‘Why does she stay’; Advocates address stigma survivors face

Domestic violence impacts social determinants of health, such as housing security.

When it comes to the barriers survivors face when leaving an abusive relationship, sometimes the obstacles make it more difficult to leave than to stay in the situation.

“People still say, ‘Well, why does she stay?’” said Jane Keiffer, executive director of the Artemis Center.

Survivors face financial, emotional, or societal barriers when it comes to leaving a partner in addition to potential threats of violence or coercion. The period after a survivor decides to leave a partner is one of the most violent times for the survivor. According to the Ohio Domestic Violence Network, of the fatalities related to domestic violence between July 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021, at least 27% of the cases involved the victim of intimate partner violence having ended, or in the process of ending, the relationship.

“Survivors stay because of fear, because of resources,” Keiffer said. “They stay because of children. They stay because they love their abuser, they think it’s going to get better, they want it to get better. We as a community really look at the survivor’s behavior versus looking at the abuser’s behavior, why does this person continue to be violent and how do we hold them accountable.”

YWCA Dayton also highlighted how there are additional barriers for survivors living in rural areas, such as a lack of transportation options and the distance to get to services, making it more difficult to access those resources.

“Rural survivors face all kinds of different barriers than urban survivors,” Miranda Armstead, rural advocate, said.

Dynamics of domestic violence

Helen Jones-Kelley, executive director of the Montgomery County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services (ADAMHS), said it’s hard for survivors to leave home and familiar places, especially with children.

Survivors may need to find a new job in a new city to avoid being stalked by an abusive partner. Children may need to switch school districts. Survivors may be without transportation. They may lose access to finances, health care records, and other personal records and items they may have to leave behind.

“Sometimes people are running with the clothes on their back,” Jones-Kelley said. “It feels like going underground.”

Then there are challenges with finances and child care.

“If I’m the sole provider for the money in the family and I get arrested, who’s going to pay the rent, who’s going to pay the bills, who’s going to put food on the table, etc.,” Jones said. “On the flipside of that, if my partner is the one working and I’m the sole provider for child care, who’s going to watch the kids if I have to go to jail?”

For survivors in violent situations, Jones-Kelley said they have to have a plan when it comes to leaving the abusive relationship, particularly if children are involved.

Law enforcement has also been engaging with local advocacy groups to help get survivors access to the resources they need more quickly. In doing so, law enforcement officers are getting more of an understanding of the survivor’s perspective.

“Working with advocacy has been a real eye-opener for me. I know a lot of law enforcement officers see that as an adversarial system, but it’s so beneficial for us because ultimately that advocate is bridging that gap between us and the individuals we serve,” said Sgt. Denise Jones, who is part of the Clark County Sheriff’s Office’s intimate partner violence unit.

“On the flipside of that, just understanding the dynamics of domestic violence and understanding why people can’t or won’t or don’t leave the situation immediately, or even in an extended period of time. There’s so many dynamics behind domestic violence, and if people just understood that a little bit more, I think they would be less critical on people that don’t or can’t or won’t choose to leave at that first onset of incident.”

What can friends, family do?

For family members and friends who are watching a loved one going through a domestic violence situation, advocates recommend continuing to stay present with those going through the situation to provide support to the survivor.

“Domestic violence really is about power and control,” Keiffer said. “Part of that power and control is isolating our survivors from family and friends.”

Keiffer advised if you suspect someone is in a domestic violence situation, you don’t want to ask, “Are you a victim of domestic violence?” Instead, Keiffer recommended people could ask, “Do you feel safe at home?”

“It takes a few times of asking for them to feel safe enough to confide, but you want to keep asking and keep supporting,” Keiffer said.

Social and cultural barriers may also exist for survivors who may be trying to leave a marriage if their families are not supportive of the marriage ending or separating. When it comes to breaking those traditional values, it helps if the family provides survivors with the grace to exit a relationship, Jones-Kelley said.

Believing survivors is also an important way to show support as Jones-Kelley described the damage it does to survivors when they work up the courage to tell their story and no one believes them or even puts the blame for the situation on them.

“When friends don’t believe, but even more so when authorities don’t believe you … that just throws that abused person back into the shadows,” Jones-Kelley said.

Jones-Kelley, who is also a survivor of domestic violence, encouraged individuals to change their perspective on survivors.

“It’s very real for me, and I feel fortunate that I had a support system that moved me along on my own journey,” said Jones-Kelley, who experienced domestic violence when she was in her 20s. “I don’t share my story often because of judgement. People begin to look at you with pity more so than, ‘Look at the strength you have.’”

“That’s what happens to a lot of our women. We look at them with pity versus the strengths that they clearly had to overcome such an onerous situation,” Jones-Kelley said. “As a society, we need to start looking at our survivors from the lens of strength and not from weakness. Because unless we’ve walked in those shoes, we have no idea how much strength they utilize to overcome in their journey.”