Real Life SVU Detective Turned Mom & Basketball Coach Teaches Us What It Means To Survive Loss & Domestic Abuse.

This article is part of an exciting series we launched in 2018 called Today’s Wonder Women – designed to celebrate the inspiring, impactful, empowering and extraordinary things ordinary women are doing every day. Over the coming months we will be sharing interviews, essays, articles and guest posts about women who are creating change. If you have a story to share and want to add your voice to the Today’s Wonder Women conversation, get in touch by emailing info@girltalkhq.com.

By Amber French (TW: violence, abuse)

Meet Cara G*, a former Special Victims Unit Police Detective in Newport News, VA and mom of 3. She’s what I’d like to refer to as an underground Wonder Woman. You’d never know that beneath her kind eyes, cutting sense of humor, and warm smile, she’s had an intense 15 years that would have aged most people twice over. In other words, Cara might be your kid’s basketball coach, but she’s lived a life a movie could have been created about. She’s impacted lives as a police officer and SVU detective, been through significant back to back losses, she’s endured domestic abuse, and she’s had to become accustomed to discrimination from others because of her sexuality. Cara is a hero, walking side by side other moms and people, deserving to be celebrated for her kindness and her strength.

Life As a Police Officer & Special Victims Unit Detective

After graduating from Virginia Tech, Cara joined the Roanoke County Police Department in Roanoke, Virginia. Cara’s father had been a Washington, D.C. police officer for 25 years and she has a sense this may have been her reasoning for going down this career path. Her father was always her hero, and following in his footsteps felt right.

After 3 years in Roanoke County, she decided to leave and join the Newport News Police Department in Virginia. She stayed there for nearly 9 years.  

“We spent our time chasing drugs, guns, and violent offenders. Since we were part of a specialized unit, we had the luxury of spending extra time in our neighborhoods, establishing relationships with the citizens. We spent many days throwing a football with the kids or playing basketball. We passed out badge stickers and free Slurpee coupons. I have always believed it is important for police officers to attempt to establish positive relationships with the citizens of the communities we protect and serve.  Our roles stretch deeper than just taking someone to jail. One conversation with one child can make a difference in a life. No matter who you are, what mistake you have made, or where you live, every single person wants to be treated with respect. And when you treat someone with respect, you are almost always treated with respect in return,” Cara says of her days as a Newport News police officer.

While with Newport News PD, she worked for many years on the street with her partner, Chad Dermyer.

“We spent 4 years side by side. We rode in a vehicle together, and we answered each other’s phones and texts and we knew each other’s passwords. In addition to our 10 hour shifts together, we spent 4 days a week in court. As if that wasn’t enough time together, we also took overtime shifts together and even spent our days off together.”

After many years on the street, she pursued a promotion to detective and was offered a position in the Special Victims Unit.  She was also pregnant with her oldest child upon accepting this assignment. As a SVU detective, she investigated crimes against children, including physical and sexual abuse, child deaths, adult sexual assaults, among other offenses. For Cara this assignment was the most challenging, yet extremely rewarding.

“I watched autopsies on infants, heard the screams of a child whose femur had been shattered by a bullet, spent an entire day at the hospital waiting for a young female to give birth to her baby, having been repeatedly raped and impregnated by her mother’s boyfriend, consoled a grieving mother after an unexpected, sudden death of her newborn. I watched ER doctors perform CPR on infants and then listen to them call out their time of death,” Cara says of her time in the SVU.

One specific instance that she’ll never forget, is holding the hand of a young boy who had been stabbed in the chest and required a chest tube to breathe.

“I will never forget him begging me to stay with him. He was scared and his mother refused to be in the room to hold his hand. I remember his shaking voice when he asked me if it was going to hurt. I can still feel how hard he squeezed my hand when the surgeon pushed and jostled the tube in between his ribs.  I can still hear his screams and see the tears. I remember the relief of his body when the chest tube was in place and he could again expand his lung fully to breathe. He was 12.”

For all the death that was witnessed, and the overwhelming emotional aspect of the job at times, Cara’s memory is vivid when it comes to the the gratitude from each person she interacted with during these dire circumstances. She remembers a mother who was so thankful for the patience Cara showed her child as the child shared very difficult events that she had been the victim of. She recalls relief in the eyes of a young woman who was validated by the DNA evidence supporting her account of a heartbreaking story. And she remembers the hours of preparation for a trial, with that same young woman, who was finally able to hear the words “guilty”.  

While Cara knew she could not take away the victims’ pain or change what they had endured, she felt she was part of helping them find closure. These people could now move forward in life. Cara also worked diligently to obtain confessions for her cases.

“Having an overabundance of patience when interviewing a child sexual predator was essential, but very taxing emotionally. I continually told myself, my victim did the hard part by telling on the offender. At the very least, I could make it easier on the victim in court by obtaining a confession. A confession in court means the victim would not have to testify and relive the horrific events they had endured. This is where my belief in treating everyone with respect was vital. While my blood may have been boiling inside, I was able to sit stone-faced across the table from someone who is describing heinous acts they have committed against a child,” she said.

After about 2.5 years working in the SVU, Cara was promoted to sergeant and was assigned back to patrol. Looking back, she would have delayed her pursuit of a promotion and stayed in the Special Victims Unit longer. She felt she was making a difference in people’s lives, and despite the emotional toll it took, Cara says it was worth every moment.

While working in the SVU, Cara’s personal life was in full swing; she was planning to have a family with her girlfriend. In December 2008, she gave birth to their first son. In 2010, the couple decided to get married, and since same sex marriage was not legal in Virginia at the time, they traveled to Connecticut to have their ceremony. Two days later, they were in Birmingham, Alabama having a large wedding reception hosted by Cara’s parents.

Cara and her late father Dan dancing at her wedding

In February 2011, Cara gave birth to her  2nd son. Due to the dangerous line of work Cara was in, she and her wife decided it was best to make sure their family was legally protected in case she died while on duty. Virginia was still very much against same sex marriage and even passed a law banning any 2 non-married persons from entering into a legal contract with each other. They decided the best choice was to move their family to Baltimore, Maryland. Cara resigned from the Newport Police Department and became a stay-at-home Mom. Once they fulfilled the 6-month residency requirement, Cara and her wife completed an official adoption of both boys so her wife could be a legal parent to the boys.

The Loss of a Hero and a Best Friend

It was around this time that Cara received some terrible news about her father. For several years, her father exhibited odd behaviors; he was paranoid, mean, and unlike himself. She flew to Birmingham to coerce him into going to see a neurologist. Her mom feared if Cara didn’t make the trip down to Alabama, her father simply would not go the appointment. Cara, her mom, and her brother all attended the appointment. It was then that he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. Cara, her brother, and her mother left the doctor’s office in shock while her father left seeming unaware of the grave news he had just received.

“In hindsight, it was probably a blessing. He did not grieve his life. He did not realize he would miss out on future events like my brother’s wedding, grandkids’ milestones, birthdays, and family vacations.  Those of us around him did grieve and we mourned those future events. We were left to watch him deteriorate and witness how the cycle of life takes you back toward that infantile beginning,” she says about this difficult time in her life.

It was an interesting experience for Cara to mourn her hero, who was still right before her. “The man I knew as my father had changed and with each passing year, he deteriorated further and further. He had the most amazing sense of humor, but he lost the ability to understand a joke. He was the most giving person, but he lost the ability to empathize. When someone would tell him, ‘have a great day!’ he got offended. He would respond, ‘Have a great day? How about have a great life?’ His mind no longer able to process all the stimuli we face daily. We loved and supported him however he needed.”

In December 2013, Cara gave birth to her third child, a daughter. Since she was born in Maryland, her wife was on the birth certificate immediately. This was a significant difference from their experience living in Virginia.

Eight months after Cara’s daughter was born, her father was diagnosed with stage IV head and neck cancer. Treatment had to be carefully considered due to his Alzheimer’s condition.

“Radiation meant he would be strapped down on a table and placed inside a noisy tube to receive the radiation for several hours. He did not understand he was sick and it would have been torture for everyone to forcefully strap him to a table to receive treatment. He did endure one surgery to remove the tumors on both sides of his neck. He did not understand why he was in so much pain after his surgery. The surgeon had told him he would feel better and when Dad woke up in excruciating pain, he kept saying ‘but the doctor said I would feel better when I woke up.’  He went through a few cycles of chemotherapy but we ultimately chose to keep him comfortable and let nature take its course.”

Cara would travel home every 6 weeks and bring her 2 youngest children each time. Her mother left her father’s side only once during his last two weeks in the hospital. They knew the end was near.

On the morning of March 25th, 2016, her dad passed away. “I started to walk out and was pulled back, unable to leave. The tears wouldn’t stop. I eventually said goodbye to my dad, my hero, one last time and I walked out.”

Six days after her father’s death, Cara received a notification from a local Maryland news app about a Virginia State Trooper involved a shooting in Richmond, VA. Her former police partner at the Newport News Police Department, Chad Dermyer, was now a Virginia State Trooper. Cara always sent a text to check on Chad when she heard of troopers being involved in serious situations.

“When I saw the notification of a trooper being shot in Richmond, I knew Chad was working near Richmond in his new assignment, but I was not sure if he was actually in Richmond. I sent Chad a text asking him if he was in Richmond and if he was ok. Hours went by with no response. I was busy planning a family gathering and didn’t give it too much thought in the moment.”  

Then Cara received a text from a former co-worker that had worked alongside her and Chad at the Newport News PD, asking her to call him. It was confirmed. Her former police partner, her best friend, had been shot and killed.

Cara recalls how surreal the death of Chad felt. “When an officer is killed in the line of duty, it is typically national news. I had co-workers calling me, one after another; some to make sure I knew Chad had been killed, some wanting to talk, some who just wanted to cry. I received notifications constantly: Facebook, emails, texts, voicemails, friends, family, business owners Chad and I interacted with daily, strangers, and children of officers who were killed in the line of duty. I felt overwhelmed. I could not imagine how his wife felt. I couldn’t cry. I was numb. I was angry. I was stunned. It was surreal.”

“It was a short time later that Michelle, Chad’s wife, honored me with the request to eulogize Chad at his funeral. I had so much to say about Chad. I started writing his eulogy 11pm the night before his funeral. My pen flowed naturally. Chad was easy to talk about and I had so many things I wanted to convey to the world about him. I wanted everyone to know just how amazing he was and if they had not been lucky enough to have met Chad, that they would leave feeling like they knew the type of man he was.  I felt privileged to have had my words heard about someone I spent years living beside. And I feel thankful to have had Chad in my life. ”

She was able to maintain her composure through most of the eulogy during the funeral, which was being live-streamed. It wasn’t until she realized that she and the other speakers would walk out of the church directly behind Chad’s casket, that she was overcome with emotion. Her memory of these moments is sharp, clear, intense. A Virginia State Police Helicopter flying overhead, massive fire trucks lining the parking lot, media everywhere, watching Michelle and Chad’s children leaving the church. Cara was overwrought by this sense of loss. First her father, and six days later, her best friend.

Chad’s funeral procession with all the police vehicles

Divorce & Domestic Abuse

Back when Cara was a police officer, she says she never understood the women that stayed in abusive relationships.  

“We would respond to the same households time and again over the same complaints. And each time, I would give the exact same lecture. I showed very little empathy to these women.”

Divorce came knocking on her door in April of 2016. The marriage had been deteriorating and Cara’s wife began physically and verbally abusing her over the course of two years. She never imagined she would become like many of the abused women she had tried help as a police officer.

“I think of them often now and even more so, while I was being abused. Sometimes I wondered if it was karma because I wasn’t really able to empathize with them. I wanted so badly for these women to leave their abusers-to be strong and walk away. I understand now, how challenging that seemingly simple act, can really be.”

“I did obtain a protective order against her but felt bad to have her forcibly out of the house. I look back on these feelings and emotions and realize how deeply my mind had been penetrated.”  

“Leaving seemed like an insurmountable challenge. I had no family nearby. No friends. No support system. I was home with the kids every day, all day. I was alone. That has been an extremely tough realization for me to say aloud because I do pride myself on believing I am strong. I had no job or savings. We were down to one car the last year of the marriage. I wanted to go but could not see a path out. I did not want to burden a friend by asking to stay at their house with my 3 children. I did not feel strong enough to leave,” Cara says.

“There was a very systematic attack to my self esteem and a physical isolation. I never even saw it coming. Looking back, I am able to see the changes in our relationship upon moving. Making me stay home was a compromise I didn’t really want. I agreed to do it until our middle child was in kindergarten. Instead I was isolated, with no friends, and texting her every time we left the house. When I did try to make mom friends and have playdates, I was accused of cheating. The playdates came to a halt. I wanted to leave, but my youngest was months old when I decided I would eventually end my marriage.”

Cara never called the police because she felt like her situation wasn’t as bad as other people’s. She never had marks to “prove” the assault. Being slammed into a wall didn’t split her head open, and spitting left no marks. While she did obtain a protective order, she didn’t file a police report.

Advice Cara would give others in domestic abuse situations: dig into your inner strength. Use that strength to ask someone close to you for help. If you don’t have a support system or family that can help you, walk into a women’s shelter. Obtain a protective order against your abuser, but also file a police report. Filing the report is important. It shows your abuser you’re taking steps to protect yourself. This process is a long road, but getting out was the best thing she ever did for her and her children.

Chad attending Cara’s middle son’s graduation

The Now

Currently, Cara is working as a QA Manager for a gourmet food company called Mackenzie Limited.  It is a female owned and operated company, led by women and mothers who firmly believe in putting family first.  For the first time Cara’s life, she works normal hours that allow her to be a hands on mom and coach. She typically coaches basketball and baseball each season and is free Saturday mornings for games. She is able to attend doctor appointments and meetings with teachers and feels beyond lucky to have found this company.

She’s still going through her divorce and it’s been a harrowing ordeal since her wife is going after custody ( she is their legal guardian as a result of the adoption) . Cara credits her friends with helping her to get through these difficult times. Friendship is what allowed Cara to realize she was still inside herself somewhere. Through losing two of the most important people in her life, being in an abusive relationship, going through a difficult divorce, and raising three children, it was a friend that brought her solace, a better future for her and the kids, and firm footing.

As with Cara’s story and others, the Wonder Women in our world can sometimes be the person next to you on a train, your co-worker, or your local basketball coach. They’ve endured, overcome, and are still shining their radiant, positive, light onto this world in spite of what they’ve been through or are currently going through.

(*name has been changed to protect her identity.)

Amber French resides in New England and is a working mom of two rambunctious boys. She enjoys kitchen dance parties, blogging about life, and home DIY projects. She hopes that through her stories you will see that your life is what you choose to make it- no matter what kind of good, bad, or ugly you’ve been through. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and check out her website.

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