by Jennifer Howard, Supervising Attorney of the Domestic Violence Institute
A man chases his partner through the house with a kitchen knife. Their three children cry in a bedroom down the hall. The victim needs help, but what is the cost of reaching out? This is the central question each and every victim and survivor of domestic violence has to ask herself or himself, each and every day. Life is full of trade-offs, we all know this. Yet for some reason, our society has managed to oversimplify the dilemma that faces victims of domestic violence: if she wanted to end the violence, she would leave. Many brilliant minds have proffered thousands of reasons disproving this assertion; pointing to everything from fear of retribution to being manipulated back into a relationship by flowers set in a vase of apologies. The factors involved in deciding to stay or attempting to go are complex and very personal, but there is one universal truth under it all: it is a decision only the person affected should or can make. The validity of one’s decisions, even in the face of horrific abuse, is not for outsiders to judge or evaluate. The cost for reaching out: loss of one’s right to make private decisions, privately.
The decision to seek help — whether from the police, the courts, friends, family, a pastor, anyone — comes with great risk. The helper may be so invested in their own beliefs and judgments that any option other than the one they suggest will be deemed “wrong.” Have you ever been in a situation where you decided not to take the advice of someone, even after you have specifically asked for their help? Imagine the woman described above decides to call the police to stop the father of her children from coming after her with a kitchen knife. The police come; they stop the attack and arrest the perpetrator. The perpetrator’s time in jail means he cannot make it to work. Not making it to work means he loses his job. He loses his job and now the family cannot pay their rent. It comes time for the mother to testify against her boyfriend, and she knows if he stays in jail, they will lose the apartment, and she will have nowhere to go with their three children. So, she decides not to testify and is left with an angry prosecutor, possibly a social worker second guessing her ability to protect her children and likely friends and family who openly disapprove of her decision.
A few weeks ago, our society was forced to bear witness to a tragic, personal moment in the life of Janay Rice. It is understandable that the actions taken by Ray Rice set off immense criticism and rightfully raised the question: what is the proper punishment for violently putting your hands on another human being? However, in the midst of all the sound-bites, videos, interviews, and demands for accountability; Ms. Rice’s voice, her desires, were silenced. She was silenced by us, the “helpers”. Ms. Rice, for whatever reasons she had, decided to maintain her relationship with her daughter’s father, evidenced by the fact that she herself did not call attention to what had happened. The criticism, ridicule and pressure the publicity brought to her to act differently (than she wanted) is akin to the coercive tactics used by perpetrators of abuse throughout time. Shame is a powerful weapon.
October is domestic violence awareness month. It is important to be aware of the staggering number of people being abused each day and the reality that abuse happens in every community across the world, regardless of race, socio-economic status, religion, or sexual orientation. It is equally important to be aware that the opposite of domestic violence is not the absence of violence; it is the assertion of free will. If our society wants to support victims and survivors in their plight’s to end the violence in their lives, our focus needs to be on listening to the victim’s voice and respecting their decisions.