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Topics in Health: Lessons From The Field
Domestic Violence: A Public Health Problem
Covering victims' stories with sensitivity
By Emily Schmidt
The first time anyone heard Yvette Cade's story, it went something like this, courtesy of a one-sentence pager message sent to newsrooms across Washington, DC: "Woman Set on Fire at Cell Phone Store."
It was a compelling spot news story, but it was only the beginning. Eventually, the Maryland woman's story led to a rare investigation of a judge and inspired more calls to a domestic violence prevention program than any other case in memory. If a reporter hadn't been looking beyond the lead story for other stories waiting to be told, it's very likely that the judge would still be on the bench and the community would still think of domestic violence as something that happened only behind closed doors, rather than a pervasive public health issue.
First, the crime story. Yvette Cade, a 31-year-old mother of one, had arrived for work at a mobile phone store October 10, 2005 and was with a customer when she saw her estranged husband, Roger Hargrave, enter the store. Inexplicably, he began chasing her and splashing her with gasoline hidden in a 20-ounce soda bottle.
Then, out of the view of customers, but in plain sight of security cameras, he set her on fire. Cade says that Hargrave repeatedly told her that he loved her while flames scorched 60 percent of her body.
These details emerged in the days and weeks to come. Months later, when Hargrave was convicted of attempting to murder Cade, prosecutors released video footage of the attack, which was run on my station, WUSA-TV, and others. By this time, the media and the public were well aware of Yvette Cade's story, and the graphic pictures of a woman in flames running for help were widely viewed as having underscored the dangers of domestic violence.
Second, there's the survivor story. Yvette Cade spent months in the hospital and endured nearly two dozen surgeries before I ever met her. But in that time, I frequently talked with her family to get updates on her progress. These were off-the-record conversations, but by the time Cade was ready to talk, days after the trial, she chose me for her first local interview.
The piece ran only about three minutes, but a special station Web site section (no longer available online) made it possible to share more of the interview than we could use in a one-time piece. The web package included special segments about forgiveness, faith, and family - these were themes that were very important to Cade, and we were able to let her explain why, without worrying about editing for time. Web site response was strong; we received hundreds of emails of people responding to Cade's words.
But the story that's had an even greater impact was that of a woman trying to make her way through the courts to protect herself from domestic violence. I documented her unsuccessful quest by tracking the paperwork, which provided evidence of serious loopholes in the system set up to help people protect themselves. Months before the attack, Cade had sought and obtained a protective order against Hargrave. Two months later, he asked for a hearing. He didn't show up, but Cade did, and thought she left with the protective order still in place. Instead, court records show that Prince George's County Judge Richard A. Palumbo dismissed the order. (He later said this was a clerical error.)
After I found this out, I called domestic violence awareness advocates and asked if the judge's explanation raised any red flags with them. A number of people said they had had concerns about the judge in the past, and they advised me to request audio recordings of some of his domestic court hearings so that I could look for patterns in his comments to women requesting protective orders. The existence of these recordings was an unexpected resource in a state that does not allow cameras in the court room.
The recordings shed more light on Cade's September court hearing. At one point, she had asked Judge Palumbo for an immediate divorce. "I'd like to be 6-foot-5," Palumbo responded. "But that's not what we do here. You have to go to divorce court for that." Other recordings of cases handled by Palumbo reveal a similar judicial style. In one instance, Palumbo told a man to find a new mate, saying, "Women are like buses, they come by every five minutes. "He told a strangulation victim who said her voice box was broken: "Didn't I have the same problem with you last week Do I make you nervous?" And he told a man with a speech impediment, who was unable to speak, "It might be good exercise for you. Let me hear you say your name."
After the Cade case made headlines and these recordings were aired, an area domestic violence center filed a complaint against the judge. He was first reassigned to clerical duty, then weeks later, a statewide Commission on Judicial Disabilities filed misconduct charges against him, based on these recordings. Shortly thereafter, Judge Palumbo retired, citing medical issues, before the misconduct charges could be addressed in a hearing.
Yvette Cade's experience made headlines, but it is not unique. A 2006 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that each year, women in this country experience 4.8 million intimate partner-related physical assaults and rape, and 2.9 million men are victims of intimate partner-related assaults. What's more, the report adds, many people never publicly report the private violence.
It became very clear as Cade's story unfolded that I had a rare opportunity to humanize the often hidden story of domestic violence, and some of the systemic judicial problems that arise in connection with it. People could relate to Cade – she was a mom, she had a good job, she came from a good family, and still she found herself in a terrible situation. She went for help, but faced bureaucratic obstacles that she didn't even realize until after she was hospitalized with third-degree burns.
Cade consented to an interview because she felt a personal calling to convince others in abusive relationships to get help and get out of those relationships as soon as possible. As she once wrote on her website (no longer online): "My flesh is scarred, my spirit is not. I am strong! If you are looking for a living witness that no matter what you have been through – YOU CAN MAKE IT, here I am."
Covering the story in your community
Here are some ways to think about covering this story in your community
• Get in contact with groups that work on this topic every day. They know the issues that may not otherwise get much attention, and they can help you find victims who can put a human face on the issue. It was from advocates that we learned of concerns about the judge. Among the stories that advocates would like told is the importance of educating young people to stop the cycle of violence.
• Look at the court system. What does it take for someone to get legal protection from an accused abuser, and what happens once they do? The process usually starts in a courtroom, and continues with law enforcement.
• Talk to the police. Find out how busy they are with domestic violence calls and what their protocols are for handling them.
• Monitor state and federal legislation. In 2007, Yvette Cade testified on Capitol Hill on a bill that addressed domestic violence in the workplace. One provision would allow victims to take off from work without penalty to make court appearances associated with domestic violence issues. When domestic violence occurs in the workplace, far more than just two people are affected.
• Finally, include the voices of victims in your reporting to make the public aware of the lasting physical and psychological damage that domestic violence can leave. Recently, Yvette Cade told me that for the first time in two years, she finally felt comfortable turning on her kitchen stove. Prior to that, the heat reminded her of the burns she suffered that day. Think about the work it took Cade to reach such a personal milestone, and then consider how many other people in your community have similar stories, if you're willing to listen.
Emily Schmidt is an award-winning reporter for ABC7 WJLA-TV in Washington, D.C.
Photo credit: Ted Curran via Flickr