Kate Heinen is a social worker in Kansas City, Missouri. She has an MSW from the University of Missouri - Kansas City and a BA in Theatre & Film and American Studies from the University of Kansas.
Outside the front entrance, there’s an unruly matrix of bordering bushes which temporarily house the lighters, pocket knives, and paraphernalia that people jostle discreetly out of their pockets before entering to pass through the building’s security. An ornately pillared walkway smugly displays the power of those who work within the building’s confines. Inside, a robed man speaks with confidence at the front of the room behind an elaborate pulpit. Adults wearing crisp, freshly ironed shirts and patterned dresses take their seats among the lines of dark mahogany wood pews, their eyes darting around to see who else has arrived.
Unless you’ve worked in courtrooms, you wouldn’t realize how much they resemble church. The conceptual similarity is not unfounded, considering how much blind faith is involved. As a domestic violence victim advocate, I had spent years putting my faith in the restorative order of the American criminal justice system.
Like my foremothers in the movement, my hope was blanketed in the reformation of policies and laws that might protect victims and hold abusers accountable for their choice to hurt others. Through diligent efforts from relatively unknown activists and their supporters, laws have been slowly added to the books in recent decades which make it illegal for one intimate partner to assault another.
Gone are the days of earlier, more radical, social reform efforts when women like Carry A. Nation desperately swung axes into bourbon barrels in order to prevent drunk men from beating their wives. While prevention efforts remain elusive, there are now legal options for a victim to pursue safety and justice after being attacked, stalked, or harassed.
Still, the criminal justice system is flawed and difficult to manage. People expect the system to work methodically like a recipe which, if followed, will deliver a warm plate of justice, both tender and satisfying. In reality, the system is like a fragile bread dough that requires kneading, proofing, shaping, and most of all, patience. But follow all the rules to a T and you can still end up with a burnt loaf of bread. Not just something slightly charred with disappointment, but some inedible mess which leaves your kitchen smelling foul.
Options for justice, however viable, are never guarantees for justice. This was a difficult truism for me to learn secondhand.
I was working at a women’s shelter where the kitchen conversations typically revolved around safety and resources. This is where women go to hide from abusive partners. Think about that. We have whole buildings and non-profit centers with full staff and operations teams devoted simply to hiding women from the men who want to hurt them. In Kansas City, we have ten of these shelters hidden throughout the metro area. What’s worse, they are so full that they have to turn away 84% of callers seeking safety.
I spent many late nights at the shelter working to complete emergency restraining order paperwork with traumatized clients dictating to me the details of the abuse inflicted upon them, their hands too shaky to hold a pen.
I believed in advocating for survivors of domestic violence. No one should face complex systems alone when fighting for their right to safety. Passionately living out my values, I couldn’t imagine a more satisfying profession. I had a knack for listening to people and empathizing with their situations. There was a towering stack of heartfelt “thank you” cards on my desk to remind me that I was good at my job.
When I decided to leave my work at the women’s shelter to further practice victim advocacy as the new domestic violence victim advocate for the Kansas City Prosecutor’s Office, I was optimistic that municipal court cases would not be as horrific as the daily crises I was encountering at the shelter. I had recently watched helplessly over the security camera monitor as a shelter client was beaten by her ex-boyfriend who showed up one evening just beyond the shelter gate. Even through the graininess of the footage, I could see the demonic look of rage on his face as he knocked her down and kicked at her limp body moving like a sack of potatoes with every blow. Because of the adrenaline surging through me, I forgot how to dial 9-1-1, failing twice before breathing in deep to get it right. She ended up surviving, but the police who finally responded were unhelpful. She was holding her busted lip together, clearly needing stitches, while responding to a balding officer who barked in her face, “Well what were you doing texting him? You knew he was going to come after you, didn’t you? You knew what you were getting yourself into.” The police decided not to write up any charges. When I told them, through clenched teeth, that I was a witness and that footage of the assault was caught on tape, they shrugged. One of them spit on the shelter floor before leaving.
The nature of the work was beginning to take its toll. Nightmares, hyper-vigilance, and increased anxiety are classic symptoms of vicarious traumatic stress and they were slowly overwhelming me. But I didn’t want to leave the profession altogether. I accepted the city’s victim advocate position because I was looking for a presumed break in intensity while still playing a role in social justice. After all, municipal court was basically just a traffic court, right?
I quickly learned that the city’s court docket heard over 100 domestic violence cases per day. This meant I was chasing dozens of victims around the courtroom and in courthouse hallways and stairwells, to explain to them through an exhausted smile, that I was their advocate. Victims often appeared confused or suspicious and I would clarify that this meant that I was on their side to help them navigate the criminal justice process. I explained how the system could help keep them safe and their abuser accountable. Then I would hold my pen to my clipboard and really listen to their answer after I asked, “What would you like to see happen?”
As a white woman raised with the “cops and robbers” binary that people who do bad things belong in jail, I initially had a hard time understanding when women of color responded with, “Anything but jail time. I’m not going to be the reason that another black man ends up incarcerated.” My ignorance spoke for me when I tried to explain that it would be his actions and choices, not her victimization, that would seal his fate. They would just shake their head at me because I didn’t know how little I understood about the system I was working within.
The vast quantity of the cases were matched by the severity of the violence in each of them. The county court, which had the power to hold abusers more accountable through additional charging, would only prosecute cases that met an internal policy of criteria: the victim, usually female, had to have injuries egregious enough to have required hospitalization or caused broken bones. Or she had to have been strangled to the point of losing consciousness. Or she had to have been pregnant. Or she had to have had a gun pointed at her. Otherwise, they remained only municipal level domestic violence charges.
Even that criteria wasn’t a guarantee. After advocating for the transfers of cases over the phone, the county prosecutors, in between bites of their lunch, would often ask me: “Was the bone broken or just fractured?” “Was he really pointing the gun at her or did he just show it to her, y’know, to scare her?” “How sure is she that she’s pregnant?” The harsh reality was that Kansas City has the fifth highest murder rate in the nation. These county prosecutors had dozens of case files filled with photos of dead victims and their families awaiting justice. This made for a tough sales pitch to convince them that my cases were worthy of consideration for felony charging.
As a result, I frequently had to look into the bloodshot eyes of victims with visible bruising, sore necks from strangulation, and voices hoarse from screaming, while I told them that the person who assaulted them the night before could only ever face a maximum of six months in jail or a $500 fine, all contingent upon if they were found guilty. This was supposed to be justice. Take it or leave it.
Loosely monitored probation to stay away from the victim and attend a treatment program was the most common outcome the judge ruled on. There was a possibility of jail time if the offender did not comply with the probation’s terms. However, it was common knowledge that the city’s jail was overcrowded. A probation violation frequently meant spending a reduced sentence, sometimes just the weekend, in jail as people had to be released to make room for more violent offenders. As a consequence, abusers were quick to pick up on the fact that they could abuse their partner with almost total impunity, no longer swayed by the threat of so-called justice. And victims caught on that calling police for help just resulted in a long and expensive process where nothing happened. More cases piled up, more people were hurt, and the cycle continued.
The criminal justice system, I was learning, was wildly inconsistent. A victim would show up to the courtroom with three injuries, however, police would have only documented one injury in their report. I then learned that the prosecutors were unlikely to file more charges than what had already been assigned from the initial report, so the other injuries were freebies. This made it difficult for the victims to trust the system even if they trusted me. I received several angry and tearful voicemails every week from victims saying the same thing: “Thank you for listening to me, but I’m not going to keep participating in the court process.”
Why should they? I couldn’t ever blame them.
It was remarkable how many unjust variables could determine the outcomes for justice. The stamina, biases, or knowledge of the police officer who took the report mattered and directly influenced the case. Whether the prosecutor assigned to the case was distracted, hungover, or lazy in the courtroom had a direct correlation to whether the case got the attention it deserved. If the judge complained about not having enough coffee that morning, he was quick to dismiss cases or make rulings without all of the evidence.
In spite of its shortcomings, I still felt insistent that the criminal justice system could work.
Not long after I was hired, however, an unarmed black man named Michael Brown was murdered by a white police officer just three hours away in Ferguson, Missouri. I was proud of all of the people I knew who were gathering to protest, holding “Black Lives Matter” signs and demanding justice. I was appalled when the police officers and prosecutors I worked beside did not share my enthusiasm, even rolling their eyes in disgust when I praised the activism to hold the system accountable to itself. When a defense attorney showed up for court with a BLM lapel pin, the prosecutor sitting beside me scoffed, and I began questioning whether I was sitting on the right side of the table.
I was watching the justice system repeatedly fall short, but every once in a while, like an abusive partner bringing roses to apologize for the unforgivable, the system would meekly surprise me in offering deficient little wins, restoring my belief in its integrity. Until finally, as if the scales of justice had snapped from their levels, one case shattered my optimism into a million pieces scattered on the courtroom floor.
She hobbled into the courtroom, wearing a boot cast on her foot, still healing from when her boyfriend slammed a cinder block onto it to keep her from driving off during their argument. She was thin with large eyes and shook a little while she spoke. I had been following her case in particular, interacting with her often not just because of the brutality of the injury, but because she had told me about other instances of abuse. He had almost killed her multiple times, having developed a bad habit of strangling her during arguments. She would lose consciousness and awaken in the closet, sometimes the basement, where he’d left her to die. She lost count of how many times this had happened. She was trying to secretly save enough money so that she could afford to leave him for good, traveling somewhere far away so he couldn’t find her. He had already found her twice before and it had been a big risk for her to cooperate with police when they were called out to the house by a neighbor. Police didn’t document the strangulation even though she insisted to me that she had told them about it. They only documented the occurrence of the injuries they could see—her fractured foot and her swollen eye.
During his first appearance, the judge increased his bond when he screamed at her in the courtroom that she was gonna pay for this. When I spoke with her in the hallway about safety resources to gather while he sat in jail awaiting next week’s trial, a total stranger came out of the courtroom to tell her, “Listen honey, that man is going to kill you. You need to get out fast.”
“Ya, I’m working on it,” she nodded. She didn’t need some stranger telling her how dangerous her situation was. She knew.
During the trial, his testimony was sloppy and absurd. At one point he accidentally admitted being on top of her with his hands on her throat. The judge found him guilty and gave him the maximum sentence of six months. He yelled at her again, this time that he was going to kill her, as police walked him out of the courtroom.
In the sweaty hallway of the courthouse, we jumped up and down, excited and grateful that she would have a few months head start to pack up her life and be free. She hugged me.The system was flawed, but it was working.
The next morning, I skipped with a renewed energy into my office, which was stationed just below the courthouse’s rotating escalator, delivering an omnipresent pounding sound like being in a factory. I placed a bouquet of fresh daisies on my desk to celebrate the victory.
I wasn’t surprised to see that she was calling my office phone. I figured she wanted to discuss resources to help her leave the city. When I picked up, I heard her crying. She made squeaking sounds as she spoke in a low tone, not wanting to be overheard. His legal aid attorney had filed an appeal right after the conviction, allowing him to be set free on the appeal bond.
I had not known this was a possibility. What was the point of a conviction, I wondered, if it could just be appealed, releasing him until the appellate court date? How was it possible that we had celebrated his conviction at 1pm and he had appeared at her door at 8pm, demanding that she let him in?
My brain anxiously ticked away at all of the things that had gone wrong. The prosecutor on the case should have asked the judge to raise the appeal bond. The police should have documented the strangulation. The county prosecutors should have accepted the case for felony charging. Most of all, her boyfriend should not have chosen to abuse her.
Sitting in my windowless office, the sounds of the escalator churning above me, my insides began to churn along as I stared at the daisies I had bought. Their friendly petals suddenly looked inappropriate as the space around me turned cold and sinister. I was forced to see a painful truth. I had been making excuses for a system that was failing victims, minimizing the abuse they suffered, while neither treating nor reprimanding the offenders. I had mistakenly believed that the justice system, while not infallible, was still effective. That it was merely bogged down, overwhelmed.
I could no longer tell myself that the careless police officers I kept meeting were just the “bad ones” amongst all of the “good ones” who were somewhere out there. Or that the lazy prosecutors who were constantly playing games on their phones while court was in session were just burnt out, but meant well. The realization came into view as the fog of my denial was lifting: the American criminal justice system was not a complex roadmap that just needed a navigator. It was a broken system, founded on ignorant principles, and in need of a total overhaul that would reexamine its place in our culture’s changing values.
I understood why Carry A. Nation swung axes across saloons and dispensaries. I understood why women drive their minivans into rivers. I understood why all of the shelters were constantly full. And I understood that a gargantuan series of changes, cultural and systemic, rapid but not careless, would need to occur in order to correct the cataclysmic failure of the American criminal justice system.
I tried to steady my voice while I gave her the number to an emergency women’s shelter and asked her to check in with me when it was safe (I never heard from her again). After I hung up the phone, I allowed myself to collapse at my desk for a few minutes of grief. It was all I could afford, wiping my eyes and shuffling my papers before heading upstairs to the courtroom to ask the dozens of victims lining up for the hundreds of cases on the day’s docket, “What do you want to see happen?”
The question had once sounded to me like an empowering offering to put the victim in the driver’s seat of the case’s outcomes, giving them a voice when they felt they had none. Now the question sounded empty, full of false promise, like a carrot on a stick leading the horse over a cliff. And I was the idiot rider dangling the carrot.
I took my seat that morning at the prosecution team’s table, knowing that the system could never offer the kind of social justice that any of the victims wanted or deserved, knowing I was sitting on the wrong side of a table with no real right side.