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Stopping domestic-violence murders

By Deborah DeBare
The Providence Journal. January 18, 2011.

In 2010, more Rhode Islanders — 13 — died because of domestic violence than ever before recorded. They lost their lives brutally at the hands of those who were supposed to love and protect them — their family members and their intimate partners. Sadly, several of these deaths occurred during the holiday season, in the last two weeks of the year.

In addition to the increase in murders, we’ve seen a significant spike in the number of clients coming forward in 2010, with a record-breaking high of 10,410 families receiving services from the six member agencies of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence. In fact, over the past three years in Rhode Island, there have been record numbers of calls to hotlines, requests for shelter, counseling, legal advocacy and other services, as well as a record high number of emergency restraining orders served.

What is behind all this? Is it the stress of the economy, the stress of the holidays, or increased violence in the mainstream media? While we know these are some of the factors that heighten the risk for domestic violence, none of these risk factors can singularly account for what we’re seeing. The real reason why domestic-violence murders continue to occur is because we continue to tolerate domestic violence in our society.

Any death because of family violence represents a societal failure: a failure to hold abusers accountable, and a failure to keep victims and families safe. When we hear news of a murder, as a community we are outraged and saddened. But when we see the signs of domestic abuse in someone we know, we may worry for them, we may hope for the best, but all too often we fail to take action.

We’re frequently asked why victims don’t “just leave” an abusive relationship. There are many reasons why someone might be hesitant to leave, and those reasons are often fundamentally linked to the dynamics of abuse. For example, maintaining control over money and bank accounts is a common form of abuse; therefore, many victims are unable to independently support themselves or their children. Most importantly, however, victims fear for their safety, and the safety of their families, if they leave. All too often, those fears are realized. Tracey Pytka was the most recent victim who tragically lost her life after trying to leave a relationship.

All this means that victims need to be supported and empowered. If you suspect that someone you know is in an abusive situation, don’t be afraid to reach out to them and ask them if they feel safe. Listen without judging, and let them know it’s not their fault. Let them know you’re there to listen and support them. Let them know that there is help available through our confidential Helpline (800-494-8100). As always, if you see or hear someone being hurt, call 911 immediately.

Even if you don’t think you know anyone affected by abuse, you can still help to promote healthy relationships in your community. Let the young people in your life know that violence is never acceptable. If you hear a friend joke about domestic violence, take a stand against it. Talk about abuse openly, and help break the taboo.

Support the anti-domestic-violence movement in Rhode Island. Our legislative agenda this year includes initiatives to hold abusers more accountable, and to keep families safe in the child-custody and visitation system. Support funding for such programs as safe shelters, counseling services and legal advocacy, which have seen substantial increases in clients alongside dramatic cuts in state funding. If you can, donate your time, money or old cell phones to your local domestic-violence agency.

The biggest step that you can take right now toward ending domestic violence is to educate yourself about the dynamics of abuse. What does abuse look like, and how can you recognize it when you see it? While abusive relationships can take many forms, they fall into similar patterns. Visit www.ricadv.org to learn more about the warning signs of abuse, patterns of power and control, barriers to victim safety, and resources in your community.

This year’s record high number of domestic violence deaths is more than tragic; it is a call to action. If we’re serious about stopping domestic-violence murders in Rhode Island, then we have to be serious about stopping domestic violence.

Deborah DeBare is the executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence.