Monday, May 18, 2009

Conveying the Message - Talking to Civic Groups About Domestic Violence

I don’t enjoy public speaking. I’m not good at it and tend to avoid it if at all possible. I am in awe of speakers who can command a room and leave the audience inspired. At the end of last week I was called upon to speak to a local women’s group. The topic I was given was simply “domestic violence”

 When I speak to community groups I typically show a very short, heart-wrenching movie put together by a Michigan shelter program. This is guaranteed to get everyone crying and focused on the subject at hand. Turned out I loaned my copy to someone and it was not available.

 Ok, well I’ll just extend my talk a little, After a very busy, frustrating day I got out the notes I usually use but everything I generally cover seemed kind of flat and ineffective given the frame of mind I was in – as though we are all missing something when it comes to addressing family violence

I usually start by outlining all the statistics I know by heart, i.e., No matter what the rate of violence or who initiates the violence, women are 7 to 10 times more likely to be injured in acts of intimate violence than are men. Eighty-one percent of men who batter had fathers who abused their mothers. About one third of female murder victims were killed by an intimate. About 3% of male murder victims were killed by an intimate… and the list goes on.

I usually go into the impact of abuse on the victim; depression, low self-esteem, anger, suicidal thoughts, chronic medical problems and substance abuse as a coping mechanism. I discuss the dynamics and how domestic violence is a comprehensive form of terrorism that goes much deeper than the actual bruises and broken bones.

I always address the persistent question, Why doesn’t she leave? I answer that one big reason is fear – the belief that the abuser will follow through with whatever he has threatened – I’ll take your children, kill your parents, kill you…! That this is valid – experience us the violence escalates after separation when the batterer feels his control slipping away. I go into the economic handicaps, isolation and even the “L” word – love. That women sometimes focus on the good they see, the belief he’ll change if she just tries harder, unconditional love fixes everything (not).Maybe if he would just quit drinking or get help for his “chemical imbalance”.

I finish the “why doesn’t she just leave?” question by asking WHY SHOULD SHE? It’s her home, she worked for it, she cleans it, she decorated it, her children are growing up there. She is not committing any crime there – he is.

I try to personalize the problem by bringing in local statistics that show how prevalent it is in our community, because it is.

I usually wind up my presentation with my hard line about how domestic violence should be viewed and handled. It is a crime. It is against the law. Forget about any faults the victim may have. We don’t ask victims of drunk drivers or armed robbery or stranger assaults why they didn’t stay out of the criminal’s way. Why do we continue to make domestic violence victims responsible for their victimization? We must recognize interpersonal violence as a crime and hold the abuser accountable!

I am a one person, stand alone victim services agency in a small rural county. The past few weeks have been some of my busiest ever. I assist more victims in our county than the local domestic violence shelter does. For my presentation to this group of women I attempted to step back from the hornet’s nest that is my job and get an overview of the state of things as I see them. This is what I told them:

-The police are making more domestic violence arrests – this is good but I’ve found the need to address a regression in some agencies who occasionally have arrested the victim for fighting back. Time for another training.

-Some of the prosecutors are being aggressive about prosecuting cases, some need some coaxing. Officers feel they don’t authorize enough cases, the defense bar will say they are authorizing too many.

-I see a too much victim bashing in every arena, even with victim service personnel. I see victims in court trying to get or keep a protection order. The defendant can afford an attorney the victim cannot. Abusers get visitation when they shouldn’t …or worse, custody, due to no legal representation.

-I still see crimes against women, domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and harassment not taken as seriously as other crimes. It’s a daily battle.

-Even when all goes right in the system – arrest, the victim is afforded all the protection the courts have to offer and prosecutors present a good case –juries are very conservative. Domestic violence is still viewed as a private family matter.

These are all system change issues that require patience and perseverance. That’s a fight I can handle.

I told these women that what has disturbed me most in the last few months is the second generation of criminals and victims that I am seeing. Over half of the juveniles I see in delinquency and runaway complaints are names I recognize from dealing with their mother or father in some capacity. Twelve or so years ago, I assisted a victim in what was our first felony domestic violence case after the laws were enhanced. The abuser went to prison and the victim went on with her life – safe. A success story. Except I just did a protection order for her teenage daughter against her abusive boyfriend

Another women I assisted in fleeing her state and relocating in our county. She got on with her life in time. A couple of weeks ago her son was arrested for armed robbery and conspiracy to commit murder at fourteen years old.

I told several other similarly disheartening stories and explained how I seem to be doing more and more follow-up and protection orders for high school girls. To often when I talk to these young victims the mom tells me quietly, “You know, I went through this when I was young, too” .

In an ideal world we would spend more time and resources on education and prevention but right now all my energy is spent on urgent situations long past avoiding,

I wrapped it up by passing out materials on dating violence. I encouraged them all, as role models and professionals, to participate in educating younger women, rather than waiting until these young people are contributing to the new statistics on domestic violence, sexual assault, suicide and murder rates. Can the cycle ever be broken?




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