Let’s End the Shame That Silences Victims of Domestic Violence

October was Domestic Violence Awareness Month, but let’s make it our mission year-round to end the one important thing that, paradoxically, is both a dire consequence of domestic violence and a factor contributing to its perpetuation: shame.

Sadly, victims of domestic violence often feel a deep yet unwarranted sense of shame, as if they were somehow responsible for their abusers’ actions. As a result, they are afraid of speaking up to seek support, or denouncing their abusers.

The Vicious Cycle

Many of the women I interviewed for my book, “Hear Us Speak: Letters From Arab Women,” have been victims of abuse. Sadly, the notion of shame arose time and again during our conversations.  A Kuwaiti painter whose husband beat her regularly told me that the last time he did so, she wound up in the hospital with a deep cut on her forehead.  The doctor asked her what happened, and she answered, “I fell down.” She was too ashamed to tell him the truth. A Gulf business woman whose husband also physically and emotionally abused her told me: “I try not to hate myself, and I fight against the pervasive shame I have carried with me for so long. I have finally begun the long process of recovering my self-worth.”

The reasons for this sense of shame differ according to circumstances and cultural context. One common thread is abusers everywhere are often masters of gaslighting. Gaslighting is what occurs when an abuser tries to control a victim by twisting their sense of reality. It destroys victims’ trust in themselves and their ability to make decisions and act freely. Another cause of shame, prevalent in cultures such as that of the Arab world I come from, is a widespread belief that when abuse occurs, it is because the woman did something to provoke it. In other words: society tells people that women are to blame. This creates deeply ingrained feelings of shame and disgrace among women who suffer from abuse of any sort.

What Can Be Done?

Speaking up is the very thing that will help abuse victims heal and bring the vicious cycle of abuse to an end. That’s why we must end the shame. For change to happen, we must encourage victims to speak. Here are a few steps we can—and must—take:

Give those in abusive situations or cultures the tools to believe in their self-worth.  These include conversations, education, support groups, mentors and role models.

Help them understand that they have a right to their own thoughts, opinions and emotions. As a part of this process, we must examine and unravel entrenched belief systems and ways of thinking that claim the contrary. We must also call out gaslighting wherever it occurs to end its toleration.

Spread the message that abuse is NOT the victims’ fault and that it’s always unacceptable. This message must be heard within families, communities, workplaces and at the government level. It must be incorporated into the education, social services and law enforcement systems.

Fight for better legislation protecting women – and its implementation. In much of the world, there’s a lot more work to be done to ensure not only women’s equality, but also, their safety and basic human rights. The Middle East is one example of a region where women suffer abuse without protection from the courts, or where laws that do offer protection are often ignored.

Help tell the stories of those suffering from abuse. Doing so builds awareness and empowers victims to stand up for their rights. It is precisely what I’ve done in Hear Us Speak, for that very reason. Its messages are universal. I hope the book encourages conversations around domestic violence, Arab women’s issues, and women’s issues as a whole.

Partnering with Clergy to Prevent Domestic Violence

Domestic violence remains a serious and widespread problem in the U.S., particularly for women from racial or ethnic minorities, who experience higher rates of abuse than the national average. Now, a team of researchers from the University of Georgia have developed an online training that leverages the influence of religion to prevent intimate partner violence in Korean American communities.

The CDC defines intimate partner violence as physical or sexual violence, stalking, or psychological harm caused by a current or former partner or spouse.

“For many immigrant communities, the commonality that I witnessed, and that research bears out, is that religious organizations and religious leaders are a very important piece of the puzzle to prevent partner violence because they have so much power in the immigrant communities,” said project lead Y. Joon Choi, an associate professor in UGA’s School of Social Work.

While some religious traditions have at times reinforced gender inequity and norms that discourage women from seeking help, religious leaders have the power to shape attitudes and behaviors within their communities and promote new norms that support healthy relationships and reject partner violence.

Aware of this critical influence of religious leaders, Choi wanted to not only educate clergy on the problem, but empower them to speak out against violence and support parishioners who come to them for help.

Choi collaborated with Pamela Orpinas, professor of health promotion and behavior in UGA’s College of Public Health who also studies intimate partner violence, and instructional designer ChanMin Kim with Penn State University, to build a program comprised of four interactive case simulations that guide clergy through real-world scenarios. The program is called Religious Leaders for Healthy Families.

The researchers worked with domestic violence prevention groups and gathered feedback from Korean American faith leaders to present cases that were culturally appropriate and supported the clergy’s ability to be domestic violence prevention advocates.

“What we wanted to see was behavior change,” said Orpinas. “After this training, are faith leaders going to be able to help victims when they suspect abuse? Are they going to be involved in the prevention of partner violence within their congregation?”

The key, say the researchers, is to build confidence within faith leaders that they could take action to promote healthy relationships and connect domestic violence service providers to parishioners who need their support. The interactive case simulations allow clergy to practice responding to victims who are experiencing different types and degrees of partner violence in a safe space.

“We wanted to make sure that through this medium, they were able to practice how they are going to interact,” said Choi, “and also they are going to learn what are good responses versus dangerous, unsafe responses for the victims. We are hoping to increase their self-efficacy through this intervention.

Though this project is focused on Korean American clergy, the team designed the modules to be easily translated to other communities.

“Much of what they need is there,” said Orpinas, “in terms of asking open-ended questions and supporting and believing the survivor. The case simulation helps clergy practice how to talk about those things.”

The team is eager to see the program be adopted more broadly by immigrant communities or any community where faith leaders are trusted and influential resources.

The full development of the online program, including theoretical underpinnings, community feedback, and performance objectives, is described in a paper published in Health Promotion International. It is available here.

Protecting Children from Harm in the Context of Distance Learning

The nation saw an uptick in domestic violence calls in the midst of the pandemic and the shutdown. The convergence of social isolation, economic pressure, and psychological stress created favorable conditions for abuse to occur. Adults are not the only victims of abuse in the home. Children, too, are vulnerable. History shows that violence against children and child exploitation intensify under conditions of isolation and economic pressure. While the pandemic may be temporary, child abuse often has long-term consequences.

School systems play a vital role in intervening in the lives of vulnerable children. In fact, schools make 21% of the reports to child protective services according to The Washington Post. When COVID-19 forced the schools to close, states saw a drastic drop in the number of children being referred to CPS. Unfortunately, this reduction did not mean that the incidence of abuse decreased. Indeed, as reports to CPS dropped, ER doctors saw a rise in more severe cases of abuse. Child abuse not only persisted, but it went unchecked during the shutdown. Without school personnel, community workers, medical and dental personnel, and other mandated reporters, there was no watchdog to report the abuse until children sustained injuries severe enough to warrant medical attention.

Clearly, schools serve a vital function in protecting children from harm. Now more than ever, they need to be alert and responsive to abuse as children return to school virtually. Distance learning presents unique opportunities and challenges that should be addressed proactively. Social workers can and should play a leadership role in adapting child welfare protocols for distance learning and retraining school personnel to identify and report suspicions of child abuse and neglect. This article outlines a proposed curriculum for child abuse and neglect reporting in the context of distance learning.

School personnel should be well-equipped to spot signs of child abuse and neglect in the context of distance learning. Asynchronous instruction affords teachers a glimpse into students’ homes. In addition to any disclosures of abuse, teachers should be especially attentive to:

  • Verbal threats of harm, hidden, unexplained, suspicious, and/or repeated injuries
  • Suicidal ideation in students
  • Sexually inappropriate behaviors or images
  • Weariness when an adult is present or approaches the student
  • Excessive dirtiness or lack of proper hygiene in the home or the student
  • Illegal substances or evidence of impairment in the caregiver
  • Evidence of malnourishment in the student

School staff should also note that it is illegal under most state laws for children to be home alone unless they have demonstrated sufficient maturity, and there are safety structures in place. Young children should not be home alone. Furthermore, children with a record of behavior or emotional problems (e.g. frequent suspensions) should not be in the home unattended. Children who are able to be home alone should be able to access safe adults in case of an emergency, and there should not be hazardous conditions or items present. Children who can take care of themselves may not be mature enough or capable of taking care of younger children. School staff members play a critical role in monitoring these conditions. Clear steps should be outlined for reporting any safety concerns or suspicions in a timely and accurate manner to school personnel (e.g. principal, guidance counselor) and child protective services.

Because teachers will be exposed to the live conditions of the home, they have to be prepared to respond to crisis situations. Crisis management in the context of distance learning is different from that in more traditional settings because the staff person is physically distant from the student, and there may not be another adult present with the child for reinforcement. As a result, they are at a disadvantage in terms of their ability to intervene.

Still, there are measures staff can take to manage the crisis from afar. In the event of an imminent threat to the safety of a student, staff can adapt telehealth protocols such as:

(1) call local 911/EMS while maintaining contact with the student

(2) identify bystanders who may be able to assist by providing information, monitoring the student, and/or intervening, as appropriate

(3) obtain the student’s physical location, an alternate contact in case of a disconnection or other technical issue, and contact information for the student’s caregiver

(4) while maintaining contact with the student, contact the caregiver to advise him/her of the situation

School personnel has an important responsibility in monitoring student attendance. Countless children can be lost to human trafficking and exploitation if schools falter in this duty. As such, the onus is on the schools to locate children who do not report for school. Students should be expected, at a minimum, to check in occasionally so that school personnel can check on their well-being.

Finally, school administrators should be cognizant of the increased risk of exploitation by school staff when supervision and monitoring are lacking. Clear codes of conduct should be put in place or adapted to guide online interactions between students and school staff. Outside meetups should be prohibited unless they occur at school during school hours with proper supervision. Administrators should ‘‘float’’ from class to class to monitor interactions and conduct in the virtual classrooms. Caregivers should also be encouraged to monitor online learning. An adult should be present at all times during synchronous sessions to supervise and provide support.

Schools play a critical role in protecting our most vulnerable population. Critical attention should be given to adapting child welfare protocols for distance learning so that school personnel can make the necessary efforts to be effective in this capacity under these unprecedented conditions. Social workers should proactively address this issue and retrain school staff in child welfare protocols.

Social Work School Launches New Domestic and Sexual Violence Training for Massachusetts Licensed Health Professionals

Online training helps health professional meet state law Chapter 260 requirements and prepare them for work with survivors and others impacted by domestic and sexual violence 

Simmons University’s School of Social Work recently announced a new comprehensive online domestic violence and sexual violence (DV/SV) training to educate Massachusetts-based health professionals and prepare them for work with survivors, children exposed to violence, and people who engage in violence. 

The training, Simmons University Massachusetts Chapter 260 Training on Domestic and Sexual Violence, is designed to meet state law requirements, which mandates that health professionals participate in domestic and sexual violence training in order to be licensed by their respective boards. The training was developed to fulfill the Chapter 260 mandate and has been approved by Massachusetts’ Department of Public Health (DPH). 

“Domestic and sexual violence is a pervasive problem that virtually every health professional will encounter at some point in their career,” said Dr. Kristie Thomas, Associate Professor of social work at Simmons University, and the training’s lead designer. “This new training is a crucial resource that provides essential knowledge and tools to social workers, nurses, physicians and other health professionals so they can enhance care and better serve their patients impacted by sexual and domestic violence.” 

The online training, which takes about three and a half hours, is informed by the latest empirical evidence and best practices, and is designed to be easily accessible so health professionals can apply it in their work. 

“The training requirements of Chapter 260 will help ensure that every health professional working with someone impacted by sexual and domestic violence is informed about these difficult issues and can provide the best possible care,” said Judy Benitez Clancy, director of the Division of Sexual and Domestic Violence Prevention and Services at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. “Simmons University has provided high-quality online domestic violence training for several years. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health was excited to approve this new training, which includes extensive information about both sexual violence and domestic violence.”

The training is organized into four units and covers a variety of topics, including the health impacts of domestic and sexual violence, common physiological symptoms, the immediate and long-term impacts on survivors, the role of structural oppression in increasing risk and decreasing help-seeking, prevention strategies, reporting requirements, and a range of resources for people who are affected by domestic and sexual violence. 

“Simmons University is a leader in educating students in social work and public health, and we’re pleased to offer this new training that is easily accessible online,” said Dr. Stephanie Berzin, Dean of Simmons University’s College of Social Sciences, Policy, and Practice. “This training provides crucial knowledge and tools that thousands of health professionals across Massachusetts can utilize and apply in a tangible way to their practices.” 

Massachusetts’ Chapter 260 law requires that the following groups of MA health professionals participate in the DV/SV training: physicians, licensed mental health counselors, social workers (LICSW, LCSW), psychologists (APA), licensed educational psychologists, licensed marriage and family therapists, physician assistants, nursing home administrators, nurses, and licensed rehabilitation counselors.

“People who experience sexual and domestic violence interact with a wide host of health and human service providers who can be a big part of their healing process,” said Debra J. Robbin, Executive Director, Jane Doe Inc. “This online training can make a tremendous difference in the readiness and ability of these caregivers to identify, support, and refer people who are impacted by abuse to sexual and domestic violence programs. We also appreciate the inclusive, survivor centered, and trauma informed content and philosophy that runs throughout the training.”

The training will be accessible online through Simmons University and DPH at:  https://sites.google.com/a/simmons.edu/chapter-260-dv-sv-training/home

Home to the oldest school of clinical social work in the country, Simmons has more than a century of experience educating social workers who are equipped to serve urban, suburban, and rural communities. Simmons also offers the only MSW program in Massachusetts with a required course in substance use disorders for all first-year students. In addition, the Simmons MSW is the only program in New England to use hired actors as part of its innovative Simmons Clinical Simulation curriculum.

Intimate Partner Violence Doesn’t End With the Relationship

The violence that occurs between intimate partners does not end with the relationship’s conclusion, yet few resources exist to help survivors move beyond the betrayal of abusive relationships in order to begin new, healthy relationships.

The effects of intimate partner violence (IPV) are profound, painfully enduring and should command as much attention as providing victims with the help necessary to leave violent relationships, according to a new study by a University at Buffalo social work researcher.

“Once a victim leaves an abusive relationship we have to begin addressing the issues that stem from having been in that relationship,” says Noelle St. Vil, an assistant professor in UB’s School of Social Work. “You can carry the scars from IPV for a long time and those scars can create barriers to forming new relationships.”

St. Vil calls IPV a pervasive public health issue.

Nearly one in three women in the U.S. have experienced IPV.  One in 10 women have been raped by an intimate partner.

IPV is a subtype of domestic violence.  While domestic violence can include violence occurring among any individuals living in a single household, IPV is at the level of an intimate relationship.

It’s one partner trying to gain power and control over another partner. IPV can involve many types of violent behavior, including physical, verbal, emotional and financial.

Looking at IPV from the perspective of betrayal trauma theory, a concept that explores when trusted individuals or institutions betray those they’re expected to protect and support, St. Vil’s research, published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, explores how the long-lasting implications of IPV and the consequences of being in such a relationship should be addressed.

“We often use betrayal trauma theory to describe children who have experienced child abuse,” says St. Vil.  “But the same betrayal occurs with IPV: a partner who you trust, can be vulnerable with, who should be building you up, is in fact inflicting abuse. It’s a betrayal of what’s supposed to be a trusting relationship.”

With most help and support centered on keeping women safe in a relationship or providing them with the means to get out of an abusive relationship, St. Vil began thinking about the effects of the trauma.

“How do you move forward after leaving?” she asked. “What does that look like?”

Her interviews with nine survivors of IPV represent the initial steps to answer those questions and revealed four barriers to establishing new relationships.

  • Vulnerability/Fear: Women emerging from IPV often set up an emotional wall, hesitant to begin new relationships. Some victims said they entered into a physical relationship, but avoided becoming emotionally attached.
  • Relationship Expectations: Some women in the study opened themselves emotionally, but expected even what appeared to be a healthy relationship to decay into violence.
  • Shame/Low Self-Esteem: Participants in the study expressed how low self-esteem sabotaged new relationships. Part of gaining power and control in violent relationships involves breaking down self-esteem.  When things aren’t going well in new relationships, victims can return to the feelings experienced during IPV, asking, “Why would anyone love me?”
  • Communication Issues: St. Vil says communication is a major issue in new relationships as victims struggle to understand and explain to new partners what they experienced during IPV and its effects on their current behavior.  Women who were unable to communicate their experiences felt disconnected from their new relationships.

St. Vil says her one-on-one interviews capture critical aspects of IPV survivors’ experiences.

“This is a starting point,” she says. “We’re trying to understand the depth of the issue and can use the data from this research for a potentially larger study.”

For the time being, St. Vil is emphatic.

“The effects don’t end once a woman is out of the relationship.  We need to understand that and know there’s more work to be done.”

Finding Safety at Home: A Guide for Domestic Violence Survivors

Domestic violence tears lives apart in many ways, but one of the most insidious is the way fear and vulnerability linger long after you’ve left your abuser. After violence has found its way into your home, the place that’s supposed to be your sanctuary, it can be hard to ever feel safe at home again. But you don’t have to live in fear forever. Use these strategies for reclaiming your safety at home.

Move

If you’re still living in the house you shared with your abuser, it may be time to move. Not only does the household painful memories, but living in a home your abuser is familiar with puts you at risk of ongoing harassment. Simply moving to a new house and only sharing your address with trusted individuals can do wonders for your sense of security. If you own your house and need to sell before moving, consider staying with family or friends until you can afford to buy or rent a new home.

Secure Your Personal Items

If you have a car, it is strongly suggested that you have it checked for GPS tracking, as your abuser can put one on your car without your knowledge. If you aren’t sure what to look for, your local police department can check your car to determine if any sort of tracking device has been placed on it. Also, if your abuser gave you a computer or phone, have both of them checked for any device that would allow your abuser to listen in and/or see your emails, texts, etc.

Use an Address Confidentiality Program

If you’re worried about your abuser using public records to find your new address, an Address Confidentiality Program can help. According to the Stalking Resource Center, Address Confidentiality Programsgive victims a legal substitute address (usually a post office box) to use in place of their physical address; this address can be used whenever an address is required by public agencies.” If you need to change your ID then the Social Security Administration can assist you.

Add a Door Chain or Limiter

It’s a scene that gives you nightmares: You open the door after a knock only to have your abuser barge in before you have a chance to react. A security door chain or door limiter is a small, inexpensive measure that gives you the comfort of knowing no one can enter your home unless you want them to. Also, you can buy a doorbell with a video camera system attached to see who is outside your door.

Secure Your Windows

Once your doors are secured, the next area to focus on is the windows. When securing windows, it’s important not to do anything that would prevent a safe escape in the event of a house fire. That means window bars are out, but you can easily upgrade your window locks; Home Depot offers a helpful rundown of various window lock options.

Install Motion-Activated Flood Lights

Motion-activated exterior lighting adds to your sense of security in two ways: It eliminates the ability for anyone to covertly sneak up to your home, and it illuminates your path from vehicle to front door when getting home after dark. Consider adding motion lights near ground-level windows as well.

Install a Security System

Don’t count on physical barriers alone. By installing a security system that monitors both doors and windows, you can rest assured that if someone gains unauthorized entry, the police won’t be far behind. Ensure your security code won’t be easily guessed by your abuser by avoiding important numbers like your birth date, instead choosing a random combination.

Lock Down Your Social Media

Doors and windows aren’t the only way your abuser can infiltrate your home. If you’re still active on social media and posting publicly, your abuser may be able to follow your actions, send harassing messages, and otherwise invade your peace of mind. If you don’t want to delete your social media accounts entirely, you can lock them down by blocking your abuser and your abuser’s family and friends, restricting your post visibility to friends only, declining location tagging, using an alternate name, and limiting the ways people can search for your profile.

If Harassment Continues

Sometimes, despite all the above measures, you may find that your abuser is still harassing and/or stalking you. If this is the case, get a restraining order. You can also change your identity (and your children’s) by going to the Social Security Department. If your abuser is persistent in their harassment or continues to threaten you, you can and should consider moving out of state to a safer location. Be sure to check with an attorney or free legal aid office if you have children to ensure you aren’t breaking any laws should you leave.

The transition from domestic violence victim to domestic violence survivor is both incredibly empowering and fraught with risk and anxiety. Securing your home is just one of the things you can do to take back control after leaving an abusive relationship. However, it’s only one part of the equation. In addition to creating a safe home, seek support, practice self-care, and give yourself time to heal and grieve. It takes time, but you can move on after abuse.

Professor Charts Digital Plan to Fight Domestic Violence

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month — 31 days of reflection brought about by years of suffering, survivorship and study that experts say still needs far more attention. Although domestic violence cases involving celebrities, politicians and professional athletes will occasionally trigger calls for action on social media and other platforms, the faces of many lesser-known cases continue to suffer in silence.

Jill Theresa Messing, an associate professor in the School of Social Work at Arizona State University, is working to address that silence. Reversing the negative use of technology in intimate partner violence, Messing is working to create a safe space for victims in the technology space of digital applications. She is part of a team that is developing myPlan, a new app designed to help college-age women spot the signs of an abusive relationship — and find their way out.

Highlighting the resulting impact of domestic violence on our communities, Messing recently discussed the efforts and research in play to stem the problem long described as the “quiet epidemic.”

Question: In recent years we have seen increased reports about domestic violence as a public health threat. How do we define domestic violence, and what are some examples of its impact on public health?

ASU: “Domestic violence” is the term generally used by the public and practice communities to refer to violence within intimate partnerships (e.g., people who are dating, in a relationship or have a child together). Violence is generally understood to be physical (e.g., pushing, slapping, hitting) or sexual (e.g., forcing a partner into sexual activity with violence or threats).

Professor Jill Messing

Other abusive actions such aname-callingng, put-downs, harassment, stalking, control, jealousy, financial abuse, threats and other behaviors are also considered domestic violence. In the research literature, this form of violence or abuse is often termed gender-based violence or intimate-partner violence.

Intimate-partner violence disproportionately affects women and can lead to physical- and mental-health consequences. In addition to injury that results from violence, intimate-partner violence leads to depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance misuse and other negative outcomes. In the most extreme cases, intimate-partner violence escalates to homicide.

Knowing what a healthy relationship looks like is just as important as being able to recognize red flags for abuse. Healthy relationships include mutual respect, safety, open and honest communication, compromise, equality, independence, freedom, support and privacy. Everyone deserves to be in a healthy and safe relationship.

Q: Despite an increase in education and resources for domestic violence, there still seems to be a reluctance on the part of others to get involved or reach out to those who they suspect of being abused. What is the most important thing a person can do if they suspect abuse?

ASU: Friends are often the first to know about abuse. The most important thing that someone can do if they suspect that a friend is being abused is to talk to their friend in a kind, non-judgmental manner. Many people who are being abused would like to talk about it but are scared. Listening to your friend, being supportive, and not telling her/him what to do can be very effective. Ask your friend what you can do to help.

Starting in 2018, ASU’s School of Social Work will also begin offering new degree programs to better educate and equip students with the tools they need to spot and stop domestic violence. Coursework will include focus on technology-based abuse, intimate-partner violence risk assessment, teen dating violence, violence against women in the global context, and the domestic violence social movement. The courses will be offered as part of undergraduate and graduate certificates in domestic violence.

Q: We have heard some of the ways technology has enabled domestic violence (harassment, stalking, etc.), but how is it also playing a role in addressing the issue?

ASU: Technology is an important tool for education and can connect people to helpful community-based resources. I have partnered with colleagues at Johns Hopkins University to develop the myPlan app. Because women are more likely than men to be abused, to suffer injuries due to violence and to be killed by intimate partners, myPlan is for female-identifying students who are in a relationship with a male or female partner.

The app provides the user with a private, safe and non-judgmental space to consider their values and to weigh the risks and benefits of their relationship. It’s tailored to each person’s unique situation and provides a safety plan as well as free and often confidential resources. MyPlan is available for iPhone and Android devices and is completely free. There is also a version for friends. If you think a friend is being abused, myPlan can provide help and advice specific to your friend’s situation. Visit myPlanApp.org to learn more.

Unfortunately, technology is often used to abuse, harass or stalk someone in an abusive relationship, and technology safety is an important aspect of staying safe. The National Network to End Domestic Violence has information about staying safe online. There are also confidential and even anonymous resources like the National Domestic Violence Hotline and Love is Respect that can help.

Q: What is new research telling us about domestic violence?

ASU: Much of my research focuses on the development and use of risk-assessment instruments that provide information about the danger that an abuser poses for a domestic violence victim. Risk assessments can be used for women to assess their own danger or a friend’s danger, or they can be used by practitioners who work with victims or offenders for safety planning. The criminal justice system is increasingly using risk assessments to make determinations about whether a domestic violence offender should be released on bond or the conditions of that release. Some of my current research is developing culturally competent adaptations of a risk assessment for immigrant, refugee and Native American victims of intimate-partner violence.

At ASU, we are also learning from students who are placed in domestic violence agencies across Arizona through our AmeriCorps internship program. Since 2015, 149 AmeriCorps members from various disciplines have volunteered more than 72,000 hours serving vulnerable survivors of domestic violence and their families. The students are getting an opportunity to learn more about domestic violence through hands-on experience while earning a stipend and education credit that they can put toward future tuition or student loans. Members have already earned more than $409,000 in scholarships and educational awards through the AmeriCorps program.

Wading into Action at the Intersections, The Case for Bresha Meadows

Photo Credit: Verso Books

On July 18th, 2016, 14 year old Bresha Meadows was arrested for shooting her abusive father in the head, and she is currently awaiting trial for aggravated murder.

Bresha Meadows continues to plead “not true” (the juvenile court’s version of “not guilty”) to the charge of aggravated murder. Although, it is a plea attached to an outcome too unsettling to consider, she remains a hopeful black girl, who acknowledges the small freedoms of wearing her own clothes, being able to go outside and having additional visiting privileges. These “freedoms”, additional supports financed by her family, parallel her previous placement in juvenile detention.

At a pre trial release hearing on January 20th, a judge ordered that Bresha be sent to a residential treatment facility in her home state of Ohio. Initially, Bresha faced a life sentence for aggravated murder of her father, whom she allegedly shot and killed. It is reported that Bresha’s father brutally beat her mother and terrorized her family for years. Although her father’s family is insisting he is innocent, Bresha and her family members contend that she was born into a nightmare and was afraid of him.

An August 2016 article reported that Bresha’s mother took necessary precautions such as filing an order of protection and contacting child services. It is unclear at this juncture, whether any of those precautions were effective.

Stories like Bresha’s rarely receive recognition on a mainstream level but when they do, they tend to focus on the criminalization of black girls and the education system. Broadening the conversation on the criminalization of black girls to include child abuse and neglect, witnessing and experiencing domestic violence, trauma and a complacent child services system are imperative.

Bresha is at the intersection of witnessing domestic violence, experiencing child abuse and unsuccessful supportive resources. She has suffered the effects of shooting her father and ultimately becoming the protector of her family. Bresha’s mother, Brandi reported that she was not strong enough to leave the abusive relationship but Bresha helped so they could all have a better life.  Bresha is at risk, as demonstrated by studies that suggest that children who are exposed to domestic violence and/or child abuse are more likely to experience a wide range of adverse psychosocial and behavioral outcomes.

Bresha Meadows

Bresha’s final pre-trial hearing is set for April 17, 2017. Here are 12 ideas for action you can take, developed by the #freebresha campaign, some of which include organizing a #freebresha teach in, and creating art inspired by Bresha, to name a few.

This case is important because of the clinical work that I have done as a licensed social worker with black families in Illinois and Indiana. While my experience has spanned settings, specifically within child welfare and juvenile justice, black families are routinely marginalized throughout the experience.

Limited or no resources, lack of access to services and discriminatory practices are a few ways families are marginalized through the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

In addition to my concern for her family as a unit, my concern is for Bresha.

Now she languishes in a system that has failed her over and over again. The screams of so many victims of violence, racism and patriarchy bounce off the sterile walls that surround her, only to be swallowed whole by our silence. read more

As a former therapist at a juvenile residential treatment center and juvenile detention center, my group and individual sessions were often tailored from a holistic perspective. Topics ranging from trauma, grief, familial, community and (what I now understand to be coined) state violence were often processed and addressed during treatment.

The longer that Bresha is locked in a juvenile facility, away from her support system, the higher her risk is for attachment and mental health issues. A representative from an organization in Ohio that advocates for youth mentioned, “Children who spend time in juvenile detention are more likely to abuse substances as adults, and less likely to have good educational outcomes and form stable families of their own.” Bresha’s case progression, home environment and psychosocial risk factors such as exposure to violence are elements that contribute to her overall mental health and well being.

Lastly, her case is important to me because she is a black girl and so am I. In solidarity, this is my fight for Bresha.

Black girlhood, violence and child abuse in the black family and the criminalization of black girls are complex topics, especially within the black community. These issues are complex due to the intersections of race, gender and the culture of abuse, all of which have a foundation rooted in racism and patriarchy.

Professor and Author Dr. Stacey Patton states, in How Black Feminists Have Become Complicit in the Abuse of Black Children, “the one form of violence within black communities that does not seem to be recognized as incurred by white racism is violence against children.” Many of these stories include our experiences with domestic violence, intergenerational trauma, community violence & state violence, along with a litany of other socio-cultural issues that impacts black families and communities. These stories are worthy of examination and amplification.

We must reflect on our present moment…who we truly are when it comes to the identity of our profession as one committed to social justice in our culture, particularly on issues where Black cis and trans women and girls are being killed and victimized while their suffering is marginalized, erased, and rendered invisible to us. Read More

Juvenile Detainment and the “Child – Support Model” The Case for Social Justice

In “Do Black Women’s Lives Matter in Social Work: A Gender Analysis of Racialized State- Sanctioned Police Violence” Crystal M. Hayes states, “As a social worker, I am calling specifically on us to do better as a profession when it comes to our commitments to promoting social justice and anti-racism in the world and culture seeped in persistent anti-Black racism, heterosexism, patriarchal violence and misogyny, and anti-queer antagonism and violence.”

According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), “Social workers apply social-justice principles to structural problems, use knowledge of existing legal principles and organizational structure to suggest changes to protect their clients, who are often powerless and underserved”. Related to the social worker’s role is identifying and advocating for social justice.

Bresha’s mother is tasked with financing her daughter’s care.

A billing practice, rooted in capitalistic and oppressive ideologies. Deemed by detention center administrators and proponents of the social policy, as “child support”, the financial expectations and repercussions which are placed on families is challenging.

A recent investigation conducted by the Marshall Project highlights the aftermath of this system through stories of garnished wages and the impact of detainment on the child’s behavior. Rooted in the belief that parents did not want the obligation of caring for a delinquent child, “parental billing practices” were implemented. It was subsumed that this policy would serve as a deterrent and attach billing for families that utilize detention centers as babysitters for their wayward children.

Today, mothers and fathers are billed for their children’s incarceration — in jails, detention centers, court-ordered treatment facilities, training schools or disciplinary camps — by 19 state juvenile-justice agencies, while in at least 28 other states, individual counties can legally do the same, a survey by the Marshall Project shows.

Parental billing practices should be abolished given that they are archaic and heavily intertwined with oppressive and racist roots. Roots built on the premise that collecting fees from a parent would somehow encourage them to have a different stake in their child’s life, a financial stake. This would in turn, impact their parenting involvement, engagement– too ensure the child will not put the family in such a (financial) position again.

Parental billing practices do not impact parent – child dynamics to the magnitude of decreasing first time and recidivistic interactions with the system. Given my experience as a clinician, I know this issue is more complex and nuanced than mandated billing practices. Interaction and involvement with these systems is stressful, and more often than not, traumatic. Let’s add the financial expectations associated with billing practices. A writer from the Washington Post references:

“Not only does such a policy unfairly conscript the poorest members of society to bear the costs of public institutions, operating ‘as a regressive tax,’ ” Reinhardt wrote, “but it takes advantage of people when they are at their most vulnerable, essentially imposing ‘a tax upon distress.’”

A clear example that the “personal is political”, the Meadows family is at the intersection of these social systems.

While in graduate school, I had the opportunity to work with the Michigan Women’s Justice & Clemency Project (MWJCP) which works to free women prisoners who were convicted of murder but who acted in self-defense against abusers and did not receive due process or fair trials.

Unfortunately, Bresha’s case progression echoes many of the stories of the women who receive assistance from MWJCP. Just like many of the women prisoners, Bresha and her family attempted to access the appropriate channels for assistance. Given their limited resources, “domestic issues” are generally addressed through the justice and child welfare systems. It appears those systems have failed.

One of the things that I admire about social workers is our ability to advocate for others and ask all the right, even tough questions. There are a lot of questions to ask concerning this case as Professor David Leonard inquires, “The question is, will we listen—this time? Or, if we pretend that we can’t hear them in our communities and our schools and our homes, bleeding beneath the fists of men who claim to love them, will they, like a tree falling in a forest, even make a sound?”

We can not lose sight. Bresha is a child: a survivor of abuse and a witness to violence in her own home, at the hands of her father,

Why It’s Not So Easy to “Just Get the Hell Out”

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One of the many difficult questions survivors of toxic relationships ask themselves is “why is it so hard to leave someone who treats me so badly?”  As rational people, we recognize that a relationship is extremely problematic and believe that the rational course of action would be just to stop the drama.

And yet, this is usually harder than it sounds.

While there are practical and logistical barriers to people exiting, the emotional resistance to leaving is usually present even when there aren’t kids or property or business deals or divorce laws slowing us down.

What accounts for this?  Why is it so common?

Social science has some insights that help to explain what’s going on here.  Knowing them may help you understand your own behavior (and the toxic person’s), help you exit or recover, and help you comfort yourself with the knowledge that if you’ve been caught in a toxic relationship, the dynamics that hooked you are dynamics that have tripped up many other human beings. They are also dynamics that you can change or avoid, once you’re in the know.

Here are seven principles from social science that will help you understand why it’s challenging to “just get the hell out.”

1. Intermittent reinforcement

They come, they go. They love you, they disappear. They love-bomb you, they tell you nobody else would want you.  These mixed messages may come quickly or may emerge slowly, but they hook us by making us wonder how we can stay on the happy side of the person’s attention and affection.

If the messages were all negative, we could easily walk away.  When we’ve had some taste of what it feels like to be “loved,” and then the behaviors we interpret as love disappear, it’s the fact of intermittent reinforcement that keeps us hanging in, trying to get the good stuff back.

2. The principle of least interest
At first, you are the center of their attention. Over time they are “just not that into you.”  The principle of least interest argues that the person who has the least interest in preserving a relationship has the most power in it.

Think of how this works with car salespeople: if you can walk away from the deal, you have more negotiating power. Toxic partners and family members manipulate the principle of least interest. As they back off, ignore, you, ghost you, or otherwise fade or disappear emotionally or otherwise for periods of time, they also accrue power — if you allow it by remaining intensely interested in “saving” the relationship.

3. How secrets create intimacy between secret keepers

Sociologist Georg Simmel argued that “every relationship between two individuals or two groups will be characterized by the ratio of secrecy that is involved in it.”  In healthy relationships, people are transparent with each other in generous degrees.

In toxic relationships, toxic people withhold information to manipulate you and have power over you and your choices. When they have affairs, they create intimacy with someone else who is then in on a secret (the relationship) that is invisible to you.

You may not leave because of the information that has been withheld from you, or because your partner’s other relationships are used to provoke you into competing for their attention, or if you aren’t savvy about how triangulation (the classic “love triangle” between three people) can be triggered by secret keeping.

4. Cognitive Dissonance

The experience of holding two competing beliefs simultaneously, cognitive dissonance is common among people in toxic relationships. “I love them” and “They treat me badly” are two beliefs that create the kind of tension associated with cognitive dissonance. “They are my sister so I should help them” and “they never repay the money I loan them” are two similarly competing beliefs.

Cognitive dissonance keeps us in emotional turmoil and slows us down in figuring out the best course of action to take for our health and happiness.

5. The Sunk Costs Fallacy

“Sunk costs” are the investments we have already made in an enterprise — or a relationship. The “fallacy” refers to our human tendency to over-estimate what we will lose by ending the endeavor and to under-estimate what we will lose by continuing.

In toxic relationships, this works to your disadvantage because it creates a tendency to expect, despite the evidence to the contrary, that if you just invest a bit more, the other person will become kind, appreciative, or reciprocal.  We underestimate the advantage of the “risk” involved with walking away. You can see how this belief sets you up to give until it hurts even more.

6. “Opportunity Cost” denial

Every day we spend in a toxic relationship is a day we don’t spend enjoying our single life or sharing happiness with a loving, supportive partner.  While our focus is on the drama, pain, or trouble created by a toxic relationship, we are missing out on opportunities for joy, connection, freedom, and happiness because the opportunities are less in our line of sight. Just like the moon behind the clouds, though, they are there all the time. When we see true alternatives to suffering, we can make choices to minimize opportunity costs.

7. Decision fatigue

Toxic relationships involve extraordinary decision making, often including re-evaluating every day whether you will stay in the relationship or exit. Neuroscience tells us that decision-making demands remarkable amounts of mental energy, leaving people exhausted.

As a result of decision fatigue, the quality of our decisions declines; we become less able to clearly see our options, assess potential outcomes, and accurately evaluate what we might gain or lose as a result of different decisions. Because of our tendency to under-estimate the costs of staying and over-estimate the costs of “losing” a toxic relationship, we may be inclined to continue to choose to stay when deciding from a place of decision fatigue.

Understanding what happens in toxic relationships through the insights of social science can help us see exploitative relationships more clearly. Even more importantly, these concepts can help us see more clearly the ways our own minds work, how we are vulnerable to making decisions that keep us in difficult situations, and how we can redirect our energies into more liberating, more loving relationships.

Helping Pets and People in Crisis

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As more research emerges about the link between human welfare and animal welfare, it has become increasingly clear of the relationship that binds the two together. In recent years, the animal welfare community has fully embraced the human-animal bond issue as animal shelters across the country work to reduce the number of owned animals being surrendered due to emergencies and find innovative ways to strengthen pet owners who are at risk of falling through the larger safety-net.

These new efforts are raising awareness of opportunities to better address the link between child abuse, elder abuse, and animal abuse and cruelty by expanding cross reporting and training among all first responders. It is now a pertinent time for human service agencies to begin to integrate animal welfare issues to meet the needs of the individuals they serve.

While it may initially seem awkward for social service organizations to expand their scope in this arena, this is actually not new for social workers who are historically at the front lines of addressing the needs of most marginalized populations. Today, more than 65% of the US population are pet owners, and it is very likely that some of these individuals and families face significant challenges impacting their housing, health, and safety.

Incorporating animal welfare into the work of human service organizations is not hard difficult but does require a meaningful pivot in thinking about helping a person/family in their whole environment. In terms of key social work interventions, much of the work remains the same from engagement and assessment through treatment. However, by recognizing a pet in the household, engagement and assessment can actually be stronger, thereby facilitating a treatment that is comprehensive for people and animals in the home. Incorporating animal welfare into traditional human service work can be done through these ten areas:

Engagement: Ask about the pet’s name and learn about the client’s relationship with the pet. Knowing about the animal (history, age, veterinary care, behavior) can reveal issues related to the individual as well.

Document: Include the presence of pets in all chart documentation, including a photo of the pet if possible. That way, the information of an animal can be shared with new workers. Include a Pet Information Page to collect information about the pet and services needed.

Assessment: Using the animal as an assessment point can showcase gaps in care (is there pet food, is there human food) as well as address environmental issues. Identifying pet needs (veterinary care, spay/neuter, grooming, food) is useful to the understanding of the client in the environment. In addition, assessments can highlight the relationship between the pet and person, whether there is a risk of human or animal neglect, or if there is a concern for elder abuse or animal cruelty.

Learn about the Issues: Pet owners face a number of crises along with the rest of the population including domestic violence, eviction, and illness. Some states have protections in place legally for situations of domestic violence including naming pets on Orders of Protection. One starting point is the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals online toolkit for social workers:

Explore Resources: There is an increase of low cost/free services targeting at risk pet owners to encourage spay/neuter and regular veterinary care.

Advocate: Front-line workers in under-served communities can advocate for animal welfare issues including spay/neuter, community cat issues, and increase of services (such as pet food banks) to help clients at risk of relinquishing their pets.

Collaboration: Human service agencies can partner with animal welfare organizations to address needs in the most under-served communities and assist the most at-risk clients. By recognizing the issues and understanding solutions, human service organizations can meet additional needs by monitoring and following up with clients and animals in the home.

Early Intervention: Early acknowledgement of pets in the home requiring services can allow interventions for individuals facing emergencies (hoarding, domestic violence, health/mental health issues) to encourage pet retention versus pet relinquishment.

Emergency Planning: Recent events showcase that everyone benefits when preparedness is encouraged whether the emergency is a terrorist attack, a large-scale hurricane, or other event. Social workers can encourage pet owners to secure emergency supplies for themselves and their animals, identify emergency temporary pet caretakers (in case of hospitalization or other emergency), and compile pet go-bags so that no one is left behind if an emergency is activated.

Program Expansion: Human service programs can address gaps in service delivery by expanding their initiatives to better meet the needs of vulnerable pet owners. Several ideas for expansion include identifying pet owners and assessing needs, providing pet food banks, implementing pet foster programs, offering veterinary clinics, and developing small grant programs to help pet owners in case of hospitalizations.

Having a pet that is loved and considered a family member should not impede accessing a level of assistance that non-pet owners can easily access. Locally, several social service organizations are beginning to lead the way by expanding their programs to target pet owners. These include Urban Resource Institute for implementing an emergency co-shelter for victims of domestic violence and their pets, and Search and Care, for expanding their friendly visiting program to target homebound seniors with pets. While these are great advances, it is now time for more human service programs to consider incorporating animal welfare into their work.

Sanctuary for Families Honored for Assisting Families of Domestic Violence

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New York – Sanctuary for Families has been recognized by the International Association for Social Work with Groups, Inc. (IASWG) for exemplary leadership in providing counseling and related services, and in particular, creative and innovative group therapy services to victims of domestic violence and their families. Each year, Sanctuary empowers thousands of adults and children to move from fear and abuse to safety and stability, transforming lives through a range of comprehensive services and advocacy. The honor was bestowed at the annual IASWG symposium, held this year on June 15-18 in New York City.

“Clinical services help survivors of domestic violence thrive. Our social workers and counselors play an integral role in guiding our clients as they rebuild their lives, free from violence. We are delighted that the International Association for Social Work with Groups has recognized their extraordinary efforts,” said Hon. Judy Harris Kluger, Executive Director of Sanctuary for Families.

“Sanctuary for Families provides an impressive range of group work services and programs dedicated to restoring the well-being of survivors of domestic violence. In their group work practice, they effectively serve a diverse range of vulnerable clients with cultural sensitivity and inclusivity,” said Greg Tully, IASWG President.

IASWG is an international association for social workers and allied helping professionals engaged in group work, promoting excellence in group work practice, education, field instruction, research and publication. The annual symposium provides opportunities: to meet others interested in and committed to the use of groups in social work; to hear and consider new approaches to social work with groups; to socialize; to help shape the present and the future of social group work in social work and in social work education; and to participate in decision making that directs the business of the Association.

Sanctuary for Families is the leading nonprofit agency in New York State dedicated exclusively to the safety, healing and self‐determination of victims of domestic violence and related forms of gender violence. Through comprehensive services for adult victims and their children, outreach, education and advocacy, Sanctuary strives to create a world in which freedom from gender violence is a basic human right.

Violence in my Rear View Mirror

By Tracy Cerff

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Too often we hear it said that a woman should ‘just leave’ a violent relationship. It is far easier said than done. Hindsight is a gift not afforded to all of us. The majority of assaults and deaths of women in domestic violence crimes have been committed after they have left the relationship.  The Australian Institute of Criminology put these horrendous crimes between 80-100 women each year, saying the majority of them were being killed in their own homes.  I remember clearly the day I ended my relationship with a former partner and how difficult and almost deadly it was.

As usual he took me in through the back entrance and insisted I sit down, politely pulling out a kitchen chair for me from the large dining table which seemed odd even then, as I had never seen anyone in the home to use it. I remember the warmth of the sun sneaking its way in the backdoor. To my dismay, but relief, he left it slightly open. It was the only comfort amongst the coldness I felt and the echoing of his voice inside my head.

We reached his home, the sun shining hot on the heavy, heritage bricks. He invited me into the house, in his ‘ordering voice’, to come inside for one last drink together. I wanted to run a thousand miles. I followed him in knowing I had to make it a quick stop or perhaps I wouldn’t be leaving at all.

Although we had just had a fiery argument in the car before arriving, he was eerily calm now and had begun to peel a mango with a sharp kitchen knife, which I’m sure I stared at for too long. He was remarkably back in his happy space again – he often changed his emotions without notice. Me however, I was stiff with fear as I now dreaded being in his presence, in his house – in his life.

From the other side of the room, while I silently watched him peel his mango, he tried to coax me to share it with him – how kind, I sarcastically thought. One mouthful and I would have physically puked. I so wanted to hide the fear I could sense he detected in me as he would see it as his prize, a triumph. I meekly declined his offer.

Deciding to now play a hero role, he came and lifted me from my pedestal – my place where he put me at the table. As he stood me up he mockingly snickered that I should lighten up and give him a hug. I stared at the shadow cast from us both open the half opened door. That doorway that gave me hope – with the warmth of the sun and openness to the outside world.

The shadow told a different story. Not one of a loving embrace for sure, rather a thrilling scene from a movie where we were the main actors. I could see the portrait of us both entwined, with the knife in his tight clenched hand against my skin. I was so frozen in fear that I couldn’t feel the actual knife itself. I knew I needed out or this was it.

With whatever scrap of strength I could summons, I hugged him as he wished and shakily lied, “I really have to get going or I’ll be late for my appointment and I don’t want them calling me”. Without hesitation, I pulled away from his grasp and grabbed my bag off the side of the chair praying it wouldn’t get caught. I don’t know why he allowed me to go, but I just knew to keep going – I did what I had to do to survive and it worked.

At my appointment I must have still been as white as a back-washed wall, as the Doctor was very concerned about my anxiousness, offering me the details of a counsellor near to my home. I never shared a word to him of the incident. I did however gratefully accept the details. I was one of the lucky ones, so many are not as fortunate.

My experiences have led me to a deeper understanding of the vast complications that women face when they find themselves in a similar situation. Unfortunately my story is not unique. It is far too common and made even more complex when there are children involved and when women don’t have the means or funds to safely leave the situation. My work in counselling and education opens doors for me to empower women, men and young people to plan their future, a future without violence and control at their hands of another.

Privilege and Power: The Role of Shame and Self-Awareness

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If you are a helping professional, chances are you were trained in self-awareness and learned about its importance. In fact, self-awareness is foundational to all areas of helping. In micro intervention, we must be aware of our biases and feelings about a host of presenting problems. If we are not self-aware, we risk placing judgement on our clients and decreasing our credibility and effectiveness as a result.  

Similarly, self-awareness plays an important role at the macro level. Specifically, we must know our place in the hierarchy of the structures and systems that we are charged with ameliorating, and self-awareness must be part of what drives our analyses of structural and systemic inequality.  

The latter, self-awareness and macro structural analyses, is not a popular topic among many elements of North American society. However, without challenging the status quo with analyses such as the one contained herein, the progressive and change-oriented elements of society cannot make progress. We must challenge and be truly progressive in order to help the people we are charged with serving. Vulnerable populations and marginalized groups remain marginalized time and time again if we cannot change damaging conservative elements within our political structures.   

Evidence, a case study

I am a white male, 45 years old.  I am a 5th generation Canadian with European roots dating back to the United Empire Loyalists.  

For the majority of my adult life, I have felt a great deal of shame regarding the history of my country and that of the United States of America in so far as I can claim to know the history of the latter. The shame I have felt and carried and to some extent still carry, stems from our collective white, European history.  

Although I do not easily acknowledge my expertise, I am an ‘expert’ in many areas of social work knowledge, and  I have become ‘expert’ through study and practice experience of 20 years.  These areas include domestic family violence, trauma and posttraumatic stress.  I acknowledge my areas of expertise because they factor into the shame I feel as a person, as a man, and as a social worker who has worked with children and families for 20 years.  

Maybe I am an anomaly, but I feel and identify with shame a great majority of the time. Perhaps, it is because of my privilege as a white male.  I studied male violence toward women and children for many years and worked in the treatment of women and children victims and male perpetrators for many years.  Often, I have identified as feminist and anti oppressive almost exclusively.  

Have you read about or studied intergenerational trauma?  I wonder if this is perhaps some of what causes me historical shame?  Did my ancestors personally participate in wars and acts of oppression?  These are questions I don’t have answers to.  If I did have answers or insight into my ancestors actions in the past, I suspect they would be tainted with some sort of justification for their acts.  

Things I feel shameful for

I feel shame for being a man.  Men, I think it can be argued, are responsible for the majority of gross atrocities carried out against human populations at the individual / family, community, and societal levels.  Although we as a planet have histories of non -white men and groups acting out atrocities against others, it seems to me that the great majority of atrocities are carried out by white men or at least groups that have strong power relationship ties with white men.  In this way, white men are inextricably tied to global suffering. Other men are too but it seems to me that once you start to explore or investigate conflict it leads to the power structures that are predominantly white and male.  

Men abuse women and children. Women do too, but it occurs on a much lesser scale. Men are the face of domestic family violence as well as the atrocities and secrets which exist in patriarchal family systems.

Men stole North America from first nations peoples.  Plain and simple.  I actually can’t believe that I have never read the history of North America in such simple and truthful terms.  That is the truth, we, our ancestors, stole this continent from first nations and we used force to take it. We killed and violated countless first nations people.  How is this not a shameful history?  

Is my shame different?  

Is my shame different than that of other men?  I have no way of knowing this because to the best of my knowledge people do not generally talk about or write about this. How do I feel connected to a history that has nothing to do with me personally?  Is my shame quotient that much bigger than normal because of my own abuse and post-traumatic history?  

Is shame helpful?  I can only answer this for myself.  I know people avoid pain and shame which is a big part of psychological and emotional pain.  It seems to me that shame can destroy people through the likes of addiction and other self-destructive paths.  

But isn’t shame also helpful?  If we connect to shame doesn’t it act as a compass for moving forward?  I know that my connection and relationship with shame is something that makes me who I am. I am incapable of hurting other people unless there is a real threat to my personal safety or that of my family and loved ones.  My shame is part of my life in terms of my goals, beliefs and values.  It is no accident that I am a social worker.  

What is the cost of privilege?  

Privilege gives people power over others.  It allows people in positions of power to dictate the terms of other people’s lives.  A clear example of privilege is government setting the terms of welfare recipients for those living in poverty. Making a person do a drug test in exchange for still living below the poverty line is an abusive use of power and privilege.  Plain and simple. If this was not true, those with power and privilege are exempt from drug testing to receive government subsidies and/or other governmental funding.   

Is privilege and power the same or inextricably linked?  Does privilege corrupt like power often does?  It seems to me it does.  

I’m not naive enough to think that there is an answer to this query.  Sometimes, I’m not even exactly sure what the exact query should be. I often find myself thinking analytically and as a result negatively about the state of our world. Our current lack of global peace is a stain on all of humanity in my mind.  It is easy to remove oneself from responsibility for the current state of affairs, but this is not honest living in my mind.  Living honestly means accepting one’s connection to the past and committing to move forward in new, nonviolent and non-privileged ways. 

9 Mobile Apps for Social Workers

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Add digital skills to the many skill sets we wear as social workers. Our clients are carrying around devices that can serve as a secondary tool to support practice and our primary connections. Many practitioners feel that technology is taking away from the human interaction. However, technology can actually enhance our practice and empower our clients while scaling our efforts.

For instance, we can reach people in rural areas we weren’t able to reach before, empower clients to monitor their moods outside of sessions and have real time data to discuss in session, make connections with children on the autism spectrum that is difficult for a human to make, assess suicidal ideations, alert authorities/contact of domestic violence situations in real time, and the list goes on.  We must not fear technology as it is here to stay.  In fact, they are now moving into the world of the Internet of Things (IOT) such as wearable technology.

The social work practice will not progress by chance, we will have to embrace and educate ourselves on technology in order to most effectively advocate for our clients and the profession.

  • “Most social workers have no access to data in the field, even though worldwide global mobile access is above 87%.” Northwoods Business Brief
  • “Smartphone owners use an average of 24 apps per month but spend more than 80 percent of their [in app] time on just five apps.” Forrester Data
  • “To date, 85.5 percent of the world subscribes to mobile phone services…” Technology for good: Innovative use of technology by charities

Mobile apps are a wonderful tool, however they are just that: a tool.  They should not replace the relationship but rather enhance and augment the work you are doing.

1.     PTSD Coach – “The PTSD Coach app can help you learn about and manage symptoms that often occur after trauma. Features include:

  • Reliable information on PTSD and treatments that work
  • Tools for screening and tracking your symptoms
  • Convenient, easy-to-use tools to help you handle stress symptoms
  • Direct links to support and help
  • Always with you when you need it

Providing you with facts and self-help skills based on research.” (iTunes, Google Play)

Tags: Veterans, Mental Health

2.     Northwoods Compass CoPilot – “It’s the ideal solution for mobile social workers at child and adult protective services agencies, and other workers who visit clients in their homes or other locations. Social workers in the field use Compass CoPilot to access all case and client information, forms, and documents, just as they would in the office. It’s the only social services software to ensure that social workers are never without the files and information they need while they’re on the road. During client visits, social workers can use Compass CoPilot to record interviews, take photos, document, and notate their findings — all while they are in the field. Being able to accomplish all of this with a tablet makes the information gathering less intrusive, which helps put clients at ease and allows for better interactions. Our innovative social service software syncs the new information with the agency’s Compass® system back at the office.” (iTunes)

Tags: Child Welfare, Case Mangement

3.     Classdojo – “Easily encourage students on participation, perseverance, or something else? Customize ClassDojo to work for your classroom.  See a timeline of students’ progress, share a beautiful timeline of all the wonderful things your students do. Students love how positive classrooms are and it saves teachers valuable class time, too.” (iTunes, Google Play)

Tags: School Social Work, Autism

4.     TF-CBT Triangle of Life – “new [free] mobile game app helps children who have experienced trauma by letting them use their tablets or smartphones to practice life skills they have learned in the therapist’s office. With the tagline “Change how you think; change your life,” the TF-CBT Triangle of Life game is designed to help children age 8-12 better understand their thoughts, feelings and behaviors, and move toward a better quality of life. During this game, the player takes the role of the lion in a jungle story, guiding other animals toward more positive experiences and relationships.” (iTunes,Google Play)

Tags: Mental Health, Trauma, CBT, Therapist

5.     Aspire News – “A domestic violence app is disguised as a normal icon and even has a decoy home page, so you’ll be safe if your abuser takes your phone. The most important feature of the Aspire News app is called the GO Button, which you can activate the moment you are in danger. Once activated, the GO Button will send a pre-typed or pre-recorded message to multiple trusted, preselected contacts, or even 911, saying that you are in trouble. Additionally, once the app is activated, your phone will begin recording audio of everything that is going on in the room, which can be used as evidence for any legal proceedings that may stem from the incident. Robin emphasizes that it’s important to always have your location services activated, as many of the app’s features require it. For example, the app can be used to locate the shelters and resources closest to you.” (iTunes, Google Play)

Tags: Domestic Violence

6.     The Savvy Social Worker – “Trying to stay abreast of developments in social work and human services practice? Few practitioners have the time to identify all the key sources of information on the web. This app, developed by the University at Buffalo School of Social Work, will help you stay current with new developments in social work practice, especially evidence-based practices and best practices. We bring information about key practice resources and practice research findings to you all in one place, in an e-news reader format. You select the information providers (channels) that you would like to monitor, and we do the rest. Included in our list are key sources such as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the Cochrane Collaboration, the Campbell Collaboration, ad Information for Practice.” (Google Play)

Tags: Social Work, Resources

7.     Suicide Safety – “Suicide Safe, SAMHSA’s new suicide prevention app for mobile devices and optimized for tablets, helps providers integrate suicide prevention strategies into their practice and address suicide risk among their patients. Suicide Safe is a free app based on SAMHSA’s Suicide Assessment Five-Step Evaluation and Triage (SAFE-T) card.” (iTunes, Google Play)

Tags: Therapist, Suicide, Social Work

8.     The DBT Diary Card – “DBT Diary Card is the only DBT iPhone app designed and created by a licensed and DBT intensively trained psychologist.” (iTunes)

Tags: Therapist, Social Work, DBT

9.     Dialysis Finder – Dialysis Finder App quickly identifies your location and lets you choose the nearest Dialysis Clinic as well as get other information about the location. A convenient way to find a US Dialysis Clinic near you. (iTunes)

When Fathers Are Not Engaged We Miss the Bigger Picture in Child Protection

Father and son walking

Today, it is common to hear about the rise of domestic violence and children living in poverty who are raised with single mothers because the father is not around. Nearly every issue has another side to it that is often ignored. For example, responsible fathers who have been separated from their kids, are at higher risk of suicide and emotional hardship. Children growing up without their fathers in these communities have a higher dropout rate and are more likely to either become incarcerated or become young parents too early.

Even though, the federal government has recognized the importance to support responsible fathers and their active involvement in their children’s life, today’s common practice in the family courts and social services demonstrate minimal proof that they are “on-board” with the idea. Fathers often experience negative biases and inequitable treatment. They are neglected of the rights to their children, therefore, the children are neglected of the rights to their fathers.

Over my three years as a volunteer intern for Paternal Opportunities Programs and Services (POPS) in San Diego, I saw the other side of this story. I had the “eye opening” experience of meeting the fathers of these children every Wednesday. We were a very diverse talk group, no one was the same, and everyone’s situation was different. Even though we were all different, we all connected in several ways. The reason is, all these fathers shared something in common, they loved their children and wanted to be in their life.

Unfortunately, most shared the stress and agonizing suspense of not seeing their children for months and trying to resolve the conflicts with either the other parent, social services, or family courts. However, it was common for a father to be battling all of these stressors at the same time just to stay involved with their children.  After my three years of hearing the same issues, it is clear that common practices of our family court system and social services need to be monitored, revised and updated. Our children are paying the price for it.

We rarely end up living the life that we have always expected to be in. Think of the homeless man you see sleeping on the park bench, the drug addict getting picked up on the streets from the police, or the individual walking down the street carrying a child’s backpack and pushing a baby stroller with no child in it. These behaviors may seem odd to us, but these individuals have another side we do not see. There is almost always an unknown story which explains how they got there. It is a story they never expected, nor wanted and a reality they had to face.

It is important to remember that both parents love their children and are equally important in a child’s life. Lets take some extra time to get understand the bigger picture. When we open our eyes to the other side of the story, it may save a child from ending up having a life they never wanted and do not deserve.

Balancing Punishments With Support Networks for Convicted Athletes

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Former New England Patriot, Aaron Hernandez, was convicted of 1st Degree Murder in April 2015

Criminal issues have certainly disgraced professional athletes with endless cases of murder, gun violence, domestic violence, drinking and driving, child endangerment, performance enhancing drugs, gambling, unauthorized videotaping, stolen crab legs, whatever the problem, there are daily scandals in the sports world.

The modern era of bad boys in sports dates back to 1994 when OJ Simpson may or may not have murdered his ex-wife, Nicole. He was acquitted, although he certainly endured a public execution and ended up in prison in 2008 anyway.

One problem in demonizing actions is by thinking something is new or shocking. However, the sports world has always been full of misappropriations. Athletes cheating or breaking the law is not new, or particularly shocking. It’s somewhat natural.

Athletes of All Ages Have Tried To Cheat the System

Performance enhancing drugs, for example, have been around a long time. They’ve only been highlighted more recently by rule changes regarding designer steroids. Still, doping has always been an issue. It was an issue going back to ancient Greeks using opium juice in the original Olympics and there are records in the 1940s of cyclists using amphetamines to help increase endurance. Across time, the supply has been different, not the culture.

The same can be said for gambling in sports. It is infrequently discussed enough to only be associated with Pete Rose or the 1919 Chicago Black Sox. These incidents were understandable in context of how they occurred and in context of history. From amateur to professional sports, gambling has been problematic in every era.

George Bechtel was banned from baseball in 1876 for conspiring to throw a game, and that was at a time when bookies circulated through the stands taking bets as if they were cotton candy vendors. As a 19-year-old semi-pro in 1907, future baseball hall of famer, Walter Johnson was purchased by Payette to pitch one game versus Caldwell with a heavy amount of betting. The original football golden boy and winner of the 1961 NFL MVP award, Paul Hornung, along with teammate Alex Karras, were suspended for betting on football. Denny McLain, the last pitcher to win 30 games to go with Cy Young awards in 1968 and 1969, was suspended in 1970 for gambling and quickly destroyed his baseball career on a path to prison.  

Players in the old days were not paid ridiculously high salaries as they are now. Baseball players were sometimes banned for requesting higher contracts prior to 1915. It took the formation of the Federal League in 1913 for player rights to be granted by American or National League owners. As the highest paid baseball player of his era, Ty Cobb made $20,000 in 1915, or roughly equivalent to just under $500,000 in 2015 dollars. The highest paid in 2015, Clayton Kershaw, makes over 60 times Ty Cobb’s adjusted-for-inflation salary.

It was assumed that players conspired with gamblers because they weren’t paid appropriately. As economics changed, players started to be paid more fairly and gambling became less of a problem overall, though the high salaries of modern players have resulted in high stakes gambling in many cases. Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley have been disgraced by gambling. Golfer John Daly is infamously known for his huge gambling losses. As well, modern day soccer players have lost millions in a psychosocial culture of gambling.

Gambling and doping are somewhat taken for granted as part of sports culture, but more violent behaviors, like murder (Aaron Hernandez), armed robbery (Clifford Etienne), child abuse (Adrian Peterson), and domestic violence are subject to harsher criticism. Whatever the social ill, there are many professional athletes guilty of transgressions. A Wikipedia list of crimes committed by athletes is longer than any team roster, many with mafia-like crimes.

Athletes have a drive to be competitive, a tenacity and fighting spirit. They have a desire to win at all costs. And when players of rough sports, like football, are so willing to throw their bodies into other bodies, how does such reckless abandon keep contained? That must be difficult, particularly for players from poor backgrounds subjected to violence as youth and/or with little education. To top it off, violence would seem more likely when condoned by coaches, such as the New Orleans Saints offering incentives for injuring opposing players.

Sometimes, giving someone millions of dollars just opens the door for millions of problems. That is the primary difference between the ages. In either case, it is not up to the athlete to behave. The athlete’s job is to compete at high levels. It is up to society to set the standards and provide the support, or lack of support, for player’s paychecks.

Leveling the Field

The big question becomes what penalties are appropriate? Should life be so strict as locking the door and throwing away the key?

No endorsement should ever be given to Ray Rice’s elevator incident and I personally would support a permanent ban in his, and similar cases. However, it’s also important to consider the element within human nature. Giving people a second chance provides hope.

Nobody is perfect. People know from the start that they will make mistakes. In fact, doctors in training necessarily need to make mistakes to learn. The differentiating factor separating a doctor’s success from failure is “knowledge of the repercussions and instill a character that doesn’t allow them to be the least paralyzed by the fear of the responsibility placed on their hands.” This means exactly that we must accept faults without being tied down by them.

There is much encouragement in learning and growing from mistakes and not being permanently locked away from another chance. The idea of the possibility of living only in fear and without hope is enough to make people more lenient toward criminals.

That much is evident with general prison populations. Most of the millions of prisoners in the United States will eventually be released and return to the public. With no hope or support, there absolutely will be a high recidivism rate. Oregon is admittedly progressive compared to many states, but still a heavy majority of Oregonians support rehabilitation efforts and services to prepare prisoners for reentry through job training, mental health, drug treatment and education. There is no reason to expect convicted athletes also wouldn’t benefit society better by having a support network. Some may say that due to their celebrity status and exceptional situations they would have even more need for certain services.

It is worth noting, however, that Oregonians also support close supervision of ex-prisoners. Basically, that means giving second chances, but with a short leash. My argument for not endorsing criminal activities while suggesting standards for athletes be in line with other people in society is similar. That is why Aaron Hernandez will serve life in prison. That is why Ray Rice shouldn’t get the golden path he had prior to his knocking out his wife. On the flipside, paying Sean Payton the richest coaching contract after a year long “vacation” is not congruent to what would happen in the rest of society.

When we let individuals off easy, we are not setting examples for the rest of society. Still, a second chance is crucial for the hope of future society. These are not individual problems because there are too many individuals committing the crimes. These are societal problems. Society needs room to breathe and recover from these problems.

Building Hope and Enforcing Accountability

Giving hope and holding people accountable can happen together. There are other avenues for Ray Rice beyond the football field. As a leader, or role model, maybe coach, Rice can still accomplish many great things. That’s up to him to show the strength to rebound from a reasonable punishment. Removing him from the game is part of the price paid for his actions. Holding him accountable makes the system fair and sends the message that assaulting other people is not okay.  

Society’s expectations for celebrities are pretty strict considering how many average people have problems staying out of trouble. This makes it problematic to expect more from athletes, yet we often judge them differently. What we need is the balance of toeing the line between knowing what is right, understanding consequences and feeling hopeful that we can succeed in the world despite lamentable actions.

Volunteer programs are one way that people can atone for mistakes. Even where people may come from poor backgrounds, the glamour and the spotlight may be too overwhelming. It is always significant to get people back in touch with more unfortunate situations to realize how bad things can be and how to correct problems to achieve better outcomes. That experience is too valuable to deprive from an individual and society.

Fans are the ones that have the ultimate power to hold athletes accountable. Fans support them with tickets, cable subscriptions and buying from advertisers. Society, in general, continues to offer massive financial support to pro sports leagues, even where they bash poor behaviors. In the end, people seem to still need entertainment in times of crisis. Modern life is full of endless war and strife, resulting in refugees in Hungary, Greece and Syria and elsewhere. At the same time, the Washington Post estimated that six million civilians have been killed by US interventions since WWII. We continue to support this carnage with tax dollars, so in some ways fans continuing to pay athletes for violence and cheating makes sense.

From my perspective, such social support shouldn’t make sense. While I am all for rehabilitation programs and giving outlets for the disgraced to continue to be successful, that doesn’t equal paying to support a destructive culture. There is enough entertainment to go around that I can spend my money elsewhere, so I focus on the betterment of society rather than being entertained by how bad boys can be. As long as fans give any attention, there is no room to complain. Athletes may be bad, but then we all are.

Meanwhile, September was the first month in six years that no NFL player was arrested. So, we’re getting somewhere, right?

ReMoved: A Poignant Short Film on Foster Care

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“It’s natural for you to think about how fostering will affect your life.  About how hard it will be or how it will impact your family. But try to imagine what it’s like for that kid in foster care. And how much harder it is for them. Because you’re an adult after all, but they’re just kids,” explained Chris Poynter, a foster parent trainer and child advocate in Southern California.

After showing a short slideshow of sentences that kids in foster care wish adults knew about what it’s like to be in care, prospective foster parents Nathanael and Christina Matanick were so inspired that they decided to make their next short film about the experience of foster care from a child’s point of view.

Their film proceeded to win at the speed film festival they created it for (the 168 Film Festival), and then went on to win numerous awards at various other film festivals worldwide (Enfoque International Film Festival, St. Tropez International Film Festival, Sikeston Film Festival). Most notably and of most affirmation for the Matanicks, the film spread virally online in March 2014 and quickly became embraced by social workers, foster parents, child welfare agencies, court appointed special advocates, and current foster youth and alum.

The film follows the emotional journey of Zoe, a 9-year-old girl who is taken from her abusive birth home and placed in the tumultuous foster care system. Separated from her brother, Zoe bounces from foster home to foster home, experiencing additional trauma within the system, and finally lands in a good foster home but experiences flashbacks and behavioral issues stemming from triggers in her environment. Through it all, she lugs her black trash bag from place to place, which contains the few items that belong to her.

The uniqueness of the 13-minute film lies in its perspective from the child’s point of view. The entire film is driven by Zoe’s voice-over, articulating the thoughts and emotions of her experience.

Says Janet Magee, founder of Blue Sunday, an initiative to raise awareness and prevent child abuse, “[ReMoved is] the most authentic video I’ve ever seen! They have it down to the trash bag she used as a suitcase – my personal pet peeve.  It’s the wake up call of the century for a nation where child abuse is epidemic.  It’s a 12 minute investment thank can change your life and hopefully a child’s.”

Child abuse is rampant in the United States—and exists everywhere worldwide as well. Current figures have the number of children in the United States foster care system as around 400,000. Rather than escaping from neglect and abuse they encountered in their birth homes, many of these children entering foster care experience additional trauma through repeated moves, unloving caregivers, separation from siblings, et cetera.

Says Nathanael Matanick, creator and director of ReMoved, “Film has a way of bypassing the intellectual arguments and getting straight to the emotion of an issue.” ReMoved does just that, usually bringing viewers to tears as they resonate and understand Zoe’s story and determine in their hearts to do what they can to make a difference for the children in their own communities.  ReMoved and its sequel, Remember My Story, can be licensed through the film’s webpage: www.removedfilm.com

Domestic Violence Services for Same Sex Couples

In late June of 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States of America made history by legalizing marriage equality for all people within its borders. Even though it is a great moment in history, it may also highlight the challenges and barriers LGBTQ couples and families face in seeking treatment and services for domestic violence.

Domestic violence, also termed intimate partner violence, can be an all too real and very dangerous circumstance of dating and marriage for some individuals. The possible dangers do not change just because it is a same-sex relationship or marriage.

Screen-Shot-2013-09-18-at-2.08.31-PMThere are many domestic violence and women’s centers across America that mainly help heterosexual women and their children escape violent family situations. Many of these centers state they also help heterosexual men in abusive situations and would help LGBTQ individuals seeking services if requested.

However, some of these centers do not openly advertise their help for heterosexual men and LGBTQ individuals, and they may be protected from having to provide services to LGBTQ individuals due to religious freedoms laws being passed in various states around the country.

In 2005, The Journal of Gay and Lesbian Social Services shared a study by Stephen Owens and Tod Burke on intimate partner violence of same-sex couples. The criteria for this study was use of physical force, withholding financial gain, psychological (name calling, manipulation, threats), and engagement in forced and unwanted sexual activity. For more specific examples of abuse, you can check out the LGBT Relationship Violence Power and Control Wheel. The study group contained sixty-six individuals (50% of each gender) of which 56% had admitted to experiencing one or more forms of intimate partner violence.

The prevalence of domestic violence in a sample of 33 men and 33 women currently or previously in same-sex relationships was assessed. Data were collected through a mail survey in the state of Virginia. Of 1000 surveys sent out 66 usable ones were returned (response rate = 6.6%). Analysis indicated that 34 had experienced some form of domestic violence, but significant differences between male and female respondents were not detected. When data from this same-sex sample were compared with those of the heterosexual sample of the National Violence Against Women Survey, intimate partner assault may be more prevalent against gay men than against heterosexual men, but there was no significant difference between lesbians and heterosexual females. Read More

Federal non-discrimination laws and policies aim to prevent agencies from denying or failing to provide services to individuals in a  protected class such as race, gender, religion, etc.  However, LGBTQ individuals have not yet been given federal nondiscrimination protection which has been relegated to state or local bodies to extend protection.

Even though a domestic abuse center claims they will help LGBTQ individuals who are in abusive relationships, there really is no guarantee they will help without a non-discrimination clause against discriminating based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Adding these two areas to any and all non-discrimination policies will give LGBTQ individuals the added security they need when seeking services instead of fearing discrimination based on who they love.

Marriage equality is still controversial, and it will take time for some people to get used to the expanded definition of marriage, but nothing should be offensive about another person needing help. Just as everyone should be entitled to marry the person they love, everyone should be entitled to help when they need it.

The Image of Domestic Violence

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Twenty people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. On the more extreme level, a 2012 Upworthy article reported FBI statistics of 11,766 women killed by a husband or boyfriend between 2001 and 2012. By contrast, 6,488 American troops were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan during that same period.

In the Media

It appears there is a never-ending list of celebrities in the news regarding domestic violence which including new age musician Yanni and MASH star Harry Morgan. The problem is so extreme it sometimes feels like a contest for the most outrageous incident. One would hope the worst possible role model is Floyd Mayweather, Jr. Boxing fans seemed all too willing to overlook his violent behavior, making him the richest sportsman in the world in spite of repeated, lascivious attacks on women as if to suggest that as long as he can knock out Manny Pacquiao, then who cares how many women he knocks out?

Domestic violence in sports receives considerable scrutiny because of athletes’ role model status among youth. Plus, athletes have a high proportion of incidents, and the accusations are usually more extreme than just a bruised arm or lip. The two most recent football players to be accused of domestic violence sum up the whole of the situation pretty well.

Greg Hardy, of the Dallas Cowboys, was accused of attacking a woman at his home, including throwing her on a bed covered with automatic weapons and threatening to kill her. In court, the victim refused to appear, and there was a question of bias with the judge in admitting evidence. The case was dismissed, though Hardy was suspended by the league (but still received $13.1 million pay) for the majority of the 2014 season and the first 10 games of 2015. The 10 games was reduced to four games this past June.

In a somewhat similar turn of events, Ray McDonald was involved in a questionable circumstance last year with a woman he took home from a bar, and then again this year in a domestic assault charge against his fiance. The cases present with rather hazy evidence. His court case hasn’t been settled yet, but he has been released by two teams during the off-season. He might not ever play again, because no team seems to want him and not because of league intervention.

Preferential Treatment

Why do the Dallas Cowboys want Hardy, who was suspended for his alleged incidents, while the Chicago Bears don’t want McDonald despite no suspension or charges? One plausible answer lies in economics. Hardy’s value is exceptionally high. Hardy has a one-year contract with Dallas that will pay up to $11.3 million based on performance. Hardy is only 26-years-old and has already had a more productive career than the 30-year-old McDonald.

Domestic violence is widely considered to be related to poverty. Athletes, though typically wealthy, often come from poor backgrounds. Even though NFL domestic abuse arrests are only half the national average, they are still higher than normal for people making over $75,000.

USA Today has a running tally of NFL player arrests that exhibits some trends. There are a lot of dropped or unresolved cases, particularly when it comes to domestic violence. Most charges have been filed for drug and DUI arrests. The league has also come down harshest on drug offenses. Meanwhile, teams have taken the liberty of releasing players involved in just about any incident, provided it has been a more dispensable player. With the two notable exceptions of Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice, most recent trends are that star players receive more favorable treatment.

To their credit the NFL and Major League Baseball appear to be trying by implementing new standards for personal conduct. However, it remains to be seen how player’s unions will react to strict disciplinary measures for players that have received no convictions in court.

Where’s the Consequence?

Domestic violence costs the U.S. $8.3 billion per year, $8 trillion globally. It’s more costly than any war. But the monetary cost is largely invisible. Social costs are far-reaching across generations and create cyclical problems. As the above link also shows, in domestic violence incidents involving children, only one in four are ever reported and perpetrators receive jail time only two percent of the time. Without consequences, the patterns repeat themselves over and over.

Domestic violence has only been treated as a crime in recent years. In the 1700s, England legally allowed husbands to enforce domestic discipline and, in 1910, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to not give women recourse against husbands for assault or battery. It wasn’t until the end of the twentieth century that police were given ways to deal with domestic disputes and courts started protect the rights of battered women. Overall, the historical image of wives being property of the husband has only recently started to change.

When the victims and/or perpetrators have witnessed abuse growing up, have seen a lack of accountability, and generally do not have a deep understanding of right and wrong, the situation becomes even more complicated. In short, there is no quick and simple solution.

If you are victim of domestic violence or believe you may be in an unsafe relationship, please contact the national domestic violence hotline for more information and/or to speak with a crisis counselor.

Domestic Violence Survivor Pushes Against the Dark

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Shavonia West – Survivor and Domestic Violence Advocate

Driving home at night, she can identify the make of a car from nothing more than the shape of its headlights in her rearview mirror. Walking up the driveway to her house, she can pick out the distinctive silhouette and shadow of each familiar object in her yard.

It’s a skill she’s learned out of necessity, because in that darkness West can see back to the morning nearly two decades ago when she opened her front door and stepped into a world of fear, a world she would come to know intimately in the minutes, hours, and years to come.

“I try to be strong, but it’s not always easy. A lot of memories get stirred up,” admits West, speaking from her office at Sarah’s Refuge Crisis Center, where she works as a domestic violence community educator.

In 1995, West, then 19, broke off a relationship with 26-year-old Joseph Muller. Shortly afterwards, Muller began turning up unexpectedly at locations West frequented, first at ballgames, then at the homes of her friends and her aunt.

“He was not taking ‘No’ for an answer,” remembers West, who at the time was working at her mother’s beauty salon while finishing her senior year in highschool.

Though annoyed by Muller’s actions, West said she never related her concerns to friends or family members. “I was stalked without letting anyone know for at least a couple of months. I just kept a lot of that stuff quiet because I felt like I could handle it.”

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Joseph Muller

After a time, Muller broke off all contact with West, leading her to believe he had finally accepted that their relationship was over.

In the months since their breakup, West had graduated from highschool and was living in a recently purchased home. West says she thought little more about her former boyfriend until she stepped through her front door one morning on her way to work.

“When I came out of the house he came from under the steps,” she recalls. “I could smell alcohol on him. He told me the reason I hadn’t heard from him was because he had been plotting how to kill me for a month. He kept calling me a bitch and saying ‘Today is your last day.’”

After telling West that he was carrying a gun, Muller methodically related his plan to kill her and dump her body down a dirt road in Fayetteville, after which he would drive to California. “He told me he had been saving checks from his job and he had enough money to get out of town,” says West.

Muller told her he had already written letters to his family members apologizing for her murder.

As she turned and attempted to flee, Muller dragged West back inside her house, where he proceeded to rape and beat her.

It was the Monday after Thanksgiving, November 27. West’s ordeal was just beginning.

Muller dragged West to her car and made her drive towards Fayetteville where he forced her to stop at a gas station.

“I was looking around to see if I could find anything to blow the car up with,” remembers West. Fearful that Muller would hurt others, she made the decision not to reach out for help.

Once they were on the road again, West says she suddenly remembered advice Oprah Winfrey had given during a broadcast concerning women who have been abducted. “Oprah said you should never allow your captor to take you to a second location. If you do, it makes it much easier for them to abuse you and do what they are going to do,” West recalls.

As she began to pray, West pleaded with Muller for any solution that would allow her to live. “I started to lie, saying I was sorry for leaving him. He said the only way I could live was to be with him, to get back in a relationship with him.”

Having convinced Muller that she would take him back, West says he told her to make a right turn at an intersection. A left turn would have taken them to Fayetteville and the location Muller had chosen for her murder.

Instructed to head back towards her home, West was allowed to stop at her mother’s beauty salon to break the news of her and Muller’s reconciliation. Before they arrived Muller assured West he would kill her mother if she interfered with their plans.

Believing that he would be moving into West’s trailer that afternoon, Muller left the beauty salon to collect clothes from his home, located less than a mile from West’s trailer.

After he was gone, West related the desperate nature of her situation to her mother, who immediately called the police.

“We had to go to the local Sheriff’s Office and then I had to do a rape kit,” remembers West.

Muller was arrested at his home and held for trial. Though it was discovered he had prior charges in New York, he was allowed to plea bargain his sentence down to less than two years. “My lawyer at the time advised me to accept the lesser charge so I wouldn’t have to testify in front of him,” says West.

After serving his sentence Muller was released, with the stipulation that he does not enter the state of North Carolina for five years.

Fear

Looking back, West says she never recognized any signs of violence in Muller during the time they were together. “He was always very nice to me, he was always buying me gifts,” she says.

Only once during their relationship did Muller show his true face. “We were just talking with some of my family and someone joked around about us breaking up,” remarks West. “He just came out and said ‘She’ll never leave me. If she tries to leave, I’ll kill her.”’

As she looks over a newly constructed poster covered in statistics on teen dating violence, West appears relaxed as she talks about the events that changed her life so profoundly. Waiting patiently for a school group that she’s scheduled to address, the youthful, small statured 36-year-old betrays little of the anxiety one would expect as she describes the details of her abduction.

But appearances, says West, can be deceiving. For years after her attack, she explains, her self-control teetered on the edge of collapse, as day after day she put on a brave face designed to hide her increasing sense of panic.

It was during this time that West realized she had begun focusing on cars driving behind her on the roads at night, had begun peering into the trees around her home, watching and waiting for what she believed was inevitable.

“I lived in fear. I kept waiting for him to come back,” she says.

While West stayed busy working at the beauty salon, the memories were there waiting every night when she returned home, to the same trailer where Muller attacked and violated her.

“I had to relive that over and over,” she states.

Though Muller never attempted to contact her after he was released from prison, West says she had no doubt that, given the chance, he would hurt others. “I knew that if he didn’t get some help eventually there would be another victim.”

Fourteen years after her attack, West’s sad prophecy proved correct.

In 2009, she received a call from a friend who told her to turn her television to WRAL News. According to the newscast, Joseph Muller, age 40, was wanted on a charge of first-degree murder in the death of his former girlfriend, Jessica Ellis of Durham, who had been found shot in her home on June 13.

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Jessica Ellis

The report said Muller was armed and dangerous.

“On the news, they said they had no idea where he was,” West recalls.

West would later discover that Muller went to the Sears store where Ellis worked, lured her into his car, and took her to her home, where he shot Ellis in front of a family member.

West says she immediately contacted the detective handling the investigation. “When I told him what had happened to me he said it sounded exactly like the story her family was telling, how he was so nice and loving to her until they broke up, and then he couldn’t handle being rejected.”

West, who by then was a mother of two young children, moved out of her home and lived with her mother for a time. She had received word from law enforcement that Muller’s abandoned car had been found off of Interstate 40, between Warsaw and Rose Hill.

After a month of staying at her mother’s home, West decided to go back home with her the children. Friends and family members kept watch. “I couldn’t live like that anymore, always afraid,” says West.

Three days after returning home, a month and a half after the murder West was notified that Muller was dead, his body found hanging in a Miami hotel room. His remains were identified using information—a panther tattoo and other distinguishing marks—provided by West.

Transformation

In the days following Muller’s death, West’s life began to change.

“The way I lived before was fearful but functional. After he killed himself, I felt like I could breath,” she reflects.

Through her work in the hair salon, she began to entertain the idea that she could help others who had been through similar traumas.

“I feel like I’ve always been a semi-counselor,” she states. “All my life I’ve been dealing with women who come into the salon who have issues, with verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual assault with their spouses or mate.”

Last June, after speaking with a client who worked in abuse counseling, West made the decision to volunteer at Sarah’s Refuge.

“There’s a lot of people who don’t understand why you don’t go to the authorities and a lot of that is driven by fear and uncertainty,” explains West. “I knew what these women were feeling, so I thought who better to help someone like that than someone who’s been through it.”

In October, West was hired on full-time at Sarah’s. In her role as a community educator, she travels to local schools, telling her story and pointing out the warning signs that she missed so many years ago.

Though West has learned to manage the fear, to breathe, she knows that fall morning in 1995 is still with her, acting on her life in ways not always easily understood.

Several years after Muller was convicted, West married a man she describes as verbally and emotionally abusive. “Some of the things he said stick with me a lot more than what happened with the guy who kidnapped me with the intention of killing me,” she comments.

Trusting people, simply letting her two teenagers go off with friends, will never be easy.

But her story, says West, and the lives she can touch and possibly alter through its telling, have offered her a new freedom, a new way of seeing past the darkness into an undimmed future.

“People die all the time. I was one of the blessed ones,” she says, leaning forward, her large dark eyes solemn yet intent. “If I can save one person, it’s worth it.”

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