The Magazine of the University of Minnesota Duluth
BREAKING THE CYCLE OF ABUSE
In the summer of 1996, three women were murdered in the Duluth/Superior area. This upsetting fact was magnified by the knowledge that two of the three, at some point in their lives, had visited the Duluth Women's Coalition for help. All three women were murdered by their abusers. These women could not break the violent cycle of abuse.
Jean DeRider, 1990 UMD graduate and Women's Coalition advocate, has worked with abused women for 18 years. She said the statistics are staggering.
"At some point in their lives, fifty percent of all American women experience physical abuse in their relationships," she said.
Domestic abuse is the most common crime in the U.S., yet it is also the crime most under-reported. While same-sex abuse is on the increase, it is less common to find a man abused by a woman. In fact, women are the victims in the violent relationship 95% of the time.
The one common factor is the abuser's attitude that he has the right to abuse. "These men think they have the right to tell their partner what to do. We encounter men who think it is their right to tell their wife or girlfriend who she can see, what she can buy and how to behave. They think women should be passive and submissive. They believe it is their right to punish their partner, sometimes that leads to violence and even murder." DeRider said.
The abusive relationship is complex. Society often does not understand the events that take place behind closed doors and inside the minds of the two players in a violent relationship. Why does the woman stay and put up with the abuse? Why doesn't she get out? Why do men abuse? Why don't they leave women alone after they leave?
Women sometimes live in denial. "For some, that denial makes it possible to survive from day to day with the abuse." DeRider said.
A violent relationship is a trap from which it is difficult for women to escape. "The abuser will get set off by anything. Something that the woman says or doesn't say, does or doesn't do," said DeRider, "and he will even beat her up because of something he thinks she might be thinking."
Abuse crosses social, age, economic, race and religious boundaries. Women with and without children are abused. When women do escape from the relationship, many return to the same or another violent relationship because of fear or financial and emotional obstacles.
Abuse is found in every community in the U.S. and Duluth is no exception. Out of the 43,000 domestic abuse cases each year in Minnesota, an estimated 4,000 incidents occur in Duluth. Duluth Women's Coalition and the Shelter for Battered Women have been providing shelter and court advocacy for abused women since the late 1970s. When a group called the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project (DAIP) moved into Duluth in the early 1980s, the city become a leader in innovative anti-violence measures.
The goal of the DAIP was to form a team made up of the police department, the judges, the Women's Coalition, probation officers, counselors and other segments of the Duluth community.
In 1981, the Duluth Police Department instituted something no other city in the country had before, a mandatory arrest policy. The law ordered police to arrest the abuser if there was probable cause, that is, visible signs of abuse on a victim.
"Before the automatic arrest policy, the police officer had to witness the violence before the abuser could be taken away," DeRider said. "The new law was effective because it took pressure off the woman to press charges against her partner."
Because of the new law, the danger is immediately removed from the woman's home. The police have also experienced fewer repeat calls from the same residence.
The State of Minnesota and the court system in Duluth joined the community's aggressive fight against abuse by offering an Order for Protection (OFP) to the abused women. The OFP prohibits her abuser from re-entering her home and work place, it could award her with temporary custody of the children and it requires the abuser to enter a anti-violence counseling program.
DeRider and the Women's Coalition have increased their role within the past two decades as a result of the DAIP effort. The coalition works closely with the justice system providing legal advocacy in court and sending an advocate to the home of the victim after an arrest.
In the early 1980s, about the time the DAIP stepped into Duluth, Dr. Barbara Elliot from the UMD School of Medicine was also launching an effort to battle domestic abuse. Elliott designed a Human Problems and Family Medicine class at UMD. This class was included in the curriculum to introduce what few medical schools were addressing, domestic abuse awareness and intercession skills.
"A physician gets so close to the issue but rarely has proper skills or knowledge to take an abuse case to the next level, the level of intervention," said Elliott.
The U.S. News & World Report recently ranked the UMD School of Medicine second in the nation for its rural family practice program. Classroom innovations such as Elliott's helped the UMD medical school achieve it's reputation. Her curriculum has inspired dozens of physicians to make a difference in their communities and recently it inspired some noteworthy research.
Last spring Lisa Bolin, a student at the UMD School of Medicine, had yet another plan to set Duluth above any other city in domestic abuse prevention. Bolin, with help from Elliott, conducted a study in which six out of 11 doctors from the Duluth Family Practice Center wore buttons that read, "It's O.K. to talk to me about family violence and abuse." For one month the 11 doctors monitored the number of times family violence was discussed each day and the response was far beyond what the two researchers dreamed.
"The results showed that the doctors wearing buttons had almost three times more conversations about family violence with patients than their colleagues who didn't wear buttons," Bolin said.
The results demonstrated to Bolin and Elliott that something so simple, like wearing a button, can help initiate conversation. Bolin said that just wearing the button, and not even mentioning the subject of domestic violence, makes a woman more comfortable and willing to talk.
Talking about the situation is the first step. "The work Lisa and Barb did is encouraging," DeRider said. "If we can get victims of family violence to acknowledge the abuse, they may get out of a relationship before the violence has advanced too far."
When physicians get a person to talk about abuse, they can take an important action, documentation. "By documenting what the woman says during her appointment and by recording the signs of abuse, a woman can prove that she has been a victim of brutality in the past," said Elliott.
DeRider worked with one particular woman who was severely beaten and ended up in the emergency room. She was too scared to press charges against her partner, but the physician documented her condition. Three years later, when she was ready to press charges, the woman used her records to convict her abuser of attempted murder.
DeRider and her colleagues at the Women's Coalition work with medical personnel to broaden their skills dealing with domestic abuse. Some simple tactics can make a difference. DeRider says separating the suspected abuser from the patient is important. "A woman isn't going to tell her story if the man who broke her arm is standing a few feet from her on the other side of a curtain," she said.
DeRider says her shelter periodically receives calls from physicians in hospitals and emergency rooms. "We have advocates from our shelter on-call at all times," said DeRider, "and we have a 24-hour hot line for people to call. We provide information and support for abused people, family members, friends and medical personnel. We help the medical community find the resources to help battered women and their children. We can come right out and meet with an abused woman at the hospital or the emergency room."
Duluth serves as a model for cities around the U.S. and the world. In spite of the dedication of people like DeRider, Elliott and Bolin, the shocking statistics still stand: in the United States, every 13 seconds a woman is beaten and in Duluth, the number of reported abuse cases is on the rise.
DeRider says the statistics can sometimes get discouraging but she won't give up. "When the third woman I knew was murdered this summer," she said, "it just made me want to work harder. I know we can't solve all of the problems but we can make a tremendous difference, one person at a time."