Sanctuary for the Abused

Saturday, March 31, 2018

When Those Who are Supposed to Help You Get Out - Don't

(Written by Maria De Santis of the Women’s Justice Center, Santa Rosa, CA)

There’s a seemingly simple little exercise we’ve done dozens of times at workshops on violence against women. The usual responses, however, are anything but simple. They’re confounding and cause for concern.

Recently we repeated the exercise with a conference room full of 70 social workers, advocates, therapists, and mental health workers. “Why don’t some domestic violence victims leave the relationship,” we ask? “Call out the reasons!”

The answers, as always, come fast and freely. “Because she doesn’t think she can make it on her own.” “Not enough money to feed the children.” “She feels obligated to her marital vows.” “It’s learned helplessness.” “She doesn’t believe she deserves better.” “She doesn’t know where to go.” “She wants the children to have a father.” etc.

I jot down the familiar list until the group exhausts their thoughts. And there, again, is the enigma. How, at this date, with this group, - with almost every group - do so many miss the obvious? To be sure there’s truth and need for remedy in every reason given. But the one thing that should top the list, the thing that freezes so many women in place, is not even mentioned at all.

Women often don’t leave domestic violence because they know that when they do leave the danger of more severe violence increases dramatically. Violence, and the sheer terror of it, is one of the principle reasons women don’t leave. And the women are right!

Fact: When domestic violence victims attempt to leave the relationship, the stalking and violence almost always escalates sharply as the perpetrator attempts to regain control.

Fact: The majority of domestic violence homicides occur as a woman attempts to leave or after she has left.

Fact: The most serious domestic violence injuries are perpetrated against women who have separated from the perpetrator.

The women know these dangers. They know them because they’ve already experienced the violent responses when they’ve attempted to assert themselves, even minimally, within the relationship. They know because the perpetrators have usually threatened precisely what they intend to if she does try to leave.

“Instead of Helping Me, They Sunk Me Even More”
The women also know these dangers are heightened still more because so many officials, first responders, and courts are also in denial of the gravity of her situation. 

And she’s right again. Despite the modern-day rhetoric about treating domestic violence seriously, the reality is that the critical protections she needs when leaving are still as precarious and unpredictable as a roll of the dice. One responder may help effectively. The next may ignore, mock, underestimate, misdiagnose, walk away, blame her, take her kids, shunt her into social services, arrest her, send her to counseling, or one way or another refuse to implement real power on her behalf, abandoning her to a perpetrator who is now more enraged than ever.

The paths leading up to so many domestic violence homicides are paved with officials’ failures to protect. Just weeks before she was murdered by her estranged husband, Maria hauntingly summed up her own, and so many others’ experiences with officials. “Instead of helping me,” she said, “They sunk me even more.”

You can work tirelessly and compassionately to social work, counsel, and support the victim. But if you ignore this critical piece of making sure the system puts fail-safe brakes on the perpetrator and his violence, it will be for naught. The perpetrator will continue to stalk and terrorize or worse. The victim will still be trapped in the violent relationship no matter where she has moved and how much independence she has attained. In fact, the freer she is, the angrier he gets.

And if you look just a little closer, you’ll see that for domestic violence victims there really is no such thing as leaving, or escaping, until the system does, in fact, step up and effectively stop the perpetrator. There is no Mason Dixon line over which women can run and escape and be home free. The perpetrators can and do hunt her down anywhere.

Domestic Violence! Not ‘Domesticated Violence’, nor ‘Violence Lite’!

It’s interesting. When you do the same exercise, but merely shift to other forms of violent relationships, a group’s responses are dramatically different. “Why doesn’t the field slave,” for example, “Run away from the plantation in the middle of the night while the master sleeps?” The answers are immediate and unequivocal. “Because the slaves know they’ll get hunted down.” “Because they know if they’re caught they’ll get beaten like never before.” “Because they stand a good chance of getting killed.”

The first answers out are never ‘learned helplessness’, ‘low self esteem’, or ‘not enough money’ even though there’s no question these same psycho-social factors are just as much at work. In fact, if one were to lead off their explanations as to ‘why slaves don’t leave’ with the ‘learned helplessness’ or ‘not enough money’ aspect, the insult of it would ring perfectly clear.

Whether you ask the question in regard to slaves, prisoners of war, kidnap victims, concentration camp captives, or residents of violent regimes, etc., the horrific dynamics and dangers of attempting to escape are well understood by everyone. Some victims of these violent relationships do, in fact, make a run for it. Some succeed. Some are killed. Some are recaptured and punished unmercifully.

Most victims, however, never go beyond an initial evaluation of the risks. The obvious dangers are just too great. They stay. Violence works. Violence, and the sheer terrorizing threat of it, has always, everywhere, worked better than anything else to keep victims compliant and pinned in place.

So why the glaring blind spot in regard to domestic violence victims? Why are women denied even the validation of the dangerous dynamics of her dilemma? Why do so many people still hold a view, as cloaked as it may be in paternal tones, that is more in sync with the perpetrator’s stance than with the victim’s? The view that the problem rests with her. That it’s she that needs to be propped up and fixed.

As if this violence that plagues women around the world is a ‘domesticated violence’, or ‘violence lite’!

The Patriarchy Still Rules! And Still Needs to be Upended!
The glaring blind spot is rooted deep in the self-preservation mechanisms of patriarchal rule. If the violent repression of women were to be recognized on a par with other violent repressions it would require nothing short of upending the missions of law enforcement, prosecutors, courts, and service organizations, and not just the adjustment of rhetoric we have now. The patriarchy.jpgmale-dominated power structure resists implementing its real powers on behalf of women in order to preserve the power for itself. That’s fairly obvious.

But what about the blind spot of so many social workers, advocates, and therapists? Those who care about the women, and dedicate their lives to helping them? Perhaps it’s one more layer of the battered women’s syndrome that needs to be exposed. Because if we ourselves truly recognize the gravity of women’s plight, we, too, have to move beyond the safety zones of the nurturing, supportive roles we find so comfortable.

We will be compelled to step out, challenge, watchdog, fight, demand, and make sure that the powerful, male-dominated institutions are, in fact, upended, and that they, indeed, begin to implement their full powers on behalf of women, and against the perpetrators. Only then will domestic violence victims truly have a real choice to leave.

Feel free to photocopy and distribute this information as long as you keep the credit and text intact.
Copyright © Marie De Santis,
Women’s Justice Center,

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shared by Barbara at 12:15 AM



Most of the help out there is a joke, they hand you phamphlets and other crap and then leave you alone to confront the abuser. I am disabled, the other day I asked a visiting home doctor social worker, where some good transitional housing or if she could help me on housing, she lambasted me because I did not know what town to move to. I dont know, I have no friends and family consigned to one. I am so isolated. They have abused me even more in their own way. They do not understand fear even in a person with serious health problems. I think most take govt grant money and don't really DO anything. Do not even get me started on the local shelter that moved to a ghetto neighborhood so dangerous, Id get in the car and drive to sleep in a field before I'd go down there, and many women quit even the group because of it I am staying away from the court system because I figure they will hurt me too. They blame and judge you too when you are unsure where to go, even with serious health problems.

4:53 PM  

This is a powerful blog! I wish I'd stumbled upon it when I was in the throes of my own domestic violence situation a few months ago. I'm only recently on the other side of it, but still dealing emotionally with the aftermath. I've started a blog to tell my story and also to try to provide resources to women who are dealing with the ins and outs of obtaining an order of protection.
Thanks for your advocacy. I imagine you are helping a lot of women.

12:44 AM  

I'm just a guy, but if I was in an abusive situation, I'd buy a gun if possible.

11:22 PM  

Finally. A view from the trenches. Lots of those social workers, police, people in the courts and judges, are enmeshed in violence in their own families and they replicate it in their advice given to the victim and judgments of the victim.

A woman does not even have an option to defend herself or she will be punished. This is necessary to uphold the patriarchal system. The penalty she gets for defending herself is harsher than what the abuser gets for hurting her in the first place.

According to patriarchal rule, the only way out should be suicide.

4:25 AM  

This is very powerful stuff! I for one am tired of being further abused by ignorant people who are supposed to help me! Other than the people at the DV programs who are specifically trained, no other "professional" has helped. In fact, they throw ridiculous phrases my way that they think will help me: "just get out" or "he won't hurt you" or my personal favorite:"you taught him how to treat you the first day you let him get away with it".
Thank God for this blog!

~and to the man that posted "I'd buy a gun":
A local cop said that same thing to me. While I appreciate your understanding and support, the sad reality is my abuser had over 100 pounds on me and he would take that gun (or pepper spray) and use it on me faster than I could blink.

6:10 AM  

I left my abusive husband July 27th, 2012. By the time I left, I have had and still have 3 pinched nerves in my spine causing excruciating pain all the time. I have had, 3 broken ribs, a broken shoulder blade, multiple bruises all over my body from head to toe, including around my neck from strangulation.

I had been trying to stay and hoping/praying he'd get help. He didn't.

I left, I was able to take the spare bedroom set, some clothes & my books while he was gone to work, but when I came back while he was gone, he had changed the locks on the house & filed for divorce.

I was able to stay at my daughter's for a while, but in trying to get help, I was told by agencies, we have no more funds to help you, we cannot represent you because he works so call these attorneys instead. In calling those attorneys, I never got a live person on the phone and left numerous messages pleading for help. I went tot he trustees for help, and had to make 5 trips. I had no money, was nearly out of gas and running on fumes. My body hurts so badly I can hardly move and I was using up all the gas I needed for other trips for help. I had to wait two weeks for foodstamps and while I waited I went to community agencies for help, who told me sorry, the volunteers couldn't come in, so you'll have to come back.

Each time I slammed into a brick wall I nearly gave up. Time after time I fell to the floor sobbing, begging for help from God. I understood why so many women go back to their abuser. It's almost easier.

But I kept trying and pleading for help. It's been two months now. I have a little house I'm renting. I lived in it with only my bedroom furniture for a month. I had no couch, no tv, no dishes, little food, but I had no more inflicted pain.

Now I have a couch, a tv borrowed, a coffee table, table & chairs, internet through a friend's grace, (and God's grace of all of this), and I no longer walk on egg shells.

Now that I'm out of it, I wonder why I stayed so long. I know I loved him, but that's not a reason to tolerate abuse. I have no desire to go back. In fact, his attorney suggested to my NEW pro-bono attorney that we drop the protection order. The moment I read that statement, I started shaking. I thought I was going to vomit. I tried to call my attorney, but the office was closed. In the morning, after a night of sobbing & praying, my attorney said that dropping the protective order was not an option. Thank God!

I do not have an advocate. I'd like one.

There are things I miss, but there is so much I DON'T miss. It's not easy, but I'm alive and I'm going to try to stay that way.

11:23 AM  

Prayerful woman,you are BEAUTIFUL!

4:01 AM  

This piece is brilliant - just brilliant - thank you !! So refreshing and empowering to really tell it like it is. I was so abused my first 2 years of marriage with nowhere to go and put down by every type of "help" out there. Now it's years later and I've found my way. I hope the truth in this article goes far and wide. I'll certainly help put it out there. Thank you !!

8:41 PM  

That's it you are a guy. Having a loaded weapon that can easily be taken or over powered from a weaker, smaller person is just nuts. That gun you suggest has been well documented as being taken and used against a woman or her children. An anger enraged person should never have the opportunity to get their hands on a loaded weapon

6:20 PM  

I agree. You, as a human being, have rights to jeep yourself/family safe if you are being threatened. Learn how to properly use AND store. Really. The courts and police are overwhelmed. They cannot be everywhere all the time.
Do what you must to keep safe.

9:40 AM  

I am considering the legal purchase of a taser/stun well as martial arts or self defense. To keep calm and access quickly. I didn't endure 29 years of hell in earth to be tossed away like garbage. No. That is self abuse in my opinion! No more. Not angry. I deserve to be safe without hiding.

9:46 AM  

Having been through this in the extreme I firmly believe we need to change the name of "domestic violence" to "violence". The word domestic takes the sting out of it rendering this very serious crime somehow less serious. Those trapped in these relationships are victims of violence and those who have made it through to the other side are survivors of violence.

11:09 AM  

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