Kathy Bertrand did everything we tell an abused woman to do.
She divorced her husband. She got a protective order against him. She got an apartment and a job outside the home after homeschooling her three children for years. She moved on.
A woman with a law degree, Kathy was not unskilled and was looking for work in the legal world.
And yet she was still horrifically murdered in a public shopping center this week by her former husband, who later killed himself.
I can’t even type that without crying for this devoted mother with whom I worked at our cherished neighborhood swim meets, her short hair always held back with headbands, her clear eyes sparkling. My heart is broken for her children, her two cute-as-button girls who swam on the team, and her freckle-faced boy.
What more could she have done? What kind of man kills the mother of his children and himself and leaves them orphans?
We can’t know the mind of Chris Bertrand. We don’t know all of the details of how this relationship played out.
But we know the general characteristics of batterers who lose the perceived control of their families.
“We find a lot of times that a common trait is insecurity, low self-esteem, low self-confidence, and being that (way), perhaps his source of feeling like a man was in hurting this woman,” said Camilla Eubanks, member services director for the N.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “And if that’s the culture he was living every day, and she left him, then what is he left with?”
Role of protective orders
What we’re left with are questions about what systemically might have helped. Mandatory mental health services for abusers? Protective orders with more severe penalties?
How can we not wonder whether those orders are worth the paper they’re written on – or just outright dangerous in provoking unstable men – given that Kathy was the third Wake County woman since May who had such an order and died nonetheless?
The lethality rate does increase in the immediate aftermath of a protective order being issued, Eubanks said, but it’s nearly impossible to put up enough barriers to dissuade someone determined to kill another.
“What is so scary about domestic violence, which is why I call it domestic terrorism, is you don’t ever know the batterer’s intent,” Eubanks said. “You never know a terrorist’s intent.”
But that’s not to say protective orders are useless. They’ve put many a batterer behind bars for long periods of time, she said. But an order that can be violated multiple times before someone lands in jail is just not strong enough.
“If he violated it once, he needs to be seriously considered a potential homicide waiting to happen,” said Eubanks, who also advocates much higher bonds for abusers. “It’s obvious he doesn’t give a hoot about it. The victim is taking it seriously, the court is taking it seriously, but the batterer is the one with the potential to commit murder. He needs one strike.”
What we can do
Stronger laws, higher bonds, these are reactive interventions. What would be better is a proactive focus on prevention.
“When I think about our shelters and protective orders, they’re Band-Aids,” Eubanks said. “Why don’t we look at not living in a world where someone thinks it’s OK to hit somebody, anybody, to hit the mother of their children? Until the end of time, this is going to happen until we focus on men ending men’s violence against women.”
Men need to hold other men accountable, she said, to coach and teach their sons and other boys what it means to be respectful and loving, to challenge each other and talk about what a healthy relationship looks like. Our daughters need to get that picture, too.
“Being a man does not mean you need to assert your power and authority over anyone,” Eubanks said. “It’s difficult when we live in a society that condones that.”
Rather than be paralyzed by what feels like helplessness, to honor Kathy and other victims, we can commit to learning more about domestic violence, to speaking when words are needed, to acting on behalf of those who might be less-equipped, to modeling in our own relationships the behaviors we want children to emulate.
“It’s everyone’s job,” Eubanks said. “It’s the community’s job to not be silent and to say ‘No more – no more!’ We don’t want people to live like this. We don’t want to experience what we saw in Cameron Village ever again.”