My Turn: The next steps in ending domestic violence

  • Lizabeth Velez shares her story of domestic violence during a New Beginnings event in Laconia on Aug. 23, 2018. (Photo by Elizabeth Frantz) Elizabeth Frantz

For the Monitor
Published: 2/10/2019 12:25:06 AM

Of the almost 1,300 adult victims of domestic violence in New Hampshire who turned to a shelter for safe housing in 2017, only one in five was able to find an open bed. The same was true for children.

Last week, the Concord Monitor ran a four-part special report, “Fighting Back: Confronting Domestic Violence in New Hampshire.” The stories of survivors who were able to escape abuse and begin to heal all had a key element in common: help and support from family or friends, victim advocates and crisis centers.

Lizabeth Velez attended a support group for battered women, where she heard the stories of other victims and realized for the first time she wasn’t alone. The abuse wasn’t her fault. Lizabeth saw there was a way out for herself and her children. She lived at a shelter for nine months until she was able to find an apartment of her own, with the job and transportation she needed to create a life independent of her abusive husband.

Jane, who was abused by her police officer husband, finally reported his violent behavior to law enforcement with the help of a victim advocate. Rick Label began to heal from his traumatic childhood when a friend suggested he begin talking about his father’s violence and his own sexual abuse.

In the 40 years since the first shelters for battered women opened in this country, advocates have learned a lot about what victims need to get free of violence. Programs focused on different interventions and supports have been tried and evaluated. Responses to violence against women can now be informed by sophisticated knowledge of trauma and the negative consequences of being personally abused or exposed to the abuse of a parent.

But what’s needed isn’t sophisticated, as illustrated in the survivors’ stories featured in the special series. Victims need to be supported, believed and not judged. Everyone has something to contribute in addressing those needs.

Each of us can make sure every victim who reaches out gets help of some kind. If someone tells you they’re afraid of their partner, believe them and let them know about the services provided by the local crisis center. If you suspect someone you know is being abused, reach out yourself.

How do you do that? Try, “I’m worried about your relationship and afraid you might not be safe.” Many victims won’t be ready to acknowledge the truth of that concern, but they’ll remember you cared enough to ask. Go on to say: “I want you to know that you can always come to me for help. If you’re being hurt it’s not your fault.”

You can also confront behavior and statements that uphold a tolerance for abuse of women, helping to shift the cultural norms that contribute to the stigma and shame felt by victims. Call out colleagues, friends or family members who make derogatory statements about women or victims. Challenge expressions of male ownership of women, men’s right to control what their partners can do or statements that blame victims for their own abuse.

But there are supports that are critical for survivors that can’t all be provided by friends and family. Victims need help navigating the transition from reliance on an abuser to living a financially and emotionally independent life. Victims need a safe place to live, a way to pay for the basic needs of themselves and their children and supportive interventions to address the effects of trauma.

The N.H. Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence and its 13 member programs offer exactly this help to victims throughout the state. All of these domestic violence crisis centers offer programs and support based on addressing trauma – shelter, support groups, financial empowerment programs and advocacy through the complicated court system. They know what to do, yet over 80 percent of victims who seek shelter have to be turned away because there isn’t space for them. The need for more resources is obvious.

A system capable of responding to the full range of victims’ needs would have a profound impact on the suffering and tragedy caused by domestic violence. It would also generate enormous financial benefits. It’s estimated that being a victim of domestic violence has a lifetime cost of $103,767 for women. Multiply that figure by the 33 percent of women in the state who’ve been victims and the vast cost of untreated domestic violence is staggering – $18.7 billion. The true cost is even greater given the lifetime consequences for the well-being of every child raised in the midst of this violence.

Imagine how much healthier New Hampshire would be if a fraction of the true costs of domestic violence were invested up front in effective interventions for victims and their children. Currently the state provides $600,000 to fund services for victims of domestic violence. The coalition’s request for an increase in state funding for the next biennium is well justified.

Making sure there’s adequate support for people who’ve already experienced domestic violence is important in reducing further harm and helping victims and their children heal. But what if we could stop domestic violence before it even happens?

There are tested, school-based programs shown to be effective in reducing violence by promoting healthy relationships, bystander awareness, and respect and empathy among peers in the classroom. Prevention educators from crisis centers across the state use a variety of teaching methods to implement these programs. In spite of the known benefits of this work, the state doesn’t invest any resources in prevention and the coalition’s member programs struggle to continue their prevention efforts in schools and communities. The positive impact of this work could easily be expanded if it was seen as a priority for state and community support.

The “Fighting Back” special report did an excellent job of making domestic violence real through the stories of survivors. The resources to help victims were highlighted every day, but we need to be sure those resources have the funding they need to help every victim who is ready to leave an abusive partner.

Together we can take the next step in ending domestic violence. We can change the culture through our own words and actions, and we can urge state leaders to understand and act on the necessity and far-reaching value of more adequate funding. We need to insist that every victim who reaches out for help gets it, and that we find the resources to prevent domestic violence before it happens.

(Grace Mattern is a poet and writer who lives in Northwood. She was previously the executive director of the N.H. Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.)

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