Think domestic violence does not affect you? Think again. Even if you are not part of the problem, Austin-area advocates say you are part of the solution.
By Andy East
After celebrity news outlet TMZ released a video of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice hitting his then fiancée, Janay Palmer, in an Atlantic City, N.J., hotel elevator, telephone switchboards throughout the Live Music Capital began to light up. People were contacting the Austin-based National Domestic Violence Hotline in record numbers. In the month following the video’s release, the hotline received 37,451 phone calls, text messages and online chats, 17,399 of which could not be answered due to lack of resources.
“Before the Ray Rice video, we were typically seeing anywhere from 600 to 700 contacts per day,” says Katie Ray-Jones, hotline CEO. “Now, we haven’t dipped below 1,000 contacts per day since the video was released.”
Founded in 1994, the hotline offers support to domestic-violence survivors and connects them to a national network of shelters and advocates. It took its first call in 1996 and has since taken more than 3 million calls. Of the 331,000 people who contacted the hotline last year, 945—nearly three per day—said they were in Austin. However, lack of funding has made it hard to staff the hotline. In 2013, hotline workers could not answer more than 77,000 contacts. As of October, that number has increased to more than 117,000.
“It takes a tremendous amount of courage for someone to pick up the phone and say, ‘I think the person I love is hurting me. I need help,’ and we’re missing that opportunity to connect with someone,” Ray-Jones says.
In the wake of the Rice incident, Ray- Jones says the National Football League has pledged millions of dollars annually for five years for “promotional, operational and financial support.” As a result, the hotline plans to add about 30 people by the end of the year to boost the number of contacts it can answer.
“We’re looking much better now,” Ray- Jones says.
Although the hotline has received additional funding, the problem of domestic violence is much more complex. When Sgt. Eric De Los Santos of the Austin Police Department joined the Family Violence Protection Unit last year, the 26-year police veteran was aghast at what he found.
“You have no idea, and I didn’t until I got to this unit, and I’ve been a cop for 26 years,” De Los Santos says. “I didn’t realize the level of violence that goes on in Austin.”
According to the Texas Council on Family Violence, since 2010, 358 Texas women have died at the hands of their intimate partners, more than all U.S. casualties in the first Gulf War, according to U.S. Department of Defense figures. The Austin Police Department, for its part, has reported 19 domestic violence-related homicides in Austin since 2012, and has made more than 5,700 arrests in the last two years.
“What was surprising to me is the number of repeat offenders that are out there,” De Los Santos says. “It’s the same guys with the same women, and sometimes with different women. We have one man here in Austin that has five protective orders against him from five different women.”
Anitra Edwards, an Austin-area domestic- violence survivor, recalls being in an abusive relationship.
“He tried to tell me who my friends were, who I could hang out with, not letting me hang out with my family, and checking my phone and social media,” Edwards says. “One particular evening, we were out for dinner and a male friend had called me and he got upset after seeing my phone and he turned violent. He was mad about my friend calling. I tried to walk away, and he slammed me against the car and told me I wasn’t going anywhere and started calling me names and yelling at me.”
De Los Santos says the Family Violence Protection Unit has received more than 6,800 domestic-violence cases as of October, and has 15 detectives to investigate them. These figures do not include sexual assault or victims younger than 14 years old.
“The offender is often the sole support of income for a household to feed the children and pay the bills,” De Los Santos says. “When these victims are placed in these situations, they’re caught in a quagmire. They’re damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. Do I want to be beaten or provide shelter and food for my children?”
After joining the unit, De Los Santos started the Coordinated Response to Abuse for Safe Homes program, a team of four full-time officers dedicated to identifying repeat offenders, cracking down on bond and protective-order violations and serving warrants quicker. He says the program has been a success, but its three-month trial run ended in September and has yet to be renewed.
“I am hoping that in the very near future, I will get these four officer positions so I can post those positions and select four permanent officers,” De Los Santos says.
While adults are often the focus of domestic-violence responses, the issue affects the entire family.
“Lots of times, parents don’t realize that their kids know what’s going on,” says Marcus Griggs, fatherhood specialist at Project HOPES, a new SafePlace abuse-prevention effort. “There’s the belief that if they’re not in the room, they didn’t see it. They may not have been in the room, but they heard it. They’ve seen the aftermath of it. They see the way that both parents are acting as far as body language.”
According to an October report by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, 15.5 million U.S. children have been exposed to domestic violence in the last year. Griggs, who has been with SafePlace since 2001, has worked with many Austin-area children participating in SafePlace programs or living in shelters.
“Many of them get out of school and immediately check and see where Mom is because they worry about her,” Griggs says. “They have a hard time making connections with people and setting boundaries. Some of the kids feel it’s OK for them to lash out in anger because that’s what they’ve seen. That’s what they’ve learned.”
SafePlace, founded in 1998 after the Austin Rape Crisis Center and Center for Battered Women joined forces, is a nonprofit organization that has a shelter capacity of about 100 and serves about 40,000 people each year.
“Every one of our services has a waitlist,” says Katelyn Gorski, SafePlace spokesperson. “People call to get into the shelter and sometimes the staff has to safety plan with them for how to protect themselves until we can take them in. Our shelter is always full.”
A University of Southern California study suggests being exposed to domestic violence is a risk factor for becoming a perpetrator.
“It is like being exposed to the flu,” says Noël Busch-Armendariz, director of the Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault at the University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work. “If you’re exposed to it, you’re more likely to get the flu, but it doesn’t mean you will get the flu.”
The institute, founded in 2001, is a research center that aims to prevent domestic violence through education, and has partnerships with police and policymakers throughout the state.
“Most of the people who influence our lives are the people who raise us,” Busch-Armendariz says. “We learn a lot of things from the people who raise us.”
Chris, an Austin resident convicted of domestic violence who declined to provide his last name, is now participating in Life Anew, a 52-week offender-rehabilitation program. He says he continued a cycle of violence that started when he was a child.
“As a kid, I experienced some of this stuff in my own home,” Chris says. “Now I have kids and I am putting them in the same environment. I’m continuing this cycle.”
Founded in 2009, Life Anew is currently working to rehabilitate 65 offenders. Program Director Sherwynn Patton says 80 percent of participants who finish the program are not found to have new incidents.
“We help them to identify the belief system that they had that led to the acts of violence in the first place,” Patton says. “Usually that belief system can be traced back to violence they either saw or experienced as a child.”
Chris, who has been in the program for 41 weeks, says he spent a night in jail, received three years of probation, and now pays child support and has to take parenting, drug and alcohol, and rehabilitation classes.
“There are things that hurt you and when you’re hurt, a lot of times, guys become angry. That’s their response,” Chris says. “When you better understand these things, you have better control over yourself because you realize why you feel the way that you do. Guys don’t really want to recognize their emotion. A lot of times, it’s just anger. There are more emotions than anger.”
While protecting survivors and rehabilitating offenders are part of Austin’s response to domestic violence, advocates say the city also needs to increase prevention efforts.
“We need to start putting some real effort into prevention, and we need to do it much earlier than we are doing it now,” says Busch- Armendariz, who recommends starting as early as elementary school. “We wait until kids are already in relationships to talk about relationships.”
Even though many men think domestic violence is a women’s issue, researchers and advocates like Busch-Armendariz are calling on men to take a stand and be part of the solution.
“Intimate-partner violence is not a gendered issue,” Busch-Armendariz says. “Well-meaning, non-violent men need to be part of the solution. We need them to stand shoulder to shoulder with abusive men to hold them in check.”
Domestic Violence Myths
1. It is easy to leave an abusive relationship. Why doesn’t she just leave? It is not that simple. “If one person is controlling everything, then it is really hard to take your kids and come to a shelter,” says Marcus Griggs, fatherhood specialist at Project HOPES, a new SafePlace abuse-prevention effort.
2. Victims provoke violence. It is never, ever the victim’s fault. Abusers choose to react the way they do. We would not blame a bank for getting robbed, so why would we blame a victim for getting abused? “What it really comes down to is power and control,” Griggs says. “It’s one person wanting to exert their power and control over someone else. For whatever reason, the individual feels they are able to do whatever it is they want. They may feel entitled to act in that manner.”
3. Abusers are crazy. Although some abusers may be mentally ill, most are not. A report from the University of Southern California notes abusers tend to be “charming, persuasive and rational.” “Many survivors describe their partner as Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde, one way in public, another way in private,” says Katie Ray-Jones, CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline. “Great person to everybody else, looks fantastic, everyone loves him, life of the party, but get home, different person.”
4. Domestic violence is only physical abuse. When we think about domestic violence, we tend to think of physical abuse. Just because no physical violence is involved does not mean no harm is being done. Violence can also come in the form of emotional abuse. According to helpguide.org, an online domestic-abuse resource center, emotional abuse includes “verbal abuse such as yelling, name-calling, blaming and shaming…isolation, intimidation and controlling behavior.” This may also include threats of physical violence, which must be taken seriously.
5. Domestic violence only affects the poor and minorities. “Domestic violence knows no boundaries. It impacts highly educated, high socioeconomic and low socio-economic people, every geographic region and race,” Ray-Jones says.
Men are also victims. Although, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, 95 percent of domestic-violence victims are women, nearly 40,000 men have contacted the National Domestic Violence Hotline since 2013, at least 164 of whom said they were in Austin.
“Men are more likely to under-report intimate-partner violence, mostly due to the stigma associated with being a man and how we view men, in general, in society and how we think a man should act,” says Katie Ray-Jones, CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline. “I could give you so many stories of men reaching out and saying, ‘I talked to my friends and they laughed at me.’ ”
Domestic violence is not a battle of the sexes. It is about power and control—men controlling women or other men, or women controlling men or other women. Anyone can be a victim.
Advice for Employers
Think domestic violence does not affect your workplace? Domestic violence costs the U.S. economy $5.8 billion each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Victims miss a total of 8 million days of work annually, the same amount of productivity as 32,000 full-time jobs. Katie Ray-Jones, CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, weighs in on how to create a workplace policy.
1. “Connect [the victim]to the hotline so they can create a plan with a trained advocate on how to stay safe.”
2. “We’re happy to help employers with this process so they can think through a workplace policy. We encourage employers to be in a proactive place rather than reactive.”
3. “Make sure HR departments are trained on domestic violence so they’re not dictating what the person should do or need to do.”.
- The National Domestic Violence Hotline 1.800.799.7233
- SafePlace 24-Hour Hotline 512.267.SAFE
- Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault
How Take a Stand
1. Educate others on how domestic violence affects us all.
2. Stop using language that insults women or normalizes violence: “You run like a girl.” “Man up.”
3. Challenge men and boys to express a wide range of emotions, including fear, sadness and pain.
4. Be supportive of victims. Anitra Edwards, an Austin-area survivor of domestic violence, says her friends’ support was crucial in helping her leave an abusive relationship. “When you’re in that situation, [the abuser]is the only person you hear, and you start to question yourself,” Edwards says. “Having my friends remind me that wasn’t OK, it wasn’t my fault and that I could get out was what really helped.”