When people learn that someone is a victim of domestic violence, they often think, or directly ask, “Why don’t you leave?”
“That question can do way more harm than it does good,” said Miranda Hayes of Masury, a domestic violence survivor, speaking at “Breaking the Silence,” a Jan. 29 event highlighting intimate partner violence that she organized at Penn State Shenango in Sharon.
The question glosses over the complexity of the situation, said Susan McKinnis of the Crisis Shelter of Lawrence County, New Castle. There could be children caught in the middle, or pets. There could be outstanding threats against the victim’s family members or friends if the victim leaves, or religious, cultural or family issues at play. The abuser might control the victim’s finances, and the abused might have a general distrust of people and not feel that another place would be safer than where they are.
Maybe, the abused does not believe his or her story will be believed, Hayes said, noting that she was often hit in the back of the head and strangled, neither of which left marks for a policeman to see.
Domestic violence often goes beyond physical violence, McKinnis said. Psychological violence can paralyze the abused. The abuser may have conditioned the victim to feel helpless and worthless, and asking them why they don’t leave actually supports the abuser’s assertions.
“’Why don’t I just leave?’” Hayes asked the question in rhetorical fashion. “’My abuser’s right, I am stupid. I am worthless. I am not capable of doing this on my own. They’re right. They’re so right. Look at me. Look how terrible of a person I am because I can’t just leave.’”
“If you were to go into one of our shelters and be able to talk to someone who is in residence there, you’d find that that person isn’t a victim,” McKinnis said. The residents often say, “’It’s my fault. If I was 10 pounds lighter, if I was a better cook, if I brought home more money, if I didn’t nag so much, if I kept the kids quiet, if I kept a cleaner house, if I was prettier or more popular. It’s my fault.’ You see, that’s the mindset.”
The question of why someone doesn’t leave also assumes the abused person is thinking clearly, McKinnis said.
“Intimate partner violence results in traumatic brain injury,” she said. “Being shaken so violently or being hit against a wall or slapped so hard, and so we forget things. We forget appointments. We’re in a fog. We have headaches. We have visual impairments. We have auditory impairments. We have balance problems.”
Instead, ask the victim. “’What’s your story?’” McKinnis said. “’What can we do to make you feel safe?’ Just by switching those words around, you can be a resource to somebody that’s experiencing some violence.”
“Be unconditionally supportive and accepting so they know that, even though you want the best for them in that moment, they’ll know when is the safest time for them to leave,” said Lauren Webb, shelter manager for Someplace Safe, Trumbull County’s domestic violence agency.
“We talk a lot about leaving but that is actually the most dangerous and lethal time for a victim,” Webb said. “There is a lot of planning that goes around that. There’s a lot of barriers. There’s a lot of control.”
An outsider can help by “Just checking and being there unconditionally,” Webb said.
Hayes said she decided to start planning to leave her abuser after hearing a comment from a Penn State professor during a class.
“The only way out of a domestic violence situation is to either leave or die,” Hayes said. “That quote is one that a professor here, Ms. Claudia Bell, who has now retired, shared with me and the rest of the class. That quote is what prompted me, not to get help this quick, but to start making a plan and figuring out how to get out.”
An observer has to trust that a person being abused will know when it’s time to leave, McKinnis said.
“I know if it’s safe to tell you what’s going on,” McKinnis said, speaking from the point of view of a victim. “I know if it’s safe to call that crisis hotline. I know if it’s safe to tell you what really happened to me. You don’t know that. You can’t force, and you have to respect their boundaries and their decisions, even if you don’t agree.”