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Starting the conversation we need to have about abuse

POSTED: February 12, 2018 10:59 a.m.
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Domestic violence has stepped to the forefront of national discussion with the resignations last week of two well-placed White House staffers amid allegations they abused their former spouses.

Both Rob Porter, who was serving as staff secretary, and speechwriter David Sorenson have denied the accusations.

The national conversation on domestic violence overlaps increased awareness of sexual harassment and assault, courtesy of the #MeToo and Time's Up campaigns. Those rose from myriad allegations of sexual wrongdoing against prominent men in media, entertainment, politics and elsewhere. The #MeToo social media campaign has focused on how women are treated and some experts believe the openness engendered there is spilling over to benefit victims of domestic violence, most of whom are women.

"I can't believe that it wouldn't to some degree," although no one's studied if #MeToo has impacted victims of domestic abuse, said David Derezotes, University of Utah social work professor and director of the Peace and Conflict Studies Program.

To Kathleen Lopez, the shattered silence sounds beautiful.

"Calling it 'time's up' is perfect. It's time to have these conversations and make things better," said Lopez, owner and CEO of Sentinel Sales & Management in American Fork. Three decades ago, she packed only a diaper bag and took her 8-month-old son to a battered-women's shelter to escape domestic abuse.

She sees silence as abuse's best ally, as it strengthens and emboldens the perpetrators. The public campaigns have stripped away secrecy, and people are hearing the voices of those who've been harmed, she said. She suspects — and hopes — more victims of domestic abuse will call out their abusers, just as thousands have done with stories of sexual abuse or harassment.

While people who have experienced domestic violence describe feeling as if they suffer alone, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence offers startling statistics showing otherwise: Each minute, an average of 20 people are abused by an intimate partner in the United States, roughly 10 million women and men each year. As many as 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men will be physically abused by an intimate partner during their lifetime. And domestic violence hotlines nationwide get more than 20,000 phone calls on a typical day.

But hotlines, shelters and counselors are not always where victims of domestic violence first seek help. Often, they confide in friends, family, colleagues, clergy, bosses and others. Those confidants may not know how to respond in ways that are helpful.

Listen and support

Unlike laws dealing with child abuse, those suspecting or aware of domestic abuse are not required to report it, in most cases. Exceptions include when it occurs in front of a child or a child is also abused, or when a vulnerable adult — someone who's elderly or disabled, for example — is harmed.

It's believed that most abuse, including domestic abuse, is under-reported and that false reports are not common, though they do occur, Derezotes said.

"We could probably say in general that if someone tells you something is happening, give them the benefit of the doubt," he said. "Certainly don't fight with them about it."

Often, though, that's exactly what happens, according to experts and victims of domestic violence. Porter's ex-wives told media they were counseled by their LDS bishops and in one case, Jennifer Willoughby, who was married to Porter from 2009 to 2013, told CNN that a bishop counseled that filing a protective order could harm her husband's career. Both women said they were met with skepticism by others who hadn't witnessed the abuse and therefore doubted it.

A victim of domestic violence who asked not to be named described her experience for a story the Deseret News published recently: She confided separately in two close friends who she sensed were skeptical because they'd never seen him act that way.

She didn't know what to do. Disclosure was met with disbelief, but, "when I kept it private between the two of us, I became a co-conspirator,” she said. She eventually left him.

"Listen and believe and support and allow the person to express themselves," said Jorge Barraza, with the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition. "In domestic violence situations, the vast majority of times, the victim loses all the power — is disempowered by the perpetrator. It takes courage to step out and ask for help. The last thing someone needs is to be told what to do."

Abuse victims typically have to build up to telling their story. Those who grew up in abusive, dysfunctional families may think their situation is normal. Or they've never been in a relationship and don't have any comparison. They may wonder if they are in an abusive relationship — "which is a red flag (that) they are," said Barraza.

"We need to expand both our knowledge and our vocabulary," he said. "I think the thing we're not getting is how common it is."

Compounding the problem

It is not an easy thing for a victim of abuse to admit it, so it's especially devastating to encounter skepticism or outright disbelief, said Polly Scott, founder and CEO of Betrayal Trauma Recovery, which offers people who've been abused free resources like educational material and an abuse and betrayal checklist, as well as access to paid services, like coaching from counselors trained to work with trauma victims.

The best way to help when someone confides she's been abused is "for church leaders, friends and colleagues to be willing to entertain the idea that this man that you think is a good person — the person you know — is a mask. Just be willing to entertain the thought. Don't just dismiss it," said Scott.

Truth is, she noted, abusive people very often "look really good to the rest of us." That's part of how they get away with abuse. And the thing that is most aggravating, she added, is "no one holds them accountable for lying" — the denials and excuses.

Those who've been abused also often tell stories of being blamed for setting their partner off, the implication that they should modify their behavior, or of being told their abuser is simply under a lot of pressure.

"We are often skilled at blaming the victim," said Derezotes. The abuser gets a pass and is further emboldened.

When a male friend told Derezotes that he was experiencing abuse, Derezotes reminded him it's not OK to be treated that way.

But that's not always the response even loved ones offer. Scott describes experiences where the victim's "own mother, their own sister says, 'He's a good dad and he's got a good job and works hard. Calm down, take a breath, it's not as bad as you think.'"

That's not a judgment call for someone else to make, experts and victims agree. No outside assessment trumps that of someone who's being abused.

While listening and offering support, friends and confidants should resist telling victims what they should do, Barraza said. "The victim has been navigating the situation. (Saying) 'Why don't you leave?' is blaming. A better choice of words is 'What can I do?'"

Derezotes said other ways to help include suggesting someone who's abused start setting aside cash in case escape is needed or even providing some money if the need is immediate. Abusers often cut off access to resources like bank accounts. "That's part of the control," he said.

Other helpful advice for victims includes what resources are available — and not just shelters and hotlines, but skilled therapists and other care providers, among others. "Lot of times, someone will contact a provider, but won't go into shelter," Barraza said.

Scott suggests "thinking of these women as widows" for a while. If a spouse dies, people show up with food and help out.

Victims of abuse need help and tender care, too.

How we talk

Derezotes said fear and shame keep victims trapped and they are wielded as tools of abuse.

The Center for Relationship Abuse and Awareness notes that abusing someone is a choice and usually includes a sense of both entitlement and the ability to get away with it.

The center points out that women are often portrayed in movies as objects that can be exploited or abused or coerced. Derezotes added that we have cultural cues that reward violence or aggression or that reduce others to "less than" status.

Recently, Lopez was walking her dog in a neighborhood park when she saw a man yelling at some people out of sight behind him. "Hurry up, girls, you're slow, you're taking forever," she quotes what she heard. "You walk like a grandma."

She thought he was being impatient with his daughters, maybe, but when the "girls" came down the hill, they were a group of adolescent boys.

Lopez has been thinking about that — and about how we reference gender. "I've probably done it, too. We need to change how we talk about females."

She worries that children are taught in subtle ways that females are inferior, starting with seemingly innocuous themes like moving slow is a girl thing.

Instead, the "language of love and respect needs to come across at a young age."

She noted the man she saw is "probably great with his wife and probably wasn't trying to demean women." Still, he was telling the boys they didn't want to be like girls, they could be better than that.

Hard as it is to figure out why one person abuses another — especially in a relationship that is supposed to be loving and supportive — the center has a list of factors that research has found are not the cause. Abuse does not occur because someone was provoked or stressed or drunk. Abuse is not caused by hormones, genetics, relationship problems or anger. It's not a communication problem or cultural or a result of being poor. Illness does not excuse abuse.

"Many people experience these factors and do not abuse. These are excuses perpetrators will use to justify their behavior. If the perpetrator is trying to blame their behavior on something else other than their own choice, they are not holding themselves accountable," according to the center.

Lopez emphasized that her life is "filled with great men," but the truth is women are frequently demeaned or devalued and respect is an antidote. "I think abuse has a lot to do with power and needing power," she said. "I do see men in business who think it's OK to treat women as less than men."

People have a tendency to deny abuse or to be shocked when they see it among those who are like them. "It doesn't happen in my neighborhood, my church, my socioeconomic status," said Barraza, expressing common examples of denial.

But it does, he added. And he's glad it's being talked about.

Free and confidential help and support for victims and survivors of domestic and intimate partner violence is available 24/7: 1-800-897-LINK (5465) or at udvc.org.
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