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.