"If he finds this, it'll be used against me in court"

Dear Readers,

Waiting for her case to be called in a courtroom, Kathryn Kosmides watched as woman after woman fought for an order of protection for herself and her children. Having just left a relationship with a violent man, Kathryn felt these women’s pain acutely.

As she took the strongest available legal avenues to protect herself, Kathryn thought hard about how this all could have been avoided. Out of her experience came Garbo, a nonprofit that aims to prevent gender-based violence. 

We spoke to Kathryn about how a long wait in a courtroom for a piece of paper that offered no tangible protection gave birth to a new way for women to prevent becoming victims of violence in the first place.

Can you tell us about the relationship that led to your appearance in that courtroom?

I met him on an online dating app. Things were violent pretty much from the start. I always felt in danger, throughout the relationship, but you can’t see red flags when you’re wearing rose colored glasses, as they say. 

When I ended the relationship, he immediately lashed out at me, sending hundreds of texts, calls, and emails. A few days later, he started emailing my bosses at work, telling them that I had cheated on him and was a liar. It escalated further, with him sending them a sexually explicit video.

After this outburst, he started sending gifts to me at the office. Things got creepier from there, and I became concerned he was tracking my location somehow, because he’d show up at events I went to. 

When he began posting slanderous lies about me on revenge sites, I felt in real jeopardy. If you had Googled my name back then - before I paid a lot of money to have the posts removed - you’d have gotten a healthy dose of the slanderous things he said. It was at that point that I moved forward with legal action against him. I had taken a step towards it during the breakup process, but had dismissed it for fear of retaliation. I can laugh at my naivety now. 

How does Garbo protect women?

Most resources to help victims of domestic violence are there for after something happens - very little focus is put on prevention. But since 90% of offenders of gender-based crimes are perpetrated by repeat offenders and those offenses are findable, having access to information about a person can be part of the path to prevention.

Garbo allows users to run a check on a person, to see if they have any records or reports of gender-based violence, including arrests, convictions, orders of protection. All you need is a phone number, a first name, or a license plate number. You can use it before meeting an online date, attending a job interview, or getting into a rideshare, so that you know who you’re putting your safety in the hands of. 

I can see why you’re pro-prevention. First and foremost because of the danger a violent partner poses, but also because I know you’ve spent over $150,000 in trying to protect yourself from this ex-boyfriend. What hurdles were you facing that could run up this kind of a legal tab?

The legal system really sucks. First, we couldn’t find him in order to physically serve him the order of protection. We had to hire an investigator and a process server once he was located. We finally got the judge to allow us to serve via email, but that took multiple court appearances (which cost money).

Then, a few short weeks after the original order of protection was put in place (fun fact: orders of protection are not active until officially served), he turned around and posted on more revenge websites. 

So I hauled him back to court. Which cost money. 

Then he started emailing my lawyers thousand-word diatribes and they had to read them all...which cost money. He sent dozens of those. Still does sometimes. He drags out court appearances.

I also sued him civilly to create an easily accessible public record. (You should read it, it’s a doozy). That cost money - and even more money now because he refuses to hand over evidence and is just prolonging the battle.

He thinks I’ll run out of money. That’s his game. 

Your story demonstrates how people’s worst online dating fears can come to life. Can you illustrate how Garbo would be used by an individual?

So, you’re on an online dating app and you swipe right on some okay-looking dude. You start chatting. The man - let’s call him Brad - doesn’t send you a dick pic and even asks you a question about yourself. You continue the conversation, and Brad asks if you want to hangout. You’re smart and say “I want to get to know you better,” and you switch to texting. 

BOOM. You now have his phone number. In most cases, all you need is someone’s first name and phone number to search them on Garbo. 

You open up the Garbo app, type that information in, and in a matter of minutes you can see if he has any records or reports of gender-based violence. 

If Brad doesn’t have a record, you continue the conversation, somewhat reassured. We hope it works out.

If Brad does have a record… well, of course that is up to you (but we hope you think twice because 90% of offenders are multi-time offenders, and over 31% of female respondents to a BuzzFeed survey disclosed they have been sexually assaulted by an online date - I digress…)

What would you say to people who say a database like Garbo invades people’s privacy? That it encourages the kind of society we see unfolding in China where the government keeps tabs on people and ranks people according to a reputation score?

It’s a fine balance to strike, between privacy and public access. Especially since the system is broken. And not very transparent.

Just look at traditional online background checks like TruthFinder or InstantCheckmate. They invade your privacy. They have every email, phone, and home address you’ve ever registered. That’s creepy to me. 

But knowing if someone has a history of gender-based violence? Not creepy to me.

Gender-based violence is a human-to-human crime - which is the type we’re focused on. Those other systems rely heavily on human-to-society and human-to-property based crimes like drug crimes. 

We provide access to information that allows people to make more informed decisions about their safety. We believe in finding the balance between privacy and public access to information. 

Do you see any potential for misuse of Garbo?

Oh yeah, and we try to be proactive in understanding what that could be. It’s why it’s taken so long to launch the product. This is not something you can “move fast and break things” with. 

The one we most often get is with our submission piece - where users can send in their own records and reports that our systems may have missed. 

Many folks have concerns that the submission piece could get spoofed. As a result, we validate the authenticity of all public submissions.

We’re very focused on security throughout the entire user experience of Garbo - which is why our sign-up process is longer than traditional apps.

How are you funded? What is the payment model for a person who wants to perform a background check?

We believe in putting protection over profit so I formed Garbo as a 501c3 non-profit organization (that will gladly accept your donations). Right now, the funding is a mixture of self-funding, small donations, corporate sponsors, and grants. 

The payment model is pay-what-you-can. We believe that information should be free and accessible, so if you can’t afford to pay that’s a-okay. It’s kinda like a Patreon model, but for an organization rather than an artist. 

Are you still fearful of your ex, or have you finally arrived at a place where you feel the legal system is protecting you sufficiently?

Does a piece of paper really protect you?

(No, it doesn’t). 

Women are murdered by their angry ex-partners every day. I’m not saying I’m going to be murdered, but like… who knows? Some crazy person who hates Garbo might murder me… I don’t know. I find myself sleeping with a knife next to my bed most nights. 

My ex has calmed down a lot (maybe he’s getting the help he needs?) over the last few months, but every once in a while he’ll do something totally out of left field. 

Also, if he finds out about this newsletter, it will 100% be used against me in court. That’s the legal system, baby. 

Safe Horizon helped Kathryn obtain her original order of protection. If you are in a violent relationship and need help, she’s put together a list of statewide domestic violence hotlines here.

What we’re reading this week....

A “professional changemaker” who has worked internationally to create social change for 15 years was floored when she joined her local Covid-19 community action group, Bed-Stuy Strong. Formed overnight to meet the needs of neighbors who found themselves without food, money or other necessities, Panthea Lee was impressed by how much more effective this patchwork group of eager neighbors was in comparison with the well-funded organizations she has worked around. She notes, “as each day passes, I can’t help but feel that many of us professional changemakers are rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” Read her take on what big institutions can learn from grassroots community efforts.

The worst coronavirus cluster infection in the US originated in a pork processing plant in South Dakota - but it wasn’t until the daughter of a worker at the plant used Facebook to send an anonymous tip to the local newspaper that the story emerged. With the virus spreading throughout the plant and management taking no action, employees were in a terrifying bind - and if they quit they wouldn’t qualify for unemployment. The ensuing journey from company wrong to public awareness and government action is fascinating, and we think it’s a great example of how important it is, more than ever, that we help vulnerable people find pathways to the media.

That’s all for this week! We look forward to hearing from all of you, with any reader responses, tips, or unsung stories of your own you’d like to share with us - or the media.

And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn for more up to the minute stories.

-The team at Lioness