Domestic violence is a difficult topic to work with. It’s one of those situations in which we all know the right answer–leave. Do whatever you have to in order to survive, then run and never look back.
Of course, we all know it’s not that easy. The victim, or survivor, whatever terminology you prefer, in these situations, has reasons that prevent him or her from leaving and staying away. (All of the domestic violence situations I work with are men being abusive towards women, so that’s what I’ll be referring to here. But I am well aware that women can be the aggressors, and that violence occurs in same sex couples as well. Equal opportunity, yeah!)
There are reasons that the women I work with stay in these relationships. Some are concrete–they are financially dependent on this man, they live in his apartment, they’re worried about custody of the children. Some are a bit harder to understand, but no less real–they grew up in an abusive home, and view the situation as normal, they grew up without a father and are looking for love and acceptance.
We understand why these situations exist, and how the cycle perpetuates itself. Things get better for a while, the “honeymoon phase.” It’s not so much a “honeymoon” as it is “how your partner should treat you as a person,” but there you go. The victim, who has bene through so much already, wants to believe that things are really better.
Domestic violence is so frustrating to work with because it is a cycle. You can predict, with great certainty, what’s coming next. Things will get bad again. Especially when the abuser has decided that he’ll “just stop.” No treatment, no time away from the home. He’s just not going to hit the woman he supposedly loves anymore. It was pointed out to him that this was a bad thing to do, and he’ll knock it off.
Right. My hopes are high. (And so is he, if he thinks I believe that.)
Like almost every other situation we deal with, we can’t give our clients the answer. We can plan for safety, discuss the risks, talk about what this is doing to them and their children, but we can’t make anyone leave.
A family I’m currently working with had this situation come up. The case was called in due to some domestic violence that the children had witnessed. The father of the youngest child (but not the three older children) agreed to leave. Nothing legally binding, but he did sign a contract, along with the ACS worker, oldest kids, and mother, saying he would leave the home.
About a month later, I found out he was back. Several weeks later, I found out he never really left.
It wasn’t the mother’s choice, so it didn’t work. She wasn’t ready to cut ties with him. She wanted him in her son’s life, and didn’t feel that she had the right to prevent this man from seeing his child. There’s no restraining order, and he hasn’t hit the children. So it is her decision.
If it were up to me, I would chase him out of the apartment myself while beating him with a shoe and shouting emasculating insults. But I’m told that I can’t do that.
Then there are restraining orders. Often, these feel more like restraining suggestions, because they don’t seem to carry a lot of weight. People get them, then continue to see the person they’re not supposed to be seeing. Many people don’t pursue them at all, until the court steps in. “How is a piece of paper supposed to help me?” I know the right answer, that they can help, but someone in that situation, who knows what their abuser is capable of, can’t be convinced. They’re usually right.
A lot of women I work with seem to keep restraining orders in their back pocket. I’ve been told many times, “Well, I went over there, but I reminded him that I have the restraining order.” “I let him move back in, but I still have the restraining order, so I can kick him out if I want to.” I didn’t think it would be so hard to explain that this isn’t exactly how these are supposed to work.
At times, though, they work. If someone is really ready to move on and cut ties, and is really ready to call the police whenever this guy shows up, or calls (and the police are ready to take it seriously) they can work. One of the young mothers I work with has spoken so regularly with her ex-boyfriend’s parole office, I think they’re going to start trading casserole recipes. She is very serious about keeping this guy away from the family.
Another woman, and her seven children, have a restraining order against the father. “Well, my oldest was home when he threw boiling oil at me, he tried to get her too.” Charming man.
Mom is done with the guy, according to her. He just got released from prison, so time will tell. Fortunately, she is taking the restraining order seriously. As much as she wants to let the kids see their father (and who wouldn’t?) they are all
old sadly overly informed enough to understand what the order means. They don’t want their father going back to jail. So for the time being, they’re staying away. I hope that this gives us enough time to work with mom and the kids on the trauma they’ve been through, so that when this guy inevitably comes knocking on their door, they’ll be able to call the cops.
It’s infuriating, though. Everything is on the victims, as so often happens. They have to be the one to leave, they have to be the one to make the call. When they decide it’s time to go, they’re the ones who have to leave their support system, home, job, and schools behind to go into a shelter that’s a safe distance away. I don’t know what the better way to do it would be, exactly.
But I think a little pressure could be taken off these women. Who wants to have to share details of their abuse with a stranger, in order to be approved for a housing transfer? Shouldn’t a police report be enough? Who needs to be berated by a judge or protective worker for staying with an abusive partner, and be told that the children are being put at risk? As if this mother didn’t know her own situation. Maybe men who do things like hit women or throw boiling oil at children should get the jail time they deserve. Maybe they should be the ones who have to move and give up their lives and comfort zone.
As I mentioned earlier, a lot of people prefer the term survivor. It’s empowering, I get that. But we also need to remember that these people, most often women and children, have been victimized, and need someone to fight for them until they are able to fight for themselves.
And in the meantime, we need to cope with our own frustrations to ensure we don’t tell people what they’ve always been told–it’s kind of your fault you’re in this situation, why don’t you just leave, you’re being a bad mother. Because we know that doesn’t work. So we need to do whatever works–walk, drink, talk, howl at the moon, start a snarky, angry blog, whatever.
I promise, that last one helps.