We have a lot to learn from survivors of domestic violence—and our recent history
Destiny Jade Green
The timing of things is often amazing.
As I am writing this article, which you won’t read until six or more days after Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testifies against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, thousands of people across the country are wearing black and walking out of work and school to protest Kavanaugh’s nomination and to show solidarity with survivors of sexual assault.
Sexual assault is just one facet of domestic or intimate partner violence, and October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Though it grew out of the “Day of Unity” that began in 1981, the month-long observation began in 1987, the same year the first domestic violence toll-free hotline was established.
According to the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, the month’s three main areas of focus are: mourning those who have died because of domestic violence, celebrating those who have survived, and connecting those who work to end violence.
A few afternoons spent combing through the “Family Violence” file in the Oklahoma Room at downtown’s Central Library revealed a Tulsa beginning to take domestic violence (DV) more seriously in the early-to-mid ‘80s and early ‘90s.
In 1985, smack dab in the middle of that shifting national conversation, Tulsa police still used what was called “front porch counseling” to handle DV calls.
“We’d talk to them, get her or him to leave or get his or her mother to come over,” said Tulsa Police Major Drew Diamond in an August 1985 interview with the Tulsa Tribune. “It was a short-term, Band-Aid solution.” But that year, TPD changed its procedures to “treating domestic violence for what it is — a crime.”
Also that year, Tulsa nonprofit Domestic Violence Intervention Services (DVIS) held a capital campaign to update its shelter from a five-bedroom house (capable of holding 25 women and children, but which typically held closer to 30+ because of need) to a 50-bed shelter, one of the largest in the country at that time. (Today, they offer 91+ beds and cat and dog kennels.)
Other than coverage of DVIS, headlines from the Tulsa World, TulsaPeople, and Tulsa Tribune parsed out over the next seven years show a lull in the conversation. But coverage spiked again when, between October 1992 and June 1993, 12 Tulsa women were murdered by their male partners.
Also in 1993, Oklahoma became the second-to-last state to criminalize marital rape (although the legislation doesn't cover spouses who rape a drugged or sleeping spouse, so there’s still elementary progress to be made).
Back then, the Tulsa Police Department did not keep separate domestic violence statistics—all incidents were more or less lumped in together. So it was hard for the city, understandably shaken by the 12 killings, which made up one third of the homicides in Tulsa that year, to understand the prevalence of DV.
According to an article in the Tulsa World from June 1996, there were 16 domestic homicides in Tulsa in 1993 and ‘94. In 1995, that number was cut to eight. (According to the 2017 Oklahoma Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board’s annual report, Tulsa County had 27 domestic homicides in 2016.)
The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was signed into law by President Clinton in Sept. 1994. The act sought to improve the response to violent crimes against women through the judicial system and community-based organizations. It has been reauthorized and expanded three times—in 2000, 2005, and 2013—and was set to expire Sept. 30, but has been extended until Dec. 7 as part of the stopgap spending bill signed by the president on Sept. 28. The act provides federal grant money to advocacy organizations, like DVIS and the Family Safety Center, and to state, tribal, and local governments to end violence against women. It also provides for care/advocacy for LGBTQ individuals.
“Forty-two percent of DVIS’s funding is from federal dollars,” said Carissa Hon, chief communications officer at DVIS. “If VAWA is not reauthorized, it will affect DVIS’s breadth of services.”
In addition to increasing funding for rape crisis centers, proposed updates to the law include allowing local law enforcement to remove guns from partners under protective orders or convicted of dating violence or stalking. Some states have enacted these “red-flag laws.” Oklahoma has not. Firearms were the cause of death in 58.9 percent of domestic homicides cases in Oklahoma in 2016.
In “Domestic Violence Spurs Task Force” (Tulsa World, June 13, 1993), Tulsa Police Chief Ron Palmer said, “I’m not sure whether we should be the keeper of those records or not … However, it’s not a bad idea … I guess maybe there’s a need for that.” From the article: “He went on to say that the failure to keep statistics ‘may be a weakness that I hadn’t thought about, or didn’t know about actually.’”
Everything is situated in context. In light of the #metoo and #believesurvivors movements, many people are shocked at how prevalent these types of crimes are. Others are incredulous that there is such low public awareness. Many are horrified at the rate of injustice for victims and the time it takes for our public institutions (and, sometimes, fellow citizens) to catch up. Here in Tulsa, we’re operating within a system that began to treat domestic violence as its own insidious type of crime only in the last 25–33 years.
I'm 31 years old, and when I came across the front porch counseling article, written two years before my birth, I felt that scale of time and the generations before me who didn't care to pay closer attention. That attitude, I hope, continues to lessen.
Record-keeping is essential to providing the kinds of services survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault need.
“DV stats are our only way to measure,” said Sergeant Clay Asbill, head of the Family Violence Unit at Tulsa Police Department. “It’s our barometer on what’s going on in our community and specifically what kinds of crimes are being committed. Because of those stats, we’re better able to tell what’s going on and how we need to address it.”
“That’s what informs our work and the way we serve survivors and understand the complexity of different intersections of violence and victimization and oppression,” said DeJon Knapp, vice president of Safe Housing Services at DVIS. “That’s why the lethality assessment exists—because we looked at data and asked, ‘What are the experiences of victims?’ to figure those things out.” (Note: The lethality assessment is used to determine the level of danger a partner and his or her children are in at home.)
From the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence: One in four women and one in nine men experience severe intimate partner physical violence, intimate partner contact sexual violence, and/or intimate partner stalking. One in three women and one in four men have experienced some form of intimate partner violence. In Oklahoma, that number jumps to four in 10 women.
According to the Victim Policy Center, Oklahoma is ranked 11th in the nation for women killed by men. The state has ranked among the 20 worst states every year of the last decade. In 2016, the Oklahoma Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board found Tulsa County had the highest rate of domestic violence homicides in the state, with 26 cases resulting in 27 deaths. Oklahoma County had 23 victim deaths. The state total was 95, 15 of whom were children under the age of 18. Of those 95, 44 (46%) were female and 51 (54%) were male. Eighty-nine percent of the female victims were killed by male perpetrators and 71 percent of the male victims were killed by male perpetrators.
To lessen those numbers, Tulsa is actively working on providing services, intervention, and prevention to victims through the Tulsa Police Department and wraparound services at the Family Safety Center and DVIS.
Both the Family Safety Center (FSC), located in the Police Courts Building (600 Civic Center), and DVIS offer a variety of services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. This means a team of professionals and advocates helping to address the varied needs of each individual, not just one need.
At the Family Safety Center, you can apply for a protective order, receive danger assessment and safety planning with an advocate, meet with an attorney provided by both DVIS and Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma, meet with a forensic nurse for documentation of injuries, receive a general health assessment and/or a sexual assault assessment. FSC also has a child therapist navigator.
“After you check in, a navigator will ascertain what kinds of services you need,” Stewart said. “They will take you where you need to go and then will help track you through the system, getting you to the next people you need to talk to.”
DVIS provides emergency shelter, transitional housing, counseling, sexual assault services, legal help, advocacy, case management, and some financial services.
“We work really hard to assess individual needs and connect those we serve to insurance, benefits, medical care, other housing options, spiritual care, and employment,” Knapp said. “The needs are big and we can’t meet every one internally. Luckily, in Tulsa, we have an incredible community full of services.”
I want to acknowledge the many pieces of the larger conversation concerning domestic violence that I must leave out of this piece because of space requirements. To understand oppression, like domestic violence or sexual assault, one has to look at where it meets other systems of oppression.
“Nationally, there’s a movement to look at different types of oppression and victimization, not just in the DV field,” Knapp said. “Huge national movements like Me Too and Black Lives Matter maybe have opened people’s eyes to exploring how intersectionality plays into it.”
Each of these intersections are common not only nationally, but locally, as well:
- Addiction: Substance use has been found to co-occur in 40–60 percent of IPV incidents across various studies.
- (Psychiatric Times)
- Homelessness: Among mothers with children experiencing homelessness, more than 80 percent had previously experienced domestic violence. (Safe Housing Partnerships)
- Reproduction: One study reported a woman’s odds of experiencing intimate partner violence rose by 10 percent with each pregnancy. (National Women’s Law Center)
- Finances: 74 percent of survivors report staying with an abuser for economic reasons. (Institute for Women’s Policy Research)
- Immigration: Abusive partners have a variety of ways to exert power and control over their victims due to their immigration status. (National Domestic Violence Hotline)
- Sexual orientation: 61 percent of bisexual women (compared to 35 percent of heterosexual women) experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime. For bisexual and heterosexual men, those numbers are, respectively, 37 and 29 percent. (domesticshelters.org)
- Race: Black women make up 13 percent of the U.S. female population, but account for 22 percent of domestic homicide victims. (National Women’s Law Center) Compared to all other groups, Native Americans are two times more likely to experience rape or sexual assault. (National Congress of American Indians)
- Gender: 85 percent of domestic violence victims are women. 30–50 percent of transgender people experience IPV in their lifetime. (domesticshelters.org)
- Pet ownership: One study showed 48 percent of survivors delayed leaving out of fear for their pets’ safety. (Juvenile and Family Justice Today)
Take their word
For all the efforts of police, nonprofits, professionals, and the many personal contributions of Tulsans, there is still a lot that is misunderstood about abuse, and the stigma it carries is difficult for its victims to live with.
“Our work doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” Knapp said. “We’re not protected from the climate that’s out there of not believing survivors. It’s tough on staff and tough on survivors. We’re working with people every day, seeing a lot of physical and emotional violence walk through our doors, and it makes it really hard when you’re hearing their stories and then you hear on the news that this person isn’t being believed or
I spent half a day at the DVIS shelter with men, women, and children staying there. At lunch in the dining hall, I was reminded of what Stewart had told me about DV earlier that day.
“It’s everywhere,” she said. “Everybody. Doctors, attorneys, poor people, rich people, homeless people, partners, roommates, single people. It’s everywhere.”
The room was filled with regular-looking men, women, and children (though, mostly women) in hoodies, tank tops, with tattoos, without tattoos, wearing glasses, no glasses, with dyed hair, long hair, hair in buns. Old and young. Some discussed whether or not it was too cold inside to eat a popsicle. A dad and his children sat quietly and ate in the corner. A few women talked about the foods they couldn’t even look at while pregnant.
Knapp introduced me to the room and asked the group, if they could tell the Tulsa community something about domestic violence, something they wished the general public would understand, what would that be?
Here’s what they had to say:
“Even if you think domestic violence doesn’t apply to you, you should always be prepared for the unexpected. I never thought I’d find myself here in the shelter, but here I am. Just like when you make a plan for a fire, or a tornado. Know where to go, or who to call for help … and let people know what your needs are.”
“Recovery is about rediscovering yourself … When you’re first escaping, your coworkers or family don’t see that. And sometimes you don’t … For me, that’s why I kept returning. A lack of knowing who I was or what to do for myself … If you lose yourself, well, all you can go back to is what you know, which is where you last were, which isn’t the best place for you.”
“It’s like tuning an old radio … with the static between the stations. Everyone is turning that internal tuner and getting static after static trying to find their own channel. For me that’s what it felt like. Going through all of that, inside. We can’t always communicate how we’re feeling because we’re between channels.”
“You can’t swoop in to fix it. But you can stand next to the [survivor] and let them know you’re there for them.”
“Women give up their jobs because they’re ashamed to go to work, or they can’t handle another stressor. They’re not accepted or understood because domestic violence is secret.”
“I thought I’d never be one of ‘those women.’ Because I didn’t know. You don’t know until you’re in the situation.”
“Domestic violence starts subtle. It creeps up on you. It’s insidious.”
“When we break our leg … our friends open the doors for us because they can see it. If you’re abused, it’s not the same. But you still have pain. So, it’s really hard. That’s been my biggest struggle—that my friends didn’t understand. I felt abandoned. They can’t identify it if they don’t see it.”
“Domestic violence is one of those things outside people don’t understand, just like mental health. They think that it has a face. It’s everybody’s face. It doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter what you look like, how much or how little you make. Everybody is susceptible to it.”
“Domestic violence has the same story over and over and over again. We’re all different. That’s the only difference in the abuse. That’s what people fail to see. Stop looking at the individual, look at the abuse. It comes in the same box every time. You can see it. But you can’t predict who it’s going to affect because it affects us all.”
“Another thing that isn’t understood is that we should ‘move on’ within a certain timeframe. There is no timeframe. No matter what happened, there was a relationship with whoever that abuser was. It leaves a scar that we’ll take with us forever. We are stuck with that forever.”
“I’m scared because I don’t know where I’m going after I leave here. We don’t have a place to go besides here. People with money in this town could create housing for a new journey for women like us. Like the housing that’s provided for the homeless in [other states].”
I asked one particularly vocal and eloquent woman, as she left the dining room, if she wanted to write this story. She laughed and said, “I just did!”
If you need help, call the 24/7 confidential DVIS’ crisis line at 918-7HELP-ME (918-743-5763).