How the media can and does help domestic abuse victims
The Executive Director of CASA, the St. Petersburg, Florida domestic violence center told me "not a single word" of Janay Rice's Instagram post surprised her.
After 30 years of working with domestic violence victims, Linda Osmundson says the Ray Rice case is typical of the 6,000 cases a year that flow through the victim support system, including a small shelter she oversees in Pinellas County. The big difference is most abuse cases don't make the news. Most abuse happens behind closed doors, not in front of casino elevator cameras.
"Victims stand by their man," Osmundson said. They will stand by him and stand by him and stand by him until they can't stand by any longer. Why? Because they love him. They have children together, a house together, a life together. Battered women leave five to seven times before they finally leave for good. The batterer does not batter all the time. The charming guy comes back and charms her. The victim loves the charming guy."
And so, like Janay Rice, they stay with the man who hit them. "Most of the victims have never been involved with police. They know the system will not defend their lives. We don't prosecute most domestic violence cases in this county. They go back to the abusers. They are on their own. Restraining orders don't stop fists and bullets. Many are terrified, what if they don't win the case."
Osmundson says shelters like CASA don't see a big increase in calls for help after high profile cases anymore. Sadly, they have become so common, she says, the public doesn't react to the news as it once did. "In the OJ Simpson years we saw an increase in calls. That was the first time it was out in the public among high visibility people. It is much less of a surprise now, we don't see the same reaction now. OJ was a 'goldmine' to us because people said 'Oh, that happens to other people?"'
Osmundson offers this advice to journalists:
- Focus on the abuser. Social media and even some talk radio focused on the woman for staying with a man who hit her. The victim should not be re-victimized. It sends a strong signal to other women that this public judgement is what awaits you if you report your abuser. "Women don't report abuse for a lot of reasons. Maybe the batterer got to her and said if you tell I will hurt you and your family," Osmundson said.
- Alcohol and drug use is involved a significant number of cases that come through CASA. But, Osmundson said, don't allow alcohol to become an excuse. In fact, she said, sober abusers may be even more dangerous. "Alcohol makes me not be able to abuse "clearly." Abuse is planned, thought through. It is important to remember they have two problems, one is abuse, the other is alcohol," she said.
- Abuse is a world view, it is not a disease. Your view is reinforced by family, friends, advertising, videos and music. It is reinforced culturally all the time when, for example, athletes beat their wives and continue on with their career. "If you get to guys when they are young there is some hope they can turn around. Take an older guy who has done this all along, I don't have a lot of hope for him," Osmundson told me.
Resources for Journalists
The stories Linda Osmundson told me based on her decades of experience are backed up by stacks of studies.
On average, 20 people per minute are victims of physical violence by an intimate partner in the United States. Over the course of a year, that equals more than 10 million women and men. Those numbers only tell part of the story—nearly 2 million women are raped in a year and over 7 million women and men are victims of stalking in a year.
You can see state-by-state breakdowns of domestic violence from the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control survey here. Note: the report urges you NOT to try to use the data to compare states because the report relies on different levels of responses from different locations.)
The Department of Justice reports:
Overall, African Americans were victimized by intimate partners a(t) significantly higher rates than persons of any other race between 1993 and 1998. Black females experienced intimate partner violence at a rate 35% higher than that of white females, and about 22 times the rate of women of other races.
-- Callie Marie Rennison and Sarah Welchans, U.S. Department of Justice, Intimate Partner Violence (2000)
In a study of African-American sexual assault survivors, only 17% reported the assault to police. (Africana Voices Against Violence, Tufts University, Statistics, 2002)
One story that journalists could explore is whether your community has enough support for abuse victims. Help centers told the National Network to End Domestic Violence's 2013 national survey that they had lost workers including shelter staff and legal assistants. The NNEDV's census including shelters and centers that house abuse victims found:
Domestic violence programs do not always know what happens when a survivor courageously calls a stranger to ask for a bed or other help and the services aren't available; however;
- 60 percent of programs report that victims return to the abuser,
- 27 percent report that victims become homeless
- 11 percent report that victims end up living in their cars.
The survey also found this statistic that journalists could explore:
Across the United States 1,696 staff positions were eliminated in the past year. Most of these positions were direct service providers, such as shelter staff or legal advocates. This means there were fewer advocates to answer calls for help or provide needed services.
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence lists these stunning statistics. I am linking to the studies on which some of this data is based. Much of it is from the Department of Justice, and some of the data is 15 years old:
One in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.
An estimated 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year.
Almost one-third of female homicide victims that are reported in police records are killed by an intimate partner.
In 70-80 percent of intimate partner homicides, no matter which partner was killed, the man physically abused the woman before the murder.
Less than 20 percent of victims reporting an injury from intimate partner violence sought medical treatment following the injury.
The American Bar Association pulled together data for lawyers who deal with these kinds of cases. One of the more interesting facts the ABA lists this statistic from the American Journal of Public Health:
Access to firearms yields a more than five-fold increase in risk of intimate partner homicide when considering other factors of abuse, according to a recent study, suggesting that abusers who possess guns tend to inflict the most severe abuse on their partners.
Linda Osmundson offered two other key thoughts to journalists covering the Ray Rice story. "This is not the first time a well-known athlete has done this. The exciting thing to me is that somebody is taking action this time. Other athletic organizations should take action too, it would make a difference." She added, journalists should remember that victims are reading, listening and watching this coverage. If the case is taken seriously, they might find the courage to come forward. "For abusers, it is always power and control. Most of times, guys plan the abuse. That fist is connected to his arm. It is always his choice."
In the day and a half since TMZ released the knockout punch video, Twitter users posted 96,000 entries with the hashtags #whyistay and #whyIleft.
While it is not possible to verify the stories behind the posts, the entries are heartbreaking. I put some of the posts in this Storify collection.