10.10: a child witness becomes an influential advocate

Remarks of Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes, delivered at JWI’s third international conference on domestic violence in March 2007.

Domestic violence is an affliction that knows no borders or boundaries or class distinctions. Its pain can last a lifetime. And it can shape your life in very important ways.

My own life bears witness to this reality. But before I explain that, let me recall for you an experience I had nearly 18 years ago. During the summer of 1989, I was a candidate for the Office of Brooklyn District Attorney, and I dropped by night court to watch some proceedings. I took a seat near the front of the courtroom. I immediately noticed a young woman of perhaps 17 years of age. I could see that her face was lacerated and swollen and that her body was trembling. Then to my shock and anger, I heard the assistant district attorney, who was standing between this young crime victim, the defense attorney and the defendant, declare in a firm voice, “Judge, it’s only a husband and wife dispute that got a little out of hand.” It immediately reminded me of another so-called “husband and wife dispute” which I observed many years before.

Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes and JWI Executive Director Loribeth Weinstein

Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes and JWI Executive Director Loribeth Weinstein

Sometime after midnight, I was startled from my sleep by the piercing screams of my mother coming from my parents’ bedroom. When I ran from my room and opened the door to the bedroom, at first I was nearly overcome by the stench of whiskey – in those days a common odor in our apartment.

Then I saw a horrifying sight: my mother was standing by the bed, holding the left side of her face, covering her eye with her hands, while blood spilled from the eye, through her fingers. To her right, I saw my father, just barely standing, as he swayed back and forth. His eyes looked crazed – blood dripped from the knuckles of his right hand. Suddenly, he heaved over onto the bed with a thud and immediately began to snore heavily.

I took my mother by the hand and led her to our living room, closing the door behind us. Her body was shaking, her hand was trembling violently and she was crying convulsively as she repeated my name over and over again. I sat her on the couch and went to the bathroom for a towel to hold against her face to try to stop the bleeding. When I was satisfied she was safe, I told her that I would get the doctor who lived in our apartment building.

I took the elevator down six floors from our apartment to the first floor and frantically rang the doorbell of the doctor’s apartment. When I told him what happened, he ran inside and quickly returned with his medical bag. He went immediately with me to our apartment where he treated my mother. She was later hospitalized for fractures around the left side of her face – above and below her eye.

Although that was the first of her many beatings that I witnessed at the hand of my father, and although it happened sixty-six years ago when I was five years old, that nightmarish image is never far from my consciousness.

Following that night court experience, I vowed that if I was elected district attorney, no assistant district attorney in my office would ever take that insensitive position again in a domestic violence case.

When I took Office in 1990, one of my first official acts was to create a Domestic Violence Bureau, the first of its kind in any major District Attorney’s Office in the United States. I should note that many other prosecuting offices have small domestic violence units – but none has a bureau-size initiative. In the years since then, we have made great strides in raising the consciousness of the entire community, and especially the law enforcement community, in acknowledging and responding to domestic violence.

JWI’s fourth domestic abuse conference is set for April 2009 in Washington, DC. To learn more and get involved, e-mail conference@jwi.org or call 800.343.2823.

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