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51% #1683: Domestic Violence

Stand Up Survivor and Founder Lisa Alexander
Provided by Stand Up Survivor
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Stand Up Survivor and Founder Lisa Alexander

On this week’s 51%, we discuss domestic violence: what it looks like, what resources are available, and how to get help. We sit down with Stand Up Survivor Founder Lisa Alexander to learn about the different types of domestic violence. And we also speak with Kelli Owens, executive director of the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, about how the office’s approach to services is changing.

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You’re listening to 51%, a WAMC production dedicated to women’s issues and perspectives. Thanks for joining us, I’m Jesse King. Just a note that today’s episode may be triggering or upsetting to some listeners, as we’re going to try to tackle a very sensitive subject. Since 1987, October has been National Domestic Violence Awareness Month — a time to discuss the various forms of abuse that can go on behind closed doors, and lift up survivors. Nonprofits and community organizations across the country are hosting seminars, conferences, and otherwise doing what they can to better inform the public.

I’d like to start with an organization based in Orlando, Florida, called Stand Up Survivor. It was founded by Lisa Alexander in 2015, and Stand Up Survivor claims to reach roughly 1.3 million people a month worldwide for domestic violence education, prevention, and awareness. And notably, it is survivor-led: Alexander says her own experience with her now ex-husband prompted her to start the organization.

“We were together for 10 years, and you know, it didn’t start physical,” says Alexander. “But it gradually [moved] from emotional/psychological abuse — he was very controlling and manipulative…When I became pregnant with our daughter, that’s when it became physically violent. The domestic violence just went through the roof immediately, it just went all the way up. And then four months after I had my daughter I had my son, and then I was stuck. I literally felt stuck. I decided I can’t go anywhere — he had already told me that nobody would ever want me. And so I stayed in that relationship until my children were 2 and 3. And then it just got really bad, to the point where I knew that I had to leave, or he was going to kill me. And I always say, not if he was going to kill me — it was more like when he was going to kill me.”

That was back in 2010, and Alexander says the thing that got her out the door was a YouTube video in which a woman recounted her experience with domestic violence — and her successful life afterwards. Alexander says for the first time, she realized that she wasn’t doomed to stay with her abuser forever. So she wrote a note to her ex-husband, packed up her kids and whatever she could fit in her car, and left. She contacted a local shelter for an advocate named Ginelly Carrasco (who would go on to become Stand Up Survivor’s clinical director), and over time, Alexander slowly started using her voice.

“And I found that people would say, ‘Oh, well this happened to me too.’ And I thought to myself, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me! You mean this is going on, and no one’s talking about it? Like, you could have saved me a long time ago?’” she says. “And so that’s when Stand Up Survivor started. It literally started as just me using my voice as a concept, and I decided to make it a nonprofit organization because I realized when I use my voice, it’s empowering other survivors to use theirs, too.”

Stand Up Survivor offers a range of services to back survivors, including safety planning for those looking to leave their abusers, and “freedom bags” with two weeks’ worth of essential supplies for those who finally get away. Alexander says the organization also helps connect survivors with legal resources, counselors, and support groups where they can meet other survivors and swap stories. That part, she says, is particularly important — because for much of her relationship, she didn’t even realize that what was happening to her was abuse.

“And so one of our big things at Stand Up Survivor is education, education, education. You don’t know what you don’t know,” Alexander adds. “And we empower people through education — I’m talking about survivors, organizations, churches, companies. Our goal is to make sure people know what domestic violence is and the different types of abuse.”

So in the spirit of education, let’s mention some facts straight from Stand Up Survivor and National Coalition Against Domestic Violence websites:

  • About 20 people a minute are physically abused by their partner in the U.S. That comes out to more than 10 million people abused a year.
  • Domestic violence can impact people of all ages, races, and genders, but 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men have reported some form of physical violence, sexual violence, or stalking from their partner.
  • Women between the ages 18-34 are some of the most likely to experience abuse.
  • 1 in 10 teens has experienced physical abuse from their partner, and 84 percent of those teens say they have suffered psychological abuse.
  • Domestic violence can be lethal: 72 percent of all murder-suicides involve an intimate partner, and 94% of the victims are female. 

Physical and sexual abuse are certainly some of the more extreme forms of domestic violence, but Alexander says its important to remember that abuse comes in many ways — and it starts out small.

“You would never have seen me with a black eye or a bruise, but I had been in an abusive relationship for years. And oftentimes, they’re gonna start with ‘Why are you wearing that? That doesn’t really look good. You should probably just wear this from now on,'” she explains. “Or, ‘Your family, you guys are really too close. Let’s relocate to a different city, a different state and really focus on us.’ Or, ‘Why are you talking to them?’ They’re breaking your cell phone, they’re isolating you from your friends and family. You find that you’re always on edge, walking on eggshells, and not allowed to really and truly be who you are. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, right?

And then it starts with the psychological abuse: ‘No one’s ever gonna want you. Look at you, you’re stupid, you’re fat, you’re dumb, you’re not smart enough. You’re just like your mother.’ Or, if there’s mental health issues or concerns, they’re like, ‘Well, you’re crazy.’

And then you have financial abuse. It’s a big misconception that all survivors don’t have money — that’s just not true. I work with survivors all the time who are financially secure, but their abuser controls their money. Oftentimes the abuser’s not even working. So it’s like, they’re running up the credit cards — they’re able to shop and buy things, but you’re not. Or they give you a limited budget where you’re only allowed to spend a certain amount of money to provide for the entire family. So it comes in a lot of different ways.”

Alexander says it’s important to remember that physical abuse can take several forms as well.

“Pinching, and biting, and slapping, pushing, and strangulation,” she notes. “And another thing I want to incorporate in that is: they’re punching the wall, but they don’t punch you. Or they’re breaking things in the house, and you think ‘Well, they didn’t really hit me.’ No, that’s a form of physical abuse, because their goal is intimidation and to create fear.”

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We’ll get back to Alexander later in the show. So we understand that domestic violence is a broad experience that happens in a number of ways — and the approaches taken by organizations to combat and prevent it are constantly evolving.

I got the chance to speak with Kelli Owens. Kelli Owens is the executive director of the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence (or OPDV), the only executive-level domestic violence state agency in the country. OPDV is responsible for advising the governor’s office and state legislature on gender-based violence policies and programs, training and public awareness campaigns throughout the state, and working to ensure domestic and sexual violence service provision statewide. Prior to joining OPDV, Kelli was the director of women’s affairs for the governor’s office. She’s also worked with numerous women’s organizations, including YWCAs and Planned Parenthood.

Kelli Owens
Provided by NYS OPDV (Timothy Harrison Raab/Timothy H. Raab Northern Photo)
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Kelli Owens

“In the past two years since I got to the office, we’ve really tried to redefine the office to really be a very policy-driven office, where we’re really living up to our our statute, which says that we will be the main voice in regards to domestic violence services and policy and program in the state of New York,” says Owens. “We are really looking at how services are delivered in the state of New York around domestic and sexual violence — and gender-based violence, we’ve widened our lens to gender-based violence to be more inclusive. So we’re really kind of redefining what we do, and how the state looks at these issues. So we’re really excited about some of the work that we’ve been doing the past couple of years.”

Let’s talk about the last year and a half or so then. What have you learned during the coronavirus pandemic? I know, in the beginning, there were fears that the pandemic could lead to an increase or worsening of domestic violence.

Let’s clarify that a little bit, because I don’t know if we can say it led to an increase. It left people in abusive relationships isolated, potentially. There was an increase into our hotline, and I would say that’s a good thing, right? That means somebody is reaching out for help, it means that the message got to the person who needed help. I will say what the pandemic laid bare for us is something that we had been looking at here in New York for about two years. You know, go back to the 1980s, when it was built — it was really built (I’m a Harry Potter fan) like the Weasley house. Like we did shelter, and then we said, ‘Well, we need non-residential services for those people who don’t want to go into shelter, but they need safety planning, and they need all those supportive services, to get them to safety.’ So we did all of those things kind of piecemeal. What we really have been trying to look at is, ‘OK, what do they really want?’ They want safe housing, that should be the first thing that we look at. COVID laid that bare, because people couldn’t go into shelter, because shelters were potentially full, or they didn’t want to go in because of COVID. So we had to look for alternatives, like, you know, hotel rooms for a certain amount of time, or Airbnbs. For a certain amount of time, our community really tried to look at new alternatives, which we knew we needed to lead to anyway.

We also knew that mobile advocacy had to be a thing. Before, we would say, ‘Come in, and we’ll have a conversation.’ Now it was, ‘Well, let’s do this over Skype. Let’s maybe meet in the park. Let’s maybe meet at Starbucks and have these conversations.’ So really going to survivors, rather than them coming to us. And then more flexible funding. For example: their abuser is out of the house, but there’s a broken door, or a broken window, or their utility payments need to be made. We looked at a more flexible funding model that would allow us to pay for those things, so that they could stay safe where they were.

Outside of the pandemic, what else have you been up to, to kind of reevaluate the way services are offered and structured?

We’ve had survivor listening tours across the state, really listening to survivors about how the system worked for them, or how it didn’t work for them. I think that one of the things that we’re also focused on is really understanding the people that have not traditionally taken advantage of the system that’s out there to support them — for very good reasons, right? If you’re a woman of color, and you’re calling the police, that adds a level of stress to your own relationship and your own safety that you may not want to take. Not that the police come in with that intention, but it is in the back of people’s minds. Or, ‘If I call for help, will my children be taken away? Do my children end up in child protective services?’ So we’re really trying to work intentionally with communities of color and those who have traditionally not taken advantage of the system to find out how we can build a better system for them. You know, we’re looking at it internally as well, to really figure out if the funding structure that we have in the state of New York right now…domestic and sexual violence funding sits over six state agencies. And we’re really trying to align the policy that goes with that funding to be more survivor-centered and trauma-informed.

When we talk about preventing domestic violence, how should we approach that conversation? Because I feel like whenever I see big news stories and tragedies where someone has been killed by their partner, domestic violence comes up. And you’ve got one group of people online saying, ‘Be sure to teach your daughters and sons the warning signs of abuse.’ And then you’ve got another group of people online being like, ‘Well, how about we teach our kids not to become abusers?’ How do we prevent domestic violence?

Yeah, I think that we all look for the really big story, right? The story where abuse rises to the level of criminality. If we really want to address the issue of domestic violence, you’re right, we have to start that conversation very, very early in everyone’s life about what does a healthy relationship look like, what does abuse look like, and have a real conversation with both boys and girls about what that looks like. And that means having really kind of uncomfortable conversations at some point. If we’re really going to prevent domestic violence, we have to start talking about what healthy relationships look like very early in people’s lives.

And so what are some signs of a healthy relationship? And what are some signs of things that maybe you should be looking out for?

Let’s talk about technology, for example, because that’s kind of new for everybody. If somebody you’re in a relationship with has to see your cell phone, that should be a red flag for you. If somebody asked you to, you know, put your location services on, so they know where you are, that’s a sign of power and control that they want over you. You know, you should be really looking for a relationship where you feel equal, where you feel safe, where you’re not feeling like somebody is trying to tear you down, even to the littlest extent, right? And then, are people asking you about your money, and how you’re spending your money, because financial abuse is really big. 99 percent of domestic violence cases, at some point, say they were a victim of financial abuse. Trying to control your finances, and who you can spend time with — if somebody doesn’t want you to spend time with your friends, and they’re jealous about that, that might be a sign.

You mentioned that way that technology is affecting domestic violence. How has that changed the game?

I think it’s changed the game a lot, right? Because it’s such a new system of which people can control you. And just looking at where you’re going to be, and who your with, is something that is, you know, kind of scary, if you think about it. Also, there’s technology that’s helping. We, during COVID, tried to find new ways to reach survivors, because we knew that people were probably isolated in their home with their abuser, and not able to access the normal areas of respite that they might have — you know, you go to work, you’re able to talk to your colleagues, and talk to them about the situation you’re in, or you’re going to your mom’s house, to have a bit of time where you can really kind of reset and figure out what’s your safety plan. So we introduced a text and chat line in about a week, and you know, the first day, we were all on the text and chat line, answering those texts and chat, which also has allowed us to really understand that people may say more, and have a more in-depth conversation with you, on text and chat. Because they’re, you know, not having that personal exchange, but they’re willing to say more things, which allows us to do better safety planning for them.

I would have never thought about that. But I guess it is sometimes easier to communicate what you want to say when you don’t have to actually say it. What are some things that are misunderstood about domestic violence?

I think that people generally think it just happens to women. Now, predominantly, you know, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men suffer from some interaction with domestic violence. So that’s a misconception. I think it’s also important to realize that domestic violence happens in same sex couples, and that dating violence and domestic violence among the transgender community is at epidemic levels.

And I think, you know, back to my point about, you know, we always think about domestic violence as the violent act — the slap, the hit, the strangle — but so much of the domestic violence stuff that we try to address doesn’t reach to the level of criminality. So it’s the coercion that happens. It’s the taking of the paycheck. It’s all of those things that we often think, ‘Well, that’s a red flag that needs to be addressed.’ And those are the things that build up. If we’re just addressing the criminal justice aspect, we’re missing the boat.

Do you have any advice for someone who’s seeing some of those red flags in their friend, or their friend’s relationship, and they want to put that word out there, but they don’t know how to go about it?

Yeah, I think what’s really important is you have that conversation privately, right? You don’t ever put that victim or survivor in a situation where their potential abuser can hear them. And when you ask the question, you ask it in a way that doesn’t feel judgmental, right? Because they’re already feeling so much shame. Don’t add to that. So it’s like, ‘How are you doing? You know, I saw this happen, are you OK?’ You know, they’ll decide whether or not they want to open up to you. But I also think it’s really important that you listen to what that person is really asking from you. Is it just to listen? Is it to help? Is it to give advice? Because sometimes I do this — my kids will tell you, I give them advice when they don’t want it. So you know, it’s really about listening and giving that person the support that they need.

For someone who’s looking to leave a dangerous situation right now, what does that process usually look like? What advice do you have for them?

Well, if you’re in immediate danger, call 911. If you have time to really think about how you plan your safety, you can call our hotline, or a text and chat line, and that hotline will hook you up with a local domestic violence provider who will help you do safety planning and figure out what your next moves are. Are you fighting, and essentially ready to go? And if you’re not ready to go, how can you be safe? We have 92 licensed domestic violence providers in the state of New York. But there’s also others that do that work in culturally specific communities that we also work with.

Kelly Owens is the executive director of the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence. Let’s remind listeners of those hotlines. The New York State domestic and sexual violence hotline is available 24/7 at 1-800-942-6906. Again, that’s 1-800-942-6906 you can text at 1-844-997-2121 and you can track online at OPI db.ny.gov Kelly Owens. Thanks for speaking withme.

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Unity House of Troy
Facebook: Unity House of Troy
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Unity House of Troy

In light of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the New York State Office of Children and Family Services recently announced a total of $6.5 million in grants to domestic violence prevention programs and housing providers across the state — including Unity House of Troy, which has been helping survivors of domestic violence, human trafficking, gun violence, poverty, HIV/AIDS, and more in Rensselaer County since 1971.

It operates a 24/7, fully-staffed, 33-bed emergency shelter at an undisclosed location in the county. It also offers full case management and helps connect survivors to housing, healthcare services, counseling, employment opportunities, pro-bono attorneys, etc.

Sarah McGaughnea is the outreach program director at Unity House.

“We are seeing so many victims,” says McGuaghnea. “That shelter is full every day of the year.”

McGaughnea has been at Unity House for about 10 years, since she came to its staff as an intern in college. She says she immediately fell in love with the work – both the opportunity to help others and the challenge of it, because every client’s situation is different.

So what does that work look like? Obviously, as I just mentioned, Unity House helps people across a range of situations, but McGaughnea says those situations often overlap: domestic violence and human trafficking can sometimes intertwine, and the presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation increases the risk of homicide by 500 percent. Put simply, McGaughnea says Unity House offers comprehensive care so it can tailor its services to each client’s specific needs. It’s all about trauma-informed care, and she says the work starts with a conversation.

“We’re meeting the victim where they’re at. We understand that they’re in trauma,” McGaughnea explains. “People always think, like, victims should react a certain way, or look a certain way. That they should look sad, that they should be grateful that you’re helping them. Nobody is grateful that they’re going through a violent situation. When we talk about domestic violence particularly, why would they be grateful that somebody that they feel that love, that maybe they have children with, is abusing them, is hurting them? That’s not a realistic thing. And we see so much head injury too – it’s not what we think a victim should look like. It looks combative. When somebody has a head injury, they’re very combative, they’re very aggressive, they’re not sure what to do because their body’s in fight or flight mode. So that’s a neurological situation.

So we operate on trauma-informed care: we try to understand victims’ trauma, and we talk to them and ask, ‘What do you want to do?’ We want our services to be culturally relevant. We want to make sure they are exactly what is needed for the victim. And like I said, everybody has different safety concerns. When you’re looking at a trafficking victim, when you’re looking at someone who is maybe LGBT+ and isn’t out to their family yet, when you’re looking at elderly victims – everybody has different safety concerns and safety issues. And so we need to be talking to each victim individually and finding out ‘What is your need, and what can we do to help?’”

As part of meeting survivors where they’re at, McGaughnea says they sometimes work with survivors before they’ve decided to leave their abuser. But oftentimes, McGaughnea says people come to the organization in crisis. Again, even if a survivor is financially stable, or the provider for their family, McGaughnea says the point of leaving is often the most dangerous point in an abusive relationship. They might have to flee their homes in secret, or in a hurry — so they might not have much more than the clothes on their back. McGaughnea says Unity House will help parents navigate schooling for their children and boarding for pets, but basic needs come first.

“Have you ate? Have you slept? Do you need a new pair of clothes? You know, I had a victim come in the other day who was crying and saying, ‘Could you please just get me a shirt? I just need a shirt.’ Because her shirt had been ripped off her in the middle of the street by her abuser,” says McGaughnea. “We’re really looking at, ‘What do we have to do to get you through the next hour?’ And then we’ll talk about placement, and we can talk about placement in a shelter, or whether you feel safe staying with family or a friend. And how do we do this safely? What’s your long-term goal? And really assessing all that, and letting victims lead those things.

The other thing we do when a victim walks through our doors — as part of our initial intake, we assess for lethality. Lethality is the risk of a victim being killed in a relationship. There are a couple things that are indicators of a very high risk for lethality, where we would encourage, ‘Come on, let me take you to the hospital. Please let me take you to the hospital. We’ll get you checked out, you don’t have to do anything.’ Or, ‘Do you want to file a police report? Do you want us to take pictures of these wounds, so that if you decide later you want to file a police report, you can?’

So a couple of those indicators of lethality are gonna be like strangulation — that’s something that I’m going to want a victim to go to the hospital for immediately to be checked out, because of that risk of brain injury or stroke. There are victims of strangulation who have died just 72 hours later from a stroke. The other things are gonna be like sexual assaults. And also, obviously, all of these things have long-term psychological / mental health issues. We want to make sure that their physical health is OK, because that’s probably what they’re focused on. And get them through that check up, and then work on getting them into therapy long-term.

I think a lot of people think somebody walks through our doors and we should be like, ‘They need to just be in therapy right now.’ And like, sometimes they just need to eat, you know? We need to meet their immediate, emergency needs. We’re certainly gonna encourage all those other services to help them heal, and to help them get through this. But like I said, if somebody comes in with a strangulation, they could have a brain injury. I’m not going to refer them to therapy, I’m going to talk to them and encourage them to go to the hospital.”

Now, McGaughnea says it’s important to focus on basic needs first, and emotional recovery later — and that’s exactly what Lisa Alexander says she had to do when she left her ex-husband. Luckily, she and her kids were able to stay with her parents, but for a while Alexander says the focus was just keeping afloat — staying safe and keeping things normal (as much as she could) for her children. Alexander says the average survivor goes back to their abuser about seven times before they finally break away, and her story is no different.

“When I left my abusive relationship, I was assigned my advocate, Ginelly. And I walked into her class, and I looked around like ‘Oh my goodness, there’s other people.’ And I walked up to her, and I said that God is gonna save my marriage. And she said, ‘OK,’ and I sat down. She didn’t say anything else,” Alexander explains. “As a Christian, for me, my faith was very important. We did not believe in divorce. My parents have been married for 54 years, there was no divorce. But then I realized that God loved me more than he hated divorce. He wasn’t gonna punish me for divorcing someone who was hurting me. Because that’s not what I was created to live.”

When she finally did get away, Alexander says she was able to slowly start the healing process. She got her Bachelor’s in Psychology and Master’s in Counseling Psychology from Palm Beach Atlantic University — something her ex-husband had never allowed her to do. She went to therapy. And she particularly credits support groups, like the one she just mentioned, with helping her feel empowered. For anyone dealing with domestic violence — at any stage — she wants you to know: you’re not alone.

“One of the things that I love, that we do here at Stand Up Survivor, is that we work with survivors [at any stage],” says Alexander. “I just finished working with a survivor for over a year. She wasn’t ready to leave, and that’s OK. We want you to know that it’s OK if you’re not ready to go, because sometimes you still love the person, or you have finances involved, or children — whatever your situation is, it’s fine, we will journey with you through. And then one weekend she called, and I knew that she was ready to go. I could hear it in her voice. We executed her safety plan, and on that Wednesday she left. And she’s been free probably for about three or four months now, and is doing so well.

So regardless of where you are, safety planning is very, very important. So find an advocate, find a resource, someone to safety plan with you to get you out safely. You know how dangerous your situation is. Domestic violence is life or death, and if it doesn’t kill you physically, it can emotionally, psychologically — it really does affect you. And you don’t deserve to live that right now.”

If you or someone you love is suffering from domestic violence, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available at 1-800-799-SAFE. Again, that’s 1-800-799-SAFE. You can also text “START” to 88788. You can learn more about Stand Up Survivor at standupsurvivor.com, and Unity House of Troy at unityhouseny.org. Unity House also has a 24/7 hotline you can call at (518) 272-2370, and text at (518) 720-6161. 

Jesse King is the host of "51%" and a producer for WAMC's afternoon news programs. She also produces the WAMC podcast "A New York Minute In History."