By Mildred D. Muhammad
Advocates are often the first line of defense for victims and survivors of domestic abuse/violence. They listen with empathy to many emotional pleas for help. They have and display a willing desire to support and assist victims with their ongoing process of safety planning. A safety plan is a personal step-by-step comprehensive plan created to assist victims in strategically leaving an abusive relationship, or in planning for their safety and the safety of their children while remaining in contact with the abusive partner/parent. It may also be one of the key elements in their “survival kit.” Every day during COVID-19, victims are creating coping mechanisms that will ensure that they survive at the end of the day. Many victims are also balancing working from home and planning safety and survival strategies for themselves and their children. It is an exhausting task.
Unique Safety Challenges Posed by COVID-19
COVID-19 closed the world economically and at the same time, it exposed domestic abuse/violence on a scale that awakened the masses globally. It also allowed nonprofit agencies, law enforcement, and other community-based organizations to create a branch of services to provide in this pandemic that had not been discovered.
As COVID-19 continues to spread across the world, advocates and survivors are battling the intersecting pandemics of domestic violence and COVID-19. Although it is not reported in mainstream media daily, women and children are dying daily at a much higher rate than before. One reason for the increase is the “stay at home order” implemented to prevent the spread of the virus. No one thought this practical solution would result in victims enduring abuse on a larger scale than they had been. With the closing of shelters and transitional homes because close contact with others would spread the virus, victims were unable to leave their homes initially. Reaching out for help became more difficult and victims were made to enhance their coping skills to make it through the day and night. Unfortunately, the severity of the abuse, at times, resulted in death. However, after several months of physical distancing, facilities (shelters) have opened so victims and their children will have a safe place to go should the need arrive.
Advocates often assist victims to create a strategic plan for the safety of themselves and their children. Standard methods of supporting victims’ safety planning for themselves and their children have changed drastically because of COVID-19. Social distancing and wearing masks have become our way of life. Many organizations are not providing direct services because of this pandemic. However, national and local domestic violence organizations as well as law enforcement have created other methods to ensure the safety of victims such as apps and online services.
Advocates Need to Know
It is often difficult for victims to trust advocates, especially victims from communities of color. They realize they need their help to create a safety plan...this is true! However, how much information should they provide before advocates believe them is often the question. Their family and friends didn’t believe them. The abuser’s family is threatening them. How do they balance both families and friends while getting the help they need? What if the advocate doesn’t believe them, then what are they to do? What if they take their children away because of the abuse? So many decisions to make just to live a life free of abuse.
These are a few expectations victims have when they reach out for help so they can transition from victims to survivors:
- Victims want to know the importance of a safety plan and how they will be protected from their abuser.
- Victims need advocates to know they are afraid, and their behavior may not reflect that because they have learned to hide their emotions for their own safety.
- Victims have made a courageous decision to step outside of the tremendous fear they have towards their abuser just to get help. That decision took months, sometimes years of abuse to make.
- Victims need advocates to be patient with them. They may not move as quickly as advocates would like but it doesn’t mean they are not moving.
- Victims want to be taken seriously from the first contact and desire patience from the advocate they are speaking to. They will sense if the advocate believes them and decide if they will move forward or not.
- Victims don’t want to be traumatized by advocates.
- Victims want to know their options and resources available.
- Victims need advocates to know that they don’t want them to play the “hero” in their lives. Advocates should not become angry because the victim doesn’t follow their advice or suggestions and begin to ignore the victim when they reach out for additional resources.
- Victims need to know if free legal representation is available.
- Victims need to know about shelter space and transitional housing when available.
I’m a Survivor!
I was once a victim of domestic abuse. I didn’t choose to be a victim, although others have tried to make me feel as though I did. Society tends to blame the victim for the abusive relationship while it is solely the responsibility of the abuser.
My former husband was John Allen Muhammad, whom you may know to be the DC Sniper. The media did not widely report that the horrific crime committed was a domestic abuse/child custody issue. Law enforcement stated I was the intended target. Their theory was he was killing innocent people to cover up my murder so that he would come in as the grieving father to gain custody of our children.
As a survivor, I know firsthand the expectations victims have for advocates when they reach out for help. Those expectations have not changed because of COVID-19. Victims and survivors of domestic violence seek the assistance of advocates because they feel they are the experts in their field. Having someone that will not only understand their situation, but one who believes their story is essential in their desire to break free. I truly appreciate the advocates and the therapist that assisted me through my ordeal prior to the shootings. The information was useful and helped me to maneuver the judicial system as well as my emotional well-being.
Self-Care for Advocates
Advocates are the first responders to victims of domestic violence. At times, they can become emotionally drained. Their boundaries are often compromised because of their desire to improve the environment of those they serve. It is important to implement self-care techniques in their daily routine, so that “burnouts” are minimized.
Advocates are critically important in domestic violence advocacy. They spend hours searching for resources that will provide the best and safest services for the survivors, the children and the families that they serve.
A few self-care techniques that can be used by advocates, during and after COVID-19:
- Improve sleeping schedules to 8 hours of sleep at night, if possible. Take naps during the day
- Eat a balanced meal daily
- Exercise 2-3 times a week
- Focus on positive activities accomplished
- Never speak words of defeat over yourself
- Journal your emotions for clarity
- Laugh often. It is good for your soul
- Pray, meditate and relax
- Have an “I’m not doing anything today” day
- Enjoy time with family
These are a few suggestions that will generate self-love, self-awareness and improve the quality of life for advocates.
For Victims/Survivors, Employers & Bystanders
COVID-19 has changed the way American business owners operate their businesses. Now that teleworking is a reality, domestic abuse/violence cases are rising. Leaving the home to go to work offered a sense of relief to victims. What will they do now? Seclusion of victims of domestic abuse and violence has sparked the need for new measures since it is unclear how long teleworking will continue at this level. This ebook is a guide that addresses the abuses victims are facing during this pandemic. Victims and survivors can download this book and place it in a file the abuser cannot access. It is imperative that employers and bystanders assist them while truly understanding the danger to their safety. Don’t put yourself in harm’s way. Seek help should you suspect or witness abuse to another person.
Staying Safe During COVID-19 by the National Domestic Violence Hotline
Avoiding public spaces and working remotely can help to reduce the spread of COVID-19, but for many survivors, staying home may not be the safest option. We know that any external factors that add stress and financial strain can negatively impact survivors and create circumstances where their safety is further compromised. The National Domestic Violence Hotline offers a few suggestions for survivors that may make this uncertain time feel a little bit safer.
Tips for helping a friend experiencing domestic abuse during COVID-19 by the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV)
During a public health crisis, when officials recommend “social distancing” to slow the spread of infection, those facing domestic abuse may encounter additional risk. More likely than not, they will find themselves confined in the same spaces with their perpetrators for prolonged periods of time, limiting their privacy and exacerbating threats to their safety. If you have a friend, family member or co-worker in an abusive relationship, it can be difficult to know what to do. But you can do your part by starting a conversation, offering support and suggesting ways to get help. This guide offers tips on how you can help a friend dealing with domestic abuse while also maintaining your safety during a public health crisis.
#Care4Advocates: COVID-19 Resources to Support Advocates’ Well-being by the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence (NRCDV)
Advocacy during COVID-19 is difficult. NRCDV has compiled resources in response to the identified need for advocates to feel supported and valued, especially as they put themselves at risk to support survivors’ safety. Self-care is so much more that candles, bubble baths, chocolate and roses. It’s being able to freely connect with the things, people and places that gives you joy. It’s having the ability to prioritize ones’ emotional, mental, physical and spiritual well-being. Self-care is best achieved in a supportive environment that allows individuals to bring their whole selves into the space. All individuals. All identities. All lived experiences. Self-care is about showing up for yourself and others. Self-care is self-preservation. Self-care is not optional for black and brown survivors, advocates and preventionists; it is necessary for survival in oppressive systems.
Webinar Series: Self-Care & Healing During COVID-19 by the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence (NRCDV)
How can we survive and thrive in the midst of so much chaos, fear and uncertainty? Join your beloved community, as we silence the noise around us and return to our roots; digging deep within to identify and retrieve our innate source of hope, resilience and strength. Presenters will take participants on a journey that will address grief to new ways for engaging in self-compassion and holistic healing practices.
- Webinar I: Dealing with Loss and Uncertainty: Self-compassion, Resilience, and Narrative (June 2020)
- Webinar II: Resilience, Trauma & Hope: A Healing Response (June 2020)
- Webinar III: There is Hope & Joy Ahead (July 2020)
Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky with Connie Burk
This book is written for anyone who is doing work with an intention to make the world more sustainable and hopeful—all in all, a better place—and who, through this work, is exposed to the hardship, pain, crisis, trauma, or suffering of other living beings or the planet itself. It is for those who notice that they are not the same people they once were, or are being told by their families, friends, colleagues, or pets that something is different about them.
“My heart truly goes out to those who are in constant fear, abuse and have just given up hope. Please know that assistance is available daily! Reach out as safely as you can. You will receive a response! I'm praying that one day, there will be an end to this issue.” – Mildred D. Muhammad
Mildred Muhammad is an Award-Winning Global Keynote Speaker, Certified Consultant with the U.S. Dept of Justice/Office for Victims of Crime, Speaker for the U.S. Dept of State, CNN Contributor, Domestic Abuse Survivor, Certified Domestic Violence Advocate, Trainer/Educator, Certified Professional/Personal Development Consultant and 9X-Author.