This Seattle woman says the courts barely protect her from domestic violence
Domestic violence impacts more than 10 million people nationally each year. This is one woman's account of the challenges she faced as she navigated a system intended to protect her and her child.
lexandra Kattar was in her toddler's room when she typed "What is domestic violence" into her phone.
She knew something was wrong with her marriage when, on a camping trip three months earlier in 2018, her husband had become angry after their 16-month-old daughter became fussy, Kattar said, and sped home at more than 100 miles per hour with her, and the baby in back.
But it wasn’t until he took her passport away, locking it in a safe she couldn't access, that she realized how dangerous the relationship had become, she said.
“The only thing that kept me safe in that relationship was the fact that I thought, ‘I can always just leave,’” she said.
In her online reading, Kattar learned about the domestic violence power-and-control wheel and recognized her husband’s behaviors: Isolation, intimidation, coercion and threats, emotional and economic abuse, male privilege, minimizing, blaming — and using their child to further the abuse.
She had been in denial about the abuse; after all, her ex had never hurt her physically.
“The image in my mind was a man who beat his wife, and he never hit me,” Kattar said. “He threw things at me, and he broke my things, and he slammed the door on me. But he didn't beat me.”
Kattar is one of about 10 million people in the U.S. a year who find themselves in an abusive relationship. While some survivors escape the abuse through the courts, advocates and lawyers say some abusers use the system to continue their abuse.
Kattar, who is white, said that despite having advantages from her position of racial and class privilege, she hasn’t found meaningful relief from her abuser.
“Because I have legal custody of our daughter, he will always have the right to know where I live,” she said. “Because I’m a public school teacher, he will always have the right to know where I work.”
“Because I can never really leave my abuser,” Kattar said, her ex-husband has the ability to continue to harass her.
Court records show that Kattar’s ex-husband has acknowledged that he is a domestic violence offender. But he said he believes it’s time for them to both move on.
“I take accountability for my actions,” he said recently, speaking to KUOW on condition that he not be named.
“Alexandra has continued to stay riveted in this one moment of time," he continued, "to be able to fuel the story and continue to perpetuate me as somebody that lives only in these very narrow three months, that that defines who I am. That is not who I am.”
He denied that he locked away her passport. He said they created the code to the safe together, that he never changed it, and that Kattar must have forgotten an additional step to opening the safe.
n November 12, 2018, Kattar left with nothing but her baby and a diaper bag; she filed for a domestic violence protection order three days later. The divorce was finalized a year later, in January 2020.
Kattar thought it was the end of a nightmare, but even with the intervention of the court system, the harassment persisted, she said. It’s a trend cited by attorneys and domestic violence advocates who say the court can become the vehicle for abuse.
“The system is supposed to be set up to protect them, and in some ways does,” said Monica Chin, Kattar’s attorney. “But in some ways, it makes them very vulnerable.”
Chin said that judges may give domestic violence perpetrators benefit of the doubt, despite evidence their accusers bring forward.
“[Abusers] create enough of a question mark just by lying — kind of throwing anything … against the wall to see what sticks,” she said. “Victims of domestic violence will end up losing custody of their kid because the perpetrator will use the court process to continue to abuse them and harass them.”
Kattar said her ex-husband has used threats of litigation, frivolous court filings, and disagreements over their parenting plan as a means of control.
In January 2021, a new state law took effect allowing victims to ask the court to order their perpetrators to stop filing baseless court motions, also known as abusive litigation, in Washington.
Maybe a domestic violence victim didn’t send an email regarding a child’s medical appointment at the correct time, Chin said, as an example. The mistake becomes an “I got you” moment, and the abuser uses the courts to continue to harass his victim, she said.
“They will wear their victim down to a nub,” she said.
Kattar’s ex-husband has used tactics determined by King County Superior Court to be “consistent with abusive use of conflict,” under the pretext of complying with their parenting plan.
For instance, her ex-husband once refused to meet Kattar at their established child exchange location, citing her pending move and their parenting plan’s stipulation that the location be equidistant from both parties. This act, among others, resulted in him being found in contempt of court in May.
Kattar’s ex-husband participated in a domestic violence offender rehabilitation program for two years. He maintains that he took the program seriously and made an earnest effort to complete it.
However, he was dismissed from the program before completing it, after coordinators determined he had been out of compliance on three occasions: Once for his conduct toward Kattar’s sister during an exchange, once for trying to compel Kattar to meet him at a location not in their parenting plan for a custodial exchange, and once for not properly disclosing his new address.
He said that Kattar and her supporters baited him into noncompliance with the domestic violence treatment program.
“Every time you fight, people say ... that you're not taking accountability, that you're not seeing what's happening, that you're not trying,” he told KUOW.
Kattar’s gold Mercedes has been vandalized three times since they separated. She believes he is to blame, even though there is no evidence Kattar’s ex-husband was responsible for the vandalism, and he denies any involvement.
She filed police reports each time. One time was when her tires were slashed at home, before she was to hand over their daughter at a QFC grocery store.
Kattar said that her ex-husband has used their daughter to communicate unnerving messages to her.
Her daughter, she said, would return from visits with her father, “saying things like, ‘Daddy really likes your pictures on match.com.”
Her ex-husband told KUOW that he knew about her dating profile because a friend sent screenshots of it to him and jokingly asked if he’d be okay with him dating Kattar.
“I'll be honest, it kind of made me happy,” he said. “I want her to be happy and move on … my reaction to her being on Match was great.”
Writing to the King County Superior Court in 2020, Kattar said that she believed her ex-husband could physically hurt her.
“I have installed expensive security systems and have changed my routines and behaviors because of this fear,” she wrote. “I got a dog and periodically sleep in [my daughter’s] room with a phone in my hand. I have written a legal will because I fear [my ex-husband could] kill me.”
Kattar said court-ordered protection doesn’t take her out of harm’s way, but it communicates clear boundaries to her ex-husband about how he can and can’t legally engage with her. She said she hoped the threat of arrest would be a deterrent.
During their divorce, Chin, Kattar’s attorney, said she uncovered a protection order against Kattar’s ex-husband, granted to his previous wife after they separated and he broke into the home they had rented together in the late 1990s. He told KUOW that was the result of a misunderstanding with the landlord.
Kattar was granted sole decision-making power for her daughter’s education, health, and extracurriculars by the court. Her ex-husband must defer to her in that regard. As of September 1, he is allowed to have professionally supervised visitation with their daughter twice per week. He pays for the supervision.
rior to researching domestic violence, Kattar said, she didn’t know that abuse included coercion and control, in addition to physical abuse, which includes destroying or hitting inanimate objects during arguments.
Often stories of people killed by current or former partners make headlines, rather than stories of domestic violence in its more insidious forms. Domestic violence encompasses not only direct physical harm, but threats of violence, manipulation, and control.
A lack of awareness of how domestic violence presents is what Sanetta Hunter, a domestic violence advocate for King County of 27 years, encountered during a conversation with preteen girls attending middle school four years ago. It was shocking, she said, to hear what some of them thought were healthy relationship behaviors.
Hunter queried the girls about a hypothetical situation: If your boyfriend called you 30 times before you arrived at school in the morning, what does that mean?
“He loves me,” one student said. “He’s concerned about me.”
“No,” Hunter said. “He’s stalking you. He’s checking up on you. He’s trying to control you.”
This experience stuck with Hunter. Once at a conference, she heard a woman share the horrific domestic violence situation she was in. Hunter believed that if someone had explained to her as a teen what was healthy and normal behavior within a relationship, she could have avoided the abuse.
“It's so important that we really, really, really take a deep dive into some prevention work,” Hunter said.
Advocates point out that legal definitions of domestic violence have not yet caught up with this more modern understanding that it includes harm that isn’t purely physical.
Coercive control, for example, describes behaviors intended to control another person through means such as economic abuse, birth control sabotage, and other ways abusers assert power over their victims.
This year, the Washington State Legislature passed a bill aimed at streamlining protection orders in the state. The law, which takes effect in 2022, originally contained language that would have updated the definition of domestic violence to include coercive control. But that language was ultimately scrapped from the bill before the law was passed.
This doesn’t surprise Evangeline Stratton, a senior managing attorney for Family Violence Appellate Project in Seattle, who said public policy has been historically slow to reflect changing societal views on domestic violence.
In the 1960s and 1970s, when the Battered Women’s Movement of the 20th century was underway, there were no shelters for survivors, and the police were rarely called on domestic violence, she said. And there was no sense of urgency from a policy perspective, given that domestic violence was viewed as a personal matter, she said.
Stratton said that Washington state was one of the first places in the U.S. to get domestic violence policy right by enacting the Domestic Violence Prevention Act in 1984.
“[Legislators] were like, ‘The reason we're doing this is because it's not just a personal problem — this is a societal problem. It has impact far and wide,” Stratton said.
Stratton also said that as time goes on, more people are becoming open to the idea that “the best way to protect all of us as a society is to expand this definition,” particularly by including coercive control.
he coronavirus pandemic has made domestic violence situations more dire for many survivors, who have been forced to remain home, locked up with their abusers.
Additionally, going through court processes has only gotten more daunting for many people during Covid, in the time of Zoom hearings.
“To say that it's been a nightmare to navigate the court system during the pandemic is an understatement,” Kattar said.
David Martin, chair of the Domestic Violence Unit at the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office, said in 2020, King County saw an all-time high of domestic violence felony cases, an increase of 10% from the year prior.
This growth was also seen on the national level.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline saw a 9% increase in phone calls and messages in 2020. Ninety percent of those who contacted the hotline reported experiencing emotional and/or verbal abuse, and 61% said they were being physically harmed, according to a report on data collected by the hotline.
Martin said that domestic violence should concern all of us, considering there is often a connection between violence in the home and violence in the world at large.
“Domestic violence is not just the thing that happens behind closed doors between somebody who was abusive and a victim,” Martin said. “That violence is really a driver of violent crime in a community.”
Martin pointed to a risk assessment tool used by the Washington State Department of Corrections. “That tool has told us that a prior conviction for domestic violence is one of the leading risk factors for violent crime, and is the leading risk factor for crime — period,” he said.
King County has collected data on the wider impact of intimate partner violence on violent deaths. Those numbers show an increase in 2020 in domestic violence violent deaths from years prior — an increase not seen since the mid-2000s.
Martin said that when you control for population, the county is still safer than it was years ago. But the increase in fatal domestic violence still gives him pause.
For her part, Alexandra Kattar said the journey through healing hasn’t been easy. In addition to the emotional toll, she has spent thousands on therapy, legal services, and safety equipment.
This experience has made her stronger, she said, and has led to her finding support among other survivors.
“As I’ve opened up to others about my own experience with domestic violence, I’m surprised at how common and similar my personal experiences are to others’ — mostly women — I’ve spoken with,” Kattar said. “It has made me feel this kind of affinity for others who have experienced what I have.”
But it’s also been terrifying.
“I have lost countless nights of sleep,” she said. “I had to leave everything I owned behind and absolutely rebuild my life.
“The person I'm most concerned with is my really young child and helping her to navigate the fact that this is her dad.”