Sunday, December 6, 2015

9-1-1 and Domestic Abuse

I recently had a long phone conversation with Jay, the brother of a friend.  My friend remembered that Mrs ERJ and I went through a period where we had difficult parenting decisions to make.  Part of that path had us rubbing elbows with people who had really tough parenting responsibilities.  They had much to share.  I listened.  My friend thought I might be able to help his brother.

Jay has a son and a daughter in their late teens.  They are still in high school.

Both kids physically assault him and his wife on a regular basis.

The evolution of 9-1-1

In my youth, 9-1-1 is what you called when bullets were flying, arterial bleeding was spraying the walls or you had a fully involved house fire.

The economizing of first responder services resulted in the paring down of administrative services and a greater reliance on mutual aid, centralized dispatch.  Calling your local police department "after hours" will get you a recorded message directing you to call 9-1-1.  Yup, you are expected to call 9-1-1 even if it is just the neighbor's dog barking too loudly.

The 9-1-1 operators are trained to keep things calm, perform triage, ask the right questions, and then direct the appropriate resources to the problem.

But you witnessed a crime

The disconnect for Jay is that he is my age.  In his universe, calling 9-1-1 results in a SWAT team bursting through your doors.  It is not like that any more.

I had an incident.  I was visited by Child Protective Services.  I am not proud of that but it is germane to this essay.  The two social workers set me straight.
---End Disclosure---

Calling 9-1-1 is a call for an outside intervention.  It is a way of getting help.

In fact, if you have been physically assaulted, even if it is by a family member, you have witnessed a crime and have an obligation to report it.

On a practical note, the kid who assaulted "dad"  breached some serious behavioral barriers.  The person who assaulted "dad" becomes much more likely to assault others...including "mom", teachers and other unsuspecting potential victims who might be less capable of defending themselves.  And having breached the barrier to "physical", the step up to using weapons is that much easier to breach.

This is not a time to stoically suck-it-up out of sense of machismo.  This is a time to put on your big-boy pants and address issues with assault.  Do it NOW rather that hope it gets better.  Hope is not a plan.  Hope is magical thinking.

It is all about getting help and keeping people safe

There are resources available to help.  There is counseling to help your kid manage their emotions.  There is counseling to help you "read" your kid better.  There is respite care.  There are institutional settings where medications can be adjusted much more aggressively than can be managed with twice-a-month visits with an overbooked psychiatrist.

Those resources are looking for a signal, a document trail, to justify their activation.  Because those services are not cheap.  But broken bones, lacerations, concussions and missed work days are even more expensive.

9-1-1 calls are one to the surest ways to generate that signal and create that document trail.

If you and Junior or Buffy get physical:  Call 9-1-1.  Or if you are unable to call 9-1-1, have your spouse make the call.  Tell the operator you want to report a domestic dispute.  Report whether it is still in progress, or not.  Tell them no weapons are involved (unless, of course there are weapons involved).  Tell them a minor is involved.  Tell them you want a policeman to respond to take a report and to ensure that things stay settled.

Don't clean yourself up.  If you are bleeding, let it bleed.  If your lip is puffy, don't put ice on it.  If your shirt has three popped buttons, don't change.  It is all evidence.  Cleaning it up before the police come is tampering with a crime scene.

Most likely, the first few times the cops show up they will sit with you (both) until they are assured that you are both under control.  They might take Junior around the corner and explain the facts of life to him.  Sometimes that is all it takes.

At some point, you will make the "frequent flier" list and the responders will suggest that you need to do something more.  You have a choice.  You can send your kid to jail. Or you can direct that your child be transported to an Emergency room prior to being admitted to an institutional setting.  That would be the institutional setting where medicines are aggressively adjusted.

One of the factors that the police will consider is the nature of the injuries you incurred...and the injuries you might have incurred.  You might have a sprained wrist....and you might have incurred it catching yourself when your kid pitched you down the stairs.

Key points:

  • It is about keeping everybody safe
  • It is about breaking the escalation
  • It is about creating a credible document trail 
  • It is about "triggering" or "signaling" to justify access to resources
  • At no point did I tell anybody to falsify anything
  • Nor did I suggest that the adult ever initiate a physical response. You may have to grab your kid when he is swinging at you.  You may have to block his blows.  You may even punch him in the face AFTER he hits you. You have to protect yourself.  But part of that is proportionate response.  You probably do not need to hit a 10 year old girl in the face to make her stop but it might be entirely appropriate to do that to a 17 year old, 180 pound, physically fit boy.
  • Nor did I suggest calling the police in the event of verbal abuse. 
  • ---Added later---Do call 9-1-1 if your child makes a credible threat of violence against you, himself or anybody else.  What is  a "credible threat"?  That is a calibration issue, but if the threat involves loss of life or limb, and you think there is more than one-chance-in-a-hundred, call 9-1-1.  Several studies regarding th heuristics of calibration suggest that most people are unable to properly calibrate for likelihoods below 20%.  Their prediction flips to zero likelihood.  The cautious person will treat any non-zero prediction as being at least a 20% likelihood, especially when the predictor is in denial regarding that potential outcome.
I hope none of my readers (except Jay, should he ever see this) ever need to use this advice.


  1. My husband recently responded to a call from a mother whose 13 year old daughter had beaten the daylights out of her. Apparently it was not the first time it had happened but was the first time she was afraid enough to call 911. He says if you are afraid for your life, call. If you are afraid you will be injured in any way, call. If the kids seems even marginally out of control, call. If you can, defend yourself! This woman did not, for whatever reason I cannot comprehend. Like you said, calling the police documents what happened and offers a paper trail that can aid in future investigations or be used as evidence for incarceration (either of the juvenile delinquent or psychiatric type)

  2. My wife and I adopted 2 sisters at the ages of 3 and 7 or so. When you adopt children, as much as you might desire, you don't get a blank slate. My girls came with emotional issues.
    They have both dealt with bottled up anger, among other issues. The oldest one, first, caused us to make the trip to the emergency room for a psyc. eval. She was already in counseling but this was a call for them to get more intense than they had been.
    I wish I had a happy ending for her, but when she turned 18, we found out she had been secretly in contact with her biological family and soon thereafter left to live with them out west. She and my wife talk some on the phone and by e-mail, but her and I seldom do.
    My youngest daughter is now 19, and has the same anger issues as the other did. We have had her to the E.R. 2 times now. Both times because she got out of control, and rather than let things escalate to a physical confrontation, and knowing that I myself would likely react badly to her lashing out, we chose to get her out of the situation, at least for a time.
    I guess I am saying that things like this don't just happen to "bad" families or troubled parents or the like. It can, and does happen to any and every type of family, from the factory worker to the factory owner to the CEO to the Pastor. What we must keep in mind is not the circumstances we are in but how we react to them, and how can we move on from them in a better way to get from where we are to where we want to be.
    We have setbacks, like an estranged daughter. I myself have struggled with depression. But I don't let it get me down. Like Philippians says, we must run with patience the race that is set before us. It is not a sprint, but a marathon. But it is a strange marathon in that everyone has a different course, some have steep hills to climb, while others seem to have smooth steps with the wind always at their back. But I am finding as I grow older that I am learning to appreciate the things that I have struggled with and earned by my own efforts, more than something that came easily. It is probably a good thing as it seems like I struggle with a lot of things as I get older. My mind can't catch up with the fact that my body can't work as fast as it can.