By Jami Walker, See the Triumph Contributor
Innocence once lost, can never be regained. Darkness, once gazed upon, can never be lost.
– John Milton
My name is Jami Walker. Domestic violence is a complicated and difficult subject to understand. I personally know how strong the cycle of domestic violence can be. According to a study by UNICEF, “the single best predictor of whether children become perpetrators or victims of domestic abuse later in life is whether or not they grow up in a home where there is domestic violence.” My journey through the cycle of domestic abuse has 3 parts, my childhood experiences, my own domestic violence relationship, and my triumph over domestic abuse. Although my story has sad parts, it is not a sad story. It is about turning my physical and emotional wounds into wisdom, courage, hope, and triumph.
Let me start my story with my past as a child growing up in a home with domestic abuse. My biological father grew up watching his father abuse my grandmother and take a belt to my aunts and uncle any time he felt they were “out of line.” My father grew up in a household that taught him you control your wife and kids’ behavior through the threat of violence or actual physical violence. Unfortunately for my mom, this is what she endured for 19 years.
I can remember as a young child wishing and begging my mom to leave my dad. I hated watching him choke her and throw her through a window. I used to try to stand in between my parents to protect my mom, but my dad easily tossed me aside and continued with his abuse. I watched several times as my mom would cry to friends or family but never leave my dad. She tried to explain how difficult it would be to raise 3 kids on her income. We also lived in a state that would have allowed my dad to claim hardship if we moved away to Illinois.
Somehow my mom convinced my dad to move back to Illinois to be around my mom’s family. Once he was surrounded by her family, he stopped hitting her, but I became his new focus. In his mind, it was ok to shove or push me anytime he didn’t like how I was behaving. One time I was arguing with my mom in true teenage style. I knew it all and because I was not getting my way was throwing a tantrum. My dad came in to defend my mom. However, his idea of being on my mom’s side was throwing me into a closet where my back broke the dowel rod the clothes were hanging on. I remember thinking why didn’t my mom love me enough to take me away from someone who could hurt her and his own child.
During the summer between my freshman and sophomore year of high school, my dad and brother got into an argument over changing a light bulb. My brother was 18 and defended himself against my dad. Apparently this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. My mom decided to file for divorce and my dad moved out. She asked her lawyer for an order of protection. Unfortunately since it had been so long since he had harmed her directly the lawyer said it would be very difficult to get one. She decided she’d try to get one anyway. However, before the motion could be filed, one Sunday, my father waited until he assumed we had all went to church and set our house on fire. Luckily no one was home, but we lost every thing from our childhood; pictures, clothing, toys, and my sister’s hamster. Seeing the look on my 10 year old sister’s face as she realized the bones in the bottom of the cage were all that was left of her hamster still haunts me. Up until that point, my brother & I had shielded my sister from many of the horrors we had seen. She didn’t realize how mean my dad could be. I still remember what it felt like to see my sister’s face for the next several years and realize what it meant when people said a child’s innocence can be stolen and taken from them. I used to be jealous of her. She had a childhood sheltered from violence and evil that my brother and I didn’t have the privilege of sharing. After the fire, I realized how terrible it must have been to have your entire childhood ripped away in one quick sweep.
I remember going through the rest of high school thinking to myself I was the last person in the world who would ever end up with an abusive partner and stay.
I was 19 when I met my ex-husband, and it would be a long 3.5 years before I was free of his violence.
By Christine Murray, See the Triumph Co-Founder
Many people view their faith communities as a major source of social support and connection in their lives. For many, a faith community can even come to feel like a second family, which shows just how deeply valued these connections can be for people of faith.
On the positive side, the strength of these social connections offers a potentially valuable source of support for survivors, including those currently experiencing abusive relationships. This support can be practical (e.g., providing transportation or housing), emotional (e.g., providing validation when telling one’s story), moral (e.g., coming to court hearings to support a survivor), and spiritual (e.g., prayer and spiritual encouragement).
Unfortunately, however, some of the survivors in our research faced isolation, separation, and loss of status within their church communities after others found out about the abuse they experienced. Consider, for example, the following quotes:
It’s important to note that faith communities often have sub-groups and different social networks within the larger congregation. Therefore, it is possible that survivors of intimate partner violence may find that some segments of their communities are more or less isolating than others. It certainly is possible that the survivors quoted above encountered smaller segments of a population that did not represent the beliefs of the larger group or the leadership of the faith communities.
However, social isolation is an important issue for leaders and members of congregations who want to ensure that their faith communities are welcoming and supportive to survivors of abuse. It is important to consider how every level of faith communities can offer a consistently supportive environment to members and others who seek help for abuse.
Faith communities offer a potentially valuable source of social support and connection for survivors of intimate partner violence. However, survivors may feel isolated and unwelcome if they encounter stigmatizing reactions within their faith communities. Therefore, it is important for churches to be proactive in fostering environments that encourage survivors to reach out for connection and support.
By Christine Murray, See the Triumph Co-Founder
This month, we’re sharing a series of blog posts and resources to help people in faith communities support survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV) and challenge the stigma that often surrounds abuse in these communities.
Why are we focusing on faith communities, and particularly on Christian churches? The stigma surrounding IPV in churches was a major theme we heard from the survivors who participated in our research. Some of our participants faced a major stigma within their churches when they sought help or when others in their faith communities learned about the abuse they had experienced. The majority of these experiences occurred in Christian denominations, so we don’t yet have enough information about how IPV is viewed within other faith traditions to be able to address those dynamics, and therefore we are currently focusing on resources to address the stigma surrounding IPV in Christian faith communities.
Because religious and spiritual beliefs and practices can be such a central part of people’s lives, one’s faith-based values are a potentially major influence on the decisions they make about how to respond to abuse--such as whether to leave an abusive partner.
Another important reason that we’re focusing on churches is because they are so often a first line of support for many people who have experienced abuse. Survivors who may not feel comfortable seeking support from places like the police or a domestic violence agency may feel more comfortable seeking support from leaders and/or members of their religious groups. Therefore, the responses that survivors receive from within their faith communities can have a major impact on how they perceive their abuse and whether they will seek additional help elsewhere.
We know that many faith communities and religious organizations are working actively to promote nonviolent, healthy, and safe relationships in their own congregations and their wider communities. Later this month, we’ll highlight some great examples of ways that churches can take action against IPV, in hopes of spurring on other religious groups to take action.
Before we move to sharing resources for how faith communities can challenge the stigma surrounding IPV, we thought it was important to provide a context for understanding how this stigma may be perpetuated in some faith communities. Today, I’ll focus on the blame and shame that survivors may encounter in their faith communities. In the coming days, I’ll focus on other aspects of that stigma, including isolation and how religious beliefs may be used to perpetuate further abuse.
We’ve shared several blog posts on how victim-blaming is a major part of the stigma surrounding IPV in general. For example, see our posts on Victim-Blaming and Stigma and Victim-Blaming: Why You Might Be Part of the Problem.
Victim-blaming certainly isn’t unique to churches. However, there were some unique aspects to that blame when our study participants experienced it in their faith communities. For example, consider the following participants’ quotes describing their experiences of feeling blamed by members and leaders of their faith communities.
First, one woman was told in response to disclosing the abuse she had experienced, “You need to submit yourself to God and become a better wife.”
Other participants heard messages that they were being abused due to a lack of faith:
“A priest told me that this was happening to me because i didn't have enough faith.”
Still others noted that they felt that they were held fully responsible for their marriages, regardless of the abuse, as illustrated by the following quotes:
I believe that the blame that survivors encounter from within their faith communities can be especially difficult for them to overcome because it’s wrapped up in their beliefs about God and faith. I imagine that this can spiral into a chain of negative beliefs, such as that they are being abused because they are being punished by God or that there is something so inherently wrong with them that they deserve to be treated abusively.
Ending the stigma surrounding IPV within churches will require stopping the victim-blaming within these faith communities. Stay tuned throughout this month for more ideas and resources to help challenge this stigma so that faith communities can work toward becoming safe and responsive sources of support for survivors.
By Karen Bean, See the Triumph Contributor
Although many studies have found that that women are at greater risk of physical violence by a partner than of violence by other people, a quote in a recent New York Times article made me think about this dichotomy more deeply. The article quoted Stephanie S. Covington, co-director of the Center for Gender and Justice in La Jolla. “In adolescence, she said, “the risk for boys comes from people who dislike them: the police, their peers or a rival gang.” In contrast, she said, “For girls, the violence in their lives comes from relationships – the person to whom she’s saying, ‘I love you.’”
The side-by-side comparison of boys’ and girls’ experiences prompted me to think about the layered nature of trauma experienced by abused girls. In addition to the trauma of being physically abused, being abused by a loved one layers on a unique psychological trauma as well. When a girl is abused by a loved one, a fragile connection is broken putting elements of her psyche at risk, such as her self esteem and her ability to trust others. She may feel she is to blame for the violence and experience shame. Abuse by someone she loves could destroy her trust of people in general and make her hesitant to seek help.
The layered trauma caused by domestic and sexual violence requires layered support systems for its victims. An innovative program in the legal system is one area of promise. The NY Times article mentioned above describes the concept of Girls Court as part of a national movement to redefine sexually trafficked girls as victims rather than offenders. Teenage girls charged with prostitution are often themselves victims of childhood abuse and recruitment into child prostitution. States such as California, New York, and Hawaii have implemented the Girls Court concept to recognize the vulnerability of abused girls and intervene in a positive way. Girls Court connects girls to social service agencies, counseling, mentors, and informal training sessions.
Violence has devastating consequences. Violence perpetrated by those who supposedly love you compounds that devastation, but there are support systems to assist and people who care about stopping the violence.
Reference: Brown, Patricia Leigh. “A Court’s All-Hands Approach Aids Girls Most at Risk.” The New York Times. January 28, 2014.
By Christine Murray, See the Triumph Co-Founder
Throughout March, we at See the Triumph are turning our attention to the stigma that survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV) may face within their faith communities, and especially within churches. In our next several posts in this series, we’ll share some of the ways we heard this stigma happens through our research.
To set the stage for this month, I wanted to apply the five steps to challenging the stigma surrounding intimate partner violence within communities that we outlined in January to provide some specific examples of what this may look like within the context of faith communities.
The five steps we put forth were as follows, with examples of how they may be applied within churches:
Step 1: Acknowledge the problem.
People often come church wearing their “Sunday best” and show their best selves to their faith communities. Therefore, it’s tempting to imagine that people who are part of a church are somehow immune to challenges like IPV.
It is especially shocking when cases comes to light in which someone in a leadership position within a church (e.g., a pastor or elder) has been violent toward an intimate partner. (See this news story, for example.) Many people believe that religious people--and especially leaders--travel a higher moral road than others.
As such, acknowledging that IPV can occur among people in faith communities can be a major challenge. But, this recognition is important because without acknowledging that members of a religious group can experience IPV, it can be difficult to address the issue in a meaningful way.
Step 2: Educate yourself.
Beyond acknowledging that IPV can occur within faith communities, one of the first steps that church leaders and members can take toward supporting survivors and challenging the stigma surrounding IPV is to offer educational opportunities for members and leaders alike. These may take the form of bringing in speakers (e.g., professionals and/or survivors), attending conferences and trainings, and distributing educational handouts and flyers about the dynamics of IPV to members.
Step 3: Initiate conversations.
I think that churches are in a unique position to open really meaningful dialogues about IPV. For many people, a church is not just somewhere to worship once a week, but a source of social interaction, a sense of community, and often even a “second family.” Therefore, many people have the potential for close and supportive relationships within their churches, so there is are opportunities for in-depth conversations that can happen at different levels. Beyond one-on-one conversations with friends within the church, people can have conversations in small groups, Sunday school classes, youth groups, prayer groups, and even church-wide meetings.
I’ve had the opportunity to speak about IPV with church groups before, and I’ve found them to be really lively, compassionate conversations, often ending with the sincere question of: “What can we do to help?” Therefore, I‘ve seen firsthand the value of having these conversations, in that they often provide the motivation for church members to take action.
Step 4: Offer resources.
I believe that churches can play a key role in helping to connect people who are experiencing abuse with the services and resources that they need to seek safety. Some people will seek help from their church before they would ever think to reach out to a community agency, such as a domestic violence shelter. Therefore, the messages they hear from the people in their church when they reach out for help can make a big difference in whether they reach out for more help or not.
I think it’s critical that church leaders, and ideally all members, understand how to access services for IPV in their local community. Identifying the relevant agencies and how to get in touch with them (e.g., through a crisis line) can help ensure that this information is available whenever a need arises.
Churches also can consider if and how they can offer other types of resources for people experiencing IPV. These resources may include food and clothing (and possibly even a safe place to stay) after a survivor leaves an abusive relationship, child care and transportation, and links to other relevant community services (e.g., for counseling or medical care). Many church leaders are well-connected in their local communities and therefore well-poised to help survivors access the support they need in the community.
Churches also can provide resources for survivors who don’t yet feel comfortable openly seeking help for IPV. One possible way to do this would be to hang posters with domestic violence crisis line numbers (e.g., the National Domestic Violence Hotline) in public (e.g., hallways and classrooms) and private (e.g., bathroom stalls) around the church. Another approach would be to include information about IPV on the church web-site or posting relevant information on social media sites.
Step 5: Uproot the causes of stigma.
Later this month, we’ll share a blog post that will explore this issue more in-depth, but as a preview, one of the points we heard from some of the survivors in our studies was that religious beliefs and/or practices have the potential to be used to perpetuate abuse. I know this is a really difficult issue to address, because religious beliefs are often very closely-held, as they are for me personally.
And yet, I think it’s really important to consider if certain belief systems may promote abuse, or at least make it less unacceptable. And so, I ask you to consider: Are there any teachings or practices within your own faith community that may hide, justify, or perpetuate abuse?
Breaking the silence around IPV within churches is another critical way that the stigma can be uprooted. Silence makes it easier to ignore or minimize the problem, or to deny that it is possible within one’s faith community. Therefore, by making IPV a visible issue and taking clear stance that relationships should be safe, healthy, and supportive, churches can take major strides toward uprooting the stigma surrounding this issue.
Throughout the coming month, we hope you’ll share your ideas and suggestions for how to challenge the stigma around IPV in churches. And, if you are part of a church community, we encourage you share the relevant resources with leaders in your community to get a conversation going about what your own faith community can do to address this important issue!