Every month or so I'll get a call from a friend or acquaintance asking me for information to help a loved one involved in a violent relationship. We all know or will know a victim of domestic violence; the current statistics are one in three women will be abused in some manner during her lifetime. I have two younger sisters and it blows my mind that statistically, one of us will be in an abusive relationship.
Knowing this, it is vital that information on how best to support victims of violence be readily available. I have found, however, that there is a general uneasiness and confusion on how best to do this. In my previous work with victims I gained some very specific knowledge that I thought might be useful to share here. To make things easier, I will use female pronouns since women are more likely to be victims but this information applies equally to men as they can also be victims of domestic violence, too.
So, what to do if you know & love a victim of domestic violence:
First, be a listening and non-judgmental ear. You cannot help your loved one if they don't trust you.
When or if a victim confides in you about an unhealthy relationship you must first determine the lethality of the situation to determine the best course of action.
If it is not a lethal relationship, meaning there is no current threat of severe bodily harm or death, I think it best to start with domestic violence education. I particularly like the Power & Control Wheel because it covers all the different ways abuse might be present in a relationship. (If you are dealing with a teenage abusive relationship, this version is better suited for their unique needs.) After going through the wheel with the victim I then like to show them the Equality Wheel so they have an idea of what a healthy relationship looks like. (Teen version here.)
At this point there are several choices to be made, all belonging to the victim. Remember, your job is to be a support, any pressure from you will make things worse. Your loved one may choose to stay and work on the relationship. If this is their choice, I would suggest having her attend an outpatient domestic violence support group. There she will receive more domestic violence education and connect with other women in similar situations. Many social service agencies have these kinds of support groups but you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline and they can refer you to the appropriate places if you need further help.
If your loved one chooses to leave the abusive relationship, provisions must be made for her physical and emotional support. Despite having worked at a domestic violence shelter, I think it always preferable for victims to be surrounded by family at this difficult time. If your loved one will be living with family, make sure she is enrolled in a support group. If it is not possible for her to live with family then dv shelters are a safe, supportive place to go and they offer wonderful services. Domestic violence shelters will provide food and shelter, support groups and domestic violence education as well as targeted case management to help the victim get back on her feet. You can get referrals to local domestic violence shelters through the national dv hotline linked to above.
Know that the average woman will leave an abusive relationship seven times before she leaves for good. Although this will be frustrating to you, try to be as non-judgmental as possible; the dynamics of abuse are very complicated and it is difficult to extricate one's self from the figurative strangle-hold the abuser has over his victim. Be patient and remember that your loved one needs your support during these time more than ever. Also, please be aware that the most dangerous time for an abuse victim is after they leave the relationship. I strongly recommend having your loved one do a safety plan with a domestic violence advocate and get an Order of Protection if appropriate.
If, when you first speak to a victim, it appears that her situation is very dangerous, the first priority is to get her and any children safe. I would recommend a domestic violence shelter at this point because they are at un-disclosed locations and it will be more difficult for an abuser to find her.
Next, get the victim an Order of Protection. Many shelters will help out with this, they may even have a legal advocate on staff. If not, most superior courts do have legal advocates on staff and they can help victims navigate the complicated legal system for free. I can't recommend using a lawyer or legal advocate enough; they understand the intricacies of the system and will be able to provide the victim with the most comprehensive Order of Protection possible. As a side note, if you feel like your safety is at risk for helping the victim, you may get an Injunction Against Harassment. While not as powerful as an order of protection, it might give you some peace of mind.
It is the goal of all domestic violence advocates to keep the victim safe and help them start a new, healthy life. Regardless of whether your loved one goes into shelter, I would utilize the services of dv advocates because they can provide your loved one with the most resources to overcome this traumatic experience and come through a survivor.
This post is getting too long but if you're interested, I would be happy to do a follow-up post on what to do if your loved one gets caught up in the justice system or what you can do to help victims of domestic violence more generally. If you have question, please comment and I'll do my best to answer. Also, I would love for those of you with experience in this matter to share tips that have worked or not worked so that others can learn from them. Domestic violence is a pervasive problem in our society, it affects all of us in one way or another. Only through education and commitment can we come close to ending this evil.