As service providers who work with hundreds of domestic violence survivors and victims every year, we are heartbroken and dismayed that three of our community members have been killed in the past year, allegedly at the hands of an abusive partner, leaving behind six children who will now grow up without their parents. These tragedies have left us questioning what more could we have done as a community to prevent these senseless deaths. Missoula is often looked upon as having a far-reaching and effective community response to domestic violence. Advocates, law enforcement and prosecutors work together to offer assistance to victims, and yet many victims hesitate to reach out for help.
Many who witness violent relationships wonder what keeps someone from leaving an abusive relationship. They might tell themselves and others that they would never let someone hit them, denigrate them, isolate them or disempower them. They do not consider the complexity of individual situations or the barriers that exist that can make leaving an abusive relationship very difficult or dangerous. Some may even blame the victim for “letting” the abuse continue.
It is important to remember that survivors of domestic violence do not suffer only physical abuse. Abuse may first appear as emotional manipulation and verbal coercion, disguised as possessive love. Abusers rob survivors of their power, isolating them from their support groups, limiting or preventing access to finances, and eliminating their power to act autonomously. Abusers often monitor where survivors go, with whom they talk to and even what they search online. In same-sex relationships an abuser may threaten to “out” their partner to family or coworkers. Abusers may threaten to harm pets or take children away from a survivor. The list of coercive tactics is endless.
The most dangerous time for a woman in an abusive relationship is when she attempts to leave. Seventy-five percent of all domestic violence homicide victims have left or are in the process of leaving the relationship at the time of their murders. Given the risks, it is crucial that services are available to help victims safely transition out of abusive relationships.
Domestic violence victims usually reach out to friends and family members for help first. However, some survivors may never ask for help. Friends and family may see signs of abuse but not know how to respond. This is an opportunity for a bystander or loved one to help. Most domestic violence victims feel ashamed, alone and confused as a result of the abuse. They may worry no one will believe them and they may blame themselves for their experience. Each of us has the power to reach out to someone we love and tell them that abuse is not their fault. If you have friends or family members who are in unhealthy or abusive relationships, the most important thing you can do is be supportive and listen to them. You can encourage victims to seek help, and point them to resources. While not always well received, knowing one’s options can ultimately help a person make an informed decision, and knowing that a friend, family member or even a stranger is there for them can be the difference between life and death.
Reaching out to an advocate organization can be the first step to regaining autonomy in one’s life when faced with abuse. Advocate programs in Missoula are free and confidential. These programs are based on empowerment, so survivors make all of their own decisions and are supported in their choices. Domestic violence victims are often keenly aware of their safety risks, having lived so intimately with violence, and they are the experts in their own lives. We encourage those who face abuse to reach out to service providers and/or law enforcement, even if it is just to gather information and consider what options they may have. Local service providers offer a 24-hour hotline, shelter, support groups, advocacy and programs for victims and their children who have been subject to violence in the home. The scope of the resources exists to address the barriers that make leaving an abusive partner more difficult. If you are a friend or family member trying to help a survivor, you may also call Missoula’s advocacy programs and get support. Advocates are there for you too.
This piece originally appeared in the Missoulian with contributions from the Missoula Crime Victim Advocate-Relationship Violence Services program, Missoula Police Department, Missoula County Sheriff’s Office, City Attorney’s Office, County Attorney’s Office and theStudent Advocacy Resource Center at the University of Montana.