Should a woman really need a photo of her black eye to convince the world her husband beat her?
That’s the question furious activists were posing on Friday amid the scandal surrounding former White House staff secretary Rob Porter. The Trump administration had downplayed claims of abuse by his two ex-wives until one posted the photo of her bruises on Twitter.
“If there had been no picture, would this not be true?” asked Debra Robbin, executive director of Jane Doe Inc., the Massachusetts Coalition against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence.
“These people who are in powerful roles, protected by other powerful people, constantly get the benefit of the doubt — until a photo emerges,” said Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership, who was involved in founding the first domestic violence shelter in the Framingham area.
A similar pattern played out in 2014, when the National Football League lightly penalized Baltimore Ravens’ player Ray Rice for accusations of beating his fiancee in a casino elevator. It wasn’t until surveillance video of the punch emerged seven months later that he was indefinitely suspended from the NFL.
But coming, as it did, on the heels of the #MeToo movement — as women around the world revealed the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment by sharing their own experiences — advocates hoped that this painful episode would at least prove instructive.
“We have the opportunity for a national teach-in about gender-based violence,” said Robbin. “I actually think these conversations are very important to have. It is about ending the silence.”
In many ways, the Porter story could provide a textbook lesson, they say. A clean-cut aide to the president, Porter was rallied around by men in power when the claims against him emerged publicly.
“It’s incredibly discouraging to see such a vile attack on such a decent man,” said US Senator Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican for whom Porter previously worked. Hatch’s initial statement derided “the politically motivated, morally bankrupt character assassins that would attempt to sully a man’s good name.”
The knee-jerk defense from colleagues didn’t surprise some advocates for victims of domestic violence.
The world resists the notion that someone “who could be upstanding and likable and a good person in the work world could come home and beat the hell out of his wife,” said Rikleen.
“What we are seeing is this in its largest form,” Rikleen added. “This man clearly is a very high-functioning, well-regarded professional, and no one wants to believe that he can inflict violence at home. And watching the reactions of people who insist on protecting him rather than displaying the degree of empathy they should be displaying for the victims is appalling.”
But activists noted that abusers rarely display violence in the workplace: Men who beat their wives typically reserve their rage for home.
“The hallmark of a batterer is that people don’t know they’re a batterer,” said Robbin. “They’re not out there being violent on other people. They’re different when they go home.”
Still, some employers choose to terminate or discipline employees charged with domestic abuse, out of concern for the company’s values, or even fellow employees’ safety, said Denise Murphy, vice president of the Massachusetts Bar Association and a partner at Rubin and Rudman who works in employment law defense.
“I think employers as a rule try very hard to make sure that their employees are kept safe,” Murphy said. “Oftentimes, if they’re concerned that safety is an issue, they will take action against the employee that they believe may be a threat.”
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has had a zero-tolerance policy for domestic violence since Governor Paul Cellucci was in office in 1997. Though it doesn’t demand termination — and many state employees have union protections — it allows for employees to be disciplined or fired for domestic violence or stalking, wherever it occurs.
Massachusetts is an at-will employment state and workers can be fired at any time for any reason, including allegations of domestic violence, said Murphy.
Someone applying for a position that requires the public trust — say, a teacher or a paramedic — could be denied a position based on even suspicion of violence, said Linda A. Seabrook, general counsel and director of legal programs for Futures Without Violence, a nonprofit that develops campaigns and training programs to change social norms and end violence.
But advocates don’t expect everyone accused of assault to be fired from their jobs.
“Banishment is not necessarily the answer either,” said Robbin. “People go on and they repeat this.”
What they want is treatment and accountability. The Porter case exhibited the exact opposite, said Robbin. He was hired, promoted, and protected by the administration, even after his ex-wives reported their claims to the FBI, she noted.
“People who knew about it didn’t do anything,” said Robbin. “Did anyone ever say to him, ‘This is not OK’ ?”