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October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month

October was first declared as National Domestic Violence Awareness Month in 1989. Since then, October has been a time to acknowledge domestic violence survivors and to be a voice for its victims. The purpose of Domestic Violence Awareness Month is to mourn victims, celebrate survivors, and network for change. This national event takes place each year during the month of October to connect advocates working to end violence against women and kids. 

Erica Schmittdiel is a licensed master social worker and CARE advocacy coordinator at MSU Safe Place.

“A lot of us think of the physical aspect of domestic violence, and while that is certainly present, in some domestic violence relationships not everybody is physically abused,” says Schmittdiel. “And they may be experiencing things like emotional, verbal, or sexual abuse and isolation. Victims often are not really allowed to have much of a social life. It doesn't necessarily mean that they're locked in the basement, but maybe the abusive partner is making it difficult for them to spend time with family or friends or demands that they come home from work immediately afterwards.

Credit Scott Pohl | WKAR
Erica Schmittdiel

“We see threats, we see stalking, we see intimidation, gaslighting, sabotaging school and work efforts, and economic abuse. And those are just a handful of examples, but really anything that an abusive person does to gain and maintain power and control in a relationship. And again, they may be using physical abuse or they may be able to gain that power and control through other means. A lot of times we use the test of whether the victim is free to leave the relationship. If the answer is no and they’re afraid of what her partner will do if she leaves the relationship, then that relationship is probably abusive.

“And we see abuse in all kinds of relationships: heterosexual relationships, same-sex relationships, and anybody can be a victim or survivor. While we see mostly women experience domestic violence, people of any gender can be victims.”

Schmittdiel details common traits of abusers and talks about how their terror is mostly about power and control.

“Some people are good at hiding that side of them and they only show it behind closed doors with their partner. A lot of abusers are very skilled at hiding this aspect of their personality and that's one way they get away with this behavior. That way if the survivor does come forward, people are less likely to believe that this is really going on. 

“Abusers are really skilled at hiding this and they're not necessarily going to show this side of them when two people are dating. They're going to wait until their relationship progresses and then start to show signs of their controlling behavior. We can never blame somebody for being in an abusive relationship. They didn't know. And then they come to find out the relationship isn't really so healthy and they need to talk to somebody about it. We need to be supportive of that and understand that nobody asks to be in a relationship that's abusive and nobody deserves to be abused.”

She says it’s often difficult for a survivor to disentangle themselves from the relationship and the process can take some time and some planning. And that's okay. 

“We're not here to tell people that, ‘Oh, that relationship is so toxic, you need to leave right away.’ We may want them to get out right away for their own safety, but it may not be safe. The abusive person seeing that they're losing that power and control, that their partner is leaving them, can trigger increased violence.

“We encourage victims to have a safety plan. They're often willing to give their abuser the benefit of the doubt because they have been in a relationship with this person. They've seen the good side. They've seen that the relationship can go well at times. They may think, ‘Oh, I don't want to be in this relationship anymore. I'm going to sit down with them and explain all the reasons why we don't need to be together anymore.’ And that's one thing that we caution people about, that you may think that you owe it to them to have that conversation, but it may not be safe. And if you feel that you need to have that conversation, doing it in a public place would be better. Or maybe leaving a letter or sending an email, but having that face-to-face conversation may not be safe if that abusive person sees they're losing power and control.”

For those of us fortunate enough not to be experiencing domestic violence, how can we recognize it in family and friends that may need help and how do we help? What are some warning signs?

“We may see our friends and family withdrawing. They're not coming to family functions anymore because the abusive person is saying things like, ‘Oh, you spend too much time with your family, that's not healthy, how come they're always in our business?’

“Maybe you're seeing isolation with people that you care about, that you used to spend more time with. Check in with them. Ask if it's a good time to talk. 

“Don’t make accusations because nobody wants to hear that their relationship is abusive. A lot of times people are in denial that somebody that they love could hurt them. Express concern, but don’t label the relationship as abusive. Maybe point things out that are concrete like, ‘you don't really come to family functions anymore. We miss you. Just wondering what that's all about.’ And maybe express some hesitation, even if you're convinced the relationship is abusive, by saying things like, ‘I don't know if this is what's going on, but if it is, just know that I'm here to support you regardless and I care about you and I want the best for you.’ And again, you may not get a great response to that right away, but you've planted a seed. You've let that other person know that you care about them and that if they are ready to talk, if they are ready to come forward, that you are a safe person.

“There's also sometimes hesitancy for people to get involved. They may not feel like they're qualified to say anything. And that's okay. You don't have to be a therapist or an advocate to point somebody in the right direction and let them know that there are services in the community that are available to them.”

Schmittdiel details how MSU Safe Place is the first and only domestic violence shelter on a college campus in the nation and how Safe Place is operating during the pandemic. 

“I'm one of the two advocates on staff and basically that means I'm here to help people with whatever it is that they need. Everybody's situation is different. We don't have a cookie cutter approach and tell victims they need to do A, B, C, and D. We talk with people about what it is that they want and what's going on with them. They may have identified needs already and we are just there to help get them what it is they need. Maybe it's a divorce attorney, an immigration attorney, a personal protection order, or a restraining order. Maybe they don't know that they can get a personal protection order. So we're talking about options. We're providing information, resources, referrals, and support for individuals.

“And people don't have to leave the relationship to receive our services. That is not a requirement that we have. Sometimes people are trying to decide if their relationship is abusive or not. They're not sure, but maybe their friend said, ‘Why don't you call Safe Place? I think it would be a good idea for you to talk to them.’ Or maybe they've tried to leave the relationship that they know is abusive and unhealthy, and the other person is stalking them and won't let them go. We see a wide range of situations and we're here to help with whatever it is that people are dealing with.

“We are hearing from programs across the country that domestic violence is up diring the pandemic and law enforcement is reporting the same in some jurisdictions. But we are actually experiencing a decline in services. There's sort of a paradox here where people are calling the police, potentially, because they're in danger and they don't feel like they have other options in that moment, but yet they're reluctant to reach out for services. And we understand that some survivors just can't. If the abusive person is so controlling that they're either with the survivor 24/7 or they're making that survivor account for their time 24/7, the survivor may not feel like they can reach out.

“And they may be scared to reach out. Even if they have a moment to make a phone call or send us an email, they may not know that we have individual shelter units available and that we have Zoom and phone counseling and advocacy services offered remotely. 

“During Domestic Violence Awareness Month we want people to know that we are here as a resource. If somebody wants to talk maybe a little bit more in depth about a friend or a family member that they're trying to help, we can talk through that with folks. We do get calls frequently from family members and other professionals whose specialty is not domestic violence that they would like some more information on how to help somebody else. So we are definitely available for consultation. And we just ask that everybody keep in mind that domestic violence is everybody's business. We all play a part. This is a community problem that we have here in Lansing and across the globe and we all have a part to play in raising awareness and stepping in and trying to do something when we're aware that it exists.”

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