The 3 Actions We Have To Take For Domestic Violence Survivors

October is Domestic Violence Awareness month, and Refinery29 has partnered with Safe Horizon to bring our readers real stories from domestic violence advocates and survivors. Ahead, Liz Roberts, Deputy CEO and chief program officer of Safe Horizon, gives Refinery29 readers three concrete ways to support survivors of domestic violence.

I’ve worked in the domestic violence field for 30 years, and I’ve noticed cycles in our collective attention to the issue. It’ll be in the background, and then something — like the OJ Simpson trial in the ‘90s — will pop it into the forefront. For the past year or so, we’ve been riding another wave. In September of last year, when TMZ released shocking footage of NFL star Ray Rice knocking out his then-fiancé Janay Palmer, it sparked an extraordinary public outcry. Social response in the form of hashtags like #whyistayed and #whyileft revealed the complexity of domestic violence in a way we’d never before seen.

In the months that followed, there was a cascade of announcements that sports organizations like the NFL, MLB, and NBA were creating new domestic violence policies and training programs (partnering with organizations like Safe Horizon), all focused on supporting survivors and holding abusers accountable.

In the wake of the newly expanded conversation around DV, we need to keep momentum going and focus our efforts on three key areas that haven’t yet gotten the attention they need.

1. We have to support survivors who may fall through the cracks.

Much of the government funding to address domestic violence is geared toward families. That means we have fewer resources for childless survivors. About 40% of victims who call New York City’s 24-hour domestic violence hotline seeking shelter (operated by Safe Horizon) are singles — but they’re the most difficult to place, because most of the beds go to survivors with children. It gets worse: Much of the early legislature around domestic violence relied on marriage or children to define an "intimate relationship." If you’re in a dating relationship and don’t live together, there are certain kinds of relief you won’t even qualify for in many states.

For LGBTQ survivors, too, we just don’t have the same safety net in place. In our efforts to raise awareness about sexism as a driving factor in domestic violence (i.e., men feeling entitlement and exerting control in heterosexual relationships), we created an image of domestic violence as something that always happens between a male abuser and a female victim. We now know from a number of studies that domestic violence occurs at the same rate in same-sex relationships, and it looks about the same: It’s one partner abusing and intimidating the other.

We need assistance and legal protection for all victims of abuse, regardless of marital status, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Toward that aim, you can get on the mailing list for your state coalition against domestic violence. (The National Coalition can point you there.) When there’s a threatened cut to services or an opportunity to increase victims’ options, go to the rally, sign petitions, or call your rep. This kind of policy tends to be set at the local level, and city and state governments respond to their constituencies.

2. We need to look beyond survivors’ immediate safety.

Until the 1970s, there literally were no sanctioned options for battered women: no shelters, no hotlines, no orders of protection. So out of necessity, we focused on victims’ immediate safety. Now, we need to offer more support around long-term survival and self-sufficiency, once immediate safety has been addressed. We’ve set up a system where, too often, survivors face the awful choice of entering long-term homelessness or returning to the abusive partner. That’s unacceptable.

Our short-term focus has had another victim: children who are exposed to domestic violence. In 30 to 60% of families where intimate partner abuse occurs, child abuse occurs as well. And we’ve also come to understand that seeing your caregiver hurt and terrified and demeaned — even if you’re never physically hurt yourself — has a huge impact on kids. But there’s good news, too. We’ve seen that just five therapy sessions right after a traumatic experience can make an enormous difference in children’s coping. That’s why it’s so important to offer programs such as our partnership with the NYPD, known as the Child Trauma Response Team, in which we go into homes to offer counseling immediately after a serious incident of violence.

It’s time to invest in real options for families who are escaping abusive relationships: access to education, housing, childcare, and job training in areas of work that will allow survivors to earn a living wage. Contact your company’s HR department about setting up a program that partners with a local domestic violence shelter to create job opportunities. Call up a shelter and volunteer to provide career counseling or résumé prep assistance. And continue advocating for affordable housing through your state’s coalition.

3. We must reframe our views on leaving an abusive relationship.

A decade or 15 years ago, a common conversation on many domestic violence hotlines went like this:

Survivor: "My partner’s abusing me, but I still love him."
Advocate: "Here are your options: You can go into a shelter, or you can go to court and get an order of protection."
Survivor: "I’m not sure I’m ready for that."
Advocate: "Okay, give us a call us when you’re ready."

The message was: We’re here for you when you’re prepared to leave, but until then, there’s nothing we can do. Now, our staff might say, “Why don’t you come in and meet with our staff? We can explore your options and discuss your safety in the meantime — how to protect yourself when a blowup is coming.” We’re not here to rescue women, to go in, guns blazing, and pull them out of there. We’re here to support survivors, wherever they are in the process.

Because leaving is just the beginning. It’s the most dangerous time for survivors, when abuse can escalate. We also see that many survivors who make multiple attempts to get out get shut out by their friends or family (“Don’t come crying back to me”), which further isolates them, making it that much harder to leave for good. When survivors do make the choice to leave, complications can drag on for years: custody battles, shared property, seeing each other in court. Those steps are hard enough following any breakup; they’re 10 times harder when the abusive partner is using every tool he or she has to punish you or reassert control.

So, how can you help? Help loved ones get support. If you believe someone you know is in an abusive relationship, you can quickly become overwhelmed with how to best help them. Get support for yourself; you can call the local domestic violence hotline for guidance about how to talk with your loved one and find out about counseling, resources, and options for both of you.

Raise awareness and support organizations like Safe Horizon. Take a stand against domestic violence as part of Safe Horizon’s #PutTheNailinIt campaign. After donating at putthenailinit.org, paint your left ring fingernail purple to show your support and, finally, use the hashtag #PutTheNailinIt to show your vow to end domestic violence.

On both a large and small scale, together we can help victims become survivors.
Safe Horizon’s #PutTheNailinIt campaign asks men and women to support victims of abuse and take a stand against domestic violence. Join the campaign by donating at safehorizon.org; then, paint your left ring fingernail purple — use the hashtag #PutTheNailinIt to show your vow to end domestic violence.
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