A twentysomething man wearing neat dreadlocks, work boots and a huge parka is standing at the front desk of the Domestic Violence Intake Center at the D.C. Superior Court. His words to the receptionist dispel any impression of hip-hop bravado that his appearance suggests: "I had to put my car in the garage so [my girlfriend] wouldn't do anything to it."
In a waiting room, two silent, elementary school-age boys watch a children's video with an equally rapt little girl whose head is a field of pigtails. A gray-haired woman with a cane explains that she's a recovering drug addict seeking a restraining order against a former associate who "won't leave me alone -- especially when he knows my check is coming."
Two women sit together, huddled over a clipboard. One gently rubs the shoulder of the other, who's filling out a form requesting protection from her husband. The thirtyish complainant's lush black coat, Burberry plaid scarf and sleek ponytail all whisper "professional."
Her mouth is whispering something else:
"Why do I always end up with the crazy ones?" Nobody expects to find him- or herself here, in this office in which the gray cubicles and hushed, safe air seem worlds away from the threats, curses, shoves and worse that brought them here.
Lydia Watts understands the contrast. She is director of Women Empowered Against Violence (WEAVE), which offers psychological and financial counseling, legal services and help in obtaining restraining orders -- and has offices at the courthouse and at Greater Southeast Community Hospital. She says the disconnect that abuse victims feel from their circumstances resembles the one that separates them from people who never have experienced such mistreatment.
It's the "It only happens to them" syndrome, which tells people that domestic abuse "only happens to poor people, to women who are uneducated or have no family support," she says. "But abuse knows no barriers."
Then there's the "If it were me" theory, in which never-abused people insist, "If a man hit me, I would . . . " and complete the sentence with "leave his behind," "kick his behind" or "sic the police on his behind."
Some women surely would react to abuse with such authority. But others might surprise themselves, Watts suggests. "I tell people: 'Take out your wallet. How long could you last with only what's in it -- your license, a couple of credit cards. What if you have a family? When do you return to your job? He knows where you work. What if he's threatening to kidnap your kids?'
"It's more difficult than 'just leave.' "
Watts learned that in high school when a close friend confessed that her father abused her for years. Suddenly, Watts understood that though everyone had sensed that something "strange" was going on with her friend, they had "accommodated it, even though she was coming to school with black eyes."
Watts had found her life's calling. No one should be like her friend, "living through all of that alone."
Everyone remembers Scott Peterson's hugely publicized conviction in November of killing his wife, Laci, and his unborn son. But who remembers the dozens of local women who were threatened, beaten and a few even killed within weeks of that conviction, with little resulting public outrage?
Doreen M. McClendon was killed in Greenbelt; her live-in boyfriend -- against whom she tried and failed to get a protection order -- was arrested. Pregnant Shawndre Fulton was killed in Fairfax County; her boyfriend was indicted in her killing and that of her unborn baby. Sarah Crawford of Prince William County was killed shortly after seeking a protection order against her estranged husband, whom police arrested in the slaying.