In 40 hours: Learning to stop domestic violence

On our first day of domestic violence advocate training at Spruce Run-Womancare Alliance in Bangor, we turned to the first pages of our inch-thick training manuals. On those pages was a reminder of why we were there: a list of Maine men and women who have died in domestic violence homicides.

BDN Newsroom Administrator Natalie Feulner and I were there to learn firsthand what it takes to be the volunteer voice at the other end of the phone, talking to someone experiencing domestic violence. After completing the 40-hour training, we would be able to answer hotline calls from people in abusive relationships and help them plan for their safety.

We did it because we wanted to take the training to a larger audience, to educate and raise awareness. This month may be Domestic Violence Awareness Month, but it’s always a good time to better understand a major problem that affects us all. Instead of doing interviews and writing them up, we wanted to help.

Consensus versus control

Spruce Run, which recently merged with Womancare in Dover-Foxcroft, is the state’s oldest domestic violence resource organization and was formed by volunteers as a support group. Forty years later, it has grown to offer an emergency shelter, hotline, support group and children’s services, prevention programs, consultations with child protective and legal services, and trainings for a variety of professionals. The 17 full-time staff members are there to help victims fill out protection from abuse orders, simply be good listeners and do much more.

The nonprofit operates like a collective. There’s no executive director. Decisions are reached by consensus. The goal is to not operate by a system where one person directly controls another.

What is domestic violence, exactly? It’s a pattern of controlling behavior — physical, verbal or sexual — in a current or former relationship. It results from a belief that someone has the right to exert control over another. It’s not caused by stress or anger. Instead, abusers act purposefully. It’s about power.

Perpetrators may isolate their victims by spreading lies about them, such as that they’re alcoholics or have mental problems. They may check the mileage on their cars to track how far they’ve driven. They may withhold money or make victims account for every penny. They may threaten to kill themselves if the victim leaves. They may threaten to kill the victim. They may say, “If you don’t have sex with me, I’ll lock you in the shed.” Then there’s physical violence.

When leaving is worse

During our first class, on Aug. 20, we watched a video with interviews of Maine domestic violence survivors and their families and friends. Many of the bystanders expressed utter sadness at being able to seemingly do nothing to end the violence or draw their loved one away. One interviewee said, “The words that came out of her mouth were his.” Another recounted a pregnant woman who turned into a corner in a wall to protect her baby as her husband came at her with a knife.

Our class was quiet afterwards. Our teacher, Catherine Kurr, asked us to brainstorm: What are we afraid will happen to a victim of domestic violence if she stays? She or her children could be killed, abused more or raped; she could lose her connections to family and friends or her community; she could lose her faith; the abuse could affect her long-term physical health; she could commit suicide; her pets could be killed; she could be stalked; she could suffer depression.

Then Catherine asked us, “What about if she leaves?” We proceeded to create the same list. She or her children could be killed, abused more or raped — especially because the risk of homicide is greater when someone leaves a violent relationship. She could lose her connections to her family and friends or her community — because she might have to move far away. The stress or the fear of the unknown could still affect her physical and mental health.

We can never judge or blame a person for not leaving, and what we think is helpful can be harmful for victims. We have to listen, validate feelings and find out what they want and the reasons that make it hard for them to leave. Then we can address those reasons. We can discuss options. If they don’t want to leave, or know they’ll be in more danger if they do, we can help make them as safe as possible in their abusive home. They know their abuser best.

That’s a difficult concept to accept. But when people are experiencing abuse, and they have family or friends telling them what they must do, they don’t need another person trying to direct their life. They need to feel validated, so they can assess the situation and make the decision that’s best for their safety at that time.

More and more, high-risk domestic violence teams are forming and working in Maine to change the way we respond, to better assess batterers’ level of danger and keep them away from the victim, instead of requiring the victim to flee. But while the teams have proven effective elsewhere in stopping domestic violence homicides — they are still new in Maine — abuse still happens. Not everyone would need or want a high-risk team’s intervention. So we are left, it seems, with shades of risk to decipher and weigh.

Safety planning

When people call the hotline, we want to find out where they are, whether they’re currently safe and how much time they have to talk. We make some kind of plan with callers before hanging up.

We try to learn as much as possible about what’s happening. We want to know about their support system. Do they have a place to go if they have to — temporarily and long term? If they don’t want to leave home, what room is safest? What can they do to minimize emotional abuse?

If they have to leave, what transportation is available? What about money? Who controls it? Who controls the phone? What should they remember to bring? People often forget their medication, glasses and important documents, such as a marriage license or Social Security card, we learned.

All along, it’s essential for the hotline worker to empathize. If it sounds like what’s happening is terrifying, we say so. If callers sound hopeless, we say they sound hopeless. Or angry. Or lonely. Or exhausted. One of the other trainees in the group may have put it best: “She just wants to be heard because no one else is listening.”

What not to do

In one class we brainstormed what we hate to hear when we have a problem and need help. “Calm down.” “You need to…” “I know how you feel.” “It’ll get better.” “How could you let this happen?”

Then we discussed what we like to hear. We appreciate when our confidants are generous with their time and follow up later, are knowledgeable and give accurate information, are OK with our emotional state, help to clarify the problem and us ask what we want them to do and are sympathetic, showing they’re on our side.

We discussed everything hotline volunteers might ask to better understand the caller’s situation. The more we know, Catherine said, the better we can connect them with resources. I filled an entire notebook page with the questions we might have to ask — everything from what callers have done in the past to ameliorate the problem, to where they work, to whether there are weapons nearby, to what their goals are in 24 hours and a year.

We did role-plays with agency staff and the other trainees.

My first “caller” had a boyfriend who was bothering her at work, acting possessive and jealous. He shoved her and got in her face to yell at her. She didn’t have a car, so she walked to work. Her parents had, she said, “disowned her.”

My big mistake was asking whether she had anyone she could talk to. That just sounds wrong. If she had someone, why would she call the hotline? A better way to put it would have been to ask whether she had any family or friends in the area. I could have then explored whether she could stay with them if she had to.

A hand to lend

There is much more.

For one homework assignment we filled out a protection from abuse order form and took notes about what it was like. It’s more confusing than you might think. We learned about strangulation — how it causes disorientation, which might cause a story to not quite add up. We learned sometimes bruises don’t appear until later, important information for advocates and police.

We learned how to respond when someone calls the hotline and is in immediate danger. We learned how to talk to someone who wants to commit suicide.

We did many more role-plays — in class and on the phone at home after class. We discussed the court process and where victims can go for legal help if Spruce Run is booked (Penquis and the Maine Volunteer Lawyers Project). We learned how to assess whether someone should go to Spruce Run’s shelter.

We talked about sexual assault and all it involves: everything from sexually degrading comments, to controlling what someone wears, to exposing someone to sexually transmitted diseases, to beating someone and then forcing him or her to have sex.

“It’s so common on the hotline,” Catherine said. “Almost everyone you talk to will have experienced sexual abuse in one form or another.

“It’s OK to be horrified about the horrific,” she told us. “You need to be empathetic and a person.”

There are still questions the class couldn’t answer, of course. We still don’t have good research about how to identify behavior that leads to domestic violence and what factors can prevent it.

The experts — and common sense — are clear on a few things, though. One is that domestic violence is indeed preventable. The other is that ending violence requires work by everyone to promote respectful relationships. We all have a hand to lend.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence and would like to talk with an advocate, call 866-834-4357, TRS 800-787-3224. This free, confidential service is available 24/7 and is accessible from anywhere in Maine.

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is a writer and storyteller. As editorial page editor of the Bangor Daily News, she writes the newspaper's opinion on matters from Kittery to Fort Kent.