Note: The following includes video of and a written description of domestic violence incidents
It was the shocking video seen around the world.
Respected NFL star Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée (now wife) Janay Rice. What started as disgust towards Ray Rice quickly turned into blame towards Janay. People questioned, “Why is she with him?” or “Why doesn’t she just leave?” Many even asserted that they would never stay in a relationship like that.
Then came the hashtag. One year ago on September 8, 2014, domestic violence survivor Beverly Gooden started #WhyIStayed to shift the blame away from the victim and share why she stayed: God, because she loved him, because he promised to change, because she was isolated from the support of friends and family, and other reasons that are so common for victims who stay. In addition to showing why victims stay, this hashtag highlighted an important message: instead of placing blame, let’s focus on helping victims.
But getting help is not always easy. As part of Safe Horizon’s anti-domestic violence campaign #PutTheNailinIt, another survivor, Miss America 2015 Kira Kazantsev, talked about the barriers victims face in getting the support they need.
“As a victim, you don’t really realize that there are people that are willing to help… or that there are resources to help you. So when people ask, ‘Why doesn’t she just leave…’” Kira, holding back tears, responds: “It’s the wrong question.”
Here’s the truth: If we want to keep victims safe and end violence in their lives, we must meet survivors where they are by recognizing all the complexities in their lives.
This sounds logical, but it has taken domestic violence experts over 30 years to learn that it’s vital that we work collaboratively with victims on the risks, needs, and concerns that are most important to them. They are the experts of their own lives and, ultimately, the control and the decision-making power belongs in their hands.
Take Maya*, for example. Like Beverly Gooden, Kira Kazantsev, and Janay Rice, Maya is a survivor of domestic violence.
And one winter night, she nearly died.
After an argument, Maya was strangled by her husband who then began to savagely beat her. She begged him to stop. When she broke free, he placed furniture across the door so no one could enter or leave.
That cold winter night, Maya called Safe Horizon’s hotline. Understanding the severity of her situation, we could have immediately created an exit plan for her to leave the relationship, but a “one size fits all” approach simply does not work.
In talking with Maya, we learned that her abuser’s sister was the caregiver of her children. She was terrified that by legally prosecuting her abuser, she would lose her childcare and any independence she had— how would she be able to work? So, we informed Maya of the resources and supports available to keep her safe: safety planning if she decided to stay, shelter, or an order of protection. And we provided information on childcare options.
The control and the decision-making power were kept in her hands.
After facing horrifying abuse, victims often feel powerless. By meeting victims where they are, with all of the complexities in their lives, we are able to restore that sense of power and put them in the driver’s seat. Research shows that people have better outcomes when they have a greater degree of control. When motivation to act comes from within, they are more willing to follow through.
And available analysis demonstrates that strategies that improve one victim’s situation can make another’s worse. For example, more than 40% of women who tried to end a relationship reported it made the situation better, while nearly 40% reported it made the situation worse.
So what did Maya decide to do? Did she stay or leave?
What I will tell you is that she made the best decision for herself and her own well-being. And we were there to support her along the way.
People are the experts of their own lives. We all need to shift our perspective to help victims understand that there are people who are willing to help and that there are resources out there to help them make informed decisions. Each situation is different and requires its own plan. We’ve come a long way in understanding that a victim’s unique needs often mean that there are many different solutions to ending violence in their lives. Making a decision to leave is the victim’s choice. Not ours.
Every day at Safe Horizon, we move victims from crisis to confidence by providing them with the resources and supports they need. Join me, Miss America and the thousands who have already taken their vow against domestic violence by taking part in our #PutTheNailinIt campaign. Learn why celebrities, survivors and so many Americans are painting their left ring-finger nail purple: www.PutTheNailinIt.com
*Maya is not her real name.