, Carole disclosed that she was sexually assaulted at age 14 by three men who lived near her family.  Not only did she experience a horrific sexual crime, a gang rape, as a CHILD, she was also forced out of her home not long after.  Her family, she noted, believed that women who were sexually assaulted must have done something to invite the abuse.  In essence, she says her family blamed her, a 14 year-old child, for being sexually assaulted.  No surprise she didn’t feel safe continuing to live at home and she left by age 15.

She was married with a child only a few years later and again, she disclosed that her first husband was a violent man of whom she was afraid.  She was too afraid to leave, worried about what would happen to her daughter if she tried to start over on her own.  One night after an argument where she had to flee the house to feel safe, she was picked up and comforted by her future second-husband Don Lewis.  Like Joe (and Doc Antle and Jeff Lowe), Don was significantly (22 years) older than Carole.  Not every relationship with an age gap is abusive, but it is a red flag that could indicate a power disparity that might lead to abuse.

To recap: Carole Baskin was sexually assaulted at age 14, blamed and shamed by her family, stuck in an abusive marriage until she was “rescued” by a man over two decades her senior.  Did she feed Don Lewis to her tigers?  Honestly, that isn’t the question that is on my mind.  I want to know what we can do to ensure no other young girl or young person goes through that level of abuse again.

We know that animals should not be abused. I wish we had the same level of passion for advocating to end abuse against our fellow humans. John Finlay and Travis Maldonado should never have felt pressured into relationships with Joe.  Lauren should know that her value comes from something so much deeper than her appearance and she shouldn’t have to be with a partner who treats her like that is the only thing that matters.  The women and Myrtle Beach Safari should be free to dress as they like, go by their own names, and not have to sleep with their boss to get ahead.  Carole should never have been abused.

Tigers shouldn’t be abused for our entertainment. People shouldn’t either.  We’re not saying Tiger King shouldn’t have been made or that we’re bad people for enjoying the BONKERS ride each episode took us on.  We’re just saying we can’t sweep these things under the rug anymore.  We need to talk about these things.  Only by talking openly about abuse can we ever hope to end it. Survivors, you are not alone.

 

Self Care

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If you’ve worked in social services, you’ve likely heard about “self-care” so many times you’ve lost count.  If not, you might be encountering this term for the first time as we all [hopefully] spend more time investing in our mental and emotional well-being while we’re distancing.

Whether you’ve heard it once or a hundred times, you might wonder why people place so much emphasis on the idea of “self-care”.  One of our Sexual Assault Counselors, Naicia, shares her thoughts:

Why do we encourage self-care?

Trauma compromises our wellbeing. Taking an active role to care for our mental, emotional, and physical health can be a challenging journey. People who have been repeatedly wounded by another person may come to understand that they lack worth  or are not deserving of having their needs met. A survivor’s world is distorted by enduring repeated crises. When the brain is trained to be on hyper-alert for safety, the idea of feeling well doesn’t make sense. Avoiding and ignoring emotions may seem safer. 

Self-care is giving space to see yourself as deserving of emotional and physical wellbeing. Activities that encourage movement like music, dance, yoga, and exercise allow the body to release intense emotions in a nonverbal way. Creative expressions of art, writing, music, and crafts also release the energy of trauma in healthy ways. Focused breathing releases stress and tension and slows heightened awareness and flashbacks that impede day to day functioning. Positive affirmations empower self-awareness and increase self-esteem.

Consistently practicing things that energize us and center us at the moment slowly rewire the brain to recognize that our present needs are important. Nurturing self-care activities can help us gain control over stressful emotions.

Whether you are the victim of abuse or enduring higher than normal stress due to our unprecedented circumstances, don’t forget that you matter.  You are valuable.  You deserve to invest in yourself.  Take the time to remind your brain, body, and spirit that you matter.

What are your favorite self-care activities?  What are the things that ground you or lift your spirits?  Share them in the comments!  You never know who you might inspire!