Sunday, October 13, 2013

What we can do about Domestic Violence

Published in the Shelby Star on Oct 11, 2013

Early in my career as the director of a shelter for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, my life and my approach to my work were transformed by a toddler, a little 4-year old girl I'll call Lizzie (not her real name). Lizzie suffered from fits of rage, something commonly seen in children who witness or suffer extreme violence at a very young age. Her rages usually lasted 10 to 20 minutes at a time and were triggered by sounds, smells or events that were connected to her memories of abuse. During these rages, Lizzie was unresponsive to reason. In fact, she would try to hurt anyone who tried to comfort her or stop her from hurting herself.

The doctors and therapists brought in to diagnose and treat Lizzie, told her mother and me that Lizzie needed to learn very clear boundaries around her behavior, and that we all had to be diligent and consistent, immediately interrupting Lizzie’s violent behavior and rewarding her good behavior. Lizzie will respond, they said, when the limitations on her behavior are clear to her.
Well, we tried. For weeks, every time Lizzie went into one of her rages, her mother, supported by our staff, worked hard to gently, but firmly interrupt the violence, using time outs, rewarding good behavior, putting Lizzie in what they called a “restraining position” so she couldn’t hurt herself or the one holding her. We did everything the therapists had suggested, but Lizzie wasn’t responding. In fact, her violence towards herself and others during her rages was increasing.

One late afternoon, I was talking with Lizzie’s mom in the living room when another woman who was staying in the shelter returned home, carrying a large package. She asked one of the kids playing outside to help her close the door behind her. As sometimes happens, when the little boy closed the door, he slammed it shut. Lizzie, who had been playing quietly on the floor in front of us, jumped up, ran behind the little toy kitchen in the corner of the room, and curled up on the floor in a fetal position. A rage began to overtake her, and her mother responded immediately, per the instructions given by the therapists.

But Lizzie would not be comforted. She hit and kicked at her mother, biting at her and screaming ugly things. When her mother tried to pick her up to put her into the restraining position, Lizzie wriggled out of her arms and began running at full speed into the furniture. Her mother, totally overwhelmed, sat down on the floor, put her hands over her face, and began to cry.
I caught Lizzie in my arms as she ran across the room, sat down on the floor, and began to rock her in my lap. As Lizzie screamed and struggled to get free, I spoke softly to her, saying only that she was loved and that everything would be OK. I held her firmly, but not in the restraining position. She punched and swung at me, even bit me once on the arm, but I continued to softly speak words of love to her.

Eventually, Lizzie stopped struggling and rested in my arms, her breaths short and sharp from her recent tantrum. A minute later, Lizzie looked up at me, her eyes still puffy from crying and asked, “Am I a good girl?” “Yes, darling, Lizzie. You’re a good girl.” I assured her. A moment later, Lizzie was asleep.

That was the last fit Lizzie ever threw. By the grace of God, I realized in that frantic moment that what Lizzie needed wasn’t boundaries or limits or discipline. What she needed was tenderness and the assurance that she was loved.

Being only four years old, Lizzie lacked the words she needed to describe how the violence she had witnessed and suffered made her feel. She was too scared to tell anyone that she thought she must be bad and somehow to blame for the nightmare she lived. She was too little and too vulnerable to speak her greatest fear – that she wasn’t loved. So instead, she acted out. It was the only way she knew how to “tell” her story.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. During this month we, as a community, call upon ourselves to hear the stories of those in our midst who suffer and commit to working for safety, healing, and justice for them, with them, until it is achieved. To do this we must make ourselves ready by informing ourselves, willingly taking in the dreadful truth of this terrible problem, setting aside our judgments and opening ourselves to a new understanding by listening to the stories of the brave victims who are willing to speak.

Looking at domestic violence from the outside, many people ask, “Why does she stay?” The truth is, victims of domestic violence are at an increased risk of harm when they make the choice to leave their batterer. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, in 70-80% of intimate partner homicides, no matter which partner was killed, the man physically abused the woman before the murder. Many women witness their pets being killed as proof that their abuser means business, coupled with an explicit threat that they are next. In addition, many don’t have access to money or a car in order to leave. Batterers isolate their victims over time, convincing family and friends that they are “crazy” or “liars.” They may also have moved their victims away from anyone who might be of help to them.

Then there is the fact that many victims love the person who has become their batterer. From the outside that may seem confusing, but abandoning a loved one isn’t something one does easily. Even if she can find safe haven and support her family on her own, leaving the father of her children or the person with whom she has shared marriage vows, is a very hard thing to do, especially with little or no outside support for doing it.

Domestic violence is also cyclic. The violent behaviors and expectations are passed from one generation to the next. Growing up in homes where domestic violence is present normalizes it in the experience of the children. Children who grow up in violent homes learn that love will be violent at times. They learn to minimize the danger of it and tend to be attracted to people who fulfill their expectation for it. In violent relationships, jealousy and control is misinterpreted as love, and violent threats and behaviors are misinterpreted as passion and strength.

Even though most cases of domestic violence are never reported, last year, the Abuse Prevention Council here in Shelby, provided shelter to over 150 women and children. They advocated and filed for 846 orders of protection keep victims and their families safe from their abusers. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that:

• an estimated 1.3 million women are assaulted by their intimate partners each year.
• boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their own partners and children when they become adults.
• 30% to 60% of those who abuse their intimate partners also abuse children in the household.
• the cost of intimate partner violence exceeds $5.8 billion each year, $4.1 billion of which is for direct medical and mental health services … and yet…
• less than one-fifth of victims reporting an injury from intimate partner violence sought medical treatment following the injury.
(Taken from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence Facts Sheet at

Statistics like these can cause us to lose heart. How can we approach a problem of this magnitude? The answer is: together. Together we can wake ourselves up to the truth about domestic violence, then, armed with the truth, act as a community to end it. Here are some concrete steps we can take to get started:

• we educate ourselves on the facts about domestic violence. Our local Abuse Prevention Council (APC) can help, or go online to;
• we financially support the APC and their efforts to rebuild the broken lives of the women and children they serve so that the generational cycle of abuse is interrupted;
• we volunteer our time, talents, and expertise to strengthen the services the APC provides;
• we join our voices to the voices of the victims crying out for justice.

Ensuring that safe, professional, healing comfort is available to each of these brave persons who risk leaving their abuse for a better life is all of our responsibility. Ensuring that there is effective treatment for the batterers is also our responsibility. Without that we are only addressing half of the problem. Working to end domestic violence is the right thing to do. That it makes economic sense as well is simply a bonus.

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