By Casey Gwinn, JD
A 25-year-old woman and mother of a small baby this past week walked into a police station in Bell Gardens and told them she was kidnapped, drugged, and raped by her mother’s boyfriend when she was fifteen years old. She said she has been held against her will for ten years. Bell Gardens police referred the case to the Santa Ana Police Department to investigate what happened ten years ago. Some neighbors in their Bell Gardens neighborhood were shocked. They seemed like such a happy couple. One said, “He seemed like such a nice guy.”
His defense attorney held a press conference and said they had been “a happily married couple” and she was making it all up because they were going through a divorce. The defense attorney cited all the things the victim had done including posting family pictures on Facebook, playing outside with her child, going to a job every day, and even holding hands with her husband as evidence that kidnapping, rape, domestic violence, and threats could not have been happening over the last ten years.
Police quickly verified that ten years ago the fifteen-year-old girl came to this country illegally, moved in with her mother and her boyfriend. They were able to corroborate the beginning of her story. The boyfriend was abusive to the mother. Two months after arriving in the U.S., the boyfriend assaulted her mother and then left with the fifteen year old. Her family did not see her for ten years.
After 30 years in the field of violence prevention, I am still inspired by the coping mechanisms that victims of abuse use to courageously survive and emotionally, mentally, and physically navigate the power and control of violent and predatory human beings.
What troubles me more in this story, however, are those that want to put all the focus on the decisions she made, why she stayed, and why she did not tell anyone for so many years. It is the classic “blame the victim” response that we have seen in sexual assault and domestic violence work for decades. Many think she had to be locked in a garage (which she says she was initially) to be kidnapped. Others think she must have wanted to be there if she did not contact her family, police, or friends for ten years. But even in these comments – everyone is focusing on her behavior, her actions, and her choices.
Why don’t we focus on him? What kind of man (31 years old) takes off with a 15 year old, changes her identity over and over (which has been confirmed), and then cuts her off from all contact with her family? What kind of man uses death threats, sexual abuse, and threat of deportation to try to create a happy, healthy relationship? What is the evil in him? Who created this monster? Why has he never been held accountable before now?
And why don’t we focus on the system’s failures? Why don’t we focus on society’s failures? What kind of society allows men like to this to walk the streets? Why wasn't he prosecuted for his violence against her mother ten years ago? What kind of society fails to invest the resources to find that 15-year-old girl? What kinds of neighbors have suspicions about their relationship but never try to talk to her alone or ask authorities to investigate? Why didn’t the neighbors ever ask more questions? Why didn’t men in his life question him about the way he would constantly peer at her from inside as she talked to neighbors outside their apartment? Why didn't more people see his controlling behavior?
We do the same thing with rape victims. We do the same thing with domestic violence victims. We focus on the victim instead of the perpetrator. This focus ends up producing the victim blaming that let’s rapists and abusers avoid all accountability. The focus should not be on the victim and what she did or did not do. We should start asking what is wrong with him, what is wrong with us, and what is wrong with our society. Maybe if we asked the right questions and did something about it, there would be fewer victims to focus on and fewer victims to blame.
Casey Gwinn is the former San Diego City Attorney and currently serves as the President of the National Family Justice Center Alliance.