“Women come into Domestic Violence Court not knowing anything about what’s going on, and a lot of times they leave not knowing anything. . . . They’re shuffled through, usually with inadequate representation. The men get off too often, even if they’ve repeatedly violated an order of protection. And the darker-skinned you are, the more often you’re treated unfairly.”
Susan Murphy Milano is in a state of high indignation–a condition she experiences with exasperating frequency. Milano is an advocate for battered women. She’s not a lawyer or a social worker but sort of a guardian angel: she listens to their stories, tells them what their legal options are, hooks them up with shelters and counseling services, coaches them through media interviews and press conferences. For all of her trouble she receives no pay.
Her most celebrated client is Dawn Wilson, whose story of being beaten and stalked by her ex-husband Christopher has appeared all over the media–the Tribune, the Sun-Times, the Channel Five news, the Channel Seven news, WMAQ radio, Maury Povitch, Jenny Jones, Family Circle magazine. But Milano has helped dozens of women in the three years she’s been doing this; recently she sent train fare to a woman in Seattle who wanted to get away from her abusive husband. And she perseveres even though the dangerous situations her clients are in have sometimes put her at risk.
“Domestic violence is one of this nation’s killers, like gangs and drunk drivers,” Milano says. “Eight to ten women are killed a day in this country by their partners.” Then there’s the confusing and unresponsive court system. “And if it’s that bad for the ones who do get to court, can you imagine how many women don’t make it into that courthouse? Can you imagine how many don’t even have their complaints taken down, because the police officer doesn’t know how to write up a stalking report? Debra Burkhart [one of her clients] has been through the system for a whole year; Linda Jones has been through the system for a whole year. Why should they lose a year of their lives to the court system, when they’re the victims?”
Phil Murphy was a cop. By all accounts, he was an effective cop. Murphy was a detective with the Chicago Police Department’s Area Five Violent Crimes Unit. “He had an extra sense,” recalls his daughter. “He and his partner were good at what they did. They didn’t work shifts, like most police officers–they worked 4 to 12 all the time. [The Police Department] loved him.”
At home they were afraid of him.
Police officers are under a great deal of stress, says Milano, “and he took his problems home. He treated us like he treated the people on the street. I was always afraid when I heard his key turning in the door.”
Although Milano and her brother and sister came in for their share of maltreatment, Phil Murphy’s favorite victim was his wife, Roberta. His considerable inner rage stoked by his drinking, he bashed her with both words and fists. “He took everything out on my mother. I grew up in an Irish Catholic racist home. He’d tell her, ‘I deal with niggers all day long, and you’re no better. If I wanted to, I could burn the house down with you and the kids in it and walk away.'”
Sometimes Roberta called the police, but she usually didn’t even get to see the responding officers. Phil Murphy would flash his badge, joke with the guys, close the door, and return to battering the object of his disaffection.
After years of verbal and physical abuse, Roberta Murphy equipped herself for an independent life, going back to school and getting a job. In mid-1988 she finally left Phil, encouraged by her daughter. She got an apartment of her own. “Our house was always dark–he did night work, and he slept like Dracula sleeps. He always had heavy curtains over the windows, because of the light and because he was afraid of people shooting at him. The apartment was light. She could finally have the curtains open.”
She didn’t enjoy the sunshine for long. After she left, Phil, who had suffered a stroke in 1984 and retired on disability, stalked her for six months. “He called her sometimes 20 times a day at the office where she worked,” notes Milano. “He constantly accused her of infidelities. He claimed she was a lesbian; he claimed she was having affairs with other officers. If you saw my mother–she looked like the Mama Mia pasta lady, five foot two and round. I mean, you wouldn’t look twice. But he always told her, ‘If you leave, I’ll find you; if I find you, I’ll kill you.'”
Evelyn Summers, of the 16th Police District, had been a sergeant for just a month when on January 19, 1989, “We got a call for a supervisor at the 7100 block of Highland at two or three in the morning. They needed a forced entry. Susan Milano was on the scene, but she couldn’t get in.
“We had to force the door open; we could see a body lying in the kitchen. It was Susan’s mother, with a towel over her face. She was lying on her back. We removed the towel; there was a bullet wound right over one eye. The bedroom door was locked. We found Mr. Murphy there; he had committed suicide.
“The father had been drinking. There was an empty quart bottle of vodka or gin–I think it was gin–in the living room. After he shot her, he probably couldn’t face up to what he did, which is why he covered her face with the towel. Then he sat in his room for a while before committing suicide.
“We took Susan to a neighbor and tried to calm her down. For us it was cut-and-dried–a homicide/suicide–but it was a rather depressing incident.”
Shortly after Milano attended her parents’ funerals, her father’s old partner stopped by to see her–but not to offer words of comfort. “He was interrogating me. ‘What made you come to the house at such an odd hour? Why were you suspicious? Your mother drove him to this. Poor Phil. Poor Phil. Poor Phil.'”
It’s a Friday, and one of her clients–Milano calls them “victims”–is due to testify in court against her abusive boyfriend. Milano is up at 5 AM, starts a pot of coffee, and grabs a quick shower while it’s brewing. She knocks back her first cup while reviewing the victim’s file–the detailed history of her situation, from as far back as the woman can remember it–and reacquainting herself with the domestic violence statute of the criminal code. She pores over the Trib, the Sun-Times, and USA Today, clipping this, underlining that, before getting dressed and getting her child out of bed.
She tries to get the preschooler fed, but it’s a losing battle this early in the morning; a box of juice will have to do. At 6:20 she gets a call from the security agency she works with; they’ll pick her client up at 8 and Milano right afterward. She drops her child off at the sitter, who lives nearby, and is picked up herself at 8:30.
Down at Domestic Violence Court, 1340 S. Michigan, the security procedures are on the odd side–briefcases and purses, however voluminous, are allowed in, but backpacks constitute contraband. The photocopied notices of what cases are assigned to what courtrooms appear to be written in code. The entry is cramped by the airport-style X-ray machines and metal detectors, but the stairway to the upper floors stands open and unguarded in front of the battery of machines. At 9:30 on a Friday morning in June, it all resembles a recently disturbed anthill.
The guards know Milano; she’s greeted with a smile instead of the ubiquitous public-servant scowl. She and her companions–a petite woman she’s assisting as advocate and two large male security officers in conservative dark suits and ties–are waved through security, and the guards turn in their weapons.
At this hour room 201, the courtroom of Judge Francis Gembala, is full, although Milano observes that “Mondays are the busy days–Fridays are pretty light in comparison.” Judge Gembala begins the day’s proceedings, and the first two couples are no-shows. The third, a swarthy man with a Greek name and a blond woman in a black miniskirt, have a brief consultation at the bench and return to their seats. Next is a small man in a blousy purple shirt who, in spite of all the cautions the judge can give, elects to represent himself in his trial for violating an order of protection. He receives his instructions and saunters out. There is a father-son domestic violence case; they’re told to sit down and wait to talk with the state’s attorney and public defender, respectively. The next woman has decided to drop the charges against her male companion, and they leave together. The complaining witnesses in the following two cases aren’t there; charges are dropped, and the men are free. There’s a wait for the next case: the defendant is being held in custody. Eventually, dressed in olive drab prison garb, flashy new sneakers, and handcuffs, he enters the courtroom and mumbles his answers to the judge. But his girlfriend says in a barely audible voice that she wants to drop charges. “These women who drop charges,” asserts Milano later, “they’ll be back.”
Finally the case of Ranardo Gilchrist is called, and Jones and Milano step up to the table. Linda Jones, a trim, pretty woman with a neat ponytail, is conservatively dressed in a navy blouse and skirt and low-heeled shoes. Milano, a grim expression on her face, hovers behind her.
Gilchrist is a strongly built man with a long, curly hairdo and a thick beard. He keeps his hands behind his back and his gaze fixed on an indeterminate point in front of him. According to Jones, he is not so much physically abusive as verbally abusive and prone to “detaining” her–deciding that he doesn’t want her to go to work and taking her keys, or removing the battery from her car, or changing the locks on the garage. But this has escalated to death threats against her and her coworkers; he’s even put a knife to her throat. “Each little bout is a little bit worse,” she says. “I’m sure the Dawn Wilson case started out with the verbal abuse, but kicking and bone breaking is how it ended up.” Gilchrist served 30 days in Cook County Jail in October. “It obviously didn’t deter him,” notes Jones. “Now he’s looking at some real time–maybe a couple of years.”
There is a stir at the bench; it seems there’s a problem. There are three charges outstanding against Gilchrist–violating an order of protection, assault, and criminal damage to property–but only two of them are in his folder. They’ll have to find the other one before they can proceed. “Pass,” says Gembala, and Gilchrist is taken out. Milano is fuming: that means the case has to be reviewed. They can’t do anything until Gilchrist talks with the public defender and Jones talks with the state’s attorney. This is the eighth time Gilchrist has violated an order of protection, and Gembala had promised that the next time Gilchrist came before him he’d be put away, period.
We wait some more. A young Latino woman is trying to get an extension of her order of protection. The clerk administers the oath: “Do you solemnly swear . . . ?” She responds, “Yeah.” Next up is a short, stocky, nervous blond woman in beachwear. The accused, her ex-fiance (“We never set a date, but we lived together for 12 years”), didn’t show up, but she’s tearful and fearful. She testifies to a long history of physical and verbal abuse, and the latest: “He beat the shit out of me–‘scuse my French–and said he would kill me.” She bolts the courtroom before she can collect her order of protection. Milano bolts after her and hands her a business card: “Call me if you have more problems.”
Where does Milano get her authority to act as an advocate for these women? “Under the Domestic Violence Act, women are allowed to have an advocate [in court],” she avers. “But I’ve earned my authority. For some reason, I’ve never been questioned; I’ve always been able just to go in and take over a case.”
The parade of unhappy women spilling the sordid details of their lives continues. “You can tell, just by looking at them as they come in, how bad off they are,” says Milano. She’s on familiar terms with the courtroom staff, chatting with them happily during a recess, sharing news. But she’s always tensed up; she never seems to relax even in casual conversation. Her gaze never loses its intensity. When the state’s attorney summons Jones into a conference room, Milano goes along as a matter of course; bodyguards and reporters are excluded. She disappears twice more for discussions, strategies, and bargaining sessions–and for a bite to eat; Milano is a diabetic, and she can’t go too long without a food fix. After a lunch break, the case is continued. (Gilchrist was eventually sentenced to 134 days at the Illinois Department of Corrections, plus one year’s probation.) Milano is disgusted, and it shows.
She’s dropped off at home at 3:15; she calls the sitter and asks her to keep her child until after dinner, then starts to return the 33 telephone calls that have accumulated in her absence. Milano hits the wires in earnest: She talks to John Corbett, lawyer to Dawn Wilson and several other clients; to the state’s attorney’s office; to the security agency. She makes several calls on behalf of the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women’s Network, an organization of which she’s a member; spends better than a half hour being interviewed by a newspaper reporter from Westchester County, New York; returns calls stemming from her appearance on Maury Povitch the week before; talks to a man who wants her to be a consultant on a movie; and sets up an appointment to talk to an abused woman in Du Page County.
When a quiet patch finally turns up in the thicket of calls, Milano makes a quick run to the sitter (“She really supports my work–I couldn’t do this without her”) and fetches her child for an hour of play and bath. Then it’s bedtime, and Milano is back on the telephone–another call on the Du Page case, making plans to meet with other victims over the weekend–until midnight. Still wound up, she settles down to watch a Bette Davis movie until 2:30. She grabs a couple of hours’ sleep, and then she’s up early again, facing the inconvenient realities of laundry and dishes and making and returning more telephone calls.
Later she confesses, “Friday I was on burnout–I can’t catch up sometimes. I don’t think I got five hours of sleep all last week. . . . I don’t know how long I can keep going like this.” Milano knows that she courts exhaustion by keeping this schedule. A vegetarian, she worries about “keeping my health and mind straight” but smokes a pack a day. “I don’t relax well,” she admits. “I’m a real nervous Nellie.” But she shows no signs of slowing down.
Milano was in mergers and acquisitions at a downtown firm before she was galvanized by her parents’ deaths. “When my parents died, I never went back to work. I gave it all up. I just dropped out of sight. I did the business for my mother; I wanted her to have financial security, and it didn’t mean anything when she died.”
Milano gave herself a year to “snap out of the zombielike state I was in.” Five weeks pregnant at the time of the deaths, she had horrible dreams about them for months, dreams she felt the pregnancy was magnifying, dreams of seeing her mother and father lying on slabs at the morgue. She couldn’t stop thinking about them, her mother in particular.
In that year, she says, she never showed emotion, and she began to lose touch with virtually everyone she knew: “Maybe I didn’t want to be reminded of the deaths–or confronted with them. I knew there was something out there for me to do, but I didn’t know what it was.”
In January of 1990, she decided it was time to do something constructive. She went to the Women & Children First bookstore in Andersonville and read every book they had on domestic violence. She visited battered women’s shelters; she met with people in the domestic violence community; she joined the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women’s Network, a group that tries to improve the response battered women and children get from the system–i.e., doctors, lawyers, police, the media.
She spent days in court watching and learning. She called attorneys to ask questions about the things she saw, and she didn’t worry about whether they were stupid questions. She asked questions of judges. She asked questions of women’s service providers. She read about the laws that applied to domestic violence cases. She called reporters and asked them questions.
She learned as she went along what worked and what didn’t work: “Mostly, I went by my gut.” Although she denies any obsession with the subject, she admits, “I was relentless. I did what I felt was right, and I worked to show the media I wasn’t just the flavor of the month.” She went on Oprah to talk about her own tragedy, but she also learned to talk about the tragedies of others.
Gradually, Milano–and the reporters, and the women’s advocates, and the lawyers, and the judges–came to realize that she was providing a real and needed service. It seems probable, even if she doesn’t express it that way, that she was working out her own trauma when she began. But she has long since moved beyond that; the cause of helping abused women has become her calling.
Milano, 34, has long red hair, long red nails, and on this particular day is wearing lots of gold jewelry, a black dress with gold embroidery, and heavy perfume. “I’m not a conventional feminist,” she says. But no one can deny her effectiveness in bringing the various issues of domestic violence to public attention. She’s direct, she’s to the point, and she’s got her facts down.
One of her first projects was to get the story of her mother’s suffering and murder made public, to force people to realize that abuse of police officers’ wives was occurring, virtually unchecked. She sent letters and certified copies of her parents’ death certificates (“I was passing out death certificates like they were business cards”) to writers, television reporters, and politicians–85 of them in all. The letter was a startling missive: several pages long, idiosyncratically written, and in all caps.
Milano proved to have a knack for getting publicity. A spate of stories about her parents’ relationship and their deaths hit the newspapers and airwaves in October 1990. Soon after that she began exercising her skills on behalf of other women, and on behalf of the Battered Women’s Network.
Much of Milano’s success is based on relationships she’s built up with the local news media. “People think that [dealing with] the media is [sending out] a press release, and that’s it,” observes Milano. “It takes relationships; it takes calling before morning assignments are given out. You don’t give ’em everything, so they’ll come to the press conference, but in a lot of ways I am like a reporter, packaging and documenting everything. I make it easy on the press.” Indeed she does–I received a thick binder full of clips, headed up by the ubiquitous death certificates.
“For many years domestic violence was not a public issue,” says Robin George of Channel Five. “Everybody–the media, the police, the courts–treated domestic violence as something less than a crime. We didn’t use to cover domestic violence; now we realize that murder in a household is just as much murder as anything else. And Susan has brought it out. . . . She’s a real facilitator or promoter, and I mean that in a nice way.”
Al Vaughters, a reporter for Channel 32, finds Milano “very trustworthy. That’s not always the case. When you’re doing news, you always have people who have points of view they advocate. Susan has a point of view, but she’s not going overboard to advocate it. . . . I’ve just found that whenever I need something on a domestic abuse case, I can dial up Susan and get somebody within minutes.”
A couple of reporters who deal regularly with issues of domestic violence say they find Milano a little too omnipresent. “I think there are other people out there–but Susan has a real knack of getting publicity, of bringing the issues to the forefront,” says one. “Other organizations will respond when asked.”
But Vaughters sees Milano’s high profile as necessary to the task. “As extensive as the [domestic violence agency] network is, I wish just a fraction of it could be as proactive as [Milano] is. More men need to be answerable for abusing their wives and girlfriends; even in 1993, some men still feel women are their property. We need to end that myth, and Susan is a tireless worker in that area. I don’t think she’s hogging the limelight. I think it’s just that [other potential spokespeople] think they can work quietly behind the scenes to get the job done. And in this day and age of media, the squeaky wheel gets the oil. You have to keep the pressure on. And Susan does.”
“Everybody’s waiting for the unthinkable; everybody’s waiting for the next Connie Chaney to die,” says Milano. (Chaney was shot to death March 17, 1992, by her estranged husband, Wayne, while he was out on bail pending trial for raping his wife at gunpoint.) “And Dawn Wilson would in my opinion have been the next one, back in October, if it hadn’t been for the media coverage. I think we would have read about her in the paper the next week. But I don’t want to read about another death with my coffee in the morning. I want to stop these deaths, and I think I have, because of the media.
“I never would have been where I am without the media. I hope they never go away–because without them, these women are going to die. And I tell them that every time.”
Milano got national exposure working on Wilson’s case. The numerous stories that appeared in newspapers, magazines, television, and radio detailed how Wilson’s ex-husband Christopher beat and stalked her, finally coming terrifyingly close to kicking her to death on June 10, 1991. For that assault he was sentenced to three years, of which he served 15 months. During this time he made threatening telephone calls and sent threatening letters to Wilson from prison, in violation of the still-standing order of protection. Upon his release last October he was immediately taken back into custody, this time for the letters and phone calls. He was finally released this May.
Dawn Wilson has been in hiding since he got out; he’s wearing an electronic monitor, but Wilson would prefer to take no chances. She credits the publicity with saving her life; by putting a spotlight on Christopher Wilson, it ensured that he wasn’t simply released to stalk her once again. Milano has been at Dawn Wilson’s side during the press conferences, talk shows, and interviews, mother-henning her to the point of acting as makeup, hair, and clothing consultant.
“She’s been there as support,” says Wilson. “That is the key to everything. It’s hard when I’m alone, and she knows the background, how it feels. It’s hard to explain what it’s like to someone without that background. Her being there to support me has made a big difference.”
Did Milano manipulate the news media? “Sure, she called the media a lot–she knows how it works. I probably wouldn’t have done any interviews without her, and he probably would have been released in October. But it’s never, ‘You have to, you have to.’ I turned down going on Oprah, ’cause I couldn’t talk about it anymore. I can only go on TV and say ‘He beat me’ so many times. And Susan understood.
“I tell her, ‘You need to rest.’ But she just keeps doing it, doing it, doing it. I think we need more people like her. I think there should be clones of Susan. It’s not like she’s a counselor–but when you need her, she’s there.”
Debra Burkhart had already had some press about her suffering at the hands of her abusive ex-boyfriend, Richard Luttrell, when she recently contacted Milano and asked for help. “I felt I wasn’t getting through the system by myself. I wish I’d met her when this first started.
“She went to court with me; she explained what was going on, and what I could do; she provided me with protection. She’s doing a lot–she’s risking her own life helping me and women like me.”
Luttrell recently went to court on charges of aggravated stalking. Defined as physically harming or confining a victim or violating an order of protection, aggravated stalking is a felony with a prison term of up to five years and a fine of up to $10,000. Luttrell was convicted but sentenced to just two years’ probation plus two years’ psychiatric counseling, reports Burkhart with disgust, “because it was a first-time felony. This is different than robbery. Judges don’t understand obsession; they don’t understand that lives are at stake. And the day after he got out, we started getting hang-up phone calls. They’re made from phone booths; you can hear the traffic going by. I can’t prove it’s him, but it’s funny that I didn’t get a single one while he was in jail, and the next day after he gets out, I get two. I screen my calls, but it’s not a very nice way to live.”
“A lot of women come to me for help, but they don’t want to go through with what it takes,” says Milano. “They think I can run in and save the day, but I can’t. I won’t help them unless they’re willing to fight the system.
“Before I will help them, they have to be ready to step forward. They can’t be wishy-washy. I put myself on the line, just as they’re out there. I’m not forcing them, I’m not telling them what to do, but they do have to be ready; they do have to make a decision.
“Some of them back out. A lot of them do. I tell them to go to programs; they don’t want to go. I’ll set things up, I’ll arrange for them to go to [Domestic Violence Court] to get an order of protection, and they won’t show up. I’ll arrange to have them picked up so they can get there, and they won’t go. They’re afraid.”
Perhaps her hardest job is trying to keep a distance between herself and the women she works with, for her own emotional well-being. “These women don’t know how to defuse the bomb when he comes home. They don’t have anyone to go to. Then they find me, and they want my help. They’re so pleased to speak with me, because I understand their problem, I can help them. And they want to build a bond with the person they’ve spilled their guts to, but I can’t have that. It’s not what I’m for; it’s what the programs are for. If I get emotionally attached in any way, how am I going to help the next person to come along?”
Robert Egan, deputy chief of special prosecutions for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, says domestic violence is an area with a lot of potential for burnout among attorneys. He’s worked with Milano several times, most notably on Wilson’s case.
“Susan is certainly very dedicated to what she does, and very conscientious, for very little if any reward. She’s a very easy person to deal with, and very eloquent in putting forth her side of the story. She doesn’t scream or make demands–she’s very rational. At the same time, she’s very loyal to her client.”
Susan Raef of the American Medical Association met Milano while working on a book on how to help victims of domestic violence; Milano read the first draft and helped her find some of her sources. “I’ve always admired people who aren’t afraid to stand up for what they believe in. Susan is very forthright; she sticks to the issues. She has got a laser focus on what’s important–the safety of women, and lifting the veil of silence.
“I think that the reason . . . she’s so successful . . . is that she identifies with these women. They know she understands, and is in a position to offer a ray of hope. Other people can sympathize–Susan can empathize.”
“There’s such a genuineness about what she’s doing,” says June Brown, a former staff attorney with Pro Bono Advocates, where the caseload is almost all domestic violence work. “She takes chances–she’s not task-oriented, she’s goal-oriented. She moves through the system and gets things done. Nothing is ever routine with Susan; she’s always as concerned as if it’s the first person she’s ever worked with.”
“She has the ability to get people’s attention,” says John Corbett. “I think that a lot of people in the state’s attorney’s office and a lot of the judges know who she is and listen to what she has to say. That’s helped many a victim. It’s too bad it takes all this to get justice done, but if that’s the system we have to live with, that’s the system we have to live with.”
“My first impression of Susan was that she was very interested in trying to ensure that what happened to her mother never happened to anyone else again–that she was trying to make sure attention was brought to the issue,” says Leslie Landis. Landis is executive director of Life Span, an agency that provides counseling and legal services for battered women, and a founding member of the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women’s Network. “At first, she wasn’t sure how to go about doing that; she was very enthusiastic, to be tactful about it–but when she first came in, she hadn’t fully dealt with her personal tragedy. With time, she’s come to see beyond it to the broader issue.”
Landis has known Milano since she first came on the scene. “Susan really goes into things in a very zealous kind of way. Once she becomes an advocate [for someone], she stays with her from beginning to end.”
Karin Mills, program services coordinator for the Constance Morris House, a shelter for abused women, says Milano was “very impatient–she wanted to come in and change everything. She had a different approach, because of her business background. . . . At first, I thought, “Who is this woman?’–but she’s just very committed. She has a vision, and pretty early on I began to trust that.”
Jeri Linas, executive director of the shelter and job-counseling service Rainbow House and another founder of the Battered Women’s Network, admires Milano’s ability to elicit donations–of everything from microwave ovens for women’s shelters to Whoopi Goldberg’s autograph for a benefit auction. “But her most valuable work is with the media. I see a total turnaround in attitude in the three years she’s been involved. I see a change in the way the media report family violence now–I’ve never in ten years seen the kind of attention they’re paying, whether it’s a special case or a protest march.
“Up until four or five years ago, domestic violence was treated with an attitude of ‘domestic squabble,’ ‘lovers’ triangle,’ ‘lovers’ spat,'” notes Linas. “Now they call it for what it is: violence against women. It’s newsworthy, where in the past I got the impression that it wasn’t newsworthy. And a lot of that is because Susan knows how to manipulate the press in a very effective way.”
Milano came up out of nowhere to assume a very high profile, and while there isn’t exactly resentment of her among the agency professionals she deals with, most of whom labor in obscurity, there’s at least a cultural clash. “She’s very good, very productive–and very independent,” says Landis. “When she wants to do something, she wants to do it right away. When you work in an agency, you have to worry about policies and procedures. Susan’s a free agent, so she’s moved ahead faster on some issues.”
“If there is resentment, [the resenters] are in sad shape,” adds Linas, who agrees that Milano’s lone-gunslinger style is better suited to working outside the bounds of the conventional agencies. “Where’s their focus? If the focus is to provide service to women and children, they have no business resenting her. . . . If they’re jealous, there’s no vision there.”
International Service Associates is a security agency, licensed and active in 16 states, that until very recently served only as a contractor for the federal government. The sole exception to the rule: a few months ago ISA started providing bodyguards–free of charge–for Milano and the women she works with.
Sam Rovetuso is the business agent for ISA, and his manner is flat, clipped, and just-the-facts-ma’am. “Dolores Juarez Hendrix, the president and CEO of ISA, had seen a number of items in the news on Dawn Wilson. Miss Hendrix instructed me to locate Miss Milano, and offer her our services on a pro bono basis for the women Miss Milano is working with.
“This is the only case ISA [is handling] outside the scope of the federal government. The overall situation of the stalking matter seems to have escalated without anyone offering any aid. We think, looking over some cases, that security was called for.”
Security services are expensive; this is quite a donation. “Miss Hendrix is very serious about it. We could not say enough about the value of Miss Milano. We will provide everything we can for Miss Milano and the women she’s working with, including protection for herself. It isn’t only stalking victims who have a problem–someone like Miss Milano, who puts herself in the line of fire, could be endangered by stalkers. She does not charge the women she helps, and we are not charging her.”
Rovetuso declines to say how many officers they provide, or for what kind of coverage: “We will provide adequate security.
“Frankly, we think this type of matter needs more public attention; it could help save the life of someone who is being stalked. Women seem to be at the bottom of some totem poles in some cases.”
It’s after ten at night; the Bulls have just won the championship, and the car horns being honked outside Milano’s windows are loud even over the phone. She sounds tired, but she’s still wound up. Christopher Wilson’s parole officer has been giving Dawn a hard time, she says, “riding her–‘Are you sure he’s the father?’ ‘Don’t you think Christopher has suffered enough?’ ‘You were sighted at a store the other day,’–and Dawn told her, ‘I have to live!'” Milano is worried that the electronic bracelet isn’t enough to keep Christopher where he belongs. The bracelets, it’s turning out, are pretty easy to evade, “and with everything on TV and in the papers about the damned bracelets, it’s like they’re saying, ‘Do it! Do it! Do it!’ And nobody, nobody, thinks about how Dawn’s supposed to live.”
It seems that no one thinks about how Susan is supposed to live, either. Being a full-time, unpaid advocate has been hard financially, particularly since Milano, who is separated from her husband, has a child to support. When we first met, in late February, she said rather wistfully, “I’m all on my own. I get paid by writing speeches, doing fund-raising, consulting, writing articles. It’s pretty hand-to-mouth. . . . I keep waiting for someone to come and say, ‘We’ll hire you.'” But none of the agencies seemed interested.
So recently Milano started her own pair of agencies: On Our Own handles the legal aspects–getting orders of protection, helping with divorces–and helps find emergency housing for domestic violence victims, particularly black women, in the neighborhood around Domestic Violence Court; Hear Our Cries is directed toward advocacy, protection services, and public awareness.
Milano, of course, will handle Hear Our Cries. June Brown has come to On Our Own to take care of the legal end, while Linda Jones manages the shelter and related services. (Both agencies can be reached at 435-1007 or 435-1008.)
And Milano is bubbling with ideas that seem, given her success and her growing profile, to be increasingly doable. “We’re going to get information about how to get help [for abused women] into doctors’ offices and laundromats and stores–like the tear-off sheets you see on buses. They advertise abortions and credit cards that way; why not protection?”
She wants to change the procedures at Domestic Violence Court so that defendants are automatically fingerprinted when they come in. “A lot of these guys are using aliases, or they’ve got long records, or they’re wanted for something else.” She wants the state’s attorney to provide more lawyers, to provide more help and explanation to the women who come in, often bruised and almost always bewildered.
She’s looking for both new laws concerning domestic violence and better enforcement of those currently on the books. For starters, she’d like to see convicted stalkers treated the same way other convicted felons are. If a felon who’s committed, say, armed robbery violates his parole, he’s returned to the slammer with his “good time” revoked and more time added to his sentence for good measure. And it’s a lot easier to get a repeat offender put away–even if his probation’s expired–than it is a first-timer.
“But if it’s a violation of an order of protection, the mechanism isn’t in place for the judge to send him back to the joint. Take the case of Debra Burkhart–if Richard Luttrell gets through his probation and starts [stalking her] again the next day, she’ll have to start all over–and it’ll be another year from her life. The law isn’t in place for people who know each other; I want to see the law extended to cover all crimes. There are also laws which could be used in domestic violence cases but aren’t. Home invasion is a Class Four felony, but the state’s attorneys don’t use it in cases of domestic violence, although they could.”
Can she turn the system around? “I think I have already–but only when I’m standing there. Right now it takes me walking into a courtroom to make some of these [judges and attorneys] do the right thing. But, yeah, I think I can turn it around. Within two years, I hope to turn this whole thing on its butt.”
After all, she observes, it’s not so long ago that drunk driving was treated essentially as a prank despite the tragedies it caused. But “domestic violence is still looked at as a joke. If he violates an order of protection, why does she have to go through so much? If he’s violated it, he should go to jail–and that’s that. It’s not happening now, it’s not happening nearly enough. But I think it’s going to happen.”
Milano has developed the same access to politicians as she has to news media, and she thinks that will help in raising courtroom consciousness. She likes Cook County state’s attorney Jack O’Malley, who returns calls promptly and sees that things are taken care of. She thinks O’Malley’s Du Page County counterpart, Jack Ryan, desperately needs to take some lessons from him. And, she says, Illinois attorney general Roland Burris “needs to understand the issues a little better.”
Has she given any thought to going into politics herself? “No. . . . I have no desire to run for office. Besides, I am a politician now, if that’s the way you want to look at it–working as an advocate, holding public office for women’s lives. I’m doing more right now than any regular politician can do.”
Does she have a burnout problem, encountering domestic tragedies and legal travesties on a daily basis? “I have lived these women’s lives for two years, day in and day out–and that is a lot. And the problem will always be there. I’m not experiencing burnout, but I’ve gotten so wrapped up in these women’s lives, and I would make myself sick over it when things didn’t go right. I’m so wrapped up in this; I don’t get to vent, I don’t get to talk about anything but this. It’s like I’m married to this.
“I gave myself five years to change the way this problem is perceived. I’m going to change the way everybody sees this stuff. The victim has so few rights. They make these women jump through hoops. He’s the one who’s committing a crime–and she’s the one who has to prove her endangerment 24 hours a day. A marriage license is not a lifetime title of ownership, and it’s past time that every segment of our society understood that.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Meredith.