The Aftermath: "I Was Afraid It Would Get Worse"
Tracking domestic violence is difficult; more so in rural areas.
But in California’s Del Norte County, these calls come into law enforcement agencies at a rate two-and-a-half times that of anywhere else in the state.
The calls come in every day.
911 Dispatcher: “Female reports that her boyfriend has a baseball bat, swinging it around. She’s afraid of him.”
It’s late, about 1 a.m., when this one reaches a dispatcher for the Del Norte County Sheriff's Office.
911Dispatcher: “At this time the female subject has locked herself in her room. Male subject is still outside.”
More than an hour later, deputies reach a home on the outskirts of this sprawling county, near its southern border with Humboldt. They’ve been called to deal with 27-year-old Joshua Musser, a man with a history of domestic violence.
Deputy: “Copy, is he inside the residence or outside?” 911 Dispatcher: “Uh, he may be inside now, but she said she’s feeling better. She’s got herself locked in her room. I told her to call back if she gets more concerned.”
Hours later, the same woman calls back. Again Musser is not arrested. A couple of months later, the scene repeats. This time an arrest leads to probation and fines, the same sentence he’s gotten before, for assaulting her.
Another woman called 911 about Musser four years ago.
The cops took pictures of her body, showing the choke marks on her neck ... the fresh bruises on her face ... the tears in her clothing.
She declined medical care. She said she’d handle the situation on her own …
A lot of women try to handle abuse alone.
Kristin is 29, lives in Crescent City and she’s not using her real name. She describes her latest boyfriend and father of her two kids.
“He tried to choke me,” Kristin says. “He tried to gouge my eye out one time. I lost a fingernail because he bit my finger. It was bad, it was so bad. He’s pistol whipped me in the head. I’ve had, I should have gotten stitches. I didn’t go. I don’t know. It wouldn’t have mattered. And I would be scared to leave him.”
Only one in ten women victimized by a violent intimate will seek professional medical treatment, according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Kristin says that in her experience, reporting just leads to more abuse.
Jodi Hoone says secrecy is typical. Hoone is a longtime advocate for domestic violence victims in Del Norte County.
“And 75 percent goes unreported,” Hoone says. “So, I’m thinking. It’s a huge epidemic.”
Del Norte County Sheriff Erik Apperson says he and his deputies know this.
“We typically aren’t involved the first time it happens or the second time it happens,” Apperson says. “So there’s this longstanding history and a lot of times the victim or the survivor in this situation, they struggle to believe that law enforcement is actually going to help them.”
Yet lately, the calls flood in eight times faster than they did just five years ago, while the resources to answer them have dwindled.
Take the Sheriff’s office, where staffing has declined by nearly a third in recent years. Del Norte District Attorney Dale Trigg says this high turnover has a ripple effect.
Trigg says arrest reports often reach his office weeks after an offender has been released from jail. That means fewer arrests lead to charges.
“And it’s not always a law enforcement issue,” he says. “In fact, usually it’s not. The facts are what they are. If you go out to scene and you contact a woman who has injuries and she won’t tell you how she got those injuries, you can’t just figure, “Well, I know how you got them and I’m going to arrest so-and-so for doing it.” I mean, you have to, the officers can’t do anything about that.”
Trigg says all the officers can do is to try to get the truth out of people.
But Sheriff Erik Apperson explains how laws have changed to shift responsibility away from victim statements.
“You know, now in California, if you can establish what’s legally defined as a primary aggressor, then you are required to make an arrest,” Apperson says.
On average, though, less than 20 percent of Del Norte’s 911 domestic violence calls lead to arrests. Apperson says most times, victims may want to talk, but not make a formal complaint.
“They don’t want to go through the clinical part of, ‘Okay, let me see the bruise and let’s move this article of clothing so I can hold a ruler up to it and take a picture.’”
But Melody, a 21-year-old-woman who spent her teens in Del Norte, says shame isn’t the only thing breeding silence.
“People often blame the victim, because they don’t realize how hard it is to talk about stuff like that,” she says. “And they say if you’re not going to report it, then it’s basically your fault. But I was afraid it would get worse.”
Melody’s not her real name. She was once homeless and usually avoided police. Still, she tried to report more than one sexual assault.
“And the cops they just weren’t very nice to me because I wouldn’t give them too many details. It was too hard for me... It’s still really hard for me to talk about that.”
Eventually Melody got help. Now she has a job and a place to live.
But leaving town and starting over aren’t always options. And sometimes, reporting abuse can make things worse.
Del Norte Triplicate writer David Greider contributed to this report, which was supported by a California Health Journalism Fellowship from the USC Annenberg School of Journalism.