Forgiveness is a key component of healing from abuse and achieving a successful life. And lawsuits can be an alternative to prison sentences, speakers told a Restorative Justice (RJ) Symposium at San Quentin State Prison.
Guest speaker Tracy Sovereign spoke of forgiving an abusive father, who never apologized. She was followed by Esquire Tia Katrina Taruc Canlas, who advocates suing men who commit acts of domestic violence as an alternative to incarceration.
“I feel … there’s a way that men can be healed in so many directions,” Sovereign said in the prison’s Catholic Chapel before an audience of almost 35 community members and more than 150 incarcerated men. “I just found out my dad was abused. So if we can break that … cycle, we can all heal.”
Sovereign opened with a gospel song.
Then she described a father who took corporal punishment way too far. The beatings started when she was five She said he beat her without mercy, leaving welts, bruises and a busted lip. They escalated to pulling a gun on her over bringing home bad grades, shooting it into a mattress to let her know he was serious and then hitting her over the head with a 2×4.
When her brother, 10 years younger, turned seven, the beatings started on him too. While getting beaten together, the two would cry in the corner.
“They say hate begets hate, hurt begets hurt,” Sovereign said. “I remember screaming we weren’t going to do this to our kids. I know in my heart that love is abound.”
At 16 years old, Sovereign moved out. By 17 she was pregnant and had a baby at 18.
On her 25th birthday, her dad knocked on the door. When her mother answered, he beat her in front of Sovereign’s two sons. Then he called Sovereign over and hit her over the eye with a gun, and said, “I should shoot you in front of your kids. You betrayed me,” according to Sovereign.
With the gun pressed against her forehead, Sovereign prayed out loud. She noticed her father’s face change.
“That wasn’t the man who was supposed to love me,” Sovereign said. She never stopped loving her father. Deep down she knew there was a reason for the way he acted although she didn’t know what it was.
“If we can break that…cycle, we can all heal”
“He never apologized,” Sovereign said. “I didn’t need the apology. Something in me could not hate him. I had already accepted that everything was OK. My healing came from God.”
After healing, she moved on with her life. She has taught dance and sings and she has a bakery business. Her husband is a worship pastor, and they have three kids who are all successful. Her brother’s kids are also successful.
Two years ago, the 51-year old learned from her grandmother that her father also was abused as a child.
“To know his story will help you know your story,” Sovereign said. “With my dad I found out he’s from a generation of abusers … so it was a cycle. We broke that cycle. Now I’m working with my dad to help him release it.”
Sovereign now has an excellent relationship with her dad, who is a church bishop and helps kids get scholarships.
Taruc Canlas began her story with an explanation of why an attorney who sues people stood before the podium at the restorative justice symposium.
“I am a supporter of criminal justice reform,” said Taruc Canlas, executive director and co-founder of the Alipato Project, an organization dedicated to suing domestic violence perpetrators.
“The reason why I do this is because there are better ways to address harm than prison,” Taruc Canlas said. “It doesn’t actually help the victim when somebody they love goes to prison. As an alternative to prison, we sue them.”
She said at the Oct. 14 event that domestic violence is about control. Men use “gaslighting” (convincing the victim that she is crazy and nothing happened) and financial control as power dynamics. Control dynamics keep women in bad relationships far too long.
Taruc Canlas saw firsthand that financial power dynamics kept her mother in an abusive relationship. Her mother, who barely spoke English, moved from the Philippines to marry someone in the states. Her livelihood and visa required staying married. Grandfather Alipato provided Taruc Canlas’ mother a way out of the abusive relationship. He moved her to another state.
Taruc Canlas believes that while a controlling power dynamic exists, RJ mediation doesn’t work. Getting abused partners to a space where they’re safe and everything is funded sets the stage for restorative justice. So she sues for medical expenses, moving bills, lost wages and moving-on money.
Her pilot program achieved success in four out of five cases. Two settled, two won default judgments (where the defendant doesn’t contest the lawsuit) and one lost a jury trial.
Rose Elizondo, co-founder of the North Oakland Restorative Justice Council, took a few minutes to honor one of the first members of the Restorative Justice Group at San Quentin – Robin Guillen. After serving about 40 years, a parole board found him suitable for release.
“My name is Robin, and I’m a peacemaker,” Guillen said. “It’s a hard, tiring walk, especially in these iron houses. You don’t give up. One thing they can’t take away from you: your attitude, how you think about things, your mind. All my relations thank you.”
“When Tracy tells her walk … it’s inspiring,” Guillen said. “Tia … It’s women who come in here and share that assists us in making the changes.”