×

What Becky Lost, Part 2: Despite Having Knowledge of Her Abuse, State Failed to Intervene

  • Rebecca Dunbar speaks to an economic services division counselor at the Vermont Agency of Human Resources in White River Junction, Vt., on Oct. 19, 2018. Dunbar was applying for fuel assistance at the state agency. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Rebecca Dunbar calls a taxi for a ride back home after filling out an application for fuel assistance at economic services in at the Vermont Agency of Human Resources in White River Junction, Vt., on Oct. 19, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Rebecca Dunbar keeps a close eye on the monitor when in the checkout line when doing her grocery shopping in West Lebanon, N.H., on Oct., 19 2018. Dunbar shops with a binder of coupons she collects to help save money when buying food. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Rebecca Dunbar steps off the bus with a load of groceries in West Lebanon, N.H. on Oct. 19, 2018. With no car, Dunbar uses the bus to get back and forth from the store to her home in White River Junction, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Rebecca Dunbar has her vital signs checked by medical assistant Kim Porter before an appointment at Bradford Psychiatric Associates in White River Junction, Vt., on Oct. 25, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, December 29, 2018

White River Junction — When the crisis-line phone rang, Karen Lipinczyk answered, not knowing what to expect.

It was the winter of 2014, “one of those terrible 25-degree-below nights,” and it was Lipinczyk’s first time staffing the line at WISE, the Lebanon-based group that provides support for victims of gender-based violence.

The caller reported that a woman had been hurt. For those on the front lines of domestic violence, the tragedy of a battered woman happens so routinely that the routine itself is tragic.

But for Lipinczyk, it was a new experience.

Under established protocol, the victim (women are 18 times as likely as men to report being assaulted) is encouraged to visit the police station to request a restraining order. Helping the victim take that first important step is one of the many functions advocates provide in the immediate aftermath of violence.

Soon, Lipinczyk was standing outside an apartment with a police officer. It seemed like a long time before the door opened, and when it did, Lipinczyk saw a 37-year-old woman, her teeth broken and her face smeared with blood, with an eye swelling shut.

But the woman was uncowed.

“She was super-angry,” Lipinczyk said, “which is kind of normal for Rebecca.”

Rebecca Dunbar’s anger, both in the moment, and in general, is understandable. At the age of 6, she had been removed from an abusive home by New Hampshire’s Division for Children, Youth and Families, known as DCYF. But that had only made things worse: While in the state’s care, she was shuttled repeatedly from one bad situation to another and sexually assaulted multiple times.

As a result, Dunbar grew up with a deep distrust of the state authorities who had failed to protect her. She also eventually was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression that at times drove her to resort to violence against herself and others.

Abby Tassel, senior program adviser at WISE, has worked with thousands of women, including Dunbar, over her 24 years with the organization.

Of all of the negative consequences of childhood abuse, Tassel said, the worst may be the physical changes wrought on the brain, which is at a critical stage of development.

“The environment is teaching the organism what it needs to survive,” she said.

When someone like Dunbar grows up in a violent environment, without the presence of an adult who can be trusted, her brain adapts, creating a mental state that can be unsuited for safer environments, like classrooms.

“You need to be on high alert because you don’t know where the next violent act is going to come from. Then you’re going to always kind of be looking around for who’s going to hurt you next,” Tassel said. “This is not a choice you’re making. This is who you are. It’s hard-wired.”

That biological adaptation has long-lasting impacts that limit opportunities to thrive. The moment she was abused by a caregiver, Dunbar became less likely to succeed in school and in the workforce, according to various academic studies that correlate childhood abuse with poor educational outcomes. That, combined with her distrust of institutions, made her less likely to be independent. That set the stage for further tragedy.

“There’s definitely a link between childhood sexual abuse and later abuse,” Tassel said. “There’s just an expectation that people are going to be abusive to you. ... Also, abusers will target someone. They’re looking for people who are vulnerable.”

Indeed, Dunbar continued to be targeted as an adult. Though she suffered a lot of sexual violence, not all the violence she suffered was sexual.

Within minutes of meeting the battered Dunbar, Lipinczyk was faced with a dilemma. She wanted to help Dunbar get a restraining order, but according to protocol, she was not supposed to transport clients in her personal car while conducting WISE business.

Lipinczyk took another look at Dunbar, whose broken teeth were from earlier encounters with Wayne Beede, her boyfriend at the time and the man who had assaulted her that night.

“I began to see that this was a really broken woman who needed all kinds of different supports,” Lipinczyk said.

The decision wasn’t hard.

“I broke the rules on my first call-out,” she said. “It was vital that I be by her side. And she did get the temporary order.”

Though the #MeToo movement has brought accountability to hundreds of high-profile executives and celebrities for sexual harassment and assault, it has meant little to the much larger number of women in less visible situations. For them, fear still reigns, and perpetrators of domestic violence rarely are brought to justice.

Retired Circuit Court Judge Albert Cirone Jr., who adjudicated multiple cases involving Dunbar, said there’s a whole world and culture within the Upper Valley that is largely invisible.

“This area, for New Hampshire, has some level of affluence that’s not seen in the vast majority of the state. ... Most people don’t socialize with people who are having those kinds of troubles,” Cirone said. “So, consequently, you have this idea that everything is wonderful in the Upper Valley and we don’t have homelessness, or children who don’t get to play with other children because they’re so desperate and struggling. That kind of thing has always struck me.”

The evidence of the system’s failures is fairly straightforward — surveys suggest that most cases of domestic violence go unreported, and criminal justice data shows that even the reported cases rarely result in convictions.

A total of 7,944 New Hampshire adult women (and 603 adult men) were the victims of reported domestic assault in 2015, according to the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

Surveys suggest that a much larger number of cases go unreported, with about 23 percent, or 113,000 New Hampshire women, having experienced sexual assault during their lifetime.

And another study found that, of 344 instances of reports of sexual assault to police in 2006, only 13 resulted in criminal convictions.

Tassel said that, though the #MeToo movement has been a positive force, it hasn’t accomplished anything to keep women like Dunbar safe.

“The #MeToo movement has been very focused on, I think, higher socioeconomic status women and sexual violence in the workplace and often one-time kind of sexual assaults. Those are horrible. ... But it is certainly not opening the door to people who have experienced violence early in life and all the way through to be talking about that in the same way.”

Dunbar currently is in an on-again, off-again relationship with Nick Cole. They had been together for a year when he was charged with assaulting her in 2014. Dunbar said she had suffered a PTSD-related flashback that stemmed from her childhood of abuse, and as a result she asserts she mistakenly filed the assault charge against Cole. Though Dunbar said she worked with the help of a medical professional to submit statements recanting her initial testimony, Cole eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault, with a penalty of time served, because, he said, he didn’t want to remain in jail waiting for a trial.

“All I can tell you is, every relationship I’ve been in (other than the one with Cole) wasn’t good. Not very good,” said Dunbar, who seems to have spent her life trading in slightly different versions of the wrong guy. Her romances have nearly always involved violence.

“And the worst one was with Wayne,” she said, referencing Beede, the man who assaulted her on the day Lipinczyk met her. “I almost died from that one.”

Abuse

Dunbar met Beede around 2009, and she said there was no violence between them before they moved in together.

“He didn’t show nothing like that. Until we got the place together and nobody was there and I kind of figured that would happen because that always happens,” she said. “They show you kindness and that they love you. Blah blah blah, it’s supposed to be a white picket fence and dah dah dah. And that wasn’t the case again. Because six months after we moved in together, that’s when the true colors came out.”

One of the first times he hit her was in a car he was driving through Lebanon, headed back home from Newport, while they were arguing over something unimportant. Dunbar said she grabbed the steering wheel, trying to make the car swerve to attract the attention of police, but it didn’t work.

“So I got beat on,” she said.

In June 2010, Dunbar heard that Beede had cheated on her. When she confronted him about it in their apartment bedroom, he leapt upon her, grabbed her by the throat and began to squeeze.

“He had my back, my shoulders off the bed, my whole body on the bed,” she said. “So it was like, I couldn’t try. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t try to get myself back up.”

Dunbar said she tried to scratch him, but to little effect. She pounded on the wall to attract attention, and he let go with one hand to pull her hand back. She kicked at the wall with her foot instead.

Dunbar’s female cousin responded and attacked Beede from behind. He let go.

“It wasn’t good,” Dunbar said. “That was the worst relationship I’ve ever been in.”

Dunbar said she didn’t feel like she could report the violence because she knew that Beede, who was a firefighter, had a good relationship with local and state police officers.

“They all get along,” she said. “So I’m not taking that chance, and then I get hurt even worse.”

And because they lived together, she felt she had no way to get away from him.

Counselors told her it wasn’t her fault.

“Because I was abused so much in my childhood, I was just used to it, so I go down the same line,” she said. “That’s what everyone tells me. Well, not everyone — professionals, that’s what they state.”

Escape

The violence came, always, when they were alone.

And in the aftermath it was a woman, always, who tried to help.

Tiffany Kangas, 41, of White River Junction, has been Dunbar’s friend since they were kids.

“She was always someone you could talk to about things,” Kangas said. “When I wanted stuff, she was always there for me.”

Dunbar’s experiences resonate with Kangas, who has faced many of the same challenges herself.

“I had to sleep on the street in a tent,” Kangas said.

And so, in 2012, when Dunbar asked Kangas to come with her to find new housing so she could get away from Beede, Kangas agreed.

“It was right after she had an altercation with him,” she said. “He threw her against a coffee table and knocked all her teeth out. I was there the day after. I saw the coffee table and teeth and blood all over.”

They used a U-Haul to pack Dunbar’s possessions into a storage locker, and Kangas drove with Dunbar from Bradford, Vt., down to White River Junction. Dunbar said that DCYF — which was tasked with supporting her efforts to reunify with her three children — told her they would arrange for her to access emergency housing through contacts at nonprofits, including WISE.

But court records indicate that WISE was unable to help Dunbar find housing because it did not serve Bradford. Dunbar, who was required legally to reside in the state of Vermont under probation conditions for an assault charge, also was limited in where she could go.

“They would not help her,” Kangas said. She said she drove with Dunbar to White River Junction three times to find housing.

Dunbar said she felt caught in a no-win situation. She was told that she couldn’t get emergency housing until she reported Beede’s violence, but she worried that the housing wouldn’t materialize, and that he would take it as another reason to hurt her.

“I tried so many times to get out of that relationship,” Dunbar said. “It felt like I was going to die.”

In late 2012, Dunbar finally nailed down an apartment on VA Cutoff Road in White River Junction.

“I was still with him, but I was kind of nerve-wracked on how to get rid of him, because he would keep coming down here,” Dunbar said.

Beede and Dunbar continued to talk and see each other off and on for years.

“For whatever reason, she allowed him back in her life,” Lipinczyk said. “I think that’s a very common story we see in women who have been abused and alone and are afraid and broken, is that men in particular who were not helpful seem to return at certain vulnerable points.”

Finally, Dunbar told Beede that it was over, and she began seeing Cole. But Beede persisted.

“Basically he came down here to have sex with me,” Dunbar said. “I had told him no, it ain’t happening. I have an old man.”

But before long, Beede showed up on her doorstep. She let him inside.

“I told him ‘No, I’m in love with Nick.’ As soon as I said that, he busted my eye. Like, did a short jab.”

Dunbar waited until Beede went to the bathroom and called 911 on her cellphone.

“The cops were there in minutes,” she said. “That’s when I met Karen at WISE.”

Open Secrets

Beede’s habitual violence against Dunbar was not a secret to the state institutions that are entrusted with protecting the most vulnerable residents from assault.

In fact, the state of New Hampshire was well aware of Beede’s predatory relationship with Dunbar. During 2013 court proceedings about Dunbar’s custodial rights of her three children, the Lancaster Family Court and DCYF described Beede’s abuse in some detail.

In June 2010, the court noted, “there was a physical altercation in which Mr. Beede choked Ms. Dunbar.”

In another section, the court noted, “Throughout the relationship, Mr. Beede was abusive to Ms. Dunbar. As a result of two separate assaultive incidents, Mr. Beede caused Ms. Dunbar to lose three of her front teeth.”

It also noted that the boyfriend she’d had before Beede “physically assaulted her in front of her children.”

“In fact,” the court wrote, “it appears that Ms. Dunbar has never been in a relationship with a man who did not physically and mentally abuse her, including her ex-husband, Harry Daisey, Sr.”

But the court had little interest in protecting Dunbar from that violence. Instead, it counted the fact that she was being beaten as a reason to prevent her from being with her children.

Lipinczyk said there’s a kind of irony at work with battered women like Dunbar.

Every time the system fails to prevent or resolve a case of abuse, Dunbar becomes more wounded, more angry and less able to trust the institutions that could help her.

“Part of what happens with survivors is trust is completely dissolved and there isn’t any,” Lipinczyk said. “Becky’s not easy. Her anger and her language and her short trigger gets in the way.”

But Lipinczyk said she’s been able to advocate for Dunbar by keeping her history in mind, and trying to focus on the issue of the moment.

“I was able to just kind of look beyond all of that and say, what’s the crisis she’s dealing with now. Often it’s housing. It’s money. When she’s been offered jobs, there’s transportation issues. All the issues that you always hear about in rural areas, but worse.”

A Broken System

New Hampshire has two avenues for addressing domestic violence — the Department of Health and Human Services, which is meant to provide aid to the victim, and the criminal justice system, which is meant to punish the abuser.

Neither works particularly well, Lipinczyk said.

“Our system is not working, but to put a system in place that does work we have to dismantle what has been and pour a ton of money into what could be and that’s not happening,” Lipinczyk said. “It’s labor-intensive work that needs to be done. It’s about poverty. Violence. Patriarchy.”

Tassel said one obstacle is that people within those systems often are not adequately trained to tailor their interactions to a trauma survivor — the routine bureaucratic dance in which piles of forms are handed to the victim, and the standard law enforcement officer’s questioning of the victim, are seen as uncaring or even hostile.

“If the systems are setting out to help people who have grown up in the most difficult circumstances, you would hope the systems are not making those mistakes, but in fact the systems and the people in those systems are making those mistakes all the time,” Tassel said.

She said people in social services need the latitude to develop a relationship with clients, so interactions feel personal.

And, Tassel said, investigators should reframe their approach to recognize that trauma survivors may not have perfectly organized chronological memories of the events.

Pressing for concrete details, like “how long was he on top of you,” can put the victim on the defensive, and be less effective than more open-ended questions.

“As soon as someone starts asking all of these questions, some people drop out,” Tassel said.

Tassel said investigators should rely on a broader array of evidence that doesn’t rely wholly on the victim’s recollection. And even when criminal charges are brought, she said, abused women run up against another obstacle — the slowness of the legal system tests the resolve of the victim, who may have a complicated, entangled relationship with her abuser.

“Defense attorneys use a tactic, to just string it along forever,” Tassel said. “Often, during that process, the victim is feeling like people in the community are blaming them for it. Defense attorneys know the victim will lose their patience.”

Tassel said that, though there are conversations within the legal community that recognize this problem, no solution has been offered that doesn’t threaten to undercut the ability of the accused to mount a full legal defense.

Tassel said another problem is that the one tool in place to help abusers address their behavior — Domestic Violence Accountability Programs, which are offered at places including the Clara Martin Center — often are passed over, because defense attorneys and their clients typically fight against that as a condition of plea agreements.

Cirone said state politics partially are to blame for a lack of preventive supports.

“The state of New Hampshire has never thrown a lot of money at the social services to address the problem at the outset, rather than when a person is 45 years old,” he said.

But Cirone, like other experts, said the system is at least trending in the right direction.

“In my time on the bench, I’ve watched drug courts materialize,” he said. “I’ve watched mental health courts materialize. It’s important for the systems to adapt and understand that there are certain groups that may have specific unique issues.”

Such systems require a lot of resources — seed money and a core of volunteers and professionals, he said.

“Then, you had a shot at truly servicing some people and turning their lives around.”

Tassel said that only after she began working as an advocate for victims of domestic abuse did long-standing, close friends begin to tell her their stories.

Though the problem is pervasive, it is made all but invisible by cultural attitudes that prevent open discussion and accountability for abusive behavior.

Tassel said that those who want to help women like Dunbar can be sensitive to the possibility that it is likely they already know other victims.

“Bring up the subject, and believe people when they tell you about their personal experiences,” Tassel said. “Be open to hearing them, and be supportive.”

After surviving a childhood of repeated sexual assault, and decades of domestic violence at the hands of men, Dunbar had a poor relationship with the state institutions that failed to protect her from those evils. But, for her, the worst was yet to come.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com.