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Defying The Odds, A Young Woman Recovers From A Childhood Police Trauma

Cheryl Gerber

Dominique Newton is a college sophomore. She’s only 20, but she’s already been through a lot. These days, she’s majoring in political science, with a minor in creative writing. Last time we got together, she was in the middle of writing a 10-page play, and also toting around some comic books.

“My backpack is Marvels,” explains Dominique.  “I can debate you all day about Marvels versus DC, and then I can debate you about who’s more powerful: Superman or Batman.”

It’s your typical superhero controversy.

“Didn’t Batman have sort of a hard upbringing?” I ask. 

“Yes! His parents died,” Dominique explains. “He often would have flashbacks about their death.  Cause he watched it happen. They were shot and killed.  And then – when he was younger – he also fell into a bat cave, and he was attacked by a bunch of bats.”

Dominique goes through Batman’s whole biography.

“When he got older, he decided to fight crime because he wanted to stop what happened to his parents to happening to like someone else’s parents.  And he was like: what would I call myself? And he remembered the time when he got attacked by bats was another traumatic experience for him, and that’s why he called himself Batman.”

Dominique has had her fair share of trauma too.  We’ll get into that in a minute.  But first about trauma: experts say even a single traumatic event can have long-term consequences.   

“Children who have been traumatized, you know on the one side we know that there’s a great deal of risk to their ongoing mental health and emotional development,” says Torin Sanders, a licensed clinical social worker.

“But there’s also something on the other side that’s lesser known,” continues Sanders. “They’re calling it now post-traumatic growth. Part of post-traumatic growth can be summarized with the Batman story.” 

Social workers call positive-growth-from-trauma the Batman Syndrome.  So, back to Batman, and his guardian, Alfred.

“He learned how to fight from his butler, Alfred,” explains Dominique.  

“Something tragic had happened in his family,” says Sanders, “and so his response was to become a crime fighter as a part of his own emotional way of handling what had happened in his own life.”

“Little people know this but his butler was a special ops agent before he was a butler,” explains Dominique.  “That’s why the parents hired him, to like protect him just in case something happened to them.”  

“You find that definitely people who become helpers – not necessarily superheroes – but that that’s definitely a motivating factor and a way to try to integrate the trauma that happened and help to resolve it over time,” explains Sanders.

“A lot of stuff happened for Batman to be Batman,” says Dominique.

And a lot of stuff happened for Dominique to be Dominique.  

Dominique was eight when Katrina hit. She and her four siblings moved with their mom to Shreveport, then Houston, then back to Shreveport. Her parents were split up, so the five kids stayed with their mom, who was struggling with untreated bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, Dominique says. She couldn’t keep a steady job. A lot of times the family was homeless. And all of this fell on the oldest, then sixteen-year-old Dominique.

“So like I had like a lot of stress on me cause I knew all about the bills and what we needed to pay,” says Dominique. “But then I also had to do my homework, and help them with their homework, and cook dinner, make sure they have showers.  I was like the second mom cause my mom wasn’t able to do anything.  She would just stay in her room, all day, and I would do everything.” 

When Dominique’s mom did go out, she racked up a lot of parking tickets. Speeding tickets too. She barely had enough money to make rent and electricity, and remember, she wasn’t mentally well, so those traffic tickets didn’t get paid. 

Months went by and then one day, a fight broke out in the Shreveport trailer park where Dominique and her family were living. 

Dominique says the police came after the fight was over, and “started asking questions and taking people’s names down.”

This included Dominique’s mom, who had been out there watching with everyone else.

“They started running people’s names in the computer system,” says Dominique, “and they realized my mom had a warrant for her arrest.”  

All those unpaid traffic tickets.  What happened next -- in front of Dominique, her sister, her brother, and the nine-year-old twins-- is seared into Dominique’s memory.  An officer walked up to Dominique’s mom and said: We have a warrant for your arrest.Dominique’s mom said, For what?

“She was slammed against the hood of the police car,” recalls Dominique. “They put her head down and handcuffed her.  I was like: what’s going on?I went into panic mode: like I had to make sure the kids were all right.”

Dominique says it was sudden and rough.

“My little sisters they was like crying and screaming,” recalls Dominique. “Like, ‘Stop taking our mom! Don’t take our mom!’

“It was hard to watch and I tried to stay strong at the same, but I’m still a child too. I’m seeing my mom get handcuffed.” 

Dominique got no help from the police that day. In fact, she says the officers just left.  Leaving the kids to fend for themselves.

“They didn’t even ask, Do you have someone to watch your children? They just put her in the car and left.”

Dominique called her grandmother, and her aunt was able to come spend the night with them.  But it was scary to be so alone. 

“Any child would be affected by wondering about the consistency of their own care as a result of that,” says social worker Torin Sanders.

“There’s a stress and a trauma because one, your caretaker is being removed from you.” And two, “when there’s excessive use of force by police, when an authority figure violates the child’s perception of what is fair, then you have multiple levels of trauma.” 

“I did a little research on this,” I tell Dominique. “Some common things that happen to young people when they see their parent arrested are: depression, stress, lack of sleep, defiance, shame. Do any of those things resonate for you?”  

“I know stress,” Dominique answers.  “I was really stressed during that time cause I didn’t know what to do. Like, what if my mom stays in there for a long time? Do I have to drop out of school? Do I have to get a job?  Do I have to provide for them since my mom’s gone?”

According to The National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, kids who have experienced trauma may view themselves as powerless, learning to operate in permanent survivalmode: living moment to moment without being able to think about the future.

The Shreveport Police had no comment about the conduct of their officers or the arrest itself. And the police report about the arrest doesn’t mention children being present on the scene, which a Shreveport Police spokeswoman says isn’t unusual. Unless children are the victims of a crime, their presence isn’t noted. 

Dominique now lives with her dad in New Orleans, where the Police Department acknowledges thatseeing a parent arrestedcan cause long-term physical and psychological harm. Lieutenant Jonette Williams of the NOPD says the department’s policy is to minimize this trauma. 

“Officers are instructed, whenever reasonably possible, we’re going to take all reasonable steps that we can take to possibly remove the child from situation before that arrest takes place,” says Lieutenant Williams.

Lieutenant Williams says that sometimes there’s no way to make an arrest without children present. But before officers leave, they must make sure someone is caring for any children on the scene. 

“If that parent is able maybe to reassure the child, we want to have that happen,” says Lieutenant Williams. “If that can’t happen, of course, we as officers, we’re going to reassure that child: everything is okay: we just have to go to the police station to talk. Is there a toy or something maybe nearby that you would like? Can I give you a Teddy bear?”

NOPD officers keep stuffed animals in their cars just for these occasions.

Dominique says after her mom was arrested, she and her siblingsreconnected with their dad and went to live with him. Dominique finished high school and graduated valedictorian. Which opened up a scholarship to Xavier University, where she’s thriving.  

I asked Dominique what would have happened if the police hadn’t arrested her mom.

“I told my dad this. We had a conversation,” Dominique recounts. “If I didn’t move with him, I probably be at home, taking care of my siblings still, having a job, a nine to five, not living my life at all. Probably regretting everything in my life, saying I didn’t have a childhood. Like, I just really thought I wasn’t going to college.”

Against a lot of odds, things turned out well for Dominique. Still, she wishes that she and her siblings hadn’t seen their mom being treated like that, like a criminal. 

And, at the same time, Dominique somehow has found a way to be grateful for that very thing: for what her siblings saw. 

“I was happy for them to see that African Americans still get oppressed, and the police force isn’t always really nice to people and they should look out for that in the future.”

“You were happy that they saw that oppression because that’s something they needed to know for life?” I ask.

“Yes,” says Dominique. “I think if you learn stuff like that when you’re young, it’ll help you better when you’re older. Like you would know how to handle that situation.”

“That goes back to that Batman response,” says social worker Torin Sanders. “Because that’s a very post-traumatic growth way of looking at it. This was a bad experience but what can I learn from it? That’s wonderful that she can frame it in that way, as opposed to where many people would just focus on the bitterness of the experience.”

Sanders says, unfortunately, Dominique is very much the exception. In fact, the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies has found that New Orleans children suffer from trauma at a rate four times the national average. Often, multiple traumas stack up, like they did in Dominique’s life: poverty, mental illness, homelessness. Sometimes it can seem hopeless.

Four years ago, an adult came into Dominique’s life who helped her shift from raising herself and her siblings, to being a successful college student. Her Alfred is her dad. For other kids, it might be a coach, teacher, neighbor – even a kind police officer. Not every child will become the Caped Crusader, but research has repeatedly shown that a bond with one "competent, caring adult" is what kids like Dominique need to fight for a happy ending.

“Do you see yourself in Batman, kinda?” I ask Dominique.

“Yeah, um-hmm, and he was my least favorite superhero.” Dominique laughs. “Oh my god, now I got to rethink this.”

Unprisoned’s theme music is by Greg Schatz. Our editors are Katy Reckdahl  and Viki Merrick . Our producer is Gianna Chachere. Hear the entire first season of Unprisoned and see Cheryl Gerber’s gorgeous photographs at unprisoned.org.  Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes or Stitcher.

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