How Common Is Domestic Abuse and What Can We Do to Help?
Home is a place for comfort, stability, and sanctuary. However, home can also be the most dangerous place for many women. This information is nothing new. “Domestic violence is a public health crisis,” says Ruth M. Glenn, the president of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and a domestic abuse survivor. Given the statistics—one in every four women and one in every nine men experience intimate partner violence, at a rate of nearly twenty people per minute in the United States—this conclusion is irrefutable. But with stay-at-home orders still in place throughout much of the world, opportunities for abuse intervention are drastically reduced.
Without the daily school run, a chance to see a friend, even the commute to work, the opportunities for victims to safely seek help away from the eyes and ears of their abuser are few. In other words, the COVID-19 pandemic has driven an already suppressed problem further underground. Glenn emphasizes that the “not in my neighborhood” attitude hangs like thick fog over conversations around abuse, which is hugely harmful and, frankly, incorrect. The fact is, domestic violence is about the abuser’s control over their victim, and it’s everywhere. What can we do to help? Resources and funding are critical, but according to Glenn, it’s also about the messaging: “By not engaging in a national conversation around domestic violence, we’re acquiescing to the problem,” she says.
If you are affected by domestic abuse or fear for someone else, find a list of resources here. If you need support, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800.799.7233 or text LOVEIS to 22522. If you would like to donate to support the lifesaving work of the NCADV, click here.
A Q&A with Ruth M. Glenn
I’m a survivor of domestic violence. I was shot and left for dead about twenty-eight years ago. It took a couple of years to decide what exactly I wanted to do within the domestic violence field, but I got there. I’ve been volunteering and working and sitting on boards since that time, and I have been in this position [president of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence] for almost six years.
Domestic violence is complicated. And more often than not, it occurs within family clusters. As a society, we don’t talk about it because our societal structure is still rooted in patriarchy. Unfortunately—and statistically—it’s mostly men fueled by a need for control who harm women. That’s not to say that domestic violence impacts women solely, and it’s not always heterosexual men who are abusive. Abuse is about power and control over someone you have some type of relationship with.
The narrative that surrounds this topic runs the gamut of what type of abuse it is. Oh, we don’t talk about that because of discomfort or culture or faith, “not in my neighborhood,” and so on. But what does all that chatter mean? Metaphorically “not in my neighborhood” translates to “I’m a doctor’s wife, so that couldn’t possibly happen to me.” “I’m the wife of a CEO, so that would never happen to me.” Domestic violence is complicated; it makes people hugely uncomfortable. We just don’t talk about it.
In my experience, currently as president of the NCADV and formerly with Human Services and the Domestic Violence Program, two things in particular rise to the surface. Number one: an increase in the use of firearms in domestic violence. And not just shootings, but the intimidation and coercion using a gun. Of course, lethality has gone up as well. And two: system abuse. We’re finding that abusers are getting incredibly skilled at manipulating systems such as protection order courts—and especially family court—to their advantage, and using that as a form of abuse against women. Examples include delaying hearings and demanding shared custody or sole custody as an intimidation tool.
People often wonder: Why doesn’t she just go? Make her go. It’s not that easy. First, victims have every right to make the decision themselves of when and how to leave. They are best at assessing their own safety. They may decide: It’s not safe to go today, but I have a plan, and when and if I’m ready to go, I can get out then. But in the meantime, victims need to know that their local domestic violence program will do everything it can to fill in the gaps that make leaving scary.
A domestic violence program can assist with getting victims into a shelter or just help with figuring out what the best-case scenario is for that individual. Jobs and school are two major barriers to leaving an abusive situation. My biggest concern in leaving my abuser was how to get my son into a different school.
Unfortunately, when it comes to domestic abuse, it’s not a case of walking out and not having to worry about safety anymore. Every person hoping to leave thinks the same thing: What do I need to do to ensure the best possible scenario for myself and my children? Abusers do not forget. They will invest time and effort in trying to regain control. Victims need to work with somebody—friends, family, an advocate in a domestic violence program—to make sure the best scenario actually happens.
Trust your gut. Signs include someone disappearing and becoming unreachable. Or suddenly, the person in question never answers the phone anymore; it’s always the partner who picks up. Watch out for odd bruises. Be prepared to really help.
If you’re talking to a person you suspect is in danger or you notice that interactions with someone have become strange, just say very gently, “Is there something I can help you with? Is there something that’s going on?” If they say, “Yes, there is. Can I tell you about it?” have the right information on hand so that you can respond with, “I have a hotline number for you” or “I have the number for the local DV program.” Again, be prepared to help.
Domestic violence organizations have moved to tele-advocacy, which means replacing the in-person intake with technology like texting, phone calls, and videoconferencing to serve and help survivors. In the absence of typical resources—for example, not having enough space in a shelter to move the beds six feet apart and still have capacity—domestic abuse organizations have gotten creative. They’re reaching out to local community hotels for a room or two. Community members are donating shelters; I heard of one family staying in a donated RV. These critical organizations have had to make massive adjustments, and there’s also been an enormous strain on their capacity and on their resources to make those things happen.
It’s the messaging. Think of the campaign to get people to wear seatbelts: Those campaigners streamed the same clear message consistently for years, and it worked. We need to repeatedly give people the message that we should be talking about domestic abuse. Domestic violence is a public health crisis, and services should be supported. If we don’t talk about domestic abuse, it signals to society that we’re okay with it. That’s consenting to the problem, not tackling it.
Domestic violence is about control. Now we know that domestic abuse doesn’t impact women only, and it’s not just heterosexual men who are abusive. It’s not always a gender thing. But unfortunately, statistically it is mostly men who are harming women: 29 percent of women suffer abuse versus 10 percent of men. We still live in a society that has not addressed it appropriately because of patriarchy.
It’s not my specialty, but I do know that a lot of the domestic violence organizations have child- and youth-specific programs to address trauma. Trauma doesn’t always manifest in physical ways. We know that often children who have been traumatized early don’t show any immediate signs. We don’t see that trauma emerging until they’re older. Specialists in child trauma can put interventions in motion to address the damage now so that it doesn’t result in further damage later. [Editor’s note: Click here to see the National Child Traumatic Stress Network’s list of resources.]
This conversation is what we do—we serve as a voice for victims and survivors. We do all we can to prevent domestic violence and ensure that survivors’ voices are amplified through our annual conference, webinars, and other critical programs. But addressing and preventing domestic violence is a challenging mission for everyone, especially when resources and funding are limited to provide prevention and intervention. As a survivor-centric organization that does not receive government funding, the feeling is we wish we could do more.
Resources and how to help: If you are experiencing domestic abuse or are seeking advice to help someone who is or whom you suspect is in danger, you can find a list of national organizations and shelters on the NCADV website, or you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline by calling 800.799.7233 or texting LOVEIS to 22522. Or click to donate and support the lifesaving work of the NCADV and National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Ruth M. Glenn is the CEO and president of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Glenn spent the last ten of her twenty-eight years advocating for victims in the Colorado Department of Human Services and served as director of its Domestic Violence Program. An expert in the field of intimate abuse, Glenn holds a master’s in public administration and has testified before both the Colorado state legislature and the United States Congress on the subject.