Taking Care of Our Own — All of Them

So Many Things Went Wrong and Ended Tragically on the 154

This is what happens when our community doesn’t take care of our own, and when a justice system doesn’t believe survivors of a stalker. The recent article in the Independent provided insight into John Dungan’s case and the tragic aftermath of the auto accident on the 154 last week. It also missed some larger contextual issues.

To Santa Barbara: We all could have done better. To the Santa Barbara court system: Shame on you. May that shame stay with you until we see legitimate changes to promote trauma-informed processes.

Let’s take a step back and challenge the systems that brought us here. If we limit ourselves to viewing this as one mishap in a normally functioning system, we are denying ourselves the opportunity to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Fixing the 154 is a great start. So is fixing our justice system. If the court had believed the survivors when they told them they were afraid and that John was dangerous, we wouldn’t be here. If only the survivors were clued in to the court’s process, or were responded to in a timely fashion by fatigued victim witness advocates, or listened to when they repeatedly told of the dangers they felt and the danger they knew John to present to the community at large, Ms. Bley and her children might still be alive, and John might be getting the treatment he needs.

We need to take stock of the way in which the court system dehumanizes survivors by distancing them as the survivors attempt to engage with a system intended to protect them.

We need to address the failure of the system to provide John the mental-health treatment he needed, and the routine checkups that should have been in place had folks listened to our regular pleas in court and in emails that he be extremely closely monitored. We need to address the folks surrounding John’s case: people in pretrial services, victim witness advocates, the district attorney, the defense attorney, the judge, and the detectives. John’s fate, and, in turn, the fate of Ms. Bley and her children, were negotiated in a setting where mental-health practitioners from two opposing sides deemed John to be in two completely different mental states.

Their fates were negotiated in a way that was not communicated effectively to the survivor. This grave miscalculation has its foundation in a court system’s unwillingness to take survivors seriously and instead to view them as overreacting, pestering, or causing a mild annoyance with their questions.

Throughout John’s case, we had real concerns that were met with a sentiment that the court couldn’t do anything because John had rights, and that the crimes he committed didn’t meet a threshold that warranted more severe action. John didn’t commit a mass murder with the weaponry he had, and stalking carries an unbelievably light sentence.  These rights directly caused the deaths of others, and the compounding sense that the survivor will have to look behind her back for the rest of John’s life.

Throughout this process there was a part of me, often silenced by the fear, that hoped John would make it out of this situation a better man. The system denied him that chance, denied Ms. Bley and her children that chance, and denied the survivor that chance. We will be stuck in this for a while. And that’s okay. We need to start a conversation about how we treat survivors in the system, about how we treat young men who are radicalized to commit violence, about how we treat mental health, and about how we monitor and assess the risks to our community.

When asking for information from pretrial services about the extent of a perpetrator’s monitoring, survivors should not be given vague answers. They should be given clear information on exclusion zones, when they’re violated, and the chain of communication that happens thereafter. There should never be a suggestion from the person charged with monitoring a perpetrator’s GPS that he doesn’t know the parameters of that monitoring system. We asked for specifics, we clarified when there were questions, we did our research, and we weren’t believed. We did everything we were asked to, and more.

We can understand the depths of sorrow and tragedy that this incident brings to light and the negligence that it demonstrates. We can also embrace the complexities of it. I want to address that John has people who love him, for whom these last few months must have been a continual nightmare. My heart aches for them. My heart also aches for Ms. Bley’s family, and for the survivor and others directly impacted. No one escaped this situation unharmed. And we could have done better.

The Santa Barbara District Attorney’s office’s blatant disregard for our concerns and for the well-being of this community led to these deaths. Throughout this process, I often wondered if there would be a point in our future, after a tragedy in Santa Barbara, where we would be looking back on this exact court process and wishing we had done more. We are at that point.

In this case, the survivor did everything she knew to do. She advocated for herself and voiced her valuable opinion, but it feel on deaf ears. One thing that is paramount here: Survivors deserve the right to tell their own story. Let’s be mindful that this isn’t headline news for everyone: It’s the survivor’s reality, it’s John’s family’s reality, and it’s Ms. Bley’s family’s reality.

As a community, let’s examine our own justice system. Let’s consider the depth of pain caused by their missteps. Let’s be compassionate and believe survivors. Let’s seek out positive, progressive justice. Let’s demand that the court system follow protocol, humanize those involved, and hold themselves accountable to their own mistakes.

The writer of this op-ed is related to the survivor referenced here and requested anonymity for them both.


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