Millennials of faith often have a desire to love their neighbor through service in their communities. This desire gives life to acts of service and experiences of deep empathy for those who have experienced deep harm. Domestic violence is one such area where the love and empathy of communities is key to the healing of an individual survivor. However, millennials often struggle when it comes to how to love our neighbor through acts of citizenship in our diverse political community. In what follows, I will explore how we can take up this call to both love those who have experienced domestic violence through our acts of direct service, and through our engagement in political community to bring about systemic change.
When violent abuse comes from someone who has promised to love and protect you, it can be a terrifying shock. For some victims, this initially unexpected behavior is simply written off. It is seen as a one time thing. Once it starts to become a recurring problem, unfortunately, sometimes excuses are still made or those affected are fully aware of the issue, but feel as though they have nowhere else to go. As one survivor put it, being under the constant threat of domestic violence makes one feel as though he or she is living life scrunched up in a box, their hopes, dreams, emotions, and opinions stuffed away and controlled by their abuser. The issue of domestic violence is prevalent in the U.S. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, nearly 20 people in the United States experience physical abuse from an intimate partner every minute. On an average day, domestic violence hotlines nationwide receive over 20,000 calls. One in three women and one in seven men have been victims of domestic violence in their lifetimes.
The Department of Justice defines domestic violence as, “A pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner.” An abuser always seeks to obtain a sense of control and power of the other, and forms of violence can include physical, sexual, emotional, economic, or even psychological. While the majority of those affected are female, it can happen to anyone regardless of race, age, sexual orientation, gender, or religion. Education level and socioeconomic background do not guarantee protection from domestic abuse.
For someone who has never experienced domestic abuse or seen it happen to someone close to them, it can be easy to question why the person does not simply leave. It is easy to make assumptions about victims who choose to stay in the abusive relationships. In reality, the biggest obstacle to ending the abuse is not a matter of whether the victim chooses to leave, but whether the victim is able to safely escape. When dealing with an issue as sensitive and complex as domestic violence, it is important not to simply rush the conclusion that victims can easily escape abuse. It is frightening for victims to have to choose between possibly spending the night on the streets or with an abusive partner. This decision becomes even more complicated when children are involved.
Oftentimes the abuser is economically tied to the victim which makes it nearly impossible to leave. Without access to money, it becomes very difficult for someone suffering abuse to find transportation to get away, safe housing to stay in or even to buy food to feed themselves and children if he or she has them. As one can imagine, this problem is even more difficult for low-income families and makes some feel as though they have no other choice than to stay. Although money should never be the reason for someone to be forced to staying in an unsafe environment, for many this is a reality.
The Role of Government and Civil Society
Public justice requires government to positively intervene in both preventing and responding to domestic violence. Domestic violence is not just an individual or even a family issue, but a problem that has the capacity to have negative consequences on society. Negative developmental impacts on children exposed to trauma impacts their school work and mental health. Survivors of domestic abuse may suffer the consequences of lost wages and lost financial support from an abusive spouse or partner.
According to the Center for Public Justice’s Guideline on Family: "Government’s policies should aim to uphold the integrity and social viability of families, which do not exist in a social, economic, or political vacuum. Public policy should, therefore, take carefully into account the ways that other institutions and the dynamics of society impact families positively and negatively from the earliest stages of family formation on through to the last stages of elder care."
Thus, government's responsibility goes beyond merely criminalizing domestic violence and prosecuting offenders (although this is essential). Government ought to intervene on the front end to uphold healthy, non-abusive marital and family relationships through provision of grant programs that aim to provide education and counseling for marriage, as well as to provide funding for community education aimed at raising awareness of the signs of domestic violence. Government's role in upholding public justice requires the government to address domestic violence holistically and preventatively wherever possible by forming partnerships with the best providers of services, faith-based and secular, to prevent domestic violence in the first place and also to restore survivors to physical, spiritual, and financial wholeness.
The Family & Youth Services Bureau (FYSB), a division of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families in the Administration for Children & Families, works to help those affected by domestic violence through Family Violence Prevention and Services (FVPSA). FYSB is able to work through FVPSA to provide grants to territories, tribes, states, as well as state domestic violence coalitions and hotlines. In 2015, FYSB funded 1,256 domestic violence shelter programs and 261 domestic violence non-shelter programs. FYSB is one example of how government can support initiatives and programs that are working to provide assistance for those affected by domestic violence as well as encourage other programs to start.
Along with programs that are geared towards providing funding and support to organizations that specifically address the issue and needs of domestic violence victims, other governmental programs can provide necessary support in indirect ways. As stated earlier, some victims of domestic violence are unable to flee the abusive situation due to the lack of economic stability. In this sort of circumstance, programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) which provides nutrition assistance for low- income individuals and families, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) which works to help those in need grow to become self- sufficient, can help to provide victims the assistance they need to safely leave an abusive situation. Another form of support can even be childcare vouchers. This provides the child a safe place to go during the day, can allow the parents time and space to do things like seek counseling or if necessary, meet with groups that will help victims plan the most effective and safe way to leave an abusive situation.
It is extremely difficult and most of the time unsafe for victims of domestic violence to pack up their things and leave with out a plan or a place to go. Especially when children are involved and the abuser is economically tied to them. Governmental grants that support organizations that provide shelter, hotlines, counseling and other essential needs of those living in domestic violence are necessary and beneficial. Safety net programs like food assistance, temporary housing, and childcare vouchers might not be the support that one first thinks of for domestic violence victims, but they can be crucial in providing the economic stability that is necessary for victims to feel as though they are stable enough on their own to leave the abusive situation.
However, addressing domestic violence requires the participation of a variety of institutions, not just the government. Churches have a unique role to play when advocating for victims of domestic violence. Unfortunately, individuals sometimes fear they will be judged by members of a church community or told that they simply need to forgive their abuser when they reveal they are dealing with domestic violence. These feelings sometimes stem out of interpretation of the Church's response to divorce. This fear of judgement can cause people to turn away from the safe environment of the Church in a time of great need.
The perception of the Church as a place of judgement and not as a place of safety and affirmation needs to change. The Church should be a community that victims know they can turn to no matter what problem they face, without fear of judgment or harsh treatment. Creating a space where everyone is welcomed with opened arms no matter what problems are going on in their lives is one way that churches can help with this issue. The Church can also support victims of domestic violence by offering counseling and connecting victims organizations equipped to provide them with a safe place to stay.
Nonprofits can also be a great support and resource to those affected by domestic violence. Nonprofits can provide life-saving emergency shelter to those who are in dangerous situations and in desperate need to get out right way. Every day, nearly 71,828 adults and children find support and help in different domestic violence programs around the United States. Providing hotlines and educational training to members of the community are two other ways nonprofits provide beneficial support and safety.
Focus Ministries is one example of an organization that is working to not only provide care and support to victims of domestic violence, but also to educate individuals, organizations, and churches. Focus Ministries’ vision is to reach out to hurting women by establishing support groups, training, and education programs. Counseling is offered through Focus. Focus Ministries’ goal is to show the individuals how valuable they are to Christ, show them that they are not alone, and help them swiftly respond to different needs that come about. The educational training Focus offers is intended to provide ways for different churches, organizations, friends, and family members who do not know how to help victims of domestic abuse, learn how to help. Focus Ministries accomplishes this by providing specific tools for pastors that equip them on how to properly support and respond to issue of domestic violence. This training also explains what a church can do to be a support.
Many who are caught in abusive relationships feel as though they have no way to escape their situation. In pursuit of public justice, we have a responsibility to support victims of domestic abuse. As Christian citizens we can advocate for policies and programs that help victims leave dangerous situations and get the help they need. Every individual is made in the image of God and deserves to be loved and protected, especially those who have suffered domestic abuse.
—Ashley Fisher is a senior History and Political Science major at Vanguard University