The Hidden Impact of Depp v. Heard and overturning Roe v. Wade on Victims of Abuse

At a local nonprofit called Families to Freedom, a domestic violence hotline advocate receives calls from women seeking emergency shelter or long-term safety planning. The advocate talks a victim through an intake process to determine what kind of services are the best fit for each victim by asking questions such as— 

“Are you in a safe place? When did the last incident of abuse occur? Is this phone number compromised by your abuser? What is their name and a description of their appearance?”

Families to Freedom, Inc

Families to Freedom asks these questions in order to prepare the best exit strategy for a victim. The process is important because it keeps the team informed about the degree of risk in picking up a client, and it also prepares the Operations Specialist for their conversation with the volunteer driver who will transport the victim. First, a hotliner will find a caller on a map, determine a safe pickup location, and then send out a signal to a team of volunteer drivers waiting to pick up clients within a 3 hour radius. Once a client has made it to shelter, long-term planning such as transport to a state far away can occur from a stable location. Typically, an intake is an opportunity for advocates to provide a victim with resources, emotional support, and safety strategies. Clients are usually forthcoming with this information, but recently, several hotline advocates have voiced concern on a new issue heard among the hotlines. The victims seem to be afraid to talk about their abuser to the extent that they would rather be denied service than share too many details out of fear of being pressured to seek legal action. Of course, Families to Freedom is not denying services to those who do not want to share the details of their abusive relationship; but the pushback on answering basic identifying questions is undeniable. Carmela, a Houston FtoF office advocate, explained the sudden shift to protecting abusers by recalling a conversation on the hotline with a victim:

“So, we were doing the normal intake process and the victim had raised a red flag from the start when she said that she didn’t want to talk about her ex abuser at all. I asked her our usual ‘What made you seek help today’ question and [the victim] immediately started out by saying she didn’t want to talk about him because– ‘he’s out of my life, he’s gone and never coming back, I’ll never see him again.’ And that’s great, don’t get me wrong… but typically it’s not for the reason she said after the fact:

‘I’m sorry for making a big deal out of [this] question – I just don’t want to get him in trouble and end up getting sued like a crazy person. He’s already made me crazy enough.’  

Carmela said she understood their hesitation to not come forward with the information, “considering the way victim stories are scrutinized and how survivors are ridiculed, or even labeled as liars in the media— I would be worried, too.”

This privacy problem has more unintended consequences for victims than one would expect: many agencies are obligated to deny services to those who aren’t forthcoming with the information on their abusers, so these victims are risking their safety by choosing to not respond to such questions. Make no mistake, the agencies who deny services are not doing so out of a lack of empathy, but rather, as a precautionary measure against those who wish to abuse emergency shelter services. Many nonprofits that receive federal funds are obligated to have these ‘red-tape’ measures in place so that services are not abused by the wrong target group. In other words, money for the homeless community doesn’t typically mix with the abused community and vice versa. The Community Education Specialist at Families to Freedom explained this issue in more detail: 

“Luckily we’re funded by the state of Texas for a more niche product, that is, transportation. What we provide doesn’t immediately seem like a great risk to the department of transportation and safety, and so our measurement of risk on an intake is much more flexible than, say, an emergency shelter. For some things, like the full name of an abuser, we don’t necessarily need that personal information to do our job and provide transportation.”

For context– an emergency shelter is typically a highly secretive complex, and they can be hidden in plain sight; sometimes, they appear around cities as apartment complexes, hotels, or schools. The programs within will vary since they’re all individually owned, run, and funded. One characteristic they do share is their secrecy: the location is never given to an outsider, and if shared, it’s given only to vetted industry professionals. You cannot have guests at the shelters, especially male guests, and it’s not uncommon for shelters to never share their location at all. Only law enforcement would have access to their information. So, for an agency like Families to Freedom, volunteer drivers are given an approximate location to drive clients towards, and they’ll receive further instructions for entering the shelter grounds once they’ve arrived at a safe distance from the shelter. 

For an industry of shelters that goes to such lengths for secrecy, it isn’t hard to imagine the problem they face with victims withholding potentially compromising information. Shelter security needs personal information on abusers to prevent stalking, harassment, or homicide on the premises. And yet, if they can’t be on the lookout for the specified vehicle or license plates that should be of concern– how can inner-city shelters stay safe? The Education Specialist at Families to Freedom further explained,

“The state doesn’t obligate us to keep that [personal] information related to abusers on file, more so we’re simply obligated to disclose any safety measures we take to ensure our volunteer drivers don’t have to come into contact with an abuser. We do this by asking for a description of the abuser and their vehicle… but if you think about how a shelter does it– that’s where victims will run into greater issues. You have to disclose all that information to a shelter so that they can determine what programs to put you in, how long your stay will be, and whether you qualify for their external services. Plus, FtoF can’t help you out if you don’t have a safe destination already secured, the most reliable of which is a shelter, family or friends, so I’m worried that this new privacy issue will have more repercussions than the industry is prepared for…”

Zania, a Dallas office hotliner, said the Summer is peak season because mothers are finally able to move their children without raising alarm bells at schools and risking their abuser finding out their next safe location. She, too, expressed similar concerns after these hesitant conversations became a pattern during their peak season of clients seeking shelter. Zania thinks It has been increasingly difficult during and after the Depp. v. Heard trial to get information out of victims on the phones. 

“Most of these victims are already unsure about going the legal route in the first place; there’s just a lot of unknown for them in a time when all they really want is safety and security. The way Amber was treated online definitely didn’t encourage anybody to come forward and press charges against their abuser, but that’s not even the worst part– the worst part is the way the trial invalidated different [types] of abuse, so these ladies think they just don’t qualify for services in the first place now. 

Zania was referring to the tactics used by the Depp lawyers who sought tangible ‘evidence’ of abuse as their primary defense. While it is not uncommon for an abuser to resort to physical and violent methods of control, the cycle of abuse is much more complex than evident proof of bruising or wounds. The Power and Control wheel below describes the methods of non-physical, non-violent forms of abuse which do constitute domestic violence, intimate partner violence, and family violence.

Domestic Violence Wheel

CEO and Founder of Families to Freedom, Sarah Nejdl, feels strongly about the misuse of the word “abuse” in the media. She believes emotional manipulation, abusing male privilege, and isolating tactics are one of the few gaps in the media’s case against Amber Heard. While she is not for, nor against either side, Sarah made it clear: 

“People need to be aware [that] witnesses before or after a moment of verbal abuse are practically as reliable as a Texas weather report. As in… totally unreliable. To paint a woman as a non-victim in the media, essentially removing her of that victim or survivor status entirely, only because nobody actually saw the abuse happening is–frankly–a huge mistake for victims world-wide. We may never know what was said behind closed doors, but it is definitely an injustice to all marginalized, abused individuals to say they need ‘proof’ of long-term manipulation, shaming, or belittling.”

Clearly, the language of the press played the largest role in turning the public against Amber Heard. It seems domestic violence advocates are all singing a similar tune: regardless of the truth to her story, the emphasis on having tangible evidence and documentation for the duration of the abuse was out of line. Industry leaders are concerned that the rhetoric surrounding legitimate “evidence” will leave many women in tight financial positions among the next generation of women fleeing with children to safety. 

Terence, another hotliner, fears that, “some [women] will come in hot on the phone line saying they rather work with another agency than incriminate an abuser out of fear of being taken to court– and that’s just wrong! We are here to help. I just wish these ladies knew that, and didn’t think people won’t believe them in the first place.” 

Terence works primarily with women who are seeking family or friends far away, rather than shelter. He calls this long-term safety planning, rather than an exit strategy. One of the questions Terence must ask mothers traveling with children is, ‘Are you aware of your parental rights?’ –which used to be a non-issue question. However, Terence foresees it becoming more of a problem for victims to answer, because it implies having gone through Child Protective Services to get approval to leave the state. As long as the victim is responding with a simple–’yes, I am aware’– the phrasing of this intake question should have remained a non-issue. And yet, Terence has been feeling uncomfortable asking about parental rights as of late. 

“Now whenever I ask that question about parental rights, I can tell they’re immediately spooked… Their tone on the line changes almost immediately. Almost like they’ve started to choose their words ultra-carefully to avoid being accused of something and dragged to court by their abuser for taking the kids. Not that we would ever do that to them, but It’s crazy, I’ve never seen mothers so fearful of the courts taking their children before– I guess they must think they don’t have the proof needed to feel confident in telling their story.”

If feeling confident in their story is the industry’s issue, this small non-profit may face even greater challenges ahead with the recent news on Roe v. Wade. Families to Freedom provides transportation for qualifying victims of abuse. For people who have experienced marital rape or intimate partner rape, domestic violence advocacy has always been an option that they’ve qualified for as victims of abuse. But will this change for organizations who provide the means to reach another state in light of losing Roe? In situations of sexual abuse, given that Texas is poised to institute several new anti-abortion trigger laws, new fears of more strict guidelines for documentation within nonprofits are on the rise. 

Concern is brewing… Will Families to Freedom begin to deny services for those who may be pregnant at the time of seeking multi-state travel to safety? Hopefully, the organization will not need to take drastic measures to protect themselves from losing state funding. Program manager, Tina, discussed an alternative solution to getting women out of Texas to safety while pregnant–

“If we are going to work in an honest manner with state funding we obviously need to protect ourselves from unintended consequences of transporting a pregnant person. We do not ask about their intentions to visit medical professionals at their new location, but what we do disclose is our rule about one-time, one-way travel which basically closes the door on short-term travel purposes.”

Tina refers to the organization’s commitment to not providing transportation to return to an abuser. Meaning, if a victim is seeking safety in another state, FtoF will support their arrival to the new destination but not their return to the state in which their abuse occurred. As such, small nonprofit organizations providing services to move women across state lines can effectively protect themselves from government intervention by following the one-time, one-way policy.

Whether or not sister organizations exist which could provide return trips– we don’t know for sure. However, the news on overturning Roe certainly creates more issues for the domestic violence advocacy industry than they are equipped to handle. 

The Education Specialist put it plainly: “Look, funding is already tight. Victims of sexual abuse will look towards orgs like ours for help to an abortion positive state–no doubt–but… we receive funds from the Office of the Governor [Abbott], so we cannot risk losing the funding that keeps us afloat and able to help the hundreds going to shelter. My concern is that victims are increasingly more afraid to tell their stories, whether it be out of fear of getting sued, or face prison-time if they have a miscarriage now. The fact is, we can’t give victims the proper trauma-informed care to help them move past their abuse if they aren’t willing to tell us the full story.”

Commenting further on Roe, she stated her own prediction on what we can expect out of overturning the choice to have an abortion: “We’re looking at a generation of women who will flee for their lives out of fear of getting trapped with an abuser who will use their children against them as a form of control; especially now that they can’t get an abortion in Texas, we might see more women trying to use our transportation services for the ‘wrong’ reasons– reasons that should be a personal decision for their health which we now have to dig into, document, and steer-clear-of or risk getting sued and shut down for ‘aiding’ a victim potentially seeking an abortion. Honestly, I cringe at the awkward conversations about pregnancy tests that future hotliners may have, and I can’t imagine the re-victimization that a survivor might feel from not having control of their next steps to safety.”

The Houston Area Women’s Shelter shared a similar message on the decision to overturn Roe– “It has robbed our clients of a fundamental right, one with enormous implications for their ability to heal and to build a free life from coercion and violence” referring to the violence beyond that can bring about an unwanted pregnancy such as rape, incest, sexual assault, sex trafficking, and reproductive coercion. 

For an industry of professionals that works tirelessly to ensure the long-term planning it takes to get victims to safety, the questions I believe they would all like answered, sooner rather than later, are quite grim:

What will the anti-abortion legislators do when women in an abusive relationship become pregnant? Will they flood the advocacy industry with the funding necessary to move pregnant bodies to shelter? Will their increased funds close the 44% gap of women who are denied emergency shelter in Texas due to lack of space? Or will we let pregnant mothers die by the hands of their abuser who will ultimately use their children against them as a mode of control?

For now, Families to Freedom, emergency DV shelters, and activists across Texas are anxiously waiting to find out.


Image Sources:

Amber Heard on the witness stand on Thursday. Her testimony, often highly charged, has been delivered while maintaining eye contact with jurors. Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/AFP/Getty Images (Edward Helmore/Guardian) https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/may/07/amber-heard-johnny-depp-defamation-trial

power-and-control-wheel (Palomar: Oklahoma City’s Family Justice Center) https://palomarokc.org/helping-loved-ones/power-and-control-wheel/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s