MONROE — Maddy Brockert left home at 16.
She had to choose between sharing a house with her mother’s boyfriend — a man with a history of domestic violence — and going somewhere safe.
Susan Brockert, 44, helped carry her daughter’s belongings to her ex-husband’s house.
“She dropped off a sweatshirt and said ‘I love you,’ ” Maddy Brockert said. “That was the last time I saw her.”
Susan Brockert was beaten to death on the night of May 23, 2011. Her boyfriend was sentenced to life in prison.
Maddy Brockert is now 22. She graduated from college in the spring. Over the last six years, she has shared her mother’s story and helped others who found themselves in a similar situation.
As a teen, Maddy Brockert didn’t understand why her mother stayed in a relationship that cost her so much.
Advocates with Domestic Violence Services of Snohomish County say the answer isn’t simple.
“Why don’t they leave? … The question should be, What are the barriers keeping them there?” said Laura Mulholland, a legal advocacy manager with Domestic Violence Services.
The Everett-based nonprofit serves domestic-violence survivors and their families. Its youth center bears Susan Brockert’s name. The organization’s services, including housing and support groups, target those things that can keep people from escaping abusive partners.
The nonprofit also protects people when they do leave.
Jacoba Ramirez-Rodriguez, 34, had endured the physical abuse and anger for years. The Monroe woman decided to divorce her husband in 2013.
She asked a judge to order her husband to leave her alone.
Officers in Monroe offered to deliver the court papers, but Ramirez-Rodriguez wanted to do it herself.
Two days later, her husband bought a kitchen knife and went to the restaurant they had owned in downtown. He stabbed her 19 times as she tried to hand him the protection order.
Ramirez-Rodriguez died about a week later.
Monroe police detective Barry Hatch said officers typically receive several domestic-violence calls a day. After Ramirez-Rodriguez’s death, dozens of people gathered outside of a church in town with candles to honor her and other victims of domestic violence. They prayed and sang songs.
“For every one Jacoba, there are hundreds of other victims who are suffering through the same thing,” Hatch said.
The Monroe Police Department brought a domestic-violence legal advocate on board about two years ago. Barbara del Mar Robles with Domestic Violence Services contracts with the police department. She is stationed at the precinct every Monday and Wednesday.
In 2016, officers in Monroe investigated 138 cases related to domestic violence. Nearly 200 were logged the year before.
Robles reaches out to people they meet in those investigations, and offers help. She walks them through what may be an unfamiliar legal process, including how to petition for a protection order. She eases the transition into an emergency shelter or supportive housing. Robles also stands with survivors in court so they don’t feel alone.
Policing domestic violence
Domestic violence was not always policed.
Early on, advocacy and law enforcement organizations operated independently. Many police departments now are welcoming advocates to their staffs.
Before Monroe police contracted for a domestic-violence advocate, a chaplain took on those duties in addition to law enforcement responsibilities, which sometimes drew her away from the station.
“That’s the biggest difference. (Robles) is physically here,” said Debbie Willis, a Monroe Police Department spokeswoman.
Robles has been invited to speak at meetings with officers. They identify clues to watch out for and how they can help others in their capacity as police. She has noticed more officers referring cases to her, even if the possibility of violence is just a hunch.
“A lot of unhealthy dating relationships have been normalized,” Mulholland said. “It’s making it harder to reach out.”
Not all signs of domestic violence are apparent.
Susan Brockert was athletic and stood 6 feet tall. After meeting Philip “Howie” Zimmerman, she began skipping her weekly softball games.
Tuesdays instead became date night.
The couple, who had met online in 2009, sat down at a table in a pub one November evening. Zimmerman ordered a beer and she got iced tea. Maddy Brockert remembers Zimmerman getting “out of control” while drinking.
“He got mad that she didn’t want a drink,” she said.
They left before they cracked open the menus.
Susan Brockert took Maddy to dinner elsewhere that night. While they ate at Olive Garden, her mother’s phone was bombarded with text messages. The landline repeatedly rang when they returned home. They yanked the cord out of the jack to make it stop.
Susan Brockert walked into her daughter’s room later that night. She instructed her to stay inside with the door locked. Something about Zimmerman’s messages had worried her. The teen soon heard pounding at the front door and peeked outside. Her mother’s belongings were burning in the front yard.
A judge approved a protection order the next day.
Susan Brockert promised her kids that Zimmerman wouldn’t hurt them.
A brief silence
The Brockert home quieted down, but not for long.
The couple began talking again about two weeks later. Zimmerman agreed to couple’s therapy. Susan Brockert seemed hopeful.
She believed he could change, Maddy Brockert said. Time has helped her realize it may have been more complicated than that.
“I think she was scared. She was 44 with two kids,” Maddy Brockert said. “I don’t think she wanted to start over.”
It was guilt, too, she said. Zimmerman was in the middle of a messy divorce at the time. He reportedly blamed Susan Brockert for the subsequent falling out with his own family.
It wasn’t until after her mother died that Maddy Brockert found out he was making threats.
By January 2011, Zimmerman moved into their house.
The 16-year-old told her mom she didn’t feel safe at home anymore. Something had to change.
“She said, ‘Then go,’ ” Maddy Brockert said. “Even after she died, that was really hard for me because I felt like she chose him over me.”
“Mom, be careful”
Susan Brockert was rewarded by her company with a trip to Hawaii to celebrate 15 years on the job.
She worked for BDA, Inc., an advertising agency based in Woodinville. Zimmerman and some of her co-workers tagged along for the island get-away.
Maddy Brockert’s younger brother overheard an argument the night before the couple’s flight.
The 10-year-old recognized something was wrong. Before his mother left for the airport, he told her, “Mom, be careful.”
Before long, Maddy Brockert’s father visited her at high school. He told her Susan Brockert was dead.
The teen asked: “Did Howie do it?”
Zimmerman beat Susan Brockert in their hotel room. Co-workers heard screams, but hotel employees couldn’t break down the door in time.
BDA, Inc. donated money to name the youth center in Everett after Susan Brockert.
A safe space
Many Monroe families settled in the bucolic town after immigrating north.
The local police department and elementary school launched their own Spanish-language programs. Frank Wagner Elementary is the only school in Snohomish County that offers a program where kids learn to speak, read and write in two languages. Teachers also lead classes to help students learn English.
Not being from here also is something that an abuser can use as leverage.
People worry that if they ask police for help, their partners will try to get them deported, Robles said.
The bulk of her clients were born in Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries. Immigration status often comes up in their conversations.
With a tumultuous political climate, “there’s more of a heightened fear,” she said.
Earlier this month, President Donald Trump announced he planned to phase out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Under the program, young immigrants have had the opportunity to study and work in the U.S. Trump also pardoned a former sheriff from Arizona last month who’d been convicted of disobeying a judge’s order to stop racial profiling, largely targeting the Latino population.
“They’re not wanting to come forward to report anything that involves police,” Robles said.
Hatch, the detective in Monroe, said the police department is not an extension of immigration enforcement.
“We’re here to help victims, which could result in an arrest of a suspect. And that’s it,” Willis said.
Robles says her office is a safe space.
She has referred clients to an organization that focuses on immigrants’ rights. Robles, who grew up in Puerto Rico, hopes to form a new support group where people can talk in Spanish.
She has visited local businesses and a church to let them know she is around. Her tie to Domestic Violence Services makes it easy to connect people to resources.
The nonprofit hosts support groups where people can meet weekly.
“Isolation is a huge problem in domestic violence,” Mulholland said. “This is a way for them to talk and get it all out there.”
The nonprofit provides funding to help domestic-violence survivors escape from an abusive partner. A 52-bed emergency shelter also gives parents and children a safe place to sleep. The location is kept confidential.
A garage nearby was recently converted into a space for the kids to play. The only part that still resembles a garage is the rolling doors, which have been painted a lively green. Colorful bean bags are piled on the floor. A small, wooden step stool is kept by a tall shelf so that little arms can reach the rows of books.
“They can be very scared at home if home is not a safe place,” Mulholland said. “When they’re safe, they blossom.”
Caitlin Tompkins: 425-339-3192; firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you or someone you know needs help relating to domestic violence, contact Domestic Violence Services of Snohomish County’s 24-hour confidential hotline at 425-252-2873.
For more information, visit dvs-snoco.org.