Domestic Violence An Issue For All
By Nancy K. Crevier, Newtown Bee, 10/9/2008

The statistics gathered from various studies conducted over the past ten years differ somewhat, but numbers from the American Bar Association Commission on Domestic Violence, the American Institute on Domestic Violence, the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence (CCADV), and the Women's Center of Greater Danbury confirm that domestic violence is a serious issue.

Every year in the United States millions of women are abused. Each year, 835,000 men are abused. More than 1,247 women and 440 men are killed by an intimate partner. Children who witness acts of domestic violence number between 3.3 and 10 million. One in five female high school students becomes a victim of date abuse. During 2007, more than 835 domestic violence victims a day were serviced in Connecticut by just two thirds of the local agencies that exist in the state.

According to CCADV literature, "Domestic violence is a pattern of abusive behavior in an intimate relationship where one partner tries to control and dominate the other." The violent behavior is manifested in verbal, psychological, or physical abuse, leaving the victim confused and insecure. In Connecticut, domestic violence, including threatening verbally or physically, assaulting, or stalking an intimate partner, is a crime.

Hitting, kicking, beating, slapping, and other physical assault results in the more obvious signs of domestic violence. Threats of violence against the victim or against friends and relatives of the victim, often in the form of a firearm or knife, or through intimidation by physical strength and size, are other means of physical abuse.

The Women's Center of Greater Danbury does not keep statistics that break down clients by age, gender, or specific areas of a town, said community educator Heidi Rankin, but in 2007, of the 27,730 men, women, and children who sought support from the agency, 1,731 of those were from Newtown and Sandy Hook.

"Now, these are all people who have reached out to the Women's Center for support," explained Ms Rankin, "including someone who may have called for information, seeking education about domestic violence, or looking for a referral."

It Happens In Newtown

That said, Newtown is not immune to the devastation wreaked by domestic violence, she said. "Oh, it happens in Newtown. There is a perception that this doesn't happen in communities like Newtown, communities that are wealthy, but we see that it occurs in this town probably in the same percentage that it does nationwide," said Ms Rankin.

When people think of domestic violence, they generally think of physical abuse that results in bruises and trips to the hospital. What is not discussed as often but what may be more prevalent is the control issue, she said. "We call it 'coercive control.' It is done through threat of physical violence or verbal intimidation. Isolation is also a huge issue of control."

Ilene Wolfe, the founder of HEAL (Healing Emotionally Abused Lives) knows that behind every case of physical abuse lies a case of emotional abuse. Ms Wolfe, who has a degree in philosophy, arts, and Eastern philosophy and a MS in human services, founded HEAL in 2005 after years of suffering from unidentified negative feelings that stemmed from being an unwitting victim of emotional abuse in her family of origin. Through HEAL, she decided to share "the dots I had connected."

"Techniques of an emotional abuser can vary and are usually a combination of things like withholding, discounting, dismissing, blaming, criticizing, name calling, ordering around, manipulation, humiliation, and are delivered in a tone of voice that is demeaning," said Ms Wolfe.

The difficulty with emotional abuse, said Ms Wolfe, is in identifying it. "There is a disinclination to see someone you love as being mean to you, and it is especially difficult — nearly impossible even — for children to recognize and report," she said. Because emotional violence is so under the radar, it is difficult to gather statistics, she added. "And because emotional abuse is hard to prove, legal action is rarely taken."

Any form of domestic violence results in loss of work time, lower productivity at home and at work, and can lead to bullying in school, explained Ms Wolfe. She praised school programs that attempt to curb bullying and teach children not to tolerate bullying, but suggested that there is still a ways to go with the bullying programs. "What I haven't heard discussed yet is that the target of bullying could also be the subject of bullying at home. Often a bully picks a target that appears vulnerable. So will it solve the problem of bullying at home? Not yet," she said.

When Emotional Abuse Turns Violent

While physical abuse always contains an element of emotional abuse, said Ms Wolfe, emotional abuse can be an ongoing problem that never escalates into physical abuse. "When it does, though, those are the stories that often turn up in the national media. The physical violence tends to be extreme when handed out by an emotional abuser," she said.

At the Women's Center of Greater Danbury, it is clear, said Ms Rankin, that domestic violence has no borders. "It affects people all across the board," Ms Rankin said. "Rich, poor, it makes no difference. There is an assumption that domestic violence has to do with education and poverty, but we see by the number of people from this town that seek our help that that is not true. It affects all socio-economic backgrounds," she said.

Domestic violence is a problem for all ages, as well, Ms Rankin said. There are definitely lifelong incidences of abuse in the elderly, but because they are often isolated and have probably been isolated emotionally and physically for many years, they are hard to identify and remain invisible statistics. As a community educator, Ms Rankin visits schools in the 13 towns serviced by the Women's Center of Greater Danbury.

"Statistics tell us that 60 percent of high school students will experience some sort of abuse in a relationship before they graduate, and 25 percent of that 60 percent will experience physical abuse. When I talk at schools, I will ask kids to raise their hands if they think they know of people involved in an unhealthy relationship, and you would not believe the hands that go up. Newtown High School is no different than any other high school in the area. When I speak here, we get a lot of follow-up calls," said Ms Rankin.

There is a dark side to being from a town like Newtown, said the community educator. "Being from a town such as many in Fairfield County can actually prevent people from reaching out for help, or minimizing what is happening to them in terms of domestic violence. There is more rationalization, that this sort of thing is normal, that everyone is experiencing this, that they can deal with it because domestic violence just isn't supposed to happen in a 'good' town," she explained. A person's family may have money, but the victim may not have any economic resources that allow him or her to get out of an unbalanced relationship, because the controller in the relationship determines how the money is used and how it is accessed. So it is likely that there are far more people in Newtown experiencing some form of domestic abuse than seek help, she said.

The reasons that a person stays in an abusive situation are extremely complicated, but the only wrong thing that a person can do when he or she suspects a case of domestic abuse, said Ms Rankin, is to do nothing. Intervening must be done from a position of safety and knowledge, as domestic violence is a matter of many layers, said Ms Rankin.

Most of all, said Ms Rankin, it is important, across all realms of domestic violence, for the victim and others to know that it is not the victim's fault.

Enforcing The Law

Sgt. Christopher Vanghele is the domestic violence instructor for NPD. His experience dovetails with Ms Rankin's, so far as who is affected by domestic violence. "Domestic abuse crosses all socio-economic, racial, gender, and age boundaries," said the sergeant.

From September 2007 to September 2008, arrest reports of the Newtown Police Department show 81 arrests involving domestic disputes. The charges range from disorderly conduct to violation of protective orders to assault, strangulation, verbal and physical threats, and risk of injury. The arrests are as likely to take place in the Borough as they are to take place in Botsford, Dodgingtown, Sandy Hook, Hattertown, or Hawleyville. The addresses are in new subdivisions, established neighborhoods, apartments, trailers, multiple family homes, and single-family homes. Young people abuse the elderly, husbands abuse wives, and girlfriends assault boyfriends.

Since 2004, said Sgt Vanghele, changes in laws have placed dating relationship abuse cases under the umbrella of domestic violence, allowing police to make an arrest, and in cases where an officer deems a person was acting in self-defense, arrest is no longer mandatory. This change benefits the victim of domestic abuse, he said, as the batterer is not empowered and the victim is not further victimized.

There are myriad excuses for the occurrence of domestic violence, Sgt Vanghele said, but what he has observed in his years of law enforcement is that alcohol and drugs play a huge part in family disputes. "Especially between adults," he said, "drugs and alcohol will cause a person to step over the line."

Penalties for domestic violence offenders are stiff in Connecticut, said Sgt Vanghele, and may account for the reason that the bulk of the arrests are first-time offenders, rather than repeat offenders. First-time domestic violence offenders lose the right to own or hold fire arms, a protective order is issued, they may be removed from the home, and community service and anger management courses are often required. Sadly, he said, the chances are that the first time someone is arrested for domestic abuse is probably not the first time violence has occurred.

The second time a person is arrested for domestic violence, he said, it is considered a felony and is subject to much more severe consequences. "Arrest does work as a deterrent, but it can never really protect a person," said Sgt Vanghele. "If one person is intent on doing harm to another, they will often find a way to carry through," he cautioned. That is why in cases of domestic violence, he works with the caller to set a safety plan.

If domestic abuse is suspected, talking to the victim and offering information on resources is a possibility, said Sgt Vanghele, but the police do not recommend confronting the batterer directly. In the case of an immediate, ongoing situation the best course is to call 911. "We have even gotten calls from out of state when someone hangs up from talking to a friend or relative and is concerned about something going on, and asks us to check it out. That is absolutely a good thing to do," said the sergeant.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness month and an opportunity for people to become educated about domestic abuse, said Heidi Rankin. "New things come to light every year during Awareness Month, community educators get the chance to share more information in new venues, and it serves as a reminder that this is a serious and on-going problem that affects everybody in some way. Maybe someone's awareness will be a little higher this month, maybe someone will take the time to learn what to do in case of domestic violence. I think it's a good thing," she said.

(The Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence is the membership organization for all 18 domestic violence programs in Connecticut, including the Women's Center of Greater Danbury, The Center for Women & Families of Eastern Fairfield County in Bridgeport, Safe Haven of Greater Waterbury, and The Umbrella in Ansonia. For information call 860-282-7899. Support for emotional abuse can be found at the HEAL website www.emotionalheal.org