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A mother's love story

Sandra (then, pre-cancer) and her much bigger abuser
Sandra (then, pre-cancer) and her much bigger abuser
Dara Carlin, M.A.

It started like every other domestic violence case: the victim struggling to keep her family together by trying to hold her marriage together but the cold hard truth of the matter is that a good lasting marriage takes the commitment and work of both spouses; one spouse cannot “save” it all by him/herself.

For DV victims, accepting “You could not save the marriage/relationship all by yourself” is as hard a pill to swallow as “You were in an abusive marriage/relationship” – both messages flash FAILURE in front of her eyes, a label she sees as hers alone to bear and a label she’s more willing to wear then that of “victim”. Isn’t that strange? Victims can better deal/cope with the thought of being a “failure” then the thought of being a victim…

Initially my title for this article was going to be “Conduct unbecoming an officer” but as I sat down to write it, I realized that I’d much rather tell you about the story of the amazing survivor I’ve had the privilege to know then her sadistic abuser - a decorated high-ranking Navy officer.

In March 2002 Sandra McKendree began her fall down “Alice’s Rabbit Hole” when she fled her psychologically and physically abusive marriage with her then three year-old daughter to stay in a series of domestic violence shelters. By May 2002, Sandra begrudgingly filed a restraining order against her abuser. For those of you unfamiliar with verbal abuse, imagine your spouse yelling the following at you:

Stupid **cking *itch! I’ve got someone better then you! I have wasted my life on you! I will kick you out! You’re no better than my ex-wife!

Instead of upholding a vow to love, honor and cherish the mother of his child, how about a vow to make her pay and “make you homeless” (then make sure that those things happen)? This, by-the-way, is why I thought “Conduct unbecoming an officer” would be an appropriate title for this article because it only gets worse from here and without pointing towards the abuser’s standing as a well-respected naval officer, you might think that I’m talking about the behaviors and actions of a street thug.

Not wanting a fight and hoping to avoid “an ugly divorce” Sandra had the restraining order dissolved in good faith but the moment it was dissolved, the abuser immediately sought out and obtained a restraining order against her. From there the abuser took advantage of Sandra's emotional vulnerability and began compiling evidence, crafting his version of events with the aid of professionals he’d dupe and manipulate along the way.

With his meticulously assembled pile of “evidence” quickly acquired, an attorney and the money to back his efforts, the abuser gained full physical/legal custody of their daughter in 2003 where Sandra was granted “reasonable visitation” HOWEVER the visitation came with the following caveat:

Defendant shall be entitled to reasonable visitation, to include but not be limited to the following visitation schedule for so long as the parties reside on the same Hawaiian Island or live within 200 miles automobile transportation of one another. (Emphasis in bold added)

With this particular condition to Sandra’s visitation in place, care to guess what the abuser did next?

Despite the court’s awareness that the abuser could relocate due to his career, the court did not bother to make any accommodations for this regarding Sandra’s visitation with her daughter so when the abuser decided to relocate to the state of Georgia, mother and daughter would no longer be able to see each other. The abuser relocated in December 2004; Sandra has not seen her daughter since.

Unless parental rights have been officially terminated non-custodial parents are typically afforded updates on their children – school pictures and report card copies at bare minimum; although Sandra’s parental rights have NOT been terminated (nor has Sandra ever been deemed a danger to her daughter) Sandra’s received nothing about her daughter in all these years - not even a single school picture!

The only grace that Sandra’s been afforded, at the mercy of the abuser, is once a week phone calls to her daughter at 8:00PM and – this is the absolute amazing part of the story – Sandra and her daughter have faithfully maintained these once-a-week phone calls throughout all these years of separation! Not only that, but the love and bond between mother and daughter remains resiliently strong and intact!

Before the abuser successfully removed daughter and mother from each other’s lives, Sandra could only see her at the PACT Visitation Center. Below is an entry from one of the visitation notes:

At the 5 min. warning (daughter) jumps into VP’s (Visiting Parent, Sandra) lap, hugs her and says, “I don’t want to go! I want to stay with my mommy! I want to live with you!” VP appears to get teary eyed and explains to (daughter) that she thinks of her every day. She expresses her love and reassures her that she’ll always be her little girl. (Daughter) delays visit end by asking for one more hug & one more kiss over and over.

When I said Sandra’s telephone calls to her daughter are “at the mercy of the abuser” I’m NOT exaggerating - the phone calls are contingent on the strictest of terms: of course the abuser listens in and monitors what's said but if Sandra does not call precisely at 8:00PM the abuser considers this a forfeit so there’s no “visitation” for that week (although the abuser has allowed a 2 minute leeway); if Sandra or her daughter do something to get the abuser upset with either one of them, the 8:00PM phone call goes unanswered as a punishment with the abuser deciding the duration of the punishment (which has gone on for weeks at times). Despite the obstacles the abuser makes and his success at separating mother from daughter all these years, he's failed and has been completely unsuccessful at breaking their bond! Sandra and her daughter actually have an enviable relationship that makes their separation all the more tragic.

In 2012 (without representation because she cannot afford an attorney) Sandra approached the family court seeking nothing beyond the reasonable visitation she was already awarded in the 2003 order. Because of a lifetime TRO the abuser placed in Georgia against Sandra in 2006 while she was visiting her ailing grandmother in Florida (the abuser narcissistically assumed Sandra was “in the area” for him) the Hawaii judge declined to hear the case saying that the state of Georgia should handle the visitation issue even though neither Sandra nor the abuser currently reside in Georgia.

To thwart and discourage Sandra from future visitation attempts and court intervention, the abuser filed a complaint with the Child Support Enforcement Agency for her failure to pay him child support; to further punish her, the abuser told their daughter that Sandra doesn’t really care about her because Sandra hasn’t paid any child support. What’s particularly sick about the abuser’s pursuit of back child support is that he’s well aware that Sandra’s been suffering with a potentially terminal case of cervical cancer where her only income is Disability – but that doesn’t matter to the abuser who continues to aggressively pursue the child support issue.

Thanks to the abuser’s lifetime TRO that he included their daughter on, Sandra has not only been prohibited from seeing her daughter but from knowing ANY information about her either – she has no idea where she lives, what school she attends or what she even looks like. Although there’s only two more years left before their daughter turns 18 where the court orders will all be null and void, cancer's time-table runs on a different clock and has a way of changing more then a person's health.

When I first met her Sandra was terrified of her ex-husband who left her to think long and hard about his physical capabilities, her chances for justice and about the military affiliations he maintains. Reminding Sandra what the men at his disposal are capable of and what he said they’d be capable of doing to her bought Sandra's silence; telling Sandra that he'd kill her, their daughter and himself if exposed for any of this assured it. (Really give those threats some thought and you’d stay silent too - and then people can’t figure out why victims don’t report…) The way I look at it, however, is that if anything should happen to or befall Sandra, we’ll all know whose to blame so it’s actually in the abuser's best interests to make sure that nothing happens to her.

Another part of the abuser's threat was that he'd resign from his 30 year career if any of this was exposed, but this seems unlikely considering the MO of abusers is to hang on rather then to let go. Whenever he feels threatened, the abuser inappropriately cries to his daughter to gain her sympathy and to neutralize her efforts towards seeing her mom. In doing so "poor daddy" is reconfirming his identity as an abuser - remember the three stages of proclamations made by abusers?:

  1. The victim is a "nut" or "slut" and that's why she left him
  2. The victim is a bad/unfit mother because she's a nut or slut
  3. "The real truth is I'M the victim, SHE'S the abuser!" ("I was just too ashamed to admit it initially.")

The love that Sandra has for her daughter and visa versa has been stronger then the abuser’s attempts to destroy it and it has given Sandra the strength to fight the demons of domestic violence – hopefully it’ll be strong enough to conquer cancer and bring mother and daughter to the happy ending they both so truly deserve.

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