When victims of domestic violence decide to leave their abusive partners and call me for help, do you want to know what triggers me? As a survivor of gun violence at the hands of my ex-husband, you would be surprised to discover what triggers me is NOT their stories of abuse. It’s when they cry because the agencies I send them to for help hurt them as well. I remember feeling helpless every time I reached out to my local sheriff’s department because when they arrived at our home on numerous occasions, they would side with my ex-husband. I remember my heart racing with fear and anxiety when I finally worked up the courage to call the domestic violence crisis number only for them to tell me, “We ain’t got no rooms.” I remember feeling hopeless when I went into the district attorney’s office to file for a temporary protection order, only for the receptionist to tell me, “Hon, if you don’t have an address, there isn’t anything we can do.” There was never any other direction, words of support, or alternatives given. I was turned away without a sense of what I should do next. Faced with having to spend another day in my ex-husband’s presence and under his power, I remembered sliding down to the floor, with my back against the wall, curling up into the fetal position and crying tears of desperation. This is why, ten years later, it still hurts me to hear women are facing the same issues when they turn to organizations that are designed to help them.
My organization, Haven of Light International, Inc. (http://havenoflightint.org) provides mobile advocacy, crisis intervention, and connections to resources amongst other things. If our clients request more one on one help, I walk them through the entire process to help them rebuild their lives after domestic violence. When I started the organization, I knew I did not want to make anyone feel the way I was left feeling numerous times when I reached out for help. My mentor had a heart to heart conversation with me that I remember to this day. She said, “Kimya if you are tired, angry, bitter, or in a bad mood. Do not minister to those ladies. Your words will say one thing, but they will receive the way you are feeling.” It reminded me of a quote that I heard from Maya Angelou.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou
I grew tired of hearing that the Gatekeepers of Freedom (that is what I call them) are the ones revictimizing these ladies. These are the people that act as a doorway to living a life free from abuse. They are the ones the women interact with first in the midst of an active domestic violence situation.
I created a Facebook post surrounding this topic a couple of weeks ago and voiced my discontent with the way some of my clients were being treated. Amazingly, other advocates filled the comments of my post with stories and accounts of how their clients had been revictimized by domestic violence agencies (shelters), law enforcement, court employees, and clergy, as well. Why didn’t we take our collective outrage and voice our concerns to the people that hold these agencies accountable? Are we just as guilty of being silent and thereby perpetuating the violence? Many of us in this work say, “Silence hides violence” but, often times we are referencing being involved in or knowing about the act of violence by the perpetrator and doing nothing about it. I think we need to take it a step further. As I began to research the complexity of this issue, I was unable to find information regarding this problem because the mechanisms explaining the link between victimization by intimate partners and revictimization by service providers has not been extensively studied. I wondered why.
I decided to do something more than vent about my disdain. I emailed agencies and made phone calls to people in authority and asked the tough questions and found out there is a protocol in place for domestic violence shelters, but not many other community-based and government-run agencies. When these steps are not followed, there are a couple of agencies that are supposed to hold them accountable. Here is what I discovered:
- When a client calls the domestic violence agency and reports abuse, the shelter in the county where the client resides is responsible for providing them with safe housing.
- If the agency does not have a room available, THEY are supposed to call the other agencies to locate a bed for the abused person.
- If they are unable to find space, the agency is supposed to place the person in a hotel until space becomes available.
- They are not supposed to say, “We don’t have any room,” and leave the victim without any choices.
Many of them do not follow this protocol and they leave victims feeling disenfranchised and hopeless; therefore, what can we do when this protocol is not followed? If you notice the domestic violence agency (shelter) is repeatedly violating the protocol, you can speak with the shelter manager and express your concerns. If you notice the problem is still occurring you can contact your state agency that governs accountability and education to make a report. That might be your state’s coalition against domestic violence. They are a good place to begin and they will give you the steps to follow next.
What about the other community-based and state-mandated agencies that re-traumatize domestic violence victims? How can they get on the right track? Here are a few suggestions.
- Let’s begin with getting yearly training for the people who are on the frontlines in this fight against domestic violence.
- The training for people who take crisis calls for the shelters should include domestic violence protocols and basic customer service skills. An accountability component should be evident as well. Periodically, calls should be monitored for empathy and how well the protocols are being followed.
- When going to the homes where domestic violence is reported, law enforcement officials need comprehensive education to help them learn how to identify the primary aggressor and how to offer resources to victims and perpetrators.
- Everyone in the court offices that serve victims of domestic violence needs training tools as well – even down to the receptionist. Yes, the receptionist…and if you are a court official (district attorney, judge, solicitor, etc) and you have not had domestic violence training in the past year, yet you preside over cases daily, shame on you. Take a class. Go to a conference. Hire someone to come into the courthouse and give training to all of your staff.
- I can not even begin to fully address in this post how women of color, women who have immigration issues or have different sexual orientations are treated unjustly and inhumanely in many instances; as a result, all of these organizations could benefit from some sensitivity and cultural training too.
Accountability is not just for batterers; domestic violence shelters, law enforcement agencies, court personnel and members of the clergy should NOT hurt the very people they are supposed to be helping. If the advocates in charge of helping victims remain silent about the lack of assistance and the gross mistreatment of victims within the margin of the margins, our silence is just a deadly as the bystanders that witness or know about domestic violence and do nothing about it. It is time to shine a light on these insidious practices that persist behind the purple wall.