With new laws and media attention, local groups step up their campaigns against domestic violence
For local groups like the Walnut Avenue Women’s Center, October represents an opportunity to shed light on the frightening problem of domestic violence, as well as the tools that victims can use to protect themselves.
As Domestic Violence Awareness Month begins this week, the scope of the problem is already in the media spotlight, partly due to the actions of football players like Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who the NFL suspended indefinitely last month after a video of him punching his wife in an elevator became public. Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was indicted for hitting his son with a branch. And the San Francisco 49ers have taken heat for refusing to bench defensive end Ray McDonald after he was arrested for hitting his then-fiancée.
The true severity of the problem, however, goes far beyond the sensational headlines.
“Domestic violence happens at an alarming rate,” says Rain Knight, manager of the Walnut Avenue Women’s Center’s domestic violence program, via email. “One in three women has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime. It is estimated that one in seven men is abused by an intimate partner. Domestic violence among same-sex couples occurs at similar rates as domestic violence among straight couples.”
Despite the recent visibility of the issue, it remains a fact that some victims don’t know how to step forward, or might not realize that it’s even an option. Monarch Services (formerly Defensa de Mujeres – Women’s Crisis Support) doesn’t wait for those in need to come to them—they reach out directly instead.
“We take a community organizing approach,” says Laura Segura, Monarch Services’ executive director. “We are going out to the fields, out to where people are—the churches, the events—to reach them.”
No outside party can force a victim to leave an abusive relationship, but agencies like the Walnut Avenue Women’s Center and Monarch Services provide a listening ear, emotional support, and access to emergency shelter—not to mention, as Knight puts it, a chance to “work with the survivor to create choices—someone who is being abused has had all their choices taken away.”
Domestic violence includes all behaviors used to control and exert power over a current or former intimate partner, and it occurs across all races, classes, cultures, sexualities and genders. It can take various forms, including physical ones. A report by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control states that 20 people per minute are victims of physical violence by an intimate partner in the United States. But abuse can also be psychological, emotional or even financial, as abusers use control over the family purse to keep their victim from leaving the relationship.
One of the main services Monarch Services provides is safety planning. Working in collaboration with a client, says Segura, the group develops a plan for how to stay safe—who to go to when they need assistance, what to do if an abuser violates a protective order, and what to do if the abuse happens again. “And it will likely happen again,” says Segura. “Especially if they decide to stay in the relationship, which they have the choice to do.”
Even survivors who do leave the situation do not always leave their problems at the proverbial door. Segura, as part of the Women’s Policy Institute, collaborated in 2013 with Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), to draft SB 612, which enables survivors of domestic violence to more easily break a tenant lease they share with a partner. The newly expanded law enables social service groups, advocacy agencies and mental health practitioners to supply allowable documentation of the abuse.
Previously, survivors needed to show proof of a protection order or police report to break a lease without penalty, which posed a problem because of safety concerns—survivors do not always go to law enforcement, fearing retribution from the abuser.
When the law came into effect in January of this year, California joined nine other states that offer similar protections.
While it may be difficult for victims of domestic violence to leave abusive relationships, there are promising signs of an increase in support for victims, including from the judicial process.
National news agencies reported in August on an asylum case involving a Guatemalan woman who fled her country to escape abuse from her husband. She had reportedly gone to local authorities repeatedly for relief, but was constantly rebuffed. Seeing no other option but to flee, she escaped with her children to Missouri, the New York Times reported. Her case was deliberated for four years until August, when the Board of Immigration Appeals determined that domestic violence could be used as a factor in claiming asylum.
For now, the ruling applies only to domestic violence victims from Guatemala who are married to abusive partners and who manage to escape and reach the U.S. border to claim asylum, explains Doug Keegan, program director of the Santa Cruz Immigration Project. But, he adds via email, the decision does set a legal precedent that could be used by other victims seeking asylum.
“Depending on the failure of other countries to protect its citizens from domestic violence,” Keegan explains, “this ruling could be used as the basis for gradual additional expansion of our asylum laws.”
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Agencies and the city of Santa Cruz will host a series of events, including self defense classes and advocacy training throughout the month. Visit www.cityofsantacruz.com/cpvaw for more information.