The second Sunday of June marks National Abused Women and Children Day. On one hand, I’m glad we acknowledge those who’ve suffered in secret for at least one day. Despite licensure as a therapist and years of experience with victims, I wasn’t aware this day existed. Perhaps we all could pay more attention to the markers around us. And we should broaden our attentiveness to serving the helpless and victimized each and every day.
Our legal system condemned animal cruelty before ever recognizing child abuse as a crime. A tragic case of orphan-beating in the early 1870’s left the courts with no recourse until they established initial child battery prosecution based upon the animal protection laws. It took a hundred years before the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act made its way into law.
Today, many women and children continue to suffer oppression and mistreatment one wouldn’t wish upon animals. According to the Center for Disease Control, abuse and neglect impact one in every seven children. The same resource illustrates a very dark picture for adult women, since statistics indicate that one in every four suffer from domestic violence. With millions of cases reported to the authorities each month, even relatively compassionate people might feel tempted to allow these numbers to numb their hearts. First responders often struggle to balance a need for sensitivity with a need to survive the overwhelming tide of tragedies, for example. Average neighbors and church members find it difficult to comprehend the need and how they could possibly lend any meaningful help.
The compassion-fatigued thoughts begin with overwhelmed and hopeless barriers. It’s too much. There are too many. What could anyone do to stop this massive bleed of cruelty, anyway?
In an attempt to self-protect, the mind shifts from shock and sorrow to justifying emotional walls. Human nature defaults toward self-protective thinking, so we desperately want to convince ourselves that we’re not responsible. And more importantly, that this couldn’tve happened to us. Defensive thoughts try to stereotype or blame the victims for their abuse. Why doesn’t she just leave? What else could be expected from that sort of person?
Though we might wish we could justify our inaction with victim-blaming, the fault lies more with the bystanders than those suffering from a predator’s calculated torment. Typical justifications fall embarrassingly distant from the facts. Domestic violence and child abuse occur throughout all races, socio-economic levels, and religions. There are no stereotypes. Abuse can happen to any family, anywhere. Despite our desperate wish to believe otherwise, these are our neighbors, our people, and they could easily be us. The numbers intimate that someone you know, even someone in your own family, either has been or will be a victim of violence in their own home.
Worse yet, the statistics don’t reflect the full picture. With most victims threat-bound to secrecy, maltreatment remains vastly under-reported. The numbers are likely even higher than the CDC suggests. And “violence” often fails to include the scars which linger far deeper than bruises.
My friends and clients have echoed the same experience–of all the abuse suffered, the physical pain is never the worst. By far, the deepest and most lasting wounds come from psychological and emotional torment. I’ve met with women who lacked physical evidence to report, but who suffered as much or more from their predatory partners than other clients whose bones had been broken.
Demoralization cuts deeper and lasts exponentially longer than bruises. Those who abuse children and partners often systematically brainwash their victims to adopt a pervasive identity of shame and enslavement to the predator’s dominant ego. Positive-sounding promises at the onset of a relationship can spiral into means of isolation, dependency, and oppression. Batterers (both physical and psychological) are masters of charm who thrive upon control and superiority.
Many predators maintain positions of honor and prestige in the community while the abuse continues in secret. The victims have plausible reasons to accept the statements, “No one will believe you” and “I will make sure everyone blames this on you.”
If the victims have no way to collect and safely store enough evidence to prove they’ve been abused, the community and legal system side with the predator. Few professionals have enough training to recognize the signs of oppression and help victims escape. Those with personal experience fare better at seeing beyond the bruise-deep symptoms. But without access to effective legal and financial resources, it’s a challenge for survivors to help victims escape safely.
Maybe a shortage of cross-equipping between survivors and providers is one of many reasons why the legal system remained so slow to recognize the cancerous evil of abuse spreading throughout our culture for so many years. And why our courts continue to fail these women and children in many cases today.
Unfortunately, the system sends women and children back into vulnerable circumstances on a daily basis. Even for those who managed to escape with documentation of their spouse’s crimes, I’ve seen an unfortunate number of victims forced to share custody with the abuser. With no supervision, the batterer is granted full access to these children for entire summers, every other weekend, or even primary custody for the school year to psychologically manipulate as he so desires. If legal counsel for the victim has no specific training on domestic violence, the case can also result in deadly tragedy. A narcissist requires a certain approach, far different from the standard court battle. If their ego or dominance comes under threat, the control-addict can react with unthinkable levels of treachery or even murder.
The risks hemming victims inside those horrors for so many years are real. And these are not the stories of faceless statistics. Look into the eyes of your neighbors, friends, and family. These are our brothers and sisters. Our nieces, nephews, and grandchildren. The victims are our people who need us to see and acknowledge their suffering.
We all matter together and we each matter every day. So, look deeply into her eyes. Ask how she’s really doing, why she seems tired, if she’s okay. And listen with a patient posture which invites her to respond in honesty.
If you discover a woman who isn’t safe, psychologically OR physically, resist the temptation to numb your heart. LISTEN. Esteem her as a woman who matters or a child who has value. Let her know that it isn’t her fault. Then help her get to a women’s resource center for counseling services. Local victims’ resources can refer her to legal aid designed for victims of abuse. They’ll help advise her to gather her resources (and any evidence she might have) into a safe and secure place she can access when escaping.
Below are a few hotlines and sites to keep with you for the inevitable moment when one of the many suffering sisters or children needs your help. Feel free to add more resources in the comments, as we can never have too many.
National Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-SAFE
Florida Child Abuse Hotline 1-800-96-ABUSE
Crisis Text Hotline 741741
Abuse Shelter Directory https://www.domesticshelters.org/help#?page=1
Women’s Transitional Housing and Abuse Shelter Directory https://www.womenshelters.org/
Legal Aid Directory https://www.usattorneylegalservices.com/free-legal-services.html