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Intimate Partner Abuse is a Preventable Public Health Concern

The Social Service/Mental Health Program examines how a victim of domestic violence becomes entangled

February 3, 2017

Intimate partner violence (IPV) is a serious and complicated topic. It is one of many being discussed in Abuse in the Family, a 3-credit course offered as part of the Social Service/Mental Health (SSMH) Program at Pierce. Many of the students in this class plan to do some form of social work in the future.

What exactly is domestic violence, what are its causes and what steps can be taken to help a person being abused? Getting these answers right can literally mean life or death to someone.

The CDC webpage reports that IPV affects millions of Americans each year and refers to it as a preventable public health problem. Young adults ages 16-24 are three times as likely to enter into an abusive relationship than any other age group. Severe physical abuse by an intimate partner affects 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men in the United States and 85% of abusers are male.

Another alarming statistic from the CDC: over 1,000 deaths occur each year due to domestic violence, and 70% of those happened after the victim left the abusive relationship.

Danyelle Smith, a Community Advocate for the YWCA in Tacoma, recently spoke to the students in the Abuse in the Family class. Smith works with families coping with IPV and knows firsthand the challenges faced by the affected families. According to Smith, IPV is a progressive pattern of unhealthy behavior where the unhealthy partner uses abuse to gain and maintain power and control over an intimate partner. The abuse can take the form of verbal, emotional, financial and/or physical abuse. It affects people of all races, religions, gender, and sexual orientation, as well as all economic and educational backgrounds.

The YWCA in Tacoma opened Washington State’s first emergency shelter for victims of domestic violence in 1976. “To give you an idea of what a long way we have come,” said Smith, “when the shelter first opened the Board members received death threats and the police would regularly show up at the shelter with the abusive partner asking if the YWCA staff would bring out the victim in order to have a talk or to even go home with them.”

Today the YWCA emergency shelter consists of 22 apartments and provides free shelter to women and men who have escaped abusive partners. The emergency shelter houses adults with and without children, from any religion, race and background for up to 90-days. They provide assistance with legal services, childcare, counseling, and job and housing searches. “This shelter is often full,” said Smith, “it’s important to call and determine availability beforehand. There is a shelter shortage in Tacoma and a lot of homelessness to deal with; sometimes we have to be really creative to find a spot, but we do everything we can.”

Smith talked to the class about the 3-phase cycle of abuse and the complications that can keep a person in an abusive relationship. There is a period of time that the relationship goes from good, to off-balance, and then to very bad. When it reaches its breaking point a violent act occurs, whether it is physically directed at the partner or at an object in the house or maybe a wall. After this aggressive outburst, the good phase comes back again, along with it are apologies, gifts, and sweet-talk. This is when the abused person sees glimpses of the person that they fell in love with. The relationship becomes calm and manageable. “Unfortunately, it will recycle,” said Smith.

The causes of intimate partner violence are not what many think. IPV is not a result of poverty, mental illness, drugs, alcohol, lack of education or PTSD, although they may be also present and a catalyst according to Smith.

“Domestic abuse is a learned behavior of dominance and it’s about power and control. It may stem from a number of roots such as an early childhood trauma, a ‘buy-in’ to gender stereotypes and objectification, or the witnessing of dominant behavior in the family, and internalizing of violence and oppression in a person’s life,” said Smith.

“Many people insist that mental illness or PTSD caused the violent behavior but then I ask them if their partner ever treated their boss, neighbor, co-worker, friend or other family member with violence, and the answer is almost always no.”

“At this time, the court system treats first time domestic abuse with an anger management class, but they are missing the mark,” says Smith, “because it’s more than anger management and it takes time to untangle the underlying causes of partner abuse.”

Smith takes the class outside the room for an interactive exercise. She reads aloud a typical story of a couple involved in abuse.

Student Megan Wickersham plays the role of a 19-yr old female, who is the victim in an abusive relationship. She stands in the center of the group. As Smith reads from the script, the rest of the classmates yell “wrap it” each time they hear something that should have been a red flag about the partner. At the same time, another student, Malquida James wraps yarn around Wickersham’s wrist.

Once physical abuse becomes a part of the story, other people are introduced, such as the victim’s mother who reminded her that she warned her not to marry him and now she needed to stay and work it out. There is the friend who told her to just leave, without offering her a place or asking what she could do to help. The neighbor who became involved when she repeatedly heard the abuse and called 911, but watched the police leave each time without arresting anyone and eventually stops getting involved. The police, who responded to the 911 calls, and believed her when she told them she was alright after her husband lied to them and said that she had a tantrum, broke some things and that she has been really moody since the baby was born. The police wrote that in their report each time. By the time the victim asked the court for a protective order, the police reports were brought out as evidence that the victim suffered from post-partum depression. The judge orders her to see a county doctor for potential depression diagnosis, as another system lets her down.

As each new person was brought into the story, yarn was tied from Wickersham, the victim in the center, out to a student in the outer circle. This line represented a person who became involved or entangled in her story.

When the story stops the victim is still unsafe and understands that she cannot stay in the relationship but also that leaving puts her in danger. Smith hands a pair of scissors to Wickersham, and asks the class to help the victim decide what ties to cut and what ties to keep. This is not as simple as it might seem, for the victim’s life is in danger and the choices she makes are critical. The point is well understood by the students in the class.

Smith explains to the class, that in this line of work it is important to understand the reasons why people stay in an abusive or unhealthy relationship. “It’s very complicated. There is love, finances, sex, emotions, time, and children that two people share. Often, the victim doesn’t want the relationship to end; they just want the abuse to stop.”

Denise Arnold, PhD, is a licensed mental health care provider and the director of the SSMH program. She teaches the Abuse in the Family class this quarter and gives advice to her students on how to speak to someone who is a victim of IPV.

Arnold recommends sharing the following information: 1. the abuse is only going to get worse, 2. it does affect the children, 3. physical abuse is illegal and 4.stress I’m here to help you when you are ready. She also recommends a safety plan, such as a code word that means call 911 for me, setting aside money, collecting birth certificates, insurance cards, identification, immunization records and any other documents that are difficult to replace.

If you or someone you know is currently involved in an abusive relationship, please reach out for help. The YWCA in Tacoma has a 24-hour crisis phone line at 253-383-2593.

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