The Web of Violence

Exploring violence and victimization

How Motherhood Changed the Way I See Domestic Violence

There's more to dealing with violence than "Why doesn't she leave?"

For many years I believed what everyone said about domestic violence victims. You know, how people say that victims are passive, helpless, and in denial. That leaving their relationship was an obvious, easy and surefire path to safety and it was a total mystery why any battered woman didn't leave after the first hit. Now, I see things differently. Now I know that these stereotypes are not just simplistic and wrong, they are harmful. Now I know that battered women are stronger than you know.

However, I did not know that when I first started working with victims. I told them what I had been taught to say. I recommended leaving. I predicted that other choices would not work and that there was little, if any, hope the batterer would change. I used the popular dangerousness assessments and safety plans. I told more than a few women that they were in danger for their lives, in part because I did not pay attention to the huge amount of error that is built into the process of trying to guess which assault victim might one day become a murder victim (if you do the math, there's no way to do without being wrong more often than you are right). None of those danger assessments mention that leaving is often the most dangerous time and actually often increases a woman's risk of being murdered, according to lots of research. Most fancy and official looking safety plans, even today, ask only about the violence and don't ask about other important issues like losing custody, homelessness, or rejection by family and community.

Back in those days, I did not have children myself. Now I have two, a daughter and a son (14 and 11 years old as I write this). My perspective has changed dramatically since having my own children. Back then, many times I called every shelter within a 200-mile radius and found none that had room for children or would take teenage sons. It was even hard to find a shelter who would take a boy over the age of 6 because the boys were perceived to be potential threats to other residents. In my experience, shelters are completely inflexible about these rules, regardless of the situation or the particular boys in question. So—and it is difficult to admit—I would suggest to women that they leave without their children. Often I would suggest first that perhaps the children could stay with the woman’s mother or even her mother-in-law, although the practicality of that seldom worked out. Some women do not have the sort of parents or in-laws who are suitable to leave children with. Perhaps more importantly, these women knew that even if they did drop their children off with relatives, there would be little the relatives could do to stop the batterer if he showed up at the doorstep to claim them. In reality, these steps are not safer than leaving children with the batterer.

I suggested that too. I can still picture some of their faces, morphing from disbelief to guardedness in a flash. They were unfailingly polite, almost all of them. “Thank you for the suggestion, but I don’t think that would work out.” That response did not deter me. I felt it was my duty to press for “safety”—their safety. They were the ones sitting in front of me, often bruised and bloody, and I was worried about them. I would encourage them to re-think, assure them that it would just be temporary. By “temporary” I meant the 30 to 60 days one can usually stay in a domestic violence shelter. A couple of times regarding teenage boys I even raised the possibility of a homeless shelter. The mother and her female children could go to the shelter for battered women while her teenage boys stayed in the closest homeless shelter. This plan would get everyone away from the batterer. No one ever took me up on that idea, perhaps recognizing better than I did that exposing a teen to a stay in a homeless shelter could be dangerous and traumatizing. There was also the suggestion to let the children stay with their father. They were already living with him anyway, so in that respect it would not really be different, and often they were not a target of violence themselves, or so I told many women—and myself.

As a mother now, the main thing that impresses me about all of those encounters is the unfailing politeness. I wish someone had been less polite and spelled out the limits of these plans. I look at my son and I can hardly imagine being away from him for 60 days, much less leaving him with people I do not know or trust. I have never done that and I hope I never have to. I would gladly give up my own personal safety if I thought it would lower the chances that my son or daughter would be left alone with a dangerous person, and so would all of the mothers I know.

Today, I think that it ought to be illegal for any federally or state-funded service agency, including any shelter that gets any public money, to refuse to serve minor children. A solution that does not involve looking after the children is no solution at all. The foster care solution, so widespread now in some communities as an intervention for domestic violence, also has far more negative consequences for children than many social services want to admit. Research shows that the bad effects of foster care are on top of whatever led to foster care placement in the first place.

There is almost nothing about helping battered mothers that I do not view differently now that I have children of my own. There are many other lessons I have learned from battered women, too. I learned about realistic timelines for starting over. I learned that sometimes there is the possibility of achieving change from within a relationship. It took a long time, but I finally recognized that we need a new approach. I am trying to be part of the solution. I have developed a new, free safety plan, called the VIGOR (for the Victim Inventory of Goals, Options, and Risks, http://thevigor.org.). Unlike other safety plans, it has space for concerns about children, pets, and other loved ones. It also has space for financial issues and other problems. Many safety plans were developed years ago, before the internet and cell phones were common. The VIGOR provides space for thinking about computer and phone safety in our modern age. Now we know that sometimes men are victims of domestic violence too, and the VIGOR is written so either women or men can use it. The first safety plans were a huge step forward in their time, but we don't use 30-year old phones or 30-year old computers anymore, and we need to keep looking for new and better ways to help victims of domestic violence. They deserve it.

Adapted from the introduction to Dr. Hamby's book, Battered Women's Protective Strategies: Stronger Than You Know (Oxford University Press, 2014). To learn more about a strengths-focused approach to domestic violence, visit http://thevigor.org. For other strengths-based approaches to resilience and overcoming violence and other adversity, visit http://lifepathsresearch.org.

Sherry Hamby, Ph.D., is a research professor of psychology at Sewanee, the University of the South.

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