A great deal has been written about how victims become paralyzed by abuse—one reason that only about 20 percent of those who have been assaulted, raped, or stalked by an intimate partner obtain a protective order, according to the data available. But the failure of authorities to adequately respond to women like Vernetta Cockerham is also key to explaining why domestic violence remains so deadly. And that is due, in large part, to the fact that many police officers and court officials essentially don't understand the psychological dynamic of abuse, says Evan Stark, PhD, a professor of public health at Rutgers University and author of Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life. Police often react to each infraction as an isolated incident, for example, when it is the accumulation of small abusive acts—both physical and emotional—that wears a woman down and emboldens the batterer. Even when a batterer is arrested, Stark says, he rarely spends time in jail, because most assaults are relatively minor: a blackened eye, a bruised arm. (In fact, the most calculating batterers figure out how to manipulate the system to their advantage—filing charges against their spouse, or reporting her to social workers, knowing that the threat of losing her children is more chilling than any beating. And in the presence of authorities, these abusers often appear calm, while the victim is hysterical. Often she ends up being the one blamed.) "Essentially one of the most dramatic forms of oppression in our society is transformed into a second-class misdemeanor," Stark says. "What kind of indignity should women be allowed to suffer before the community takes notice?"
Jessica Lenahan is still trying to make her voice heard. During her marriage to Simon Gonzales, he was never physically violent to her, or to the three girls they were raising in Castle Rock, Colorado. But if the breakfast biscuits were overcooked, he'd hurl them in the trash. If the socks weren't folded the way he liked them, he'd empty the drawers and demand that she redo the laundry. Occasionally, he'd cut off her access to their bank accounts. At one point, he tried to hang himself in the garage, in front of their daughters. The couple separated in 1999, but he continued to terrorize the family by stalking Lenahan and hiding in the closet of the girls' bedroom. On May 21, 1999, Lenahan got a court order that required him to stay 100 yards away.
A month later, on the afternoon of June 22, she discovered her daughters—ages 7, 9, and 10—missing from the front yard. She immediately called the police to alert them that the restraining order was being violated; they told her to wait and see if the kids were returned by 10. It wasn't until 8:30 P.M. that she was finally able to speak to Gonzales on his cell phone. He said he had the girls at an amusement park in Denver, about 30 miles away. Frantic, she called the police again and pleaded with them to find her husband and rescue her children. But they kept telling her to phone back later. Lenahan called the police several more times before going down to the station about 1:00 in the morning to submit an incident report.