The other day, a small trailer in my town caught fire. The woman inside woke up to a wall of flames and ran outside into the snow. Nine cats were also inside the trailer. Two cats ran out when the fireman opened the front door; he found two more just inside the door, dead. The others are still missing. A man also lived in the trailer but he was not home.

Three years ago I signed up to volunteer as a victim advocate with the local police department. Under the Victim Rights Act, which went into effect in 1993, all police departments must provide a certain level of assistance to victims and make sure they are kept informed to some degree of what’s going on with their case (if there is one). In some cities, the officers themselves perform this function, but other departments establish a Victim Services unit. In my town, there are two paid victim advocates and a group of volunteers.

The other morning I was called out to the scene of the trailer park fire. My job is to stay with the victim, provide emotional support and referrals. When I arrived, the fire was out but still smoking heavily. They had set up an enormous fan at the front door which was so loud you couldn’t hear yourself talk. Between the flames and smoke and water damage, the trailer was totalled. The woman, whom I will call Janet, was inside an ambulance truck. When I joined them, the EMT was trying to convince her to go to the hospital. She didn’t want to go because of her cats. A wet, smoke-smelling cat was running around inside the ambulance.

When I first began as an advocate, I had a fairly simplistic view of what a “victim” was — an innocent person who has been wronged somehow by another person’s criminal act. During the training, I worried that I might become too emotional in these situations, overwhelmed with sympathetic feelings. This somewhat starry-eyed vision bore little resemblance to reality.

As is often the case in situations like this, the police knew Janet and her boyfriend well. The police had been there on several occasions for domestic violence calls. The boyfriend was an alcoholic and became violent when drunk. As a result of their most recent altercation, the boyfriend now wore a SCRAM ankle bracelet, which is a gadget that automatically performs a blood-alcohol test about every half hour. The offender must call in periodically and upload the results of these tests. If the results show alcohol, the offender goes back to jail. It is a form of house arrest.

Inside the ambulance, Janet was wailing about her cats, about how the boyfriend was going to kill her, about how she needed her meds, about how she wasn’t smoking when the fire started. She still refused to go to the hospital. A police detective came in and questioned her. Janet said she got up that morning, had some breakfast and a cigarette in bed and went back to sleep. After telling this story, she continued to insist she hadn’t been smoking.

Janet is on oxygen full-time and her oxygen tanks had blown up inside the trailer. She smokes three packs of cigarettes a day, has COPD, emphysema, and back problems. She and her boyfriend are both on SSI and Medicaid. She appeared to be somewhat developmentally disabled, but that may have been due to too many years of hard living. The DA had been unable to try the boyfriend for the various DV charges against him because he was deemed incompetent. There was some form of restraining order that allowed them to continue living together as long as he didn’t drink.

Janet was not in physical shock, but she was traumatized. She frequently stared off into space. She could not focus. She would suddenly start wailing, then stop. This is normal behavior for someone in the middle of a traumatic event. One thing you learn as a victim advocate is which people need to be touched and which can’t stand to be touched. I’ve had people cling to me. I’ve hugged people, held their hands, stroked their hair. I even recall kissing the head of a woman who had lost her son. Janet was not one of these. Janet did not seem to know what “touching” or “comfort” was. I knew instinctively that touching her might bring on an angry swat.

Throughout that morning, I made phone calls. I called her doctor about getting all her numerous meds refilled. I called the boyfriend’s occupational therapist, where he had gone that morning. He said the boyfriend had left to go to his sister’s. I called the sister, who hadn’t seen him. Janet wanted me to find him, but she also said he was going to beat her up. She quickly became adept at coming up with new phone calls I needed to make for her. When we finally convinced her to go to the hospital, she even wanted me to sign her hospital forms. After one hour, she was ready to let me handle everything for her.

Janet’s “victimhood” went far deeper than the events of that day. Janet was helpless. She was incapable of taking care of herself and had been for many years. Therefore, the State had stepped in and basically played the role of her parent. Although the boyfriend had a sister who was his guardian, the State was also his parent.

From a political perspective, Janet and her boyfriend are everything that rightwing conservatives complain about. They rely on entitlements for their survival. They don’t even try to take care of themselves. They are not “deserving.” There is nothing lovable about them. When I climbed out of the ambulance to follow them to the hospital in my car, the first thing I saw was the animal control officer trudging through the snow with a small furry bundle in her arms. I asked her if it was alive and she shook her head. She was upset, knowing what possibly lay ahead for her inside the trailer.

At the hospital, Janet continued her periodic wailing for her cats. I am not using this verb lightly — she was wailing. I found myself watching her eyes for tears. I didn’t see any. I don’t know if this meant anything or not, but it seemed important to me at the time. By now, I did not feel real sympathy for her any more but I pretended to. I couldn’t imagine holding her and kissing her head as I did with that other woman who lost her son. Janet was also wailing for her narcotics.

While Janet got her lungs x-rayed, I waited for the Red Cross people to show up. In the case of fires, the Red Cross takes over and provides temporary food, clothing, and shelter. I met with the hospital social worker and we tried to figure out what would happen to Janet, where she would go when she left the hospital, and how she would get there. Janet ended up getting a taxi ride to the boyfriend’s sister’s house, paid for by the social worker’s office.

The next morning, I woke up thinking about the nine cats that lived in that tiny trailer. My first thought was that when Janet ran out, she did not leave the door open so they could escape too. I heard today that there may have been a cat door, so maybe the others escaped. I pictured them spending the freezing night out in the snow, their lungs damaged by smoke. I realized I was less concerned about Janet and than I was about the cats — the only true “innocent victims” that I so wanted to help when I became an advocate.

There is one saving grace in this story and that is that the State doesn’t care how lovable or unlovable Janet and her boyfriend are. The state isn’t turned off by their lives the way I was. The State won’t watch her eyes to see if she really cried. I had the luxury of passing judgment on her, but at the same time I was able to leave the hospital knowing that somehow, the various agencies that run her life will patch her back together again — find her a new place to live or get her into a home, buy her some new clothes, replace her exploded oxygen tanks and painkillers and anti-anxiety meds. Thankfully, we are a society that provides at least a minimum of care for those who don’t deserve it. That is precisely what makes us civilized.

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kesmarn
Admin

E’cat, what a true, human, real, gorgeously written article.

Oh God, have I been there. At work, at church, at the soup kitchen where I’ve volunteered.

Mother Therese of Calcutta used to talk about serving Christ “in the distressing disguise of the poor.”

As you (and many of us here) know all too well, and contrary to detached images of Reaganesque sentimentality, the poor are often…well, difficult. Sometimes they smell. Sometimes they endlessly, relentlessly seek to be the center of attention. Sometimes they pile up two or three plates of food for themselves before other people have had any at all. Sometimes they call you a fucking c–t, when they don’t get the money or drugs they’re looking for. Sometimes they steal your coat while you’re working the dishwasher at the soup kitchen and then you have to drive home in a blouse that’s a little damp with dishwater in the middle of January…you shiver all the way. Sometimes they display a creepy interest in the children of the church, and they have criminal records that make you worry. Sometimes they trash the restroom, for whatever unknown reason. Sometimes they demand that more coffee be served to them at their tables by octogenarians who are limping around after hip replacements, but still volunteering.

Distressing.

And yet, people who serve the poor will often say they come home feeling that they’ve received more than they’ve given.

Funny how that happens.

It is good to be a liberal.

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javaz
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E’cat, thank you for sharing this story and I commend you for your selflessness in assisting others along with helping greyhounds.

You may think that you judged this woman and her boyfriend, but the fact that you volunteer to help people and animals says differently about your innate compassion.

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Pepe Lepew
Member

Wow, what an amazing story.

Just, wow!

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Vituperation
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Chernynkaya
Member

I am not sure I understand your question, V — “What do people deserve?” I think they deserve at least what you and your co-workers did. And Bravo!!

I have no need to try to fix anyone at this point. I am one of those people who gives the bum on the street whatever I can spare and don’t care how she or he spends it. I guess one could say I am enabling them, but I doubt that my spare change or couple of bucks — either withheld or given — is going to change them. I think old men and crusty-skinned women who stand on freeway off-ramps all day in the sun holding a sign have a pretty hard job too. And as for Smokey and his destructive — almost criminal behavior — well, sounds like he was already suffering a lot. To me though, there is no point in blaming–that could take us back in time for generations.

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Vituperation
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Khirad
Member

There’s a reason forgiveness is a core tenet in every major religion…

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choicelady
Member

Vitupe – you defined the essence of Christianity in one fell swoop. Everyone deserves forgiveness. We rarely fully understand anyone, even those we love, so trodding lightly on judgement is essential.

That does NOT mean we don’t have the right to be vexed, annoyed, peeved, or downright angry at people, but we will never walk a mile in their shoes, so forgiveness is all. We express it not in making them our new BFF but in doing what we can to make sure they can go on, can survive, can live another day.

It’s not much and it’s everything to take people as they come. That is the gift of acceptance that is the hub of Christ’s teachings. Judge not.

You really nailed it. Rarely have read it done better. Thank you.

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choicelady
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Dear e-cat – you’re amazing! That is so hard, especially when the victim is unlovable and so needy in ways that no one person can repair. I also found myself worrying about the cats as I read this, but I do agree with everyone – what is this woman’s REAL story? How do we generate so many helpless and dependent people who cannot fend for themselves?

I work with a group that brings women out of welfare into the community of the strong. It’s amazing to watch them testify about earning degrees and getting jobs – with scars of abuse on their arms or gang tattoos on their necks. But why do we wait until kids are massively dysfunctional adults before there is massive intervention? Years ago when I thought I wanted to be a preschool teacher I worked in a wonderful preschool in the inner city of Indianapolis. We got those kids ready for school, helped settle their demons, and provided a caring environment for them. They ALL flourished. Then came the Reagan years, and the federal funding vanished. Most of the programs dried up – and crime and dysfunction soared.

When we live in a nation of YOYO – you’re on your own – and not community, when we blithely support charity but NOT justice, when we diss the government but turn our individual backs, then – surprise! We get a Dickensian society with a tiny rich population and a growing one of dependence, drug use, emotional and mental illness. It’s not the government that creates weirdly out of tune people – it’s the absence of any caring at all. By the time the abandoned child becomes the messed up adult, yes social services can stabilize but cannot fix the mess we allowed to grow.

I believe in the “don’t just give a fish, teach fishing” or “hand up not hand out” principles not from a RW anger of “don’t bother me!” but from a point of view of justice. But we won’t spend the money on real education, social service interventions, etc. to assure healthy kids become healthy adults. Charity does not cut it – it patches the immediate hurt and need, but justice helps people become independent and have self respect.

You are doing GREAT things with the intervention for victims, but there are some things too great to fix, and this woman is one of them. Her needs have been allowed to grow, expand, engulf her as she as a functional person has been allowed to shrink, shrivel, disappear.

We turn our backs on children when we could help. Then we turn our backs on teens when we could repair. And we turn our backs on the adults who are creepily needy. It takes you and the social services system and its pros every ounce of energy to keep her alive and grounded, when maybe, when she was a little girl, it would have just taken the care of one or two people helping her then. But we might have had to raise taxes, and we could not have that, could we?

So we neglected her to make sure those with good income could have another iPod, and you’re picking up the debris as a volunteer.

Brave new world.

Thank you for who YOU are and what you do. It DOES matter.

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SueInCa
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CL
I had a major confrontational(not by me)conversation about why we wait so long in my Community Relations course in Administration of Justice.

We were talking about gangs, you know I live in a “upper middleclass” area and what it is like here. The attitudes of those kids was just perplexing to me. I heard comments like, “they are on their own”, “why can’t they just stop it”, “they get what they ask for”, “in Granite Bay there are no domestic violence, gang, drug or abuse cases”, or the best one “Why don’t they just move?” I offered the suggestion that perhaps the police community needed to start working with the younger generation and their parents. Stop the violence before they join, give them something else to do besides hang out on a street corner. Get involved and get the parents involved, make it easy for them, not make it difficult or at impossible times when they have to work.

Out of a group of about 35 students, only 6 agreed with me and that included my professor. The rest said it was their own fault and if they wanted to get out, they could. Our professor was always saying, before you answer that, “pretend like you do not live in Rocklin or Roseville”, I kid you not. Amazing attitudes.

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choicelady
Member

Whew – Sue you have met the greatest frustration of our time: lack of empathy. I applaud you for sticking with this conversation. Not easy to do, not easy to hear. Used to live in Davis and was on the Hate Crimes Rapid Response team. After some hate incident, I used to go to candlelight vigils (don’t get me started about that) where I’d inevitably hear someone say, “How could this happen in Davis? It’s such a nice little town.” Gag me with a spoon. It’s a horrid and sanctimonious town that gives rise to hate by its imperious dismissal of “the other”.

Some years ago, Rober Coles, the psychologist, wrote a book, “Children of Privilege” as part of his study of the world’s children. We are raising kids who have not a shred of understanding of other people who are growing into adults lacking the same. We are a nation that dismisses structural and systemic problems by telling the victims of same that they need “personal responsibility” to “snap out of it”. Because money DOES buy easy exit from trouble, they project everyone has unlimited choices.

Being poor, especially being poor and a person of color, is damned hard work. EVERYTHING takes vastly more energy and time. And these kids in Granite Bayy, Roseville, and Rocklin hae no clue. And I have NO idea how to build empathy in them. Take them to a homeless camp, and let them hear the stories, and they come away thinking, “Well, I’d never let MYSELF get this way! I’d have done SOMETHING to get out of this!”

But ASK what that somethng IS – there is no answer. When I asked a blogger how people living near toxic waste dumps and power plants, with no groceries and only fast food joints around them – how were these people supposed to “stay healthy” – the anser was, “Move”. Never mind trying to figure out how you’d do that on $684 per month. Or on nothing.

No – don’t know how to combat that arrogance and disinterest in other people. Just do NOT know.

I’d like to hear more about what happens in this class – can you keep us updated? I already like your professor! I hope your deep compassion rubs off on some of these people!

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Khirad
Member

Indeed, those that fall through the cracks early and often, end up costing our society in the long run, in more than just dollar signs.

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SueInCa
Member

Khirad
My argument exactly. Not leaving out the older ones who still could be saved, there is always that chance but give these kids something to keep them busy. There is so much that could be done.

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nellie
Member

Awesome, e’cat.

I don’t even know what to say…

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SueInCa
Member

Escribicat
You have definitely made into the hall of fame of “women who stand up for wearing pants” (you know what I refer to). I think your work is extremely important to society. As you know I, too, am interested in Victim’s advocacy work. Too often in the events of a crime, the victim is forgotten except for the “witness” viability.

The DA’s of this country are not generally subject matter experts in this part of the criminal process and do not prepare their witnesses properly or generally see them as a tool to use in prosecution. I know there are DA offices out there that do recognize this, our county here in No Calif has a division in the DA’s office. In it’s absence it is people like you that provide this generous and kind experience. Despite your personal thoughts, you reacted in the exact way you were trained to act with a victim. I applaud you for your service and someday I hope to be able to emulate it in my own area, paid or not.

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SanityNow
Member

what a snap shot, escribacat.

it is a strikingly honest testimony of how social legislation takes care of those who arguably would be denied help if this help were left up to the so called good graces of our community without that social legislation that conservatives decry.

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nellie
Member

Spot on SN. Exactly what a social contract (i.e., GOVERNMENT) is supposed to be all about.

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SanityNow
Member

I love how the use of BIG GOVERNMENT and GOVERNMENT TAKEOVER some how imply that government isn’t run by fellow human being citizens and that somehow, if “they” are elected to government, there wouldn’t be any BIG GOVERNMENT or GOVERNMENT TAKEOVER.

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nellie
Member

It makes no sense.

The best answer to the anti government folks is “WE are the government…. idjit.” (Well, maybe not the “idjit” part.)

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SanityNow
Member

what part of Government By the People and For the People do they not comprehend? I guess the People part vexes them.

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nellie
Member

Those humanity-based concepts always give them trouble.

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nellie
Member

Very good, SN. I’ll remember that one.

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SanityNow
Member

they are not just anti-socialist, they are anti-social

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Chernynkaya
Member

E’cat, that made me cry. Thank you so very much for the service you do! My personal belief is that you, and all the other services involved with this tiny part of humanity, do God’s work–that this IS God. Whenever we pray, we are praying to the God that is in us, and we answer each others’ prayers. We each have within us the ability to be actual angels.

But beyond that, you wrote so perfectly about these two broken people. I myself have a judgmental streak, but because of my own (numerous) shortcomings, I’ve softened up as I’ve gotten older. As Msbadger wrote, “There but for the grace of God…”

I know that many, many people would see these folks as undeserving slackers. Not me. They are every bit as disabled as a quadruple amputee– maybe even more so, because they are mentally and emotionally crippled. And being disabled does not automatically make one likable. So I am glad that those of us who simply cannot function get all the help they need. I am glad there there is such a safety net! Thank you again for your incredible heart.

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Khirad
Member

Couldn’t agree more, Cher.

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Questinia
Member

You may find that your compassion would bloom afresh if you would know the background of this woman. Chances are there was an uglier story in her past than the one you just related.

Amongst many other things, these people exhibit “learned helplessness”. Essentially that means that they are conditioned to not think for themselves because they have learned that there is no escape from their situation. They are helpless even when there is an opportunity for them to do something about it. Quite often they behave like children, i.e. they regress, when stressed.

Helpless as a child, the woman bawled like a child who lost her Teddy Bear. Regression in an adult can be extremely unattractive and maintaining compassion requires a lot of patience and fortitude.

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boomer1949
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Chernynkaya
Member

Great vid, Boomer. I haven’t heard of the Ophelia (prefect name too) Project in years and am glad they are still teaching it.

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Khirad
Member

I liked the name too.

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whatsthatsound
Member

Great video! Thanks for posting!

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Khirad
Member

Oh yes, Q. I bet I can guess that woman’s history.

Chances are…

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Questinia
Member

… she was abused as a child and as an adult.

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SueInCa
Member

The adult part is still going on with her boyfriend. Poor soul cannot break away from it.

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nellie
Member

A seriously abused person, e. By others, herself, and her own choices. There was no way for you to tell what she really needed, wanted, or could handle. Maybe a professional who deals with her down the line will be able to make some headway with her.

You are doing awesome work.

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Khirad
Member

It was the touching part that sent alarm bells ringing for me, along with the nature of her current relationship.

This, of course, isn’t necessarily always the case – as seen in teenagers.

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Khirad
Member
whatsthatsound
Member

What an extraordinary story, and what a great thing you are doing! Some would argue that nothing whatsoever should be done for Janet and people like her. Disciples of Ayn Rand would say neither life nor society owes her a thing. But I agree with you, it says GOOD things about the country that people like her will be tended to within the means at its disposal.

Namaste!

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Khirad
Member

You should send that off to, I don’t know who, but that was definitely publishable!

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AdLib
Admin

Bravo Escribacat!

Also, the work you’ve volunteered reflects your wonderful character.

As you illustrate, I think the ability to weigh our values in the situations we find ourselves in is natural and ultimately a good thing.

When it comes to respecting others’ rights, it has nothing to do with respecting them for their choices but respecting the rights all human beings should be entitled to.

Just as with the right of Freedom of Expression, one proves their genuine respect for a principle only when applying it to speech that conflicts with their personal opinions. A right or principle isn’t legit if it’s applied conditionally.

It’s easy to champion the state taking care of those who can’t take care of themselves when the people concerned are “good” people but when they are objectionable, that’s where one’s principles are put to the test.

Your closing line is perfect. Indeed, that is precisely what makes us civilized.

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msbadger
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msbadger

Dear E-cat! What a story. Dear lord…. I have known people like that myself in my life, and it is indeed hard to maintain empathy for them; then again, I always remember, “There but for the grace of God go I.” I too am feeling sad for the cats; they are the true innocents as are all animals and children. Scenes like this are played out daily in our country, as we all know. Thank you for being a good human, and a good citizen, by doing this volunteer work. Thank you for sharing this story. Bless you, friend!

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