Last March, Santa’s former partner cut off her ear. Afterwards, he calmly walked out of her apartment, taking the ear with him, and went to the police. On the way, he threw the ear away but didn’t tell the police where. As a result, the 12 hours during which it could have been reattached were lost.
“We didn’t record his first statement because nobody ever expected that somebody would come and say ‘I’ve cut off my wife’s ear,’ ” recalls Inga Meikšāne, the head of the state police station in Ķengarags, one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Riga. “He mentioned several places. If you could only have seen how the policemen [searched] with rakes and a metal detector – there was an earring in the ear – through puddles, everywhere. We didn’t find it.”
The violent culmination in this family has an eight-year-long background featuring episodes of drinking, fighting, jealousy, and damaging attachment which drains the strength to turn away.
What happened raises an uneasy question – what are the duties of the state towards people who can’t or don’t want to help themselves?
One could say that Santa was ruined by her own character. But one might just as well conclude that state institutions contributed to Santa’s demise by offering no greater empathy and no deeper assessment of the situation than was strictly required by the law and leaving a highly traumatised person without support.
After cutting off Santa’s ear, Andrejs was arrested, but just two months later – released. Contrary to police opinion, the judge considered that the man had reformed and that detention wasn’t warranted. Andrejs began to torment Santa again psychologically. She broke down and started drinking, losing both her job and her children.
The perpetrator claims he did it all because he loved the woman. He beat her so she would stop drinking.
Prologue. “I’m scared”
I first found out about Santa’s situation last May when, in connection with Re:Baltica’s first investigative series about domestic violence, I received an email at work, which read, “My husband cut off my ear. He will be released from jail soon. I’m scared.” There followed a name and phone number.
It turned out that the letter had been written by Santa’s colleague. As in other situations which followed – Santa didn’t act herself but relied on other people. Or gave up.
That’s how we met. She was a frail fair-haired woman of around 40 years of age. Two months had passed since her ear had been cut off. The man had just been released from jail. When we met, Santa talked slowly, but her mind was clear. She was using sedatives to cope with the trauma.
There has been so much violence and so many events related to it during their life together that Santa mixes up dates and details. Therefore, in this article I’m relying on the documents she gave me.
Part 1. Round and Round We Go
Santa and Andrejs got together in 2011. He worked in construction and Santa’s mother thought he was a fine catch: good with his hands and able to help out at their country house. At first, Andrejs treated Santa and her daughter from a previous relationship respectfully. A year later Santa became pregnant. According to her, Andrejs became aggressive during the pregnancy; at first, just verbally (“he was always right, didn’t listen to others’ opinions”).
However, just one month after the baby (a boy) was born in the spring of 2013, Andrejs turned to physical abuse. An administrative case for minor bodily injuries was initiated, but Santa withdrew her charges in the end. This is the typical cycle of domestic violence – he begs forgiveness, she forgives. They had a second son a year later.
Two years later, in October 2015, the police isolated Andrejs from the family home for four hours. “Physical and emotional violence against a child,” stated the police documents. After this incident, Santa, with the help of the MARTA centre, a non-governmental organization which provides support to women who have suffered abuse, applied for a court injunction to provide domestic violence protection order.
The court granted it and forbade Andrejs from approaching Santa and the children. At the same time, the court would have expected that Santa would submit a new application within a month. This is how the courts encourage women who are looking for protection from their abusers to end their relationships definitively.
Santa and Andrejs were not married so a divorce was not needed; only alimony and deprivation of custody rights. Santa applied to the court and her request was granted – 90 euros per child (which nevertheless was not paid). In the end, however, Santa herself asked the court to cancel both the restraining order and the denial of custody. They started to live together again. He regretted what he had done, she forgave him.
Psychologists call such periods of reconciliation “honeymoons”. However, the violence intensifies over time and the honeymoons get shorter and shorter. The perpetrator continues because he knows there will be no consequences.
Santa and Andrejs were no exception, and their conflicts continued. Both of them made calls to the police. Santa − when Andrejs became violent; Andrejs − when she had been drinking, “because he wanted to prove that I’m a drunk”.
Santa herself claims that she wasn’t an alcoholic and would drink only on special occasions. The family court was of a different opinion. In May 2016, it put both the younger children into a crisis centre for six months, while Santa’s eldest daughter went to live with her grandmother. “The parents were intoxicated, the children had been left under the supervision of strangers,” read the family court’s decision.
Both parents were made to see a psychologist and a substance abuse specialist, as well as attend anger management classes. “I believed that he would change. He loved the children. At the MARTA centre, though, they said that such men don’t change,” recalls Santa.
For about a year and a half, things were going well. The children returned to their family and started attending a kindergarten, where Santa began to work as a teacher.
But then in the autumn of 2018, they had their usual fight about Santa drinking too much. On the previous day she had had some wine with a colleague celebrating her name’s day. Andrejs didn’t like that. In their apartment’s kitchen, up against the cooker hood, he hit her so hard that her cheekbone was fractured and she nearly lost an eye. Santa was seen with dark glasses at work for a long time.
Part 2. An Attempt to Help
Santa’s colleagues didn’t suspect anything about violence in her family. That is typical of victims – they are ashamed to tell anyone and often don’t want to ask for help, experts at MARTA have observed.
At work, Santa was quiet and private; she didn’t talk about her family life. She worked at two nearby day care centres to earn more money. Andrejs picked up the children from kindergarten when Santa was working late shifts. Mairita, the manager at one of the day care centres, recalls that Andrejs frequently forgot the code for the gate there, so he kicked it and almost broke it.
The first to learn that Andrejs was beating Santa was the manager of the other day care centre, Anita. “She called. She didn’t say anything about the eye. Only that it was an accident, that she had fallen,” says Anita.
It seemed suspicious to her that Santa needed one and a half months for the treatment of an injury caused by an accident. When the woman returned to work, Anita asked her directly what was going on. Santa said that she was being beaten; that “she can’t get away from Andrejs, and is panicking out of fear”.
After Andrejs had seriously injured her eye, Santa again asked the court to issue a restraining order. The court granted it, but he violated it. The police began two criminal proceedings against Andrejs for threatening Santa and for not staying away from her. Alas, once again, he was let off the hook, because Santa agreed to a settlement.
At the same time, he demanded that Santa transfer ownership of the car and the country house to him, because he had put work into them. A recorded phone conversation, which I have heard, confirms this. In the recording, Andrejs, sounding under the influence, asks where the children are. When Santa answers, he repeats the question, this time raising his voice. Without waiting for her answer, he continues questioning her: “But where did you yourself sleep? Who are you [having sex with]? I will check that.” Santa asks him to leave them alone. Andrejs replies: “Tomorrow we will transfer ownership of the car and the house, and then you’re free, that’s it, I will never touch you again.”
She refuses. He starts to shout and curse.
Andrejs argues that his regular violations of the restraining order were prompted by him caring for his children. In March 2019, he called the police to Santa’s apartment, saying that the children were sitting on the ledge and crying. The municipal police took in Andrejs himself and handed him over to the state police, who deal with cases like these. When the state police went to visit Santa, they found her drunk and considered her unable to take care of the children. The children were handed over to their father who sent them to stay with his mother in the countryside. “It is better to give [the children] to a loving father and grandmother than put them in a crisis centre,” says the investigator Meikšane. She believes that the man really wanted to care for the children, just that he had a distorted sense of what needed to be done. “I told him to prove that she was a bad mother then he would get the children to himself. He doubted whether he would be able to manage on his own. Then I understood that he wanted a family particularly with her.”
One week after taking the children away, Andrejs cut off Santa’s ear.
Part 3. Insanity
At that time, they had already been living separately for half a year. Despite the court order requiring Andrejs to stay away from Santa following the incident with her eye, he regularly walked by the apartment where she lived with the children.
On the fateful morning in March 2019, the children were not with Santa as they had already been given to their father. On the Sunday night, Andrejs had banged on the door. Santa hadn’t opened it. She had begun a new relationship and her boyfriend was visiting; he didn’t leave that night in fear that Andrejs might want to pick a fight.
Monday came. Santa was getting ready early – she had the morning shift at the kindergarten. She asked her boyfriend to be the first to leave the apartment. While she was locking the door, Andrejs stormed into the hallway and stabbed Santa’s boyfriend in the arm with a hunter’s knife. The man’s thick jacket protected him from more severe injuries. Andrejs, who is strongly built, dragged the boyfriend back into the apartment. While the man washed the blood off in the bathroom, Andrejs and Santa talked in the kitchen.
“In a moment, he opened the kitchen drawer, took out a knife and completely unexpectedly cut off my ear. It happened so fast that I could not comprehend it,” Santa told me in the spring of 2019.
Taking the severed ear with him, Andrejs left. Santa called the police and the ambulance. She also called a colleague asking to substitute for her. Then she wiped up the blood because her eldest daughter was expected to come by from her grandmother’s before school.
Meanwhile, Andrejs had gone to the police to confess. According to the investigator, he was crying and saying that he had attacked Santa out of jealousy; that he loved her, but had beaten her so she would stop drinking and start taking care of their children. He regretted what he had done, but also didn’t reveal where he had discarded the ear.
After this crime, Santa’s colleagues became her main support group. The teachers at the day care centre gave what they could from their modest salaries for Santa to have something to live on while she was dependent on sickness benefits. Her colleagues collected around 200 euros between them. “I went to Santa’s home and she was surprised, saying, ‘Ladies, it’s too much,’ ” recalls her colleague Anita. Another time, Santa had said: “I’m amazed that anybody’s helping me. I thought I would have to get by all by myself again.”
Anita was driving Santa and her new boyfriend to a forensic medical examination and helping to pick up the children from the kindergarten. Colleagues found a psychiatrist who prescribed Santa anti-anxiety medication. Her colleagues got so involved because they didn’t feel there was support from social services, says Anita. Only control. They had also contacted a crisis centre, “but there were waiting lists. We needed help quickly.”
However, at one point it became too much for Anita.
“I had my own responsibilities, I couldn’t be present all the time. I gave Santa tasks. She kind of said “yes”, but with time it dawned on me that she did not want to do anything anymore,” recalls Anita.
Santa’s passivity started after Andrejs was released from jail. Another colleague accompanied Santa on a visit to a clinical psychologist who was to diagnose whether Santa had a psychological trauma. She had to fill in a number of tests, but she didn’t go to pick up the results. “I think she became tired. She said, ‘He is the villain, he cut off the ear, but I am the one who has to do it all. Spend money and time on lawyers and psychologists. Why?’ ” recalls the colleague.
At that time, the children had returned to their mother because, after Andrejs had cut off the ear, the court had deprived him of child custody. During the court hearing, Andrejs’ advocate blamed Santa for the ear severing incident. “Andrejs is peaceful, good-natured, the only one in the family who cares for the children. The father’s action was provoked by the mother’s negligent lifestyle because she abused alcohol for a prolonged period of time and didn’t care for the children,” advocate Sanda Kraukle told the court. She declined to be interviewed in the name of her client for this article.
The facts, however, show a different picture. Since the early 2000’s, “peaceful” Andrejs has received 32 administrative penalties – for road traffic violations, petty hooliganism, being under the influence of alcohol, emotionally abusive behaviour towards a minor child, and bodily harm; most recently, for driving without a licence. Eight criminal proceedings have been initiated against him.
Part 4. The Surrender
A year has passed since the horrendous event. The case is still with the police, who plan to hand it over to the prosecutor’s office in order to press charges soon. Initially, it was classified as attempted murder, but now it looks that the charge will be for inflicting moderate bodily harm (the maximum penalty for this crime being detention of up to 5 years, forced labour, or a fine with probation).
The police wanted to pursue more serious charges against Andrejs, but the investigation was interfered with by Santa herself. She was reluctant to give testimonies and didn’t show up for a forensic medical examination. That has drawn out the case.
When I talked with Santa about it this January, she seemed to have surrendered. Since the severing of her ear, her life has spiralled only downwards. Santa has lost not only an ear, but also her job and her children.
The downturn started when the judge Vivita Freimane released Andrejs from jail.
“Santa received a call, probably from the police. That was the only time when I heard the normally quiet Santa loudly exclaim, ‘And what am I supposed to do now?’ ” recalls her colleague Anita.
Santa’s colleagues were pondering what to do. One suggested hiding. Others thought that, after spending time in jail, it was unlikely that Andrejs would come to bother Santa. That turned out to be the case. He kept his distance but started to pressure her in other ways.
A month after his release, he wrote a letter to Rīga City Council demanding that Santa be fired from both her kindergarten jobs for alcohol abuse. “That was nonsense. I never had the slightest hint that Santa would come to work drunk. I didn’t even smell hangover. I started particularly paying attention to it,” says Anita. Her colleague Mairita from the other kindergarten confirmed this statement.
The man also regularly called and complained to the investigator Meikšāne. “He reproached me, saying, ‘Again you do nothing, she drinks.’ To which I replied, ‘Don’t you think she drinks even more because of you?’ ” He dropped the handset then called again. And that tone,” remembers Meikšāne.
It seems that he also called Rīga City Social Services worker Zane Stieģele, who worked with the family. (She declined to be interviewed because the law forbids her from discussing specific cases.) Andrejs himself was no longer coming by Santa’s apartment, but now she was being monitored by neighbours. They reported what they saw to Andrejs. He then reported it to Stieģele.
The information provided to Re:Baltica by the police shows that Stieģele regularly sent the police to Santa’s apartment.
In less than a half a year, the police knocked on Santa’s door a remarkable 22 times; so many times − because she often didn’t open the door, so the policemen would come back again later.
On those occasions when the municipal police did manage to get inside the apartment, nothing suspicious was observed.
Unable to withstand the stress, Santa started drinking more often. At first – on paydays; in summer – during weekends. Her eldest daughter would later tell Re:Baltica that it was the first time that her mother had drunk as much.
“I called her during the summer break, but she did not pick up anymore. Santa was broken,” recalls colleague Anita.
Part 5. The Collapse
The breaking point came on October 30, 2019. Social services worker Stieģele went to see Santa herself. The woman opened the door in a heavily intoxicated state and refused to let the social worker in. There were strangers in the apartment, which was filled with cigarette smoke.
Stieģele called the police, but Santa again refused to open the door. The firefighters came and tried to get in via the balcony. In the end, one of the guests opened the door. The police found Santa hiding in the closet together with her youngest son.
Her blood alcohol concentration was close to four per-milles (0.4). Her children were taken to hospital, because the boys looked like they were under the weather, but afterwards they were sent to a crisis centre. The event ended up being broadcast on TV, with the party guests shown with blurred faces. A journalist had learned about it from social media where neighbours had posted some photos. The police gave the TV company the video they had filmed.
The next day, social services worker Stieģele informed both kindergartens of what had happened. “That triumphant call from the social worker,” recalls Anita with disbelief. “As you no doubt already know, there was a story on TV,” the other colleague Mairita recalls Stieģele saying. The social worker was interested to know when Santa would be fired, and, as one colleague claimed confidently, didn’t deny that she had received “signals” from Andrejs.
Santa’s colleagues conclude that the family court had a far more constructive attitude, while there was only one solution for the social worker – Santa needed to be fired and her children given away to the grandmother.
That was what happened, because Santa didn’t go to the family court’s hearing when it was considering whether to deprive her of custody rights. Nonetheless, the hearing was attended by Andrejs, who promised to help Santa fight her addictions.
He himself hadn’t met with his children in the five months since leaving jail, though he was not forbidden from doing so.
Part 6. Unhappy Ending
The last time I met Santa was in January. She didn’t answer the phone calls, so I went to her apartment on one Sunday morning. She opened the door in her dressing gown and invited me to the kitchen with a hand gesture. Her face bore the signs of a hangover. She rushed to the mirror to brush her hair, and made coffee.
The apartment was renovated and well furnished, though the smell of cigarettes lingered heavily in the air. The twilight from the drawn curtains created a sense of hopelessness.
Santa asks for permission to smoke and justifies the events on the day her children were taken away by saying, “we were quietly sitting and drinking, we didn’t make a scandal.” When I point out that she had been excessively drunk, Santa has nothing to say. She claims she didn’t go to the hearing because she hadn’t received the summons.
However, it doesn’t seem as though she would be ready to fight. She lives on unemployment benefit and is considering moving to London for work in a few months.
She doesn’t believe in external support, especially that from social services. “Let’s just say that we don’t like each other,” Santa said, describing her relationship with the social services worker Stieģele.
Analyzing the story of this family, the police investigator Meikšāne still believes that Andrejs should have been kept in jail for longer after cutting off Santa’s ear. “He didn’t make physical contact with her any more, but he pursued her emotionally. He still ruined her life,” concludes Meikšāne. However, she doesn’t defend Santa. “Of course, she shouldn’t have drunk. And if she had pulled herself together, the municipal police would have visited her two more times and after that nobody would have bothered her.”
Our meeting with Santa is short. She has epilepsy, and a seizure starts. Her arms and legs convulse. I hold her so she doesn’t fall. “I feel very bad,” she says quietly. I take her to the bedroom and help her to lie down.
Going away, I feel guilty. That I couldn’t help her. Because Santa needs someone to be there with her every day and to teach her how to be independent. If you’ve experienced violence on a regular basis for eight years, 10 state-sponsored visits to a psychologist or a policeman’s well-meaning “Pull yourself together” won’t help.
Epilogue. What Could Have Been Done Differently
The head of the MARTA centre, Iluta Lāce, believes that Santa did not receive enough support from social services, who should have “given a helping hand with solving the practical issues, which would make the woman’s daily life easier, rather than sending the police to check how much alcohol she was consuming. In this case addiction is a result of the woman being in a vulnerable situation for a prolonged period of time.”
Her colleague and lawyer, Juris Dilba, says that, in this case, complex help is needed. There should be a “support person” who would help to build relationships with social and other services, because it is clear that Santa does not trust them. There also should be a social rehabilitator who would accompany Santa on her visits to specialists, help with looking after the children and who would also keep an eye on whether she has enough income to sustain herself.
In Santa’s case, social services put the main focus on the safety of the children and acted like inspectors by sending the police.
In leaving Santa without help, her three children suffer. Research shows that such children have a higher probability of developing depression and turning to alcohol in their teenage years. Later in life, they have difficulty forming relationships because they don’t know what a “normal” family looks like. As Santa doesn’t have close friends or relatives who could have a positive influence, the only option is an external person. And that brings us back to social services. But it certainly can’t be the worker who has been supervising Santa so far as she doesn’t trust her.
“The case isn’t a hopeless one, just no one has got to the bottom of it yet,” concludes Lāce. *
The names of all family members and colleagues have been changed
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Author: Inga Spriņģe, Re:Baltica
Editor: Sanita Jemberga, Re:Baltica
Additional reporting by Ilze Vēbere, Re:Baltica
Translated into Russian by Andra Ceriņa
Translated into English by Aija Krūtaine
Illustrations and photos: Reinis Hofmanis