Victims ask this question because leaving can be a high risk, high stakes decision. They ask because — as difficult and painful it is to stay — for some victims, leaving will make life worse.
Leaving can mean the escalation of violence, loss of home, income, job, health insurance, faith community, immigration status, and even the support of family and friends.
For many victims, leaving will make things better. The power and control of an abusive partner is reduced or eliminated. New lives are built. Adult and child victims heal and flourish.
It is often a fluid decision that changes with life circumstances, the behavior of her partner, advocacy, and domestic violence responses. Some victims remain but have long-term plans to leave.
Victims’ concerns and hopes for their children are often central to this decision. Often victims leave to remove their children from the violence. Yet, some victims remain because it is the only way to provide for their basic needs. Others are afraid to leave because they cannot trust the legal system to make parental custody/access orders that will keep their children safe. And, there are those victims who suffer the violence to ensure their children grow up in an “intact” family, believing that is what is best.
The success of leaving as a safety strategy for some victims has led to an expectation that leaving is the answer to domestic violence and that all victims SHOULD leave. When leaving is not the best option, this has serious and negative consequences for victims.
Even victims who leave are likely to have some contact with her ex-partner, particularly if they share children. Children are likely to have contact with their father, even if he is no longer their mother’s partner.
Implications for victim-defined advocacy
The decision to stay or leave and the level of contact for adults and children with the person who batters is a central factor for our advocacy to enhance victims’ safety plans.
Understand the life realities, circumstances, and cultural factors that drive victims’ decisions about their relationship
Why does a victim leave? Stay? Remain in contact?
These are difficult decisions driven by many factors. A victim’s circumstances, culture, risks, and resources will determine what decision she makes about her relationship. This context will also determine what advocacy, safety strategies, and resources will increase safety. The level of violence and financial resources are key factors. For many victims living in poverty, there is no real option to leave.
Offer relevant advocacy, safety strategies and resources for victims who victims leave, stay, remain in contact
Physical separation and limited or no contact are the basis of many current safety strategies. These domestic violence responses work well when victims leave. They are important and often effective for those victims. But, they may offer little protection for victims, including children who remain in contact.
Victims in contact need advocacy beyond leaving. Advocates must offer strategies that do not rely on leaving or no contact. These will necessarily include an exploration of reducing or stopping violent behavior. As part of this approach, advocates might help victims to explore whether her partner won’t change, will/might change, or poses life-threatening danger.
How much contact will the children have with the person who batters? Is it their father? Match your advocacy and strategies to the level of contact and relationship. Since children are likely to have contact with their father even if their mother has left, they will need the adults in their life to use strategies that do not rely on no contact. As for adult victims, children will benefit if a person who batters reduces or stops the use of violence. They will also benefit from competent and loving parenting. Also, offer information and options that support the child’s relationship with the victim-parent.
Victim-defined systemic advocacy implications
As victim-defined systemic advocates a challenge is to accurately reflect the range of violence, life experiences, culture, and safety plans. Leaving is an essential option for some victims but is unavailable or will make things worse for others. All victims deserve advocacy, options and resources that will make life better and safer for them and their children. The needs and perspectives of all victims should be integrated into systemic analysis and advocacy, including victims who stay, victims who leave, and victims who remain in contact, both adults and children.
- Preserve each victim’s right to make decisions about her relationship: Victims have the right to choose their intimate partner and how they relate to their family. They too will deal with the consequences of those decisions. If they are parents, they are also responsible for the effect of those decisions on their children. Do policies allow victims to decide? Do they force victims to make certain decisions?
- Expand meaningful options for victims to leave: Currently, leaving options are the primary focus of many domestic violence responses. Yet, some victims still do not have the resources or support to leave. How might current responses be expanded?
- Increase safety strategies and resources for those who will stay or remain in contact: Although most advocates and others responding to domestic violence will assist these victims, options and safety strategies are limited. Emerging strategies should be tested and new ones developed. What responses are currently available? What do these victims need? What would make them safer and their lives better?
- Review the impact of eligibility standards and other domestic violence policies on victims who leave, and in particular on victims who stay or remain in contact: Are victims who stay or remain in contact excluded from services? From the full range of services?
- Convey a more accurate and complete view of domestic violence and its victims
- Increase the knowledge and understanding of system players and the public about why victims stay or remain in contact:Victims who don’t leave are often unfairly judged to be making poor decisions, viewed as “not being serious” about stopping the violence, or as somehow responsible for not preventing it. Effective responses to domestic violence require a complete and accurate understanding of the circumstances, and often extremely limited options, that inform victims’ decisions about their relationship.
- Accurately describe the range of violence that victims face: Each victim is different. The level of violence they face is different. Some victims experience constant physical attacks and injury. Other victims endure less control and little or no physical violence. A smaller number face life-threatening danger. Descriptions, messages, and policy analysis must hold all there realities.
- Advocate for expansion of strategies and resources to reduce or stop violent behavior and improve parenting of person who is abusive: Whether victims stay, leave or remain in contact a reduction/cessation of violence will make them safer.
- Collaborate with people and programs that play a role in enhancing safety whether victims leave or stay in contact: Advocates are likely already working with systems that assist with leaving. New partners and collaborations may be necessary to assist those victims who remain in the relationship or in contact. These might include: children’s advocacy organizations, parenting, fatherhood programs that acknowledge and address violence, community based family support, and violence intervention programs.
Understanding what victims in your community think
Understanding victims’ needs and perspectives is the foundation of victim-defined advocacy. If you don’t know what victims think you can’t be victim-defined.
How: There is a wide range of ways to gather and analyze information. Do not let the process or time keep you from finding out what victims think. Just ask! Ask a specific question at intake, or during support groups, or as part of community outreach. You might also ask advocates and others who regularly work with victims what they are hearing. Gather information from as many victims as possible, those you regularly serve and those you don’t. Know who is missing from your data. Is it women of color, immigrants, victims living in poverty, LGBT victims or other marginalized group? Make an effort to find out what they think.
Then think and talk about what you’re hearing. Information used in this process should be generalized to protect victims’ safety and privacy. If resources are available conduct formal research, inquire about a broader range of issues, or track information over a longer term. Do what you can, but do something.
What to ask victims about helping leaving, staying, remaining in contact: Ask what is relevant to the priorities and context of your advocacy. Ask some open ended questions that will give you information about victims’ priorities. Do victims think that your advocacy will make life better for them and their children if they leave? Stay? Remain in contact? What do they need? What do they think you should do?
Sample questions to help you frame the ones you’ll ask: What made you decide to stay, leave, remain in contact? How did/do they assess the violence they face? What other factors are important? When is violence not the most important factor they have to consider? What options, resources, strategies would make life safer and better for them and their children? What did/do they do to be safer while in the relationship or in contact? What did/do they do for their children?
“It’s such a big fear: to stay and to leave. They are both so fearful." - Shelter Resident, Meeting Survivors’ Needs through Non-Residential Domestic Violence Services & Supports: Results of a Multi-State Study by NRCDV (November 2011)