No More, I Refuse: On the Failure of Victim Services in Baltimore
There are many things I love about this city – so many, in fact, that I haphazardly keep a blog all the things that were essential in transforming Baltimore into my home. Put plainly, I am quite fond of this city. That being said, I don’t walk around with rose-tinted glasses. Baltimore has its fair share of problems, from a tragically high murder rate that is escalating each week, to high homeowner taxes driving people to buy outside the city, taking their spending money with them. As someone who had yet to be murdered, and only rents at the moment, I was aware of these issues, but had never been personally affected. Until I was.
A few weeks ago, I had the unfortunate experience of a neighbor in my building, a man I’d known for two years, reach up into his shorts, pull out his genitalia, and began pleasuring himself mid-conversation with me. With his free hand, he kept petting my dog.
I called 3-1-1 to report the incident, figuring that’s all it was – an incident. I was soon reprimanded by an elderly receptionist for not calling 911. I have only wonderful things to say about the policemen who arrived at my building. They were attentive, considerate and professional. They arrested my neighbor for the night, and suggested I file for a Peace Order at the Commissioner’s Office within the next few days. I packed up some belongings, grabbed my dog, and fled to a friend’s house.
The next few days, and possibly weeks, were a blur. I had to find a place for my dog to stay – and also a place where I could stay. After some consideration, I called my landlord and ended my lease on my beloved Mt. Vernon apartment. I didn’t feel safe there – not when this guy knew where I lived, who my friends and boyfriend were, what my dog and car looked like… he knew too much, and my safety had been compromised.
I hesitate to use the word “victim” here, because of all the negative connotations and weakness it implies, but it is also the word the State used upon summoning me.
I began filing for a Peace Order, one of the most frustrating experiences of my life. The police officers had told me to go to the Commissioner’s Office. The Commissioner’s Office told me to go to the Eastside District Courthouse on North Ave. I had to jump around, office to office, day to day, while trying to juggle the million other things that had come up as a result of this, and balance my job on top of it all.
While filling out the paperwork at the courthouse, I asked if things such as the respondent’s age and legal address could be pulled from the police report. I had my neighbor’s name from my landlord, but I also found out he wasn’t a legal tenant of the building. He just lived there with his girlfriend, who was the only person on the lease. When filing a Peace Order, I was told that only what I supplied was allowed to be used. I guessed his age, and put down the only address I had for him – our shared building.
I made my way up to the courtroom where I was told my case would be heard by a judge. After sitting through a good 30 to 45 minutes of other cases, I was finally called up. I was told that, before my case could be heard, I’d have to pay a filing fee. This $38.00 fee could be waived if it was determined I could not afford it for various reasons, or because the respondent and I had a romantic relationship. Because neither situation applied to me, I made my way out to the cashier’s desk.
The cashier did not accept VISA, because VISA is everywhere you want to be, and no one wants to be at the Eastside District Court. (That’s where MasterCard comes in. ) I only have VISA, so I gave them my debit card. There’s a $2 surcharge for debit, because, of course there is. This is where dreams come to die, like the dream those $2 had of being a load of laundry.
The judge reviewed my paperwork and had me sit down at the front of the court, ala-Judge Judy. After flipping through some books, he informed me that my case was not considered a sexual offense. Yes, counterintuitively, indecent exposure and public masturbation do not, in fact, legally qualify as a sexual offense. I wanted to say, “Sexual things being done with a sexual organ in a situation where it’s not desired seems awfully offensive to me,” but I had already been more brazen than I should have when I was told to pay my filing fees. I kept my mouth shut, and was told to come back next week. In the meantime, they would try to serve him with his papers.
I went back every week for four weeks, doing just as I was told. I’d arrive, sit around, would be told they couldn’t serve him with his papers because they couldn’t find him, was given a one week extension, and told to return the following week. I learned that thirty days after the date of the incident, if they can’t find the alleged perpetrator, the case is dismissed. My case was eventually dismissed.
All my neighbor had to do to get out of this was not be around when the Sheriff stopped by, and it’s clear skies for him. The sex offender registry, if he even makes it on it, only has the address of the person at the time of the offense. If he moves, which my landlord is ensuring happens, that new address never shows up on the registry.
A week after my case for a Peace Order was dismissed, I had a court date for Maryland vs. (Neighbor). My summons said my presence was requested as, “Victim,” like I had gotten a title role in some awful middle school production courtroom reenactment. My neighbor showed up at court, conveniently, with his new attorney. The state attorney advised me to push for a Probation Before Judgment (definition here), which the attorney refused unless I wanted to take the case to trial.
I didn’t want a trial. I wanted this over with. I wanted him to leave me alone, and let me continue to live my life, without him or his genitalia involved. But it’s not over yet; the case will stay open for a year and we will revisit it then. Until that point, he has a court order from the judge to have absolutely no contact, intentional or unintentional, with me.
I give this level of detail not to bore you, but to drive home the point of how cumbersome the entire ordeal is. Every week for a month, I had to go to the Eastside District Court. I had to lose an entire afternoon to be told this guy didn’t show up, to learn that he could, after a month, come find me. I had to uproot my life. I had to move, learn a new commute, take time off work, and explain to people what was going on, all while fighting off their pity.
I am so grateful that my circumstances weren’t worse. The same evening this incident happened to me, a woman was sexually assaulted at knifepoint just a few blocks from my old apartment. I am so grateful and lucky to have a supportive group of friends and an incredibly understanding employer. There are many, many people who have been through worse, with no support network whatsoever, without an employer to be understanding, without a car to easily get to a courthouse. I’m one of the lucky ones.
Something needs to be done. If the system is this impossible to navigate, even with so much outside support, then how are others in worse circumstances supposed to comply? Women (not that men are exempt from this, but women are the predominant victims in sexual crimes) will never be able to have the equality that this country aspires to until we feel our legal system is looking out for our safety. This is a simple matter of the right to an established sense of security.
I no longer have that sense of security. I am now wary of anyone I see out while walking my dog. I am moving to an entirely new neighborhood. I clutch my pepper spray at all times, night or day, when I’m alone on the street.
And my circumstances have made me wary of trusting a system that makes things so impossible for anything to move forward. Sexual assault is grossly underreported, and this is precisely why. I initially wasn’t going to call the police, because I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. Shame on society for allowing me to even think that. There are many things I love about Baltimore, but their victim services are not on that list.
Again, I’m thankful my circumstance was not worse — but so many other women’s are. They need to feel like they have a safe space where their situation is not seen as trivial. When we trivialize these things, when we make women pay for safety through the law (I thought my taxes did that!), we’re placing the blame, shame and the responsibility of the act on the woman, the victim. The victim must report it. The victim must pay the fees. The victim must keep it to herself. No. No more. I refuse.
I know I’m not alone in this, because there is one woman I saw in the courthouse every week going through the same process. There are plenty of us, enough of us to make a difference if we gather the courage to speak up in unison. One voice will not be heard over the decibels of bureaucracy, but together we could change things. We need to start by speaking to each other.