Flash and glamour of the NFL and casino hotels notwithstanding, domestic violence is usually a private occurrence, its victims often isolated and confused. Mostly it takes place in the home, far from the revealing eye of the camera. One in four women will become a victim of domestic violence in her lifetime, making it one of our most underreported crimes. Domestic violence is also a leading cause of homelessness among women and families with the 2012 Wilder survey, reporting nearly 1/3rd of homelessness among women a direct result of domestic abuse. In Greater Minnesota, it is even higher.
As a non-profit funder of domestic violence shelters, we have had the opportunity to meet and talk with staff, volunteers, and residents of shelters across Minnesota. I find much hope and perseverance among the victims and amazing dedication of the hard working staff, many of whom have been victimized themselves. But I also too often hear of the many barriers victims face in finding the help necessary to escape a violent life. It starts with the simple availability of safe and supportive shelters which, especially in rural areas and on reservations, can be few and far between. Too often I have heard from women who have finally found the courage or opportunity to flee only to find shelters were far from home and often full. In fact, according to the Wilder Survey, 48% of women stay in an abusive situation because they had no other housing option. To understand that danger, consider that more than 1/3rd of murdered women are killed by their intimate partner. Shelters save lives and must be available and accessible.
Most troubling, the systems in place to help victims often exasperate the problem. Many workers and clients tell of experiences with indifferent law enforcement and reluctant prosecutors. Victims often believe Orders of Protection will only heighten their risk so the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that just 20% of domestic violence victims seek them. And since approximately half of orders are violated, according to the Department of Justice, it’s not surprising victims are reluctant to file. Nearly all moms tell of their fear of losing custody of their children if they must flee an abusive home, with one young mother in northern Minnesota telling of local child protection services warning her that if she fled and left her children in an abusive home she risked losing custody. So for too long, she stayed.
To be sure, most police, prosecutors, and social services want to do the right thing and are outraged about domestic violence. Most are excellent resources for shelters and the women and children they serve and have saved countless lives. Domestic violence is a crime and like any crime it is not the victims fault. That message can’t be overstated.
Men in particular need to take action because they can help break the cycle of abuse so common in families. The CDC reports that children who witness abuse in the home, where at least 60% of domestic violence occurs, are much more likely both to abuse and be abused as adults.
Domestic Violence can be visible – the celebrity athlete abuser caught on camera or the woman who shows up to work with a black eye, or discreet. Either way it is not a problem that will go away by itself. Nor is it the responsibility of the victims to do what it takes to end this crime. Please, talk to your children. Reach out to a victim or perpetrator you might know. Support shelters that offer front line crisis services to victims. Be part of the solution.