The Movement to End Domestic Violence: Ugly Truths

In 2005, a young colleague and I set out to write about the “Battered Women’s Movement” as we experienced it in the St. Louis Metropolitan Region. While we no longer use such language, in looking back and re-reading this never-finished analysis (we kept on keeping on), I find it so very interesting and relevant ten years later. Our lives and careers have advanced, but has the movement? I don’t agree with everything in the below text (no longer so energetic and fresh, eh?), but I’m so glad I saved it. What do you think? Have we progressed?

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power and control wheelThe Movement to End Domestic Violence: 2005

We have each done advocacy work for over three years now. A lot of time was spent in school. Admittedly, a sheltered environment. Learning about domestic violence in school and actively working in domestic violence (DV) agencies isn’t exactly the same. It hasn’t been for us, anyway. That may be a surprise to some, but we’d venture to guess those individuals are limited in numbers.

So how can two women in their 20s reflect on the status of a movement after just 3 short years? Good question. Maybe we cannot articulate the intricacies of a movement that started before either of us was born, and we should not. What we can do is describe the movement as seen in one Midwestern region, by fresh eyes not yet distorted by acceptance.

Our experiences cover many sides of the movement. In a large metropolitan area, two different states, opposite sides of a river, residential vs. non-residential services, suburban/rural vs. urban, BSW vs. MSW, part of a large DV community vs. a lone agency covering 3 counties.

Just what have we experienced? Let’s start with the most obvious thing we’ve noticed: workers are burned out. We are amazed by the over-abundance of workers in this movement who just don’t care anymore or who are simply depleted. As we understand it, the  movement started from grassroots efforts. Weren’t these people who cared? Weren’t these people passionate? What has happened to that passion, that drive?

This is hard work, we all know that. But when the majority of the workers in our agencies are just plain worn out, sick of it, who suffers? We won’t begin with the answer you would expect: we do. Yes, WE suffer. The workers suffer. In school, we learned about burn-out. We know it will happen to us. But we didn’t expect to find it surrounding us. The understanding was that burned out people don’t stay…ah, but they do.

So when a new, fresh perspective comes into an agency, ready and willing to end this thing we call _____________ (fill in the blank), what happens? Well, we’ll tell you our experiences. We encounter people every day who squash our energy and tell us it can’t be done. Okay, well, that’s nice. I guess our only option is to leave this work. Bye!

New face #534, time for that interview…

Here’s what you were expecting: what about the people being served? How can burned out people adequately serve battered women? Come on, do we have to say it? You know them, you may be them. Do you think “these women” just want to screw us over? Do you think they’re all lazy people who don’t deserve our help? If only they would just _________ (fill in the blank), they wouldn’t bring this on themselves. Aren’t these women always misusing our services? And who does that new employee think she is, asking me for help?

Sounds harsh, but we’re never going to change if we don’t admit this is the way things are. This is what happens. We could give hundreds of examples and every one would seem scandalous because no one dares bring these truths to light. But that’s what they are, ugly truths that are shaping our movement.

Of course not everyone with which we have been in contact is burned out. There are a handful of passionate people who have inspired us, encouraged us, and kept us going in this movement. But notice how many, a handful. That’s not enough to keep a movement going.

We completely understand why people stay in jobs they don’t care for or don’t believe in. We know the reality. But let’s ask a question here: why does this keep happening? Why do we hear, for example, that in X agency a new worker is targeted by fellow staff every year and that’s just the way it is. Just the way it is. Why are we resigned to allow the never-ending revolving door opened by low pay, little or no benefits, and short-term retention? It’s hard to value your work if you do not feel valued as a worker. Can’t something be done? Shouldn’t something change? Or is that just the way it is?

What else have we noticed? Within and without our agencies, there is no common understanding of domestic violence. We say “domestic violence,” but here is where another fill-in-the-blank would be useful. What do we call this social issue we want to end? Outsiders assume we’re fighting the same fight, but are we? That’s a good question because even those working within the movement may become confused when they move around within the agencies. Yes, the language used creates only small differences, but those differences matter, especially when we’re all under the guise of a common cause. Intricacies won’t ruin us, but they matter. Even the slightest difference can create vastly different understandings, goals, and answers.

Let’s look at a bigger picture: our understanding of domestic violence. Sharing notes and moving around within different agencies has brought to light a glaring problem: different understandings of domestic violence. This includes two components: how we practice and what we believe. With a few exceptions, individuals and agencies are practicing from widely varied perspectives.

A woman who seeks services may benefit from these varied practices, but she may also receive very conflicting services. For example, even within one agency, she may be told that abuse is mutual or that she is turning into an abuser, only to turn around and hear from another worker that the abuse is not her fault. Or she may be taught that abuse always patterns after a specific cycle only to hear from another agency that abuse doesn’t always follow a clear pattern, that all women’s experiences are unique. How can someone navigate such a confusing system? And how can the outside world look at us and think we know what we’re doing?

What’s more? Some agencies and individuals base their understanding of domestic violence on theories and evidence, while others rely on anecdotal information. How can this fragmented movement adequately serve women and create and sustain passionate, effective workers? We believe the answer is simple. Agencies need to commit to common core beliefs and evidence-based practice. We’ve been and worked with students and new employees who may be told one thing by a supervisor and then learn the complete opposite from another worker. We know the confusion that often leads people to leave this work. It’s hard to perform well if you don’t have a firm foundation.

Surprisingly, we have both found people within this movement strongly against theories and academic understandings of domestic violence. Yet there is a reason that universities training our potential workers, whom we often require to have degrees from these programs, offer courses specifically focusing on domestic violence. If those who train our workers feel it is important to have a clear, evidence-based understanding of domestic violence, those working within the movement should too.

Someone will always ask: what’s wrong with coming from different perspectives or philosophies? Nothing, if it doesn’t harm women. But what we’re saying is that we cannot provide effective, respectful services to women if those services are conflicting. It’s not fair. We have a duty to provide best practices. And if we don’t know what they are, we must find out.

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