Domestic violence is on the rise
By Carey L. Draeger
My best friend Denise and I have a lot in common: our tastes in music are similar, we love Julia Child, and we enjoy the same quirky sense of humor. We also share something else. We are survivors of domestic violence.
My husband swept me off my feet - six weeks after I met Bill, we were married. My marriage was filled with emotional and verbal abuse, but after my daughter was born, the abuse turned physical. One day, during an argument, Bill punched me. It was the final straw. I left him.
What Is Domestic Violence?
While many of us may picture the bruised and swollen face of Nicole Brown Simpson when we think of domestic violence, the truth is that many women, although never physically abused, still suffer from domestic violence. Although my best friend Denise was never physically abused, she suffered from emotional and verbal abuse. Despite a long courtship, there were warning signs that her husband was not the devoted, loving husband she longed for. After the wedding vows, he lied, cheated and tried to control the couple's finances, using Denise's hard-earned money to buy drugs.
The Family Violence Prevention Fund defines domestic abuse as any pattern of assaultive or coercive behaviors, including physical, sexual and psychological attacks as well as economic coercion that adults or adolescents use against their intimate partners, male or female. "Nationally, statistics show that a victim may be a white female in her early 20s, but there really is no typical victim," says Janet Strahan, coordinator for the Capital Area Response Effort, a Lansing, Mich.-based organization that works with area police departments to help victims of domestic violence. Anyone, whether male or female, rich or poor, plus- or average size, can be a victim of domestic violence.
Domestic violence is an all-too-familiar part of a relationship for millions of women. Many try to keep these unhealthy, often violent relationships together, enduring years of abuse. Denise, a deeply religious and extremely loyal woman, was reluctant to end her marriage despite her husband's mistreatment of her. "I was so terrified of being divorced. I thought I never would survive it. He knew it and he used it against me," she remembers.
The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that 4 million women are physically abused by their husbands or live-in partners every year. The FBI estimates that a woman is beaten every 9 seconds in the United States. In 1997, one in three women who sought treatment in an emergency room did so as a result of injuries caused by domestic violence. In fact, a study published in Health and Medicine found that domestic violence results in more injuries requiring medical treatment than rape, auto accidents and muggings combined.
Murder is often the result of long-term domestic violence. The FBI noted in a 1996 report that among all female murder victims in the U.S., 30 percent were killed by their husbands or boyfriends. "I think it was really the O.J. Simpson case that brought domestic violence to the forefront," says Strahan. "People became outraged at what had happened to Nicole Brown Simpson."
The myths surrounding domestic violence can contribute to its escalation. Many families don't get involved or seek help because they believe domestic violence is a private matter, that drug or alcohol abuse is the reason behind the abuse, or that the abuser is out of control. "The batterer doesn't lose control. He makes a conscious decision to abuse his partner," Strahan emphasizes.
When a victim's weight is used as a weapon in a verbal assault by her abuser, or as an excuse for physical abuse, the woman may mistakenly come to believe she is somehow responsible for her abuser's behavior. This couldn't be further from the truth, says Strahan. "He'll pick something to use against her. Yes, it may be her weight, but if it isn't that, it will be her hair color or the fact that she has big feet."
Holly Rosen, director of Michigan State University's Safe Place in East Lansing, agrees. "The size of a victim isn't relevant, although weight may become an issue for the batterer. He may even use it first to compliment her and take her in so she becomes more vulnerable. I've seen women who are a size 6 or 8 being told they are fat and ugly by their abusers. There are a hundred factors in an abusive relationship."
When a woman doesn't immediately end a violent relationship, some family members or other outsiders end up blaming the victim for the abuse because she won't leave. But domestic violence can leave psychological scars, some of which prevent the victim from breaking free. Indeed, on average, it takes a woman seven attempts before she finally leaves a violent relationship.
In Denise's case, she didn't realize the extent of her husband's emotional abuse until after he started a relationship with another woman and filed for divorce. "While I was in [the relationship], I was clueless. I couldn't think for myself. Everything that came out of my mouth was what he said. I didn't realize it until he was gone," Denise says. "You don't realize how much your self-esteem and ability to function have been eroded by another person. You don't realize how much you've given up."
Many times, abused women will not call the police. "Women of faith tend to go to their religious leaders," says Thelma Burgoneo-Watson, director of training and education at the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence. "For them, it's a spiritual crisis, too." Many batterers will use the Bible to justify their abuse by pointing out that women are supposed to be submissive to their husbands. "But they forget that husbands are also asked to love wives as Christ loved the church," Burgoneo-Watson points out. "And across the different faiths, there is nothing that justifies abuse in any faith tradition."
Women of faith may also believe that the abuse they receive is a punishment from God or that it's all right to suffer because various religious figures have suffered, too. "Religion should be used as a resource, not a road block. Unfortunately, many religions have ignored the issue of domestic abuse or there have been misinterpretations of scriptures. Women don't have to suffer [physical abuse]. This is about behavior, about the batterer using power and control to keep the relationship together," says Burgoneo-Watson.
The Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence was created out of the religious community's lack of training on how to help victims of domestic violence. Just as members of the secular community, priests, ministers and rabbis would often send abused women home to pray harder or stay together for the sake of the children. Reverend Marie Fortune, a United Church of Christ minister and the Center's founder, began the organization in 1977 because she felt inadequate to help the women who came to her with stories of abuse. Today, this international organization works to educate religious leaders on how they can work in their congregations, synagogues or mosques to promote violence-free lives within their communities.
On the Rise
A new hidden danger in the world of abusive relationships is dating violence. A 1992 review of studies by a researcher at the University of New Hampshire found that nearly one-fifth of all college-age women in long-term relationships suffer some type of violence, such as hitting, punching or slapping. On university campuses nationwide, according to Michigan State University Safe Place, 25 to 30 percent of the college student population has experienced relationship violence. That means, on a campus with roughly 40,000 students, 10,000 will be dealing with an abusive relationship. In 1998, the U.S. Department of Justice found that 40 percent of teenage girls ages 14 to 17 reported they knew someone their age who had been hit or beaten by a boyfriend.
In addition, an increasing number of gay and lesbian relationships have turned violent. This situation is compounded by the fact that many gays and lesbians, who already feel isolated from society by their sexual preference, may be reluctant to seek help from traditional resources such as the police. Gay men who are abused often have no safe place to go to because most victims' shelters will only accept women and children. MSU Safe Place, the nation's first on-campus battered victim's shelter, is the only shelter in the mid-Michigan area that will accept male victims of domestic violence.
Sergeant Mihaela Sloan, of the Nashville Police Department, says that city has also seen an increase in the number of teenage children who abuse their parents. "There's very little research or statistics on this type of abuse. It's something new."
Strahan agrees. "What's particularly troubling is that there are so few resources out there for the victims. Because of the laws that govern juveniles, most police departments can only hold minors for about four hours. Often, the person this teenager abused is the one who has to come and take them home if there are no beds available in the juvenile detention facilities."
Domestic violence also affects children. Studies find that child abuse occurs in 30 to 60 percent of domestic violence cases that involve families with children. A child that is exposed to his father abusing his mother is at high risk for becoming a violent adult as well. And it doesn't stop there. By the time a domestic violence incident has been reported to the police, the extended family is usually involved.
Sometimes Elizabeth's daughter, Tammy, will simply disappear for one or two days. It usually happens when Tammy's common-law husband, George, gets out of jail and starts living with her again. Elizabeth knows that drugs are usually involved with these disappearances. She also believes George is emotionally abusive to her daughter and probably hits her, too, but she doesn't know what to do about it. "If my two grandchildren weren't involved, I'd probably back away from this painful situation and let Tammy suffer the consequences of her actions," Elizabeth admits. "But I can't."
Like Elizabeth, parents of abuse victims suffer from the violence, too. They feel, and often are, helpless to stop the pain and violence their adult children experience. The batterer may also physically threaten his victim's parents as another means of control.
Help and Hope
In the last 30 years, communities have begun working to help victims of domestic violence. Outreach programs have been created in most cities and in many rural areas of the country as well. In addition to a national hotline (see sidebar), most states have domestic violence hotlines. Shelters are being created every year to house women and children who are trying to flee violent relationships.
Some states have set up special courts to handle domestic violence. Cities such as Nashville, Tenn., have set up units within their police departments that are completely devoted to domestic violence cases. "We have 19 detectives, four sergeants, one lieutenant and one captain in the unit," says Sergeant Mihaela Sloan. "We also have four full-time counselors on staff."
What makes the unit so successful is the fact that cases involving repeat offenders or victims are assigned to the same detective, so that s/he has a good understanding of the household involved. "It's much better [for the detectives] to know how many reports have been filed and the history of the family," Sloan says. "We often have suspects with two to three different victims or victims with two or three suspects."
The Nashville Police Department also offers community outreach programs to educate citizens and other groups about the problem of domestic violence. "It takes a whole community to solve this problem. Law enforcement can't do it alone," says Sloan. "We're just one slice of the pie."
Employers are becoming increasingly aware of how domestic violence impacts the business community. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that, each year, medical expenses from domestic violence total at least $4 to $5 billion. Businesses lose another $100 million in lost wages, sick leave, absenteeism and lower productivity. Ironically, women often see their jobs as a place of relative safety when they suffer from abuse at home. Many organizations, such as MSU Safe Place, now offer corporate education programs on domestic violence to help educate managers, supervisors and employees about what to do if someone is in a violent relationship.
As Sergeant Sloan says, law enforcement alone can't stop domestic violence. If you ever hear or see an incident of domestic violence, call the police immediately to report it. If you suspect that a friend or relative is being abused, tell her about your feelings. Be gentle. Say, "I know something's going on. If you ever need to talk, I'm here." Don't pressure her to talk before she's ready and believe her when she tells you she's a victim of violence. In addition,
- Make it clear to your friend or relative that you are there for her and you won't judge her.
- Have information and resources available for her to contact when she's ready (see sidebar). Many shelters and domestic violence awareness programs are listed in the telephone book. Many police departments also keep a list of these resources.
- Help your friend or relative develop a safety plan that includes keeping clothes for her and her children, important papers, some cash, and spare keys to take with her when she goes. She also needs to be clear about where she will go when she finally leaves.
Strahan says that it's important for people to remember that women who get out of abusive relationships are strong and deserve a lot of respect. She constantly sees women who maintain their self-confidence, even though they're in an abusive relationship. "They know deep down inside that they're not what their batterer says they are. That's why they're survivors."
To find out if your relationship has elements of domestic violence, answer these questions:
1) Does your partner embarrass you by calling you names and putting you down?
2) Does your partner control what you do, who you see or talk to, or where you go?
3) Does your partner forbid you to see or talk to friends or family?
4) Are you financially dependent on your partner because your partner takes your money, makes you ask for money or refuses to give you money?
5) Does your partner tell you that you are a bad parent or threaten to take away or hurt your children?
6) Does your partner threaten to hurt or kill your pets?
7) Does your partner intimidate you with guns, knives or other weapons?
8) Have you been shoved, slapped, punched, or hit by your partner?
9) Has your partner threatened to kill you or to commit suicide?
If you've answered yes to any or all of these questions, you are the victim of domestic violence. Please call your local police department, women's shelter or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE or from a TTY at 1-800-787-3224.
More On Healing From Domestic Violence