Recognizing domestic abuse is not always easy, and it can be dangerous to get involved, but not taking action could cost a victim her life
Understanding how to intervene in instances of domestic abuse can be difficult for those unfamiliar with the warning signs. According to Pam Dennington, executive director of Domestic Violence Prevention, Inc., in Texarkana, Texas, the most dangerous time for a victim of domestic abuse is when she becomes completely isolated from loved ones.
“When this happens, she has no avenue for escape,” Dennington said. “He has put her in situations that have caused her to burn bridges with family, friends and even law enforcement and community outreach systems.”
On Sept. 13, 2017, the National Network to End Domestic Violence conducted its 12th annual 24-hour census of domestic violence services. In that 24-hour period in Arkansas, of the 567 victims served, 437 adult and child victims found refuge in emergency shelters and transitional housing provided by these local programs.
One hundred and thirty victims received other services including legal advocacy, counseling and children’s support groups, according to the census.
The report stated that 243 Arkansans in communities across the state attended 17 prevention and education sessions provided by local domestic violence programs.
According to information provided by Dennington, there are numerous signs, or “red flags,” that loved ones and bystanders can look for in a suspected case of abuse.
Not all abuse shows physical signs, as most individuals being abused are also being emotionally abused. Constant criticism and degradation, withholding affection, unwarranted accusations and name calling are just a few of the tactics an aggressor uses to belittle a victim.
Isolation is possibly the most detrimental of tactics making leaving the abusive situation all the more difficult.
According to Dennington, for family and friends, “many times (the victim) has left with support from them emotionally and financially, only to go back. It makes supporting her difficult for them.”
A woman will leave an abusive relationship an average of seven times before she leaves permanently, according to Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence, an advocacy group for domestic abuse victims. Even though family and friends may not understand why she stays in the abuse, it is crucial not to abandon the victim, Dennington said.
“The most important thing we can do as a friend or family member is to never give up on her, no matter how many times she returns or even if she decides to never leave,” she said.
“As friends and family, we can build her self-esteem and confidence to try and off-set the emotional abuse she is receiving at home and make sure she knows we are always available for support if she decides leaving is her best option.”
During a conference held at National Park College later this month, interested community members will be able to take a course in bystander intervention on Oct. 24. The course will give individuals some of the tools needed to step in and prevent potentially tragic situations from occurring.
According to Susie Reece, violence prevention specialist for CHI St. Vincent Hot Springs, the course is based on the Bystander Effect — also known as the Genovese Effect — in which people commonly assume that someone more qualified will step in and do something.
“There was a woman named Kitty Genovese who was actually murdered in New York City and according to witnesses and newspaper articles, there were a lot of people that saw the event take place,” Reece said. “It started in the street, then she makes it into the stairwell of her apartment complex, and this guy just continuously follows her.
“After she is murdered, they interview all these different witnesses, and there are 30 different people that saw it, and they started wondering, ‘Why would people witness something like this and not do anything about it?’ And so there’s actually a theory that’s called the diffusion of responsibility, and essentially what we’re saying is when you’re witnessing something there are different reasons as to why you might say, ‘I’m not going to do something.’”
Those reasons may include assuming someone has already taken action, or will, or that someone more knowledgable or with a better skillset will step in, she said.
What the course will strive to do is address reasons bystanders may think they are incapable of taking action and eliminate that sense of diffusion.
“If we allow things to go by without doing anything then we’re saying that we support and accept that, whether that’s our true belief or not,” Reece said.
Intervention can be done in subtle ways, she said. If an incident is taking place in public, one tactic could be starting a conversation with the aggressor as a distraction. Other options might be turning to individuals with expertise about abuse, like a counselor or law enforcement, and making them aware of the victim’s situation. Bystanders can also address the issue head on, setting a standard that this behavior is not tolerated.
“This theory, this bystander intervention, is not specifically for domestic violence,” Reece said. “It’s actually for everything that we want to address. You can relay this over into sexual assault. You can relay this into bullying, into suicide. It’s essentially saying that we are being vocal about how we feel about these issues, and we’re letting people know. If we reframe the way that we address them, the way that we present to others how we feel about them, then we’re letting people know what is acceptable and what is not acceptable.”
Reece said as a survivor of child abuse, she believes the idea that there is little a bystander can do in intervening in a situation is false.
“I think that there are sometimes things that are kept within family units that don’t go outside of that, but I also think that there are behaviors that are in line with these types of aggressions,” she said “So, if we are educated on what those things are, like grooming, for example — people don’t understand what that is, and that’s a very lengthy process because you don’t just immediately jump into being in that situation. We have to understand what that process looks like.”
Grooming is a tactic abusers use on their victims to slowly introduce abuse into a relationship. Usually it is subtle and not apparent because of an exciting honeymoon phase that is meant to lure the victim in. Over time, the victim becomes brainwashed, manipulated and desensitized to behaviors that are abusive, likely believing the abuse is somehow her fault.
“We also have to understand that there’s a lot of isolation, so if you know the warning signs and the risk factors for those things you can be more aware of it,” Reece said.
Abusers isolate victims from people so that the victims become dependent on them. The abusers see friends, family and colleagues as threats to their control over the victim, believing that these connections might one day convince the victim to leave.
Educating youths on what is acceptable behavior is also key in breaking the cycles of abuse, Reece said.
“This is proactive behavior and I think that’s the most important thing,” Reece said. “If we change the way that we address these things, it can be proactive.
“Most prevention is reactive because something has happened or we’re trying to educate against, and a lot of times it’s a negative context. But these can be small things that we incorporate by saying, ‘This is what I stand for and I don’t accept these types of behaviors,’ and people typically come on board with that.”