Opinion Columns & Blogs

Domestic Violence, Part 3: Helping victims is vital but delicate

EDITOR’S NOTE: October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. Incidents of domestic violence have increased dramatically in Modesto and Stanislaus County. Directors of the Family Justice Center and Haven Women’s Center have co-authored a series of articles on the issue, its symptoms and actions that can be taken to help victims get help. Throughout has been woven the story of Emily, a victim of domestic violence who had the courage to get help and now is a member of the Haven board of directors.

When police officers arrive, it’s usually too late. The domestic violence has already occurred.

By themselves, officers cannot be the sole solution to ending domestic violence. They can intervene, but not prevent violence.

And calling the police isn’t always the answer. Some abuse does not meet the requirements of a criminal violation, meaning they are powerless to help. Also, some people don’t feel safe calling law enforcement.

So what else is there?

Domestic violence is a societal problem, and until we hold our peers accountable for choosing to use violence it will not end. But it can be hard to do that. For the same reasons we don’t approach victims, we also fail to confront abusers: It’s not my problem. ... We don’t know if the victim wants our help. ... We’re concerned about our own safety.

But when we do nothing, we teach our children that doing nothing is the correct response; we teach them to ignore it. For some, that means they won’t see it in their own relationships until it’s too late. As parents, we can teach our children to help others experiencing abuse, to recognize it and how to confront it when appropriate.

Bystander intervention

When thinking of bystander intervention, people think of being there during an attack. That’s one meaning. But no one should ever engage in intervention if their own safety is in doubt. However, there are often opportunities to de-escalate a situation or change the environment that supports violence.

Techniques vary based on the severity of the episode and the relationship between the bystander and the person causing a concern. The better you know someone, the better you’ll know how that person will react to your efforts.

See an attack? Dial 911: When violence occurs in public places, everyone assumes someone else has called for help. Take the initiative; dial your phone. Sometimes, just calling out that you’re going to call the police can be enough to interrupt the violence. But only call out if you feel safe.

Being aware of at-risk persons: If you see someone stumbling as they’re being led to another room at a party, be aware this person is at risk. Do not assume that just because the person is with their date that everything is fine. Date rape can occur in these settings, and the rapists often don’t realize what they’re doing is a sexual assault. When they go to another room, check in and let the person know you’re concerned about everyone’s safety. This doesn’t need to be confrontational.

Confronting violent language: If you see someone belittling, humiliating or emotionally abusing a partner, there are different choices. If you feel safe, confront the language. Saying “Hey, that wasn’t cool,” or “I think that went a little too far” sends a message that the abuser’s words were unacceptable and it chips away at the isolation the abuser has created around the victim. Someone cares.

If confrontation is uncomfortable or unsafe, change the topic. It will seem a little odd, but keep talking until the situation has de-escalated. If safe, look for opportunities later to speak alone with the abuse victim. Let them know you saw it; ask if they need help.

Don’t put up with victim blaming in social settings.

Victim blaming often is about celebrities or those in the news. It sounds like this: “I would never let that happen to me. ... What’s wrong with her? ... You know she’s putting up with it because she likes that money. ... What did he think would happen given his partner’s history? ... He got what he asked for.”

You might think no harm is being done with these words. But the larger the group, the greater the likelihood someone is experiencing violence. Contributing to the conversation, or even remaining silent, sends a message that you would believe they got what they asked for or that you would side with the abuser.

When children overhear such conversations, they internalize those messages.

Saying “I don’t think that’s fair to the victim,” or “No one deserves to be abused,” or simply “I don’t agree” all send the message to those who use violence in their relationships that we will not tolerate it.

Instead of asking why a victim stays, ask, “What am I doing to help create an environment where abusers can continue to use violence without consequence?”

Emily’s story: There was a history of violence in his family, and he wanted to be different, but he wasn’t strong enough. His family always helped him, even when he was wrong. Our support system was his support system before it was mine. His family, his friends, they eventually took the space in my life where my own friends and support system had been. They were our circle, but they had been his first, and they would always be his first. The relationships I built with them were never really mine. They were his.

What would it look like if, after committing an act of violence, an abuser’s friends expressed disappointment. Then the abuser’s co-workers did the same, and then his congregation, then his extended family? Would that alter his or her choices in the future?

According to the national organization A Call to Men, which seeks to end violence against women, the underlying causes are rooted in the ways women and girls have been viewed by society: First, women are seen as having less value than men. Second, they are viewed as property. Third, women are seen as sexual objects. These components equal violence and discrimination against women and girls.

While men are ultimately responsible for ending their violence, it can’t be done without listening to the voices, leadership and experiences of women. When working to end abuse, one must be accountable to those experiencing the abuse.

In Stanislaus County, those using violence who want to stop can contact three agencies to get counseling: Sierra Vista Child and Family Services, Sierra Education and Counseling, and Gleason Counseling Services.

Haven Women’s Center of Stanislaus and the Stanislaus Family Justice Center are working to change the next generation’s response to violence.

Helping kids address abuse

The Golden Haven for Youth project is a project of Haven Women’s Center, Golden Valley Health Centers and the California Health Collaborative that works on adolescent relationship abuse, or teen dating violence.

Since February, partners from each organization have trained 28 youth leaders at Riverbank and Enochs high schools. They will advocate for policy changes at their schools. Both campus groups are working on prevention campaigns. They aim to reach more than 300 peers, faculty, administrators, parents and community members.

“Most of my friends have been impacted by violence,” said one youth leader. “My goal is to learn how to develop ... better strategies and communication skills to get our message out to our peers and the general public.”

Haven has partnered with California State University, Stanislaus, to provide an on-site advocate to work with students who have experienced sexual assault on campus. Sarah Beal provides confidential peer counseling, crisis intervention and referral services for survivors. She also works with Haven Educator Diana Torres to work with student groups.

The program has presentations at new-student orientation and in classrooms throughout the year, connecting with student groups including Warrior Watch, fraternities, sororities, student leaders and other groups. They also presented the movie “Hunting Ground” at the State Theater.

Help for the children

Camp Hope is the first dedicated camping program in America focused on children exposed to domestic violence and physical and sexual abuse. Founded by the San Diego Family Justice Center and now under the Alliance for Hope International, Camp Hope sends children dealing with childhood trauma to summer camp.

The Stanislaus Family Justice Center sent 30 children to Camp Hope this summer. The center also sent 30 campers to the Lions Club’s Camp Pacifica near Mariposa.

A Window Between Worlds is dedicated to using art to help end domestic violence. It has reached more than 74,000 women and children. It has workshops for adults and children. Art Restores Kids is an amazing collaboration between the Stanislaus Family Justice Center and art community where volunteers work with survivors, adults and children, and where feelings, hope and dreams can be shared with people who care.

We create the environment in which we live. We create the environment our children will inherit. By watching us, children learn what things are meant to be kept in the dark, and allowed to continue because it’s “not our business.” By your example, they could instead learn to tell someone.

Emily’s story: To those of you experiencing abuse, I say: You are not alone. It’s not one walk of life or type of person who experiences abuse. I might have gotten help sooner if I wasn’t so embarrassed. Have a plan, have a strategy. If I had that when I was living with the abuse, there would have been a light at the end of the tunnel. You’re the only one who can make your life better.

To those who know someone experiencing abuse, I say: You can’t force someone out of an abusive relationship. Just tell them what you see, and that you’ll be their safe place without judgment. You can only tell them you’ll catch them when they fall.

To those who choose to use violence: You don’t have to be this person. There are people who can help you get better. If you stop hurting the people in your life, it will make your life better.

May Rico is executive director of Haven Women’s Center of Stanislaus. Carol Shipley is executive director of the Stanislaus Family Justice Center.

Seeking help

  • Haven Women’s Center provides services to survivors of sexual and domestic violence regardless of gender or sexual orientation. Haven’s 24-hour crisis line is 209-577-5980; there are offices in Modesto and Turlock.
  • The Stanislaus Family Justice Center is available Monday-Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call 209-525-5130.
  • For general resources, dial 211 to be connected to a comprehensive referral system for health and human service needs in Stanislaus County maintained by United Way.