I broke my silence of 29 years four years ago.
My voice started off quiet, to my sisters and friends, nervous to my community, and then more and more confident with every presentation of the project I started, Finding Our Voices: Breaking the Silence of Intimate Partner Abuse.
But in Maine’s justice system, my voice remains stanched, as I came up against victim-silencing by the District Attorney’s Office, judges, and even one of my own lawyers. For three years, I tried mightily to lift my voice in open court. But as the victim, my voice did not count.
Until this month.
With the words “She is entitled to a hearing” in a ruling by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, it appeared at long last I would have my day in court. And not only would I be heard, this response to an appeal would pave the way for all other domestic abuse victims in Maine to speak and be heard in court as well.
The beating I received from the legal system, both civil and criminal divisions, has been every bit as traumatic as the beating on Jan. 18, 2016 that led to an arrest, and my divorce and freedom.
My lawyer from Biddeford ignored me when I pleaded for protection from the emotional intimate-partner abuse that carried on, only in different forms, after the physical separation.
I checked in weekly with the victim advocate in the Knox County district attorney’s office to see how the criminal case was proceeding, and how I could help. Each time, she reminded me that if I didn’t testify it could not go to trial, and each time I assured her I would be there. Then one day she told me there would be no trial: Through an agreement, the criminal case would be wrapped up, police and court evidence basically jettisoned, essentially a gift to the perpetrator.
And then came two years of court motions and hearings to get back the protection from abuse (PFA) order I had been pressured to drop, and to address contempt and violations of the divorce settlement and PFA.
With every court date, I said to my second, better lawyer: “Will I be able to speak?” Every time, he said, “Yes.”
Every time, an agreement was forged between the two lawyers. Silenced, again.
On June 5, 2019, I was back in the Ellsworth courtroom to extend the expiring PFA. Here, relating to the judge exactly why I needed 10 years of protection, I would get my day in court. Both arresting police officers were also there and prepared to testify. I took a seat beside my lawyer, multiple and ever-thicker case files on our table.
“She wants a 10-year PFA and we are agreeing to that,” the opposing lawyer said to the judge. “There is no point in a hearing.”
My client is not agreeing, my lawyer argued.
“She wants a finding of abuse and is entitled to a hearing to determine that.”
Ten-year PFA by agreement, ruled the judge. No hearing. My voice snatched away from me.
My lawyer advised an appeal. I balanced the expense, probability of more frustration, and desire to just move on, with this being my very last chance to testify about a four-year-old event, and said OK.
Then, days ago, an email came to me from my lawyer, “Good news” in the subject line. Appeal ruling in: I am entitled to a hearing.
Elation, and friends lined up to fill the courtroom benches, with a fellow survivor coming from Scarborough “even if it means wearing a hazmat suit.”
But then I l took a closer look at the Supreme Court judgment.
“Absent his agreement” to the requested modification, I am entitled to a hearing. So if he agrees to the finding of abuse, I will not get a hearing.
The April 2 ruling is a step in the right direction. But for the voices of victims to not only be heard, but be counted by Maine’s legal system, and for it to be officially recognized that testifying is a vital part of the healing process for many victims of every kind of violent crime, we have a long road still ahead.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence and would like to talk with an advocate, call 866-834-4357, TRS 800-787-3224. This free, confidential service is available 24/7 and is accessible from anywhere in Maine.
Patrisha McLean is a Camden-based human rights advocate.