Year after year in October, individuals and institutions around the country observe Domestic Violence Month, an annual effort to draw attention to what President Barack Obama has called a scourge, an injustice and a violation of basic human rights. Yet even as the numbers cited by the president suggest domestic violence incidents have decreased over the past 20 years, the problem remains: 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men have suffered violence at the hands of an intimate partner.
But if the problem seems intractable in some ways, its opponents are likewise determined to keep raising awareness and implement programs to provide aid, shelter and resources which include legal protections for victims of violence, abuse and other controlling behaviors perpetrated by someone in their life who would be expected to love them, not hurt them.
One organization dedicating substantial resources against domestic violence is the YWCA of Central Alabama. Weld has previously covered how the agency fits within a network of organizations similarly focused on educating the public and assisting victims.
This month, as part of an ongoing look at the issue of domestic violence, Weld talked to Amanda Carmichael, assistant director of Domestic Violence Services for the YWCA.
Weld: Every year there is an observance of Domestic Violence Month. Does it make a difference?
Amanda Carmichael: Absolutely! It does make a difference. For us, domestic violence awareness happens 365 days a year, but the average person is not thinking about the issue like we are. Having a designated time that is recognized nationally to bring awareness to the epidemic of domestic violence is critical. Even something as simple as wearing a purple ribbon makes a difference. I can’t tell you how many times someone has asked about my ribbon and then told me about a friend or family member who is being abused. Once we get people’s attention, we can educate the public so that more victims can get help and we can save lives.
Weld: How do the services offered by the YWCA meet the needs of local domestic violence victims?
Carmichael: We have a 24-Hour Crisis Hotline (205-322-4878) that victims can call so that we can determine their needs and guide them through making a safety plan and taking that next step. We also have two confidential emergency shelters, one in Jefferson County and one in St. Clair. We have lawyers on staff who can assist with legal issues such as divorce, child custody or Protection from Abuse orders (PFAs), and our Court Advocates attend hearings with victims and guide them through the complicated legal system.
We also help victims obtain services like housing, child care or job training. We offer support groups and individual counseling for victims, as well as for children who have witnessed domestic violence.
Weld: What don’t people know about your services or about the need for them?
Carmichael: I think most people think abuse has to be physical. While it is in many cases, in some cases it only happens as financial, emotional or psychological abuse and is never physical. For abusers, it’s all about power and control. They may isolate their victims from family and friends, limit their access to finances and transportation, or threaten to kill the children if they try to leave.
Another thing that people don’t realize is that victims don’t necessarily have to come into shelter to access YW services. Last year, we served 421 women and children in shelter, but we provided 4,942 victims with court advocacy and legal assistance.
Weld: Please elaborate a little about how witnessing domestic violence affects children.
Carmichael: Of course, our first concern is always for their safety. Older children, particularly boys, may try to intervene and stop the violence. Even if they are not targets themselves, they may get hurt while trying to protect the victim. Emotionally, it can take a huge toll on children and those scars often outlast any physical scars. They may be dealing with the logistics of fear, anxiety and depression that come with living in a tumultuous household.
Abusers are unpredictable and for kids who thrive on structure, rules and knowing what’s expected of them, it can be very confusing and stressful. We also worry about the long-term effects. Too often children who live in a violent home learn that you deal with problems by abusing those you love. The biggest risk factor for perpetuating the cycle of violence from one generation to the next is witnessing domestic violence as a child.
Weld: Can you explain what counselors have to do to help kids in such situations?
Carmichael: Again, one of the first things we do is talk with them about how to be safe in an unsafe home. We discuss how to call 911 and help them know when they should call for help. We talk with them about whether or not they have another trusted adult they can confide in about what’s happening at home. Our main message to children is that what’s happening at home is not their fault. Children are often egocentric, and [think] everything is about them. A lot of times kids take that ownership and think that they’ve done something wrong to cause the violence. Building up their self-esteem is a huge piece, and we make sure they know that they are important and worthy.
We’ve also seen that there is a big connection between their mom’s healing and their own healing. As their mom gets better and grows stronger and more confident, the kids get better too.
Weld: How do you reach out to domestic violence victims?
Carmichael: Our staff speaks to different civic, professional and faith-based groups about our services and the warning signs of domestic violence, and we distribute our materials and crisis hotline number to as many different groups as possible through community wide-events and neighborhood gatherings, to name a few.
Annetta Nunn, our community outreach coordinator, has provided training for medical personnel, first responders, law enforcement officials, school personnel, hair stylists and others so that they can better recognize the signs of domestic violence and refer victims to the YWCA and the services we offer. All of these wonderful community partners, which also include court officials and healthcare providers, serve as eyes and ears in the community and are an important part of our efforts to help reach victims.
Weld: How much of a problem is domestic violence in the area you serve?
Carmichael: Unfortunately, it’s a huge problem in our area. So far in 2016, at least 15 people in Jefferson County were killed as a result of domestic violence. That’s more than twice the number of those killed here in all of 2015. Last year, we answered 2,740 calls to our Crisis Hotline, and we served about 10,000 victims in some way. And those numbers just represent victims who seek help. Studies show that only about half of domestic violence crimes are ever reported.
Weld: What barriers are there to victims getting the help they need?
Carmichael: There are lots of barriers for victims trying to escape abusive relationships. They may be afraid to leave because the abusers have threatened to kill them, their children or their pets. Some don’t have access to money or other resources, so they are afraid they won’t be able to take care of their children. For some, religious beliefs may keep them from leaving. Often, there’s a “honeymoon period” that follows abuse, and the abuser brings gifts, is kind and attentive, and promises that it will never happen again. Many times victims still love the abuser and hope that he will change or that she can change him.
Weld: Do you have any success stories showing how YWCA has helped victims?
Carmichael: We see success stories every day. We recently had a woman move out of shelter and into an apartment of her own. She has a good job, she’s found a church home and she’s made friends who can support her and encourage her to stay the course in this new chapter of her life. Most importantly, she no longer lives in fear. Starting over can seem daunting — a victim may not have a job or a place to live. She and her children may have left with only the clothes on their backs.
Survivors often have to make lots of sacrifices, but in the end, they tell us that a life free from abuse is peaceful and refreshing, and they find freedom in their new lives. They begin to rediscover themselves after doing everything the abuser told them to do for so long. We hear from former clients, and we have volunteers and staff members who have experienced domestic violence. They are here because they want to give back in some way and offer hope to victims who think there’s no way out.
Weld: Do you have an example showing why it’s important for people who see evidence of domestic violence to get involved?
Carmichael: We’ve had at least 15 examples in our community already this year. That’s the number of people who have been killed in Jefferson County as a result of domestic violence. If we don’t educate ourselves and know what the signs are and where to get help, we can’t help ourselves or our neighbors. It’s a community problem because people in our community are losing their lives, and one life lost due to domestic violence is one too many.
Weld: What would your organization’s message to victims be?
Carmichael: The most important thing we want them to know is that they are not alone, and that help is available. We can offer them the tools to safely end an unhealthy relationship and to move toward health and well-being. We can help them develop a safety plan that’s individualized just for them. We want victims to know that they have worth. They deserve to be safe and healthy, and so do their children.