Over the summer, Embrace, a domestic violence organization in northwestern Wisconsin, decided to hang Black Lives Matter signs at its four locations.
It was a small but meaningful sign of allyship amid a national reckoning on police violence and systemic racism. Embrace serves survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault in four rural, predominantly white counties ― Rusk, Washburn, Barron and Price ― and Katie Bement, the executive director, wanted to ensure people of color felt comfortable visiting it.
“We were approaching it from an accessibility standpoint,” she told HuffPost over Zoom on Thursday. “We needed to show that we’re safe for those communities of color.”
In September, Bement said, she began receiving emails from local law enforcement who were disturbed by the signs, interpreting them as anti-police. Around the same time, mass protests had erupted in Wisconsin over the police shooting of Jacob Blake. After some private back-and-forths, Embrace issued a formal statement online to explain its support for Black Lives Matter. “If we want to end intimate partner violence and sexual violence, we must grapple with our country’s long history of racism, slavery, genocide, and colonization,” the letter, posted to Facebook on Sept. 30, read. “We hope you will join us in breaking the cycle of trauma created by racism and violence.”
The goal was to clear up any misunderstandings, Bement said. Instead, it has led to an all-out revolt from local officials and law enforcement who have since cut ties with the domestic violence agency.
Eight days after Embrace’s statement was posted online, Barron County voted to strip the organization of $25,000 in funding for 2021. The county’s director of health and human services resigned from Embrace’s board of directors. Since then, a majority of the 17 law enforcement agencies that work with Embrace have indicated that they will no longer partner with the domestic violence organization, including all law enforcement in Washburn County. That means women who call the police for help, for instance, may not be referred to Embrace for help with safety planning, counseling and support.
Embrace is not the only domestic violence organization feeling the backlash. In multiple states, a number of groups are experiencing a similar reckoning with law enforcement agencies for backing the Black Lives Matter movement. Support is being withdrawn, alliances broken.
As an emotional dialogue over police brutality and racial justice has roiled the nation, domestic violence agencies have found themselves in an uneasy position. Founded on anti-violence principles, many have felt compelled to reflect on the ways in which their historical reliance on the criminal justice system has excluded and even harmed some victims, especially people of color. In internal meetings and on private email lists, domestic violence advocates have embarked on soul-searching. A working group of national leaders has even been formed to discuss the issue.
But staking out a public position that might be perceived as anti-police can be perilous for domestic violence groups, who rely on partnerships with local law enforcement and often receive funding from criminal justice sources. Some have still chosen to do so. In June, 47 state and territorial coalitions against sexual assault and domestic violence signed a letter decrying the consequences of centering police and prisons as the solution to violence and calling for greater investment in community resources.
At home, some of the signers faced backlash. In Nebraska, the Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence was contacted by the state Sheriffs’ Association, which requested that it remove the coalition’s name from the letter. It declined.
“Our organization has chosen to intentionally center our work with an anti-oppression lens, and to raise the voices of women of color,” said Lynne Lange, the coalition’s executive director. “We will not shy away from that now.”
In Idaho, the state Chiefs of Police Association, Sheriffs Association, and the Prosecuting Attorneys Association withdrew their support from the state’s coalition against sexual and domestic violence because it signed the letter, according to its executive director Kelly Miller.
“We wonder how these responses will support the healing and safety of people who experience violence?” she wrote in an email to HuffPost.
The experience of survivors is not a monolith, Miller added. Some who call the police experience safety and the form of justice they seek. “Others experience revictimization as a result of implicit bias or discrimination, or choose not report to police, often fearing they would not be believed, nothing would be done, or that the criminal justice system would not otherwise offer what is most helpful to their healing,” she said.
That complicated picture was captured in an anonymous survey of survivors conducted by Alliance for Hope International, a domestic violence organization based in California, in August. When survivors were asked if they had positive experiences with police officers or detectives during domestic violence incidents, almost 57% said yes. But when asked if they’d had a negative experience, 50% also said yes.
To date, Embrace is the most extreme example of a domestic violence agency losing law enforcement support over its anti-racism work.
“To me, it sounded like they were declaring war on Embrace, none of which is good for victims and survivors,” said Gricel Santiago-Rivera, the interim executive director of Wisconsin’s state coalition, End Domestic Abuse.
Embrace has three outreach offices and one shelter serving victims from all four counties, a geographic area almost the size of Connecticut. In 2019, it provided services to almost a thousand people. It is the only domestic violence agency in the four-county area.
While the counties are around 95% white, a reservation for the St. Croix Chippewa Tribe falls partially within Embrace’s service area, and a large community of Somali Muslim refugees reside in Barron County. According to Embrace’s annual report, around 15% of survivors seen by the organization are Black, Indigenous or people of color.
Exactly how Embrace will be affected by the police revolt will vary from county to county, police department to police department. In Barron County, Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald told a local news outlet that while his office would no longer partner with Embrace on projects, it would continue to refer victims until an alternative was found. Some other police departments in Barron have indicated they will not make referrals, Bement said. Either way, the domestic violence agency will have less money to work with, as the county has withdrawn $25,000 in funding.
In Rusk County, where the shelter is located, law enforcement has not changed its relationship with Embrace. In Price County, two departments have indicated to Bement that they are looking for different service options.
In Washburn County, all law enforcement has cut ties with Embrace.
On Oct. 8, the day after Barron County stripped Embrace’s funding, Bement received an email from Washburn County Chief Deputy Nick Helstern, notifying her that the Washburn County Sheriff’s Office, Shell Lake Police Department, Spooner Police Department, Minong Police Department and the Birchwood Police Department had withdrawn their partnership from Embrace.
Bement said police in Washburn County will no longer refer victims to Embrace for help. “They asked us to come pick up all of our brochures and referral materials because they don’t need them anymore,” she said.
HuffPost reached out to law enforcement in Washburn County for comment and did not receive a response.
Among her biggest concerns is how police will handle high-risk domestic violence cases. In the four counties that Embrace serves, police are encouraged to screen victims for risk of lethality using a questionnaire, and to immediately refer high-risk victims to a domestic violence advocate for safety planning or shelter. “Lethality assessments,” as they are called, have been found to reduce domestic violence homicides.
Bement said she did not know what police in Washburn County will do now when they interact with victims who are at high risk of homicide, as Embrace is the only domestic violence agency in the county.
“A lot of times, what those calls result in is either somebody being transported to our shelter, or using a hotel voucher system that we have set up in each of our counties,” she said. “We’re extremely worried about this collaborative program in particular not existing as we believe it saves lives.”
Embrace has set up a GoFundMe page to raise money. October is National Domestic Violence Awareness month.
Bement said she never expected the level of pushback that Embrace has received from law enforcement. She believed the Black Lives Matter statement would inspire tough, important conversations with Embrace’s partners, she added, not having her budget held hostage, and ultimately victims denied services.
“The best practices philosophy in our field is if you put the most marginalized and oppressed person in our community at the center of our work and you work towards their safety and liberation, it’s going to necessitate the safety and liberation of everybody else,” she said. “We felt we couldn’t stay silent and neutral.”
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.