October is DVAM

DVAMThe month of October is different things to different people. It’s the first full month of fall, with changing leaves and cooler, longer nights. Some consider October the beginning of the holiday season (kicking off with Halloween, of course).  With pink ribbons everywhere you look, many know it as Breast Cancer Awareness month. It’s also Autism  Awareness Month and National Bullying Prevention Month. All of these are worthy associations with October. Personally, I always think of October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month (DVAM).  I have my purple ribbon on my bag all year, but I try to grab a few more for display during October.

Considering the number of high-profile domestic violence (DV) cases that have been in the news recently (no need to link; just do an Internet search on “domestic violence” and “NFL”), one might think awareness of DV is at an all-time high. We’re not so sure, though; just because something is the news for a few days doesn’t mean we as a society have anything more than a cursory understanding of it. While the media may have good intentions, they don’t necessarily always do a great job reporting on DV (think of – or take notice for the first time – the many stories about domestic violence in which media is reluctant to even use the term; or the language they use to try to minimize it). And if one is not well-versed in the complexities of domestic violence, it can be easy to fall back on supposed truths that are really just common misconceptions.

So you will have to forgive us if we cast a wary eye at some overly-broad attempts at awareness that don’t challenge how we as a society allow DV to happen. But we still appreciate many of the efforts made during this time of the year to bring a greater understanding on the issue. WRAL has long partnered with Wake County DV agency InterAct to create an opportunity for learning more about DV and how we as a community can stop it. This year their parent company, Capitol Broadcasting, is partnering with numerous DV agencies and programs to bring us Enough NC, a campaign designed to share resources about the help available to victims of abuse.  This included setting up an FAQ page last month to address some common resource questions. While this page provides a lot of good information, as a long-time advocate working locally and state-wide to assist victims of DV, I have some concerns that this page may not have all the information DV victims, and a community that truly wants to help them, need:

  • Finding shelter for victims fleeing abusive relationships, many times with young children, is not an easy process. At all. Many local shelters run at full capacity most days of the week; and those shelters are not very big to begin with. Most NC counties have a program for support of DV victims, but not all of them have a shelter (Orange County is one example). Shelters – requiring 24 hour staffing in addition to the usual housing expenses – require adequate funding, something that is not always prioritized by local, state and federal governments. That lack of political and citizen will is also a problem for the patchwork system of homeless shelters available, to which many agencies will direct abuse victims seeking shelter when they cannot accommodate their needs.
  • Agencies will do their best to find shelter for a DV victim, but the lack of space does mean there is a hierarchy of how the space is allocated. Those fleeing their home county can be a priority, as these victims feel their situation is too dangerous to even stay in the same town as their abuser. But traveling even one county away – much less several states – can provide another challenge by severing the DV victim from any support, including a job, school and family, s/he and the children may currently have. And even that effort is not a guarantee of safety; abusers have been known to be good detectives when it comes to finding their partners (the Internet makes for an effective stalking tool).
  • Legal Aid of North Carolina does a fantastic job of providing DV victims with free/low cost legal services, when they can. Like so many non-profits, their resources are stretched very thin, and they have more on their plate than just DV cases. My experience receiving calls and e-mails via NCWU from DV victims – who have neither the connections nor the money their abusers do – seeking low-cost/free legal help leads me to believe we don’t have sufficient resources in this field. Legal Aid cannot help everybody, and it’s not just because they don’t have the resources (although that is a big part of it). Some DV victims need more intensive help from attorneys, as their abusers continue to abuse them through our legal system (by filing a counter restraining order, using past mental health issues against them to take custody of the children, etc.).
  • The above goes for all resources DV victims may need – assistance with housing, bills, job searches, intensive counseling, etc. There are many good resources out there that the agencies are aware of, but there just usually aren’t enough of those resources to meet the need.
  • We always tell DV victims that they can call 911 if they feel they are in danger, and that is sound advice.  For the most part. However, it’s not always the best advice. If your abuser is a police officer, or is well-connected to the police (something that can easily happen in small towns), this may not seem like a good option to you. And while there have been great strides in police training and understanding of the dynamics of intimate-partner violence (IPV; another name for DV), it is still a poorly understood issue, and not always a great fit for criminal justice remedies. Many times, police are left to try and figure out who really did what, and they may solve that quandary by arresting both people involved, or making no arrests at all. Coupled with victims who either feel bad they had their abuser arrested; worry that the abuser will be mad when s/he eventually leaves jail; or who just don’t trust the police; and we can see how this oft-repeated piece of advice may not work for everyone.

This resource page is a great effort to spread awareness of the programs available to DV victims, many of whom are adequately served by these resources. And as a resource page, it’s function is not to get into the weeds about why DV happens, and how we as a society allow it to happen. That function is more the job of advocates like us, and that is what I am doing by filling in some of the gaps I see in this resource.  This resource – like many DV resources – imagines a world we don’t currently have; one if which safety net programs, DV agencies and social welfare support programs are prioritized and fully funded; and law enforcement and our legal and health systems have staff specially trained in and dedicated to assisting victims of abuse.

The greatest resource we have as a community to help DV victims is each other – challenging ourselves to provide that extra support to our friends/families/acquaintances who may be experiencing abuse; asking ourselves why we support abusers at the expense of their victims just because the abuser is good at something else; questioning why we prioritize upholding the gender/racial/heteronormative status quo at the expense of others’ safety and security;  advocating that we fully fund safety net programs that can assist victims leaving the abuse; and connecting the dots from economic security, gender inequality, civil rights, and political participation to domestic violence.

Not all abusers respond to pressure or punishment. But plenty of abusers may think twice if they are getting pushback from their friends/family/co-workers/society in general. And that’s a pushback we can only provide together, not as a separate, under-funded resource. Many of you already know the basics of DV – we’ve been calling it a “crisis” in this country for over 40 years now. We are just asking that you dig a little deeper this month, and perhaps learn something that challenges your perceptions – of who a “typical” DV victim is; what causes it; or what is involved in finally leaving an abusive relationship. Just even paying attention to how it’s reported – or ignored – in our mainstream media can be eye-opening. It’s up to us to build the world we imagine.

Tara Romano, NCWU, President