The ways domestic abuse can affect people can be insidious and long-lasting. Consider just one story told Monday night at a candlelight vigil held in Dothan, as related by Beverly Youse of the Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence (ACADV).
The story was told by an attorney, and dates back to when she was five years old, two days before Christmas. She didn’t know that her mother had been living in an abusive relationship with her father. At that age, she only knew that her parents were arguing.
“It was something about a doll she had asked for Christmas and her mother couldn’t find it. And the father was distressed over that,” Youse recalled. “And anyway, somewhere in the wee hours of the morning, the father shot and killed the mother. And this little five-year-old girl saw her mother — as she said, in her yellow flowered dress, with blood all over her — saw her like that.
“And for many years of her life [she] felt the guilt, because if she hadn’t have asked for that doll it wouldn’t have happened, which of course is not the situation. But in a child’s mind, that is the situation.
“I guess my strongest message is — even for those who don’t feel they want to leave now, or can leave now, but they’re struggling with that as an issue — call a domestic violence program and just talk with someone. Know that you’re not alone.”
Youse, president of the ACADV board of directors, is also the executive director of the Dothan-based shelter House of Ruth, which provides services to victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault. She also knows what it’s like to be a victim; in her first marriage, she was, in her words, “a battered woman.”
After 30 years as an advocate, Youse has, unsurprisingly, strong feelings about the need for victims to reach for help even if they aren’t thinking of leaving the abusive situation.
Domestic abuse, which includes violence and a number of other efforts to dominate and control a person’s life, makes victims both direct and indirect and leads to a host of long- and short-term legal, social and emotional consequences, advocates say.
In Alabama, a number of agencies and groups have arisen to combat the problem that crosses every demographic line, affects every social stratum, and which can shatter the lives of both adults and children. Some of those advocacy groups are made up of likeminded organizations, like the ACADV, which is a coalition of 18 shelters located throughout the state.
Every county in the state is assigned to an ACADV-affiliated shelter, Youse said. And every shelter offers completely free, 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week services and support for victims no matter where they are calling from through those shelters, as well as through a hotline, (1-800) 650-6522, and a multipage website which functions as a comprehensive resource and clearinghouse of information about domestic violence, victims, perpetrators, laws, shelters, government agencies and other advocacy groups.
The shelters in the ACADV, Youse noted, “all have crisis lines. They all have safe shelters, and they all have nonshelter programs — and by that I mean the basic services you would get in shelter, you just don’t sleep over.”
ACADV also multiplies the impact of those shelters by connecting them to work toward common goals, she said. “The coalition provides domestic violence programs throughout the state with a place to come together to work on activities that would benefit victims of domestic violence and their children that we couldn’t accomplish alone. And part of that would be legislation, public policy, statewide training and pilot projects,” Youse said.
The coalition also forms something similar to an accrediting agency for shelters. “We have minimum standards of service that each of us have to go through and be reviewed every other year to ensure that each program is adhering to those standards, and that is part of membership in the coalition,” Youse said.
“We’re talking about everything from your confidentiality policy to the safety issues surrounding the shelter itself and the physical building; board oversight — in other words, they make sure that our individual boards are meeting and reviewing the proper policy; that our staff is trained — the coalition provides training that each new domestic violence staff member has to undergo in order for that shelter to keep its certification.”
The shelters which make up the ACADV are not the only shelters or organizations which provide service to victims. Others, like the YWCA of Central Alabama, offer a slate of resources of their own as well as working with government and nonprofit partners to deal with various domestic abuse-related issues.
For instance, as a standalone agency, the YWCA provides training in domestic violence awareness to a variety of organizations, said Annetta Nunn, the group’s community outreach coordinator — and a former Birmingham Police chief.
A good part of Nunn’s job is doing such training. “I’ve done some for law enforcement. We had a curriculum to provide it for the medical community that’s designed for them. We’ve done sororities, churches, community groups,” she said.
“I have an upcoming training where we do it with the Birmingham Fire Department, because a lot of times when people are injured in domestic incidents, they may not go to an emergency room. They may not call the police. They may call the paramedics.”
While one aim of training paramedics is to help them refer domestic violence victims to crisis hotlines, there is another goal, Nunn said. “So they will recognize when they can possibly be in danger because of going into and responding to calls where there is domestic violence going on. Firefighters can potentially be injured as well.”
Another aspect of that outreach, Nunn said, is a program called Healthy Relationships. “We have some of our AmeriCorp members who go into the middle and high schools to teach the Safe Dates curriculum, which is an evidence-based curriculum to teach what healthy and unhealthy relationships look like so that they’ll recognize that they are getting involved with somebody who may be a potential batterer,” she said. “Or even if they’re growing up in an abusive household, they can get information to let them know that this is not the norm and that there is a better way to handle altercations.”
The YWCA’s wide range of services include safety planning — helping victims plan how to get away from abusive relationships safely — to support groups, counseling, court advocacy, and legal services, and even a monitored visitation and exchange program designed to give victims and their children a safe location to allow for court-ordered visitation with the noncustodial parent.
“We want to be able to assist them with whatever their needs are around a domestic violence issue,” said Jennifer Caraway, Director of Domestic Violence Services for the YWCA of Central Alabama.
At the same time, Caraway noted that the YW doesn’t really stand alone. “We are very lucky to be able to partner with many other community agencies and we couldn’t do this work without the other community partners,” she said. The Birmingham Police, as one example, provides security for the monitored visitation and exchange program. But the YW’s connections to other agencies are much broader.
The YW is a member of the Jefferson County Coordinated Community Response, which Caraway describes as a “wonderful team of social service organizations in Jefferson County that all come together for the same reason and the same mission, which is to help eliminate and eradicate domestic violence in our county.”
Now with more than 20 member agencies, the JCCCR started several years ago and meets on the fourth Monday of every month for a brown bag luncheon at the Gateway shelter on Southside. The monthly meetings afford members the opportunity to hear speakers and discuss the shape of domestic violence in the community, Caraway said, adding, “It’s a great way to share what we’re doing.”
The JCCCR has “a steering committee which we are also a part of, to be able to look at best practices in domestic violence for victims and to hold perpetrators accountable,” Caraway said.
The YW is also part of a “wonderful pilot program called the Metropolitan Family Justice Center,” Caraway said. “It is a model that is the colocation of services under one roof. So it’s taking the partnerships of the different community agencies, having them under one roof for all the great reasons I told you that we at the Y have these under one roof. But we partner with Rape Response, the Birmingham Police Department and the Jefferson County DA’s office.”
The family justice center group meets on the second Friday at Empower in Avondale, “to be able to allow victims of domestic violence and sexual assault to come to one location to be able to talk to the police department, talk to an attorney from the YW, talk to an advocate from Rape Response, talk to a prosecutor from Jefferson County D.A.s office, so that everything is there for them,” Caraway said.
That coalition of agencies is similar to one called One Place in Montgomery, which seeks to “provide a comprehensive service and support center which affords greater safety, access to services, and confidentiality for victims and their families by co-locating services under one roof,” according to its website.
According to the One Place website, the Family Justice Center concept originated in San Diego in 2002. “The National Family Justice Center Alliance now helps communities develop such centers across the United States and around the world. The Family Justice Center model has been identified as a best practice in the field of domestic violence intervention and prevention services by the United States Department of Justice.”
Family justice centers have led to “reduced homicides; increased victim safety; increased autonomy and empowerment for victims; reduced fear and anxiety for victims and their children; increased efficiency and coordination among service providers; and reduced recantation and minimization by victims when wrapped in services and support,” as noted on the One Place site.
The hope is that the Jefferson County-based Metropolitan Family Justice Center will grow beyond the pilot stage, Caraway said. Currently, the YW and other agencies working together in the effort are in the middle of a needs assessment with the goal of solidifying onsite and offsite partnering agencies and establishing the FJC as a continual source of support for victims.
The ultimate goal of all these efforts by a vast and growing number of organizations is to eliminate domestic violence and to provide protection and support for those whose lives are disrupted and threatened by it. While the services are there, sometimes victims find them too late.
Nunn tells a story of a victim she never met face-to-face. Nunn said she had written an article about domestic violence, and “A couple of weeks later they came back and started to tell me about their cousin who was in an abusive relationship. And everything that was in that article, they could see it. And they told me about what was going on. I told them that if nothing, if no one intervenes and she stays in this relationship, that she’s going to be killed. Eventually, I think she did leave, but…some kind of way, he found where she was and he did kill her and kill himself.”
Getting a victim to leave someone who is abusing her can be difficult for a lot of reasons, sometimes leading people to ask “Why?” The question jumps into the public discourse when the victims are people of some note or celebrity — like the singer Rhianna, famously abused by her equally famous boyfriend Chris Brown, or Janay Rice, who was knocked out on camera by her husband Ray, the now indefinitely suspended Baltimore Ravens running back.
Jennifer Caraway said that people are asking the wrong question. “The question shouldn’t be, ‘Why does she stay?’ but ‘Why does he continue to abuse?’” she said. Many times, the victim has powerful barriers to walking away. One of those facing many victims who live with domestic abuse every day is financial.
“It’s hard to become self-sufficient when you have never had a job, when you have never been allowed to have a job, when you’ve never been allowed to work,” Caraway said. “And again that’s part of that power and control that the perpetrator has been able to establish over the victim. When there are no funds, when everything is in his name and everything is in his bank account, how do you leave and break away, especially when you have children that you need to care for?
“The other thing that we don’t talk a lot about is this is someone who is in a relationship because at some point she really loved this person, and sometimes I think the victim thinks that she can make him change.”
Unfortunately, advocates say, many abusers don’t change their behavior. And domestic violence remains a widespread problem not always understood even by victims. Even today, some victims accept the reasoning that they are somehow at fault and responsible for their own suffering. That’s just wrong, advocates say.
“No one deserves to be abused,” Youse said. “I don’t care what the supposed reason is.”
Highlighting that simple truth is a big part of the reason why October is designated Domestic Violence Awareness Month. But although the month comes to a close, the problem remains, as does hope that people will keep eliminating domestic abuse as a priority, Caraway said.
“My hope is that people will continue talking about domestic violence, even after the month of October is over,” she said. “I hope that domestic violence will no longer be a problem that is ignored or excused. I hope during the month of October, we have done something to change the attitudes about domestic violence.”
Suffer the children
Among the many resources available through the ACADV website are those pertaining to children, who, like the attorney mentioned above, become victims of domestic violence by growing up in a home with an abuser.
“Domestic violence affects every member of the family, including the children,” the website notes. “Family violence creates a home environment where children live in constant fear.
“Children who witness family violence are affected in ways similar to children who are physically abused. They are often unable to establish nurturing bonds with either parent. Children are at greater risk for abuse and neglect if they live in a violent home. Statistics show that over 3 million children witness violence in their home each year. Those who see and hear violence in the home suffer physically and emotionally.”
The ACADV website lists a number of indicators that may show whether a child is living in an abusive situation, indicators that begin with infants (the list of nine issues includes developmental delays and lack of responsiveness), and end with adolescents, where the list includes “internalized and externalized behavior problems [that] can become extreme and dangerous: drug/alcohol, truancy, gangs, sexual acting out, pregnancy, runaway, suicidal;” and “dating relationships [that] may reflect violence learned or witnessed in the home.”
Nunn, of the YW, said that helping children has to be a high priority in efforts to reduce domestic violence overall. “The bad thing about it is domestic violence is the crime that occurs between people who are supposed to love each other. If you want to reduce it, you have to deal with families and actually start when they’re younger, because studies have shown that children who grow up in abusive households, particularly boys, tend to be batterers when they grow up,” Nunn said. “It’s also been seen as one of the prime predictors of future criminal behavior.
“When we deal with adults — say, a mother who may be in one of our support groups — we also have a group we call Children in Crisis to deal with children who may have witnessed domestic violence, so we can start to let them know that this is not their fault, this is not the norm, and hopefully address that where they won’t repeat that cycle in their lives.”
Sidebar: How do you know?
The ACADV website lists a number of signs to look for in friends who may be victims of domestic abuse:
- Have you seen evidence of injuries?
- Have you accepted her explanations for her black eyes, bruises or broken bones?
- Does she miss work frequently?
- Does her partner show an unusual amount of control over her life?
- Have you noticed changes in her or her children’s behavior?
- Does her partner embarrass or ridicule her in public?
- Does her partner blame her for the way he acts or the things he says?
For more information, visit http://www.acadv.org/friends.html.