On the record ... with Shana Stringfellow and Lisa Schmidt
Whether or not you realize it, you probably know a victim-survivor of domestic violence.
"One in six women and one in nine men are victims of domestic violence at some point in their lives," said Shana Stringfellow, the coordinator of victim advocacy services at the Northern Illinois University Women's Resource Center. "Three out of four people know someone who has been through that."
When most people hear the term "domestic violence," they think of a physically abusive relationship between a husband and wife or boyfriend and girlfriend, Stringfellow said. But the Office on Violence Against Women, a division of the U.S. Department of Justice, defines it 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. Domestic violence can be physical, sexual, emotional, economic or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person. This includes any behaviors that intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, terrorize, coerce, threaten, blame, hurt, injure or wound someone."
Domestic relationships go beyond romantic relationships, she added. Even roommates, because they are living in close quarters, can have an abusive domestic relationship.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and the Women's Resource Center, in conjunction with Safe Passage, the community domestic and sexual violence center, kicked off the month with several awareness events. On Oct. 1, Safe Passage held its annual Domestic Violence Vigil. On Oct. 2 was Take Back the Night, a rally that includes speakers who have survived domestic violence and a walk to show solidarity with victims of domestic violence.
At 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 3, the Women's Resource Center will screen "Telling Amy's Story" in the Carl Sandburg Auditorium of the Holmes Student Center on campus. This documentary, sponsored by Verizon, tells the story of a 33-year-old Verizon employee who was killed in 2001 when she attempted to leave her abusive marriage. Verizon selected 21 college campuses across the country to screen the film.
Stringfellow and Lisa Schmidt, acting director of the Women's Resource Center, sat down with MidWeek editor Dana Herra to talk about violence in relationships.
MidWeek: What, exactly, is domestic violence?
Shana Stringfellow: Domestic violence is a lot of things you could look at from a lot of angles. People have a very romanticized view of domestic violence. They look at that physical relationship piece. But there's also an economic piece, a psychological piece. Domestic violence includes behaviors like manipulating and coercing. Those behaviors can exist between roommates. It's not always a physical relationship.
MW: What is this term "victim-survivor?"
Lisa Schmidt: Most people associate the word "victim" with domestic violence. We're trying to change that language and think of people not just as victims, but as survivors.
SS: "Victim" insinuates the person did not survive their experience. We want to change the language to help people come forward and own that experience and feel empowered because they survived.
In a domestic violence situation, all the power is taken away from that individual. A strong word like "survivor" makes them feel empowered.
MW: The stereotype of a domestic violence relationship is a husband who beats his wife. What are some other examples of relationships that could be described this way?
SS: It could include a same-sex relationship. It could be friends, when one threatens, intimidates or manipulates someone. It could be a roommate situation. If your roommate is trying to coerce you into doing things or is threatening or manipulating you, because you're living together, it could be considered domestic violence.
MW: If I suspect someone I care about is in an abusive relationship, how can I help them?
SS: First and most important, that victim-survivor has to be ready to reach out and receive that help. Everybody's process is different. You can talk to someone about resources, but they might not be ready to use those resources. The best thing you can do is just have those resources and information available.
The first thing to do is ask. "I've noticed some things that concern me. Is it OK if I share some resources with you, some things I've learned?" Do not tell a victim-survivor, "You need to do this," or "You have to do that." All of their power has already been taken from them. They don't feel like they're in control. Telling them what to do just makes them more powerless. You have to let them decide if they want to be receptive to it.
You can never 100 percent understand what they are going through. You just need to be present for the individual and let them work through it in their own time and support them the best way you can. Everyone's healing process is individual. Don't judge people.
MW: What is the HopeLine Project?
SS: We collect old cell phones, cell phone batteries and accessories and they are donated to domestic violence shelters. The phones are refurbished and given to individuals in those situations. We collect for that all year long. (Drop boxes are located at the Women's Resource Center, 105 Normal Road in DeKalb, at the intersection with Lincoln Highway.)
LS: Sometimes women in these situations are so powerless, they literally don't have a phone they control. These used cell phones will give them a lifeline. Their abusive partner doesn't have to know they even have the phone. If they decide they are done at the shelter and want to go back home, at least they have a phone. It could literally save someone's life.
SS: They can reach out to their family, they can call the shelter, they can call the police.
MW: Why don't people leave abusive relationships? And if they do leave and go to a shelter, why would they go back?
SS: Some people are scared to leave. It may not be safe for them to leave, even if they want to. Some people have normalized this behavior and don't even realize this is domestic violence. They think this is a normal way of life, the way life is supposed to be. ...This could go back to their childhood, to dynamics between a mother and her children or brothers and sisters. If you think this is normal, you might not want to leave. That sudden change is scary, and in some circumstances might do more damage. That's why people have to be ready to leave.
And a lot of people don't leave because people don't believe them. Their family or friends don't believe this other person could be abusive. They wonder, "If my family doesn't believe me, why would someone else?"
LS: Victim-survivors in these relationships are often powerless. Your abuser controls the car keys. You have no phone. You have no bank account. You're isolated from your family. We like to ask, "Why wouldn't people leave?" But if you have no car, no money, no phone – it's very much about power and control.
They also could be in a threatening position where the safety of their children is threatened, or the abuser threatens the safety of their family members. Animals are a big thing – pets are often threatened.
SS: People who are victim-survivors often feel they are the only person experiencing this. They're not. They're not alone. Some people are ready to share and talk about it and some people aren't. But there are resources out there to assist you.
If you believe you may be in a domestic violence situation, call the Safe Passage hotline at 815-756-5228 or 815-786-6333.