Dawn’s Promise: A Survivor Fights to Erase Domestic Violence

At her Lazarus Laser Center, Dawn Maestas erases the emotionally scarring tattoos of her clients. She’s also pushing for a program to ensure that restraining orders are respected by domestic violence offenders.
— Photo by Wes Naman, courtesy of Local IQ

By Margaret Wright

— In Albuquerque’s South Valley, at the back of a small, bilingual clinic, the Lazarus Laser Center office sees about 20 clients every day. Most are simply eager to endure the quick but painful laser removal of unwanted body hair or tattoo ink. But others have a more grave purpose.

Center owner Dawn Maestas warmly greets a woman dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, her long brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. “You’ve been on my mind a lot,” Maestas says. “How are you doing?”

Things have been especially rough, replies Eva. (Her name has been changed in this story to protect her identity.) One of her close girlfriends died from injuries inflicted by her partner. Another good friend is in a coma after a severe instance of domestic violence.

Maestas enfolds Eva in a hug. Herself a survivor of domestic violence, Maestas spends her time outside the office designing a program intended to increase safety for other victims.

“It’s like you’re living in a war zone,” she tells Eva. “I think of those women as fallen soldiers.”

Eva sits on the exam table and rolls down the top flap of her jeans, exposing a man’s name inked across her hip. She got it for her ex-boyfriend. “I’ve had two major abusers in my life,” she says, eyes downcast, “and this one was a guy that I thought I’d be with forever. He scared the shit out of me, but he wanted my name on him and his name on me.”

While he was in jail, she got back together with an ex, who was also abusive. He broke her ribs and cracked her cheekbone. Eva says she finally felt ready to start over after seeking help from the nonprofit S.A.F.E House.

Maestas, whose arm is tattooed top to bottom with black roses, pulls a pair of dark glasses over her face and switches on the laser machine. She uses the pronged device to deftly trace the ink outline of the man’s name.

“Thank you,” says Eva when it’s done. She wipes away fresh tears, her voice barely more than a whisper, and hugs Maestas again. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

One of the Lucky Ones

Many women like Eva land in Maestas’ office. She says they come because she understands what they’re going through.

The abuse and neglect Maestas suffered as a child at the hands of her immediate family set the stage for her own long history of violent relationships. She met her first boyfriend when she was 14-years-old. She knows now the warning signs of his behavior were typical: the charm offensive, the process of separating her from friends and family.

“That’s when you see the triggers of the violence starting to take place,” Maestas says, “because who can you confide in? You’ve been disconnected.”

The physical and psychological abuse that riddled her first relationship was only the beginning. Maestas was 36-years-old with four kids by the time she finally escaped her last violent partner. Over the years, she’s been spat at, bitten, punched, kicked, left on the side of the road. She’s had ribs, fingers and bones in her face broken. She’s survived a blow to the head so severe that it triggered long-term grand mal seizures.

There are only a few ways that domestic violence ends, says Maestas. The victim might try to stay and survive, enduring terror and isolation. She might finally kill her abuser and end up in prison. Or she’ll turn up dead. It’s just luck, says Maestas, when a victim gets out and doesn’t go back again.

Starting Here at Home

As one of the lucky ones, Maestas says she’s haunted by the knowledge that her story could easily have ended with death or incarceration. Her experiences spur her to speak out and work toward large-scale changes to eradicate domestic violence.

Drawing on the resources of Alianza, a national network of Latino anti-domestic violence activists, and working in partnership with retired detective Greg Cunningham, Maestas has developed a program called Dawn’s Promise. Its aim is to keep victims safer and to improve and integrate community responses to domestic violence.

Dawn’s Promise calls for data-driven, 24-hour monitoring of restraining order violations. Both victims and offenders would be fitted with GPS tracking devices designed to look like normal bracelets. The bracelets, connected remotely to a monitoring center, offer something paper restraining orders can’t: better enforcement and accountability. Restraining orders as they function now, Maestas says, offer little protection.

The GPS and a panic button would give the victim extra security and a chance at more of a normal life, she says. Meanwhile, real-time tracking of offenders would help ensure they comply with court orders. The program would help eliminate the problem of “he-said, she-said,” says Maestas, by giving “unbiased, third-party, real-time data to the court system.” It could also serve as a tool for law enforcement, allowing officers to build their cases against stalkers and repeat abusers with data-driven evidence.

Now that the program proposal has been drafted, Maestas has reached out to officials at the county level, along with her contacts at Alianza, for help getting policymakers on board. She says she’d feel especially proud if Dawn’s Promise takes first root in New Mexico.

“This is a behavior issue, and we need to start making people with this behavior more accountable. It’s kind of like a DUI,” she adds. “If you don’t want to get an interlock in your car, don’t drink and drive. Let’s make it the offender’s choice whether they commit to good behavior or not.”

*This article originally appeared on Page 5 of Local iQ.

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