For two years, Doris Rivera-Black kept the fact that her husband was abusing her a secret for fear of risking her career. As a new deputy with El Paso County Sheriff’s Office working in the jail, Rivera-Black was afraid she’d be ostracized or even fired.
“I thought they would think I wouldn’t be capable of doing my job if I came forward,” she says. “I had aspirations of being a patrol cop and I thought, ‘How are they going to trust me to respond to domestic violence calls if I myself am in this situation?’”
Like many abusers, Rivera-Black’s husband was charismatic and put on a loving outward appearance. He charmed her academy classmates with donuts and small talk. The impromptu visits escalated after graduation.
“He’d show up at work and drop off flowers or a meal for me,” she says. “By this time, I was getting kind of sick of it. Other people thought it was so wonderful, and would say, ‘You have the best husband.’ But I knew he was checking up on me.”
Soon the interrogations about who Rivera-Black had worked with and whether or not she was interested in her co-workers romantically began. Then came the threats and sexual abuse.
“We’d argue in the bedroom, and he’d rip the covers off of me,” she says. “If that didn’t work, he would turn on the TV real high so I couldn’t sleep. If I didn’t listen to him, he’d grab a knife and stick it to his throat and threaten suicide. He did that often.”
Still, Rivera-Black didn’t know she was being abused.
“In the academy, you go through a class on DV, but it’s about how to respond to the call and how to stay safe doing it,” she says. “It’s not about the dynamics of domestic violence, and so I never really understood what it was. I just thought I was in a bad marriage.”
So Rivera-Black hid what was going on from her co-workers. Meanwhile, she was excelling professionally.
“I was doing really good at my job,” she says. “I had just become the only female on an all-male tactical team. I’m small, but I was able to defend myself very well. When I wore that uniform, I had this strength. But when I got home, I was the total opposite. He would manipulate me and I did not know how to handle that.”
“But He Never Hits Me”
Finally, the incessant phone calls at work tipped off one of Rivera-Black’s co-workers.
“Someone noticed he would constantly call me at work and asked what was going on,” she says. “I confided in her and she said, ‘Doris, this is abuse.’
I said, ‘But he never hits me.’ She said, ‘It doesn’t matter.’”
That was enough to open Rivera-Black’s eyes to the gravity of the situation, and she decided to confide in her superiors. Fortunately, the reception she received was warm and supportive.
“I told my chain of command, ‘I don’t know what he’s going to do. I don’t trust him. I feel like he’s going to try and get me in trouble at work,’” she says.
After consulting a local domestic violence advocate, Rivera-Black put together a safety and exit plan. She told her husband he needed to go and stay with his mother and, after he left, she had the locks changed. She was granted an order of protection and there was no communication between them for a week.
“On June 26, 2006, my sergeant and lieutenant pulled me into their office before I went home,” Rivera-Black says. “They said they were concerned. They told me to pay attention, be aware. ‘We have seen these things go really bad.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry about it. He hasn’t contacted me. I think he’s out of my life. He’s not going to try anything stupid.’”
Rivera-Black’s husband was waiting for her in her driveway that night. He kidnapped her at gunpoint, drove her to a remote part of the state and raped her. Rivera-Black thought she was going to die. But she outsmarted him, stealing his truck and driving it to safety. He was arrested the next day.
The case went to court, but it was Rivera-Black who felt like the one on trial.
“My career came into play,” she says. “They asked me questions like, ‘Why wouldn’t you use your law enforcement training in that scenario?’”
Her work family, fortunately, was largely supportive.
“I had a lot of great support from my agency,” she says. “There were a couple of individuals who Monday-morning quarterbacked and asked how I got into that situation, but not many.”
Protecting Your Career
Law enforcement isn’t the only career that makes it difficult to come forward as a survivor. In fact, 22 percent of survivors lost their jobs due to abuse in their personal lives. What steps can you take to protect your job?
Check your state laws. Only 14 states have laws pertaining to domestic violence and the workplace. Find out what your state says about taking time off to deal with the effects of DV, such as doctor appointments and court dates. Not having a law on the books about domestic violence and job protection shouldn’t dissuade you from disclosing, but having this information ahead of time will help you prepare for next steps.
Document the abuse. Some states require you show proof of domestic violence to your employer in order to qualify for protection under the law. Get copies of all police reports, court orders and medical records in case you need them. If the abuse was non-physical, talk to an advocate—they may be able to back up your account in writing, giving your employer more concrete proof.
Confide in your employer. If you feel comfortable, consider telling your employer what’s going on. Employers are more likely to excuse absences and drops in performance when they know there is a legitimate reason for them.
When possible, stick to policy. Absenteeism is an often-cited reason for termination. If you have to miss work because of domestic violence, try to give the appropriate notice.
Seek legal action against discrimination. If you feel you’ve been wrongfully terminated due to domestic violence, contact an attorney or legal advocate, and reach out to your union, if you have one.
If domestic violence forces you to make a career change or you simply want to take this opportunity to try something new, check out “Starting Fresh with a Career Swap.” And for more tips on staying safe at work, read “On the Clock: How to Protect Yourself at Work.”