Thursday, November 04, 2004

The Devastation of Domestic Violence

When Amherst, New York resident Ulner Lee Still had his adolescent son record a 50-minute video of Still beating and verbally abusing his wife, he did more than seal his own jury conviction.
He created a one-of-a-kind record of abuse that is now being sought by numerous police, court and domestic-violence advocacy groups for use as a training tool. Still was convicted last month on 12 counts of felony and misdemeanor assault against his wife, Susan.

"You can't understand the dynamics of the psychological damage and abuse and control unless you are exposed to it with this kind of in-your-face intensity," said Lisa Bloch Rodwin, Domestic Violence Bureau chief in the Erie County district attorney's office.
Until now, no video record of a domestic violence has been available to highlight the vicious pattern of abuse, according to experts on the subject. The closest real-life examples have come primarily from 911 calls to police.

But Susan Still has consented to release the recording of her abuse to legitimate court and police agencies for training purposes. "This video speaks for every woman and child who were not believed or thought no one would believe them," she said in a statement. "If viewing it helps one judge, one police officer, or one person take steps to save one other woman or child, then it should be used as a positive tool to end a very heart-wrenching and devastating issue in our society."

Videos that now exist to help people understand the nature of domestic violence use actors, experts said, and their performances do not always appear credible.

That is why the Still case, in which the video captured one of the assaults against Susan Still in the spring of 2003, has received immediate attention from domestic-violence and criminal-justice agencies from as far away as Australia. The video may be released to these groups after Ulner Still's sentencing in December, Rodwin said.

Those who have seen the Still video say that it is useful not just because it shows physical violence, but because the 40 minutes preceding the beating shows the husband interrogating and tearing his wife down verbally.

"It's the progression from the quiet, verbal discussion to the verbal abuse, moving into the physical abuse," said State Supreme Court Justice Sharon S. Townsend, administrative judge of the Eighth Judicial District.

The video also highlights the impact that spousal abuse has on children, she said, because Ulner Still had his 13-year-old son record the incident, and the son is heard on the recording.
In the video, Still criticizes his wife for not leaving quickly enough after she asks him what he wants for lunch and accuses her of being a bad mother.

"Don't just stand there looking stupid!" he says in the recording, compelling her to speak before he eventually throws her to the floor and attacks her.

"It sounds like a classic pattern of abuse which we have heard time and time again," said Laurie Ogden, an advocate with the Grace Smith House shelter for battered women in Dutchess County, who has requested the video. "Having this actually videotaped sounds very validating for victims who describe years and years of this type of abuse."

For many victims, the psychological abuse is worse than the physical abuse, Ogden said. But that experience is often extremely difficult to convey to law enforcement. "I think the video might really help us reach the judges and the lawyers who don't really get what the perpetrators are doing," she said.

Townsend said that she wants to use the video to train village and town judges but that she wants to obtain additional consents and ensure that showing the recording would not give Ulner Still any basis for appeal.

Ulner Still's attorney, David G. Jay, described the recorded abuse as a "momentary lapse" by a man devoted to his family.

Susan Still's former work supervisor, Lynne Jasper, has agreed to talk with local business groups about the impact of domestic violence on the workplace.
Many abuse victims are isolated from friends and family, she said, so fellow workers often are the only ones in a position to help.

"People who stay in this situation are not weak, nor are they stupid," said Jasper, who works for American Coradius in Williamsville. "They have been chipped away at and controlled and erased from having an identity."

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