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In Harm’s Way

Expecting the Worst

Why does an abused woman stay? There are any number of reasons, of course, but during pregnancy a woman is particularly vulnerable. She may dread the thought of going through labor alone; she may need help from her partner after the baby is born; and she may feel more financially dependent on him while she's expecting and after. What's more, like many women who are battered, Parsons wanted the violence to end -- not her marriage. She clung to the dream that she and her husband could still build a life together. She fantasized that after the baby came along he would return to being as attentive as he was during their early courtship. "In the beginning, it was wonderful. It was flowers and taking me out to eat. I was treated like a queen," she says. "I was holding on to the hope that it would get back to that someday."

To an outsider, her wish might sound naive, but battered women often lose perspective. Jealous, possessive husbands or boyfriends control their actions and keep them from using the phone or seeing friends and family. They cut off a woman's emotional support so she becomes entirely reliant on him. Parson's husband drove away her friends; Alvarez's wouldn't let her accept rides to work from a male coworker who thought it was too dangerous for a pregnant woman to ride the bus late at night. "These women are truly isolated," McFarlane says. "They are prisoners in their own homes."

Many tell no one about their crisis. When patients confide in Dr. Chambliss, her advice is compassionate but clear and direct: "I tell them that no one deserves to be hit, and that probably this will get worse."

She also reminds them that domestic violence is a crime. Laws vary from state to state, but California, Minnesota, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin are among the states with the strongest domestic violence laws. Recently, the Arizona legislature passed a law allowing the court to increase penalties if the victim of abuse is pregnant. And California gives the baby what amounts to legal rights against its batterer; a batterer can be prosecuted for murder for killing a fetus.

Some abusive men do stop after an arrest lands them in a court-ordered counseling program. But success rates for such programs are low. For many women, safety for themselves and their children means leaving -- and that means confronting the paralyzing fears of ending up homeless or facing the batterer's wrath. Leaving is risky because an enraged batterer might step up the violence. But staying can be worse. McFarlane's reminder is chilling: "A man who hits a pregnant woman is unusually violent -- even for a batterer."

Parsons and Alvarez say their husbands threatened to kill them if they ever tried to go. Still, Alvarez left not long after her husband choked her breathless one day. "He almost killed me. He had that anger, that fire in his eyes," she recalls. She called a women's shelter, which helped her plan an escape and find a place to live where her husband wouldn't find her. She secretly stashed away money, then filed for a restraining order before moving with her three kids to a hidden location. Today, she is legally separated from her husband.

Lynn Parsons, too, eventually found a way out. At just 29 1/2 weeks along in her pregnancy, she gave birth to a 4-pound boy with serious neurological problems. When she returned home from the hospital, her husband resumed the abuse. She first tried to leave when the baby was 2 months old. She came back after her husband promised that he'd change; he didn't. She left again when the baby was 8 months old, but returned because she was afraid she couldn't support herself and her son. When her son was 22 months old, Parsons reached her breaking point. She worried that it was only a matter of time before a hurtling plate hit her son, and she hated to see the boy cower at his angry father. "He loved his dad, but when there was yelling and screaming, he'd refuse to look at him," she says. That was when she got a restraining order, forced her husband to move out, and filed for divorce. "My self-esteem was so low, I didn't feel like I deserved better," she says. "But I wanted something better for my son. I didn't leave for me -- I left for him."

Katherine Kam is a freelance writer living in the San Francisco Bay area.