Build the Capacity of Bystanders to Support Survivors and Hold Abusers Accountable
In 15 years of conducting fatality reviews, interviews with people in the victim’s support system — family, friends, coworkers, employers and neighbors — revealed these individuals consistently knew more than service providers about the dynamics of the relationship between the victim and perpetrator, as well as the events which indicated danger leading up to the homicide. Moreover, victims were far more likely to turn to their personal connections for support than they were to reach out to traditional systems, whether they made a direct disclosure of abuse or not.
Fatality review findings consistently demonstrate the important role a victim’s support system plays in her life. Though many victims chose to access help from professional systems, such as the courts, law enforcement or domestic violence programs, they appeared to do so only after they first sought help from family, friends, neighbors or coworkers. In 78 percent of reviewed cases, family and friends knew about a history of abuse in the relationship.
Looking at the varied responses victims received from their support systems when abuse was revealed, there is much work to be done to educate non-traditional responders on how to help address the problem of abuse. Though helpful interventions were observed in case reviews — such as a mother accompanying her daughter to the local domestic violence agency for help and a friend escorting the victim to make an incident report — most opportunities to support the survivor and hold the abuser accountable were missed.
During interviews with friends and family members, there were almost no examples given wherein family members tried to intervene with the perpetrator or held them accountable for their abuse. In fact, in some circumstances, those interviewed did not recognize the behaviors they were witnessing as domestic violence, nor understand the seriousness of the danger the victim faced — even in circumstances where the perpetrators told others about plans to harm or kill the victim. This lack of response should in no way be attributed to a lack of care or concern for the victim, but rather an inability of untrained persons to evaluate the often-complex nature of abusive relationships and respond in a meaningful, helpful and safe way.
For some bystanders who have been exposed to violence or abuse in their own relationship or family of origin, the task of identifying risk factors in someone else’s relationship is even more difficult. In one reviewed case, the victim was a child witness to domestic violence between her parents. The victim’s parents remained in that abusive relationship, when the victim was killed by her ex-boyfriend. An interview with the victim’s sister revealed the family found it difficult to recognize the severity of the abuse her sister was dealing with, because of the ongoing and long-term abuse between their parents. In other cases, family members struggled to provide ongoing support to victims due to their frustration with the on-again, off-again nature of the relationship between the victim and perpetrator.
Every family member interviewed by the Project indicated they knew something was not right in the relationship, but they never imagined it would end in the murder of their loved one. Family, friends, neighbors and coworkers seemed to truly want to help the victim but did not know what to do. They lacked the information and skills needed to offer support and refer survivors to existing resources, particularly the local domestic violence program. Often, the people closest to the victim did not appear to know a local domestic violence program even existed, let alone be aware of the range of services available.
There were also instances in which domestic violence eroded the victim’s relationship with her support system. In some cases, this involved direct attempts by the perpetrator to isolate the victim from supportive friends and family. Strategies used by perpetrators to undermine her network included preventing the victim from attending family events, interrupting social interactions with family members, disrupting the victim’s ability to talk to long-distance family over the phone or internet, and occasionally requiring a relocation.
Kate met her husband, John, when they were in college and married after graduation. She described him as loving and devoted early in the relationship, but eventually his controlling behaviors grew. John began to notice when Kate talked to other men, especially his friends. John would get extremely angry and jealous if Kate talked with the neighbors or if she spent too much time with friends or family. John forbade Kate from making her weekly Sunday morning phone call to her father, a tradition she had enjoyed her entire adult life. Little by little, Kate noticed John isolating her from her friends and family; he wanted her attention at all times.
She began secretly documenting John’s abuse and gave her friends and family small pieces of the puzzle so they would be able to put the story together if something happened to her. She took photos of her injuries and noted the date and description of what happened. She kept the photos in a safe deposit box. It was emotionally painful and made her physically ill to document what John was doing to her; he was supposed to be the one person to always protect her and her children. Kate felt hopeless and isolated as John’s abuse grew more severe. She began to think her life was in danger. Kate shared with a Fatality Review Team, “While trying to come up with an escape plan, I made sure a neighbor, my best friend and my sister had each other’s contact information. I also gave my neighbor the extra key to the safe deposit box. I was careful not to give them too much information, as I knew I would be killed if someone confronted him and their life could possibly be in danger as well.”
Kate was not wrong. After learning she had reached out to a shelter, John strangled her and beat her, causing her serious injuries which required multiple surgeries. Against all odds, Kate survived the attempted homicide. She and her children are now safe from John, who was convicted of abuse and sentenced to life in prison.
It was also not uncommon in reviewed cases for perpetrators to use threats to the victims’ support networks as another tactic to reduce the likelihood they would successfully intervene. Threats to kill the victim’s family members were documented in 16 percent of reviewed cases. Threats such as these are designed to either cause the victim to withdraw from her support system as a way to protect them, or to discourage those offering the support from continuing their interventions.
Case reviews show non-traditional responders including family, coworkers and the faith community were vital to many victims’ ability to recognize they were in an unhealthy relationship and maybe in danger. Stories of employers and coworkers providing assistance were common. In one case, the victim’s coworker allowed her to live rent-free while she saved up money to file for divorce from her husband. Another’s boss loaned her a car to get to and from work after her estranged husband disabled her vehicle. At least one victim had reportedly not realized she was in an abusive relationship until her coworker labeled her husband’s stalking and harassment as “not normal” and “wrong.” Other victims were informed of legal options such as TPOs while on the job.
At the time of their death, 77 percent of victims in reviewed cases were employed outside the home. Given the high rate of employment, the workplace provides an ideal location for victims to receive helping information and referrals to resources, because victims can obtain the information while they are out of the presence of their abuser. Companies using best practices routinely offer information to employees about domestic violence resources via company newsletters, websites and lunch-and-learns, and structure flexible benefits and Employee Assistance Programs to provide additional support to employees experiencing or perpetrating abuse.
Places of worship provide another ideal location for supportive interventions, given the high rate of contact that both victims and perpetrators in reviewed cases had prior to their deaths. Thirty-two percent of victims and 24 percent of perpetrators were connected to a place of worship in the five years prior to the fatal incident. In some instances, victims sought guidance and counseling from faith leaders prior to the homicide or near-fatal attack, but they did not always disclose the abuse. In some circumstances, it appeared the perpetrator’s prominent position in the congregation may have played a role in the victims’ decisions whether to disclose within their faith community.
If prepared, leaders or members of these religious organizations might have played an important role in holding those abusers accountable and intervening to support the victims’ safety. Faith communities are uniquely positioned to spread awareness to vulnerable victims by discussing domestic violence-related issues and providing information through sermons, newsletters and individual counseling. Best practices for faith communities include developing an organizational plan for responding to abuse within the congregation, prioritizing victim safety and abuser accountability. Helpful interventions by bystanders validate the victim’s experience, support her efforts to get safe and connect her to resources.
STEPS GEORGIA CAN TAKE TO BUILD THE CAPACITY OF BYSTANDERS TO SUPPORT DOMESTIC VIOLENCE SURVIVORS AND HOLD ABUSERS ACCOUNTABLE:
- Sponsor workplace trainings. With help from domestic violence experts and their local Chamber of Commerce, employers can develop a plan for addressing domestic violence which makes sense for their company. This plan may include the development of a model domestic violence in the workplace policy such as those found at WorkplacesRespond.org. Request the Domestic Violence in the Workplace Train the Trainer Toolkit at GeorgiaFatalityReview.com.
- Provide domestic violence training to faith leaders and engage them in the work to end domestic violence. “Safe Sacred Space: A Training Guide for Family Violence Task Forces” is available for download at GeorgiaFatalityReview.com and additional information can be obtained at FaithTrustInstitute.org.
- Include messaging in public education and outreach efforts directed to family members and friends. Incorporate tips for how to support a victim, where to call for help, and recognizing signs of escalating danger. Provide supportive resources which assist bystanders in processing helpful ways to support someone close to them experiencing or perpetrating violence, such as a friends and family support group.