Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Let's Tip It

The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior
 crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.
Malcolm Gladwell

Are we nearing a tipping point  regarding our tolerance for relationship and sexual abuse? I think so.

Advocates (mostly women) have been crusading against domestic violence and sexual assault since the 70's... but their voices have often been the only ones speaking out.  More and more I'm hearing other voices joining that chorus. About 10 years ago men started speaking out. Each day, I hear new voices emerging: sportscasters, college recruiters, business owners, President Obama.

In the many news stories about relationship abuse and sexual violence I'm hearing a different tone... intolerance of abuse.

Unlike changing an individual's behavior, community level change requires that the right combination of factors are present. In other social change initiatives  (like reducing smoking or drunk driving) we've observed three key strategies to creating change:
1) access (e.g. limiting minors ability to purchase tobacco or alcohol)
2) policy and procedure (e.g., laws and enforcement of  or organizations' rules and practices) , and
3) social norms.

In just the past year I've seen significant changes on the second two indicators.  More and more companies and institutions are cognizant of how abuse can leave the home and affect their business and brand. This became unmistakably clear as the Ray Rice incident unfolded. When the videotape of the elevator assault became public, the NFL's response to the incident was called into question. We quickly saw how the conduct of players reflects on the League. When the NFL revised their code of conduct to implement game suspensions for violent incidents, we immediately saw that players' careers and team performance could be affected by their conduct off the field. Similarly the  recent press coverage of an alleged culture of sexual violence at University of Virginia has some students and parents thinking twice about this as their college of choice. When relationship and sexual violence steps out of the shadows, and has an impact on organizations'' brands and bottom line, we start to notice. 

Our attitudes about abuse are changing. Why all of a sudden? Social media has a lot to do with increasing our awareness and  understanding. For many years the focus was on the victim... Why doesn't she (or he!) leave the abusive relationship?  or If you're drinking and flirting what can you expect? Those old attitudes haven't held sway as social media  has given us a more in-depth look at relationship and sexual violence. We've seen photos sent around to friends as young men sexually violate intoxicated teenage girls. Reporters cover the minute-to-minute details of how frightened victims call friends for help  and later feel re-traumatized as their college, inexperienced in adjudicating rape cases,  mishandles the  process.

We could easily downplay the impact of assaults when our information was a quick news segment, but with social media access we're exposed to the gritty brutality of victimization. When the first news story  reported that Ray Rice had knocked his then fiancĂ©e unconscious in an elevator there was no public outcry... but when we saw the brutality of the attack our reactions changed. Over the years there have been allegations against Bill Cosby that were but transient whispers in the news stories;  never investigated. never founded, never proven wrong. Yet recently one comedienne's reference to an alleged assault by Cosby a decade ago has uncorked so many similar accusations from years ago that  not only are networks suddenly pulling his shows, but institutions are distancing themselves from his benefaction. Nothing new has transpired, but because  the way we receive information has changed, the small solitary voices  of the past joined together very quickly into a chorus with enough similarity in their stories, that we're not comfortable with the ignoring the issue until we have more answers.

So how does this change in social consciousness affect us? We've shifted the responsibility. Traditionally we've placed the burden of ending abuse on the very people who are being victimized. That approach hasn't worked. Telling people not to abuse is about as effective as "Just say no" was in addressing drug abuse.

As we see and understand more we're realizing that to end relationship and sexual violence we all need to be part of the solution. It's  the  old adage, If you're not part of the solution you're part of the problem. 
So people tell me "I care about this issue but I don't know how to help...what can I do?" Great  question; here's some suggestions to get you started
1) Learn more- the NYS Office or the Prevention of Domestic Violence's new campaign, Don't Do Nothing has quick videos for the public to learn how to identify abuse and get involved.
2) Talk about the issue. Share articles. Generate a discussion.
3) Concerned about how domestic violence  affects your workplace safety, productivity, or employees' well being? Wellspring has resources for employers to promote awareness and assist managers in addressing employee concerns. Call us... the training and resources are free.
4) If you're concerned that someone you know may need help tell them you care and provide  them with resources, e.g. Wellspring's office number  (518.583.0280) or 24/hour hotline (518.584.8188)


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What if doing nothing wasn't an option?

If you've ever talked to me for more than 4 minutes, the conversation has probably turned to the work of Wellspring ...specifically our vision of ending relationship and sexual abuse. For more than 30 years we've been helping people one-on-one to break free, heal, rebuild their lives and become survivors. Our legal advocates help them  to seek justice and hold the offender accountable. We do prevention programs to help people know how to stay safe and we also talk with youth about abusive behaviors to deter abuse. I wouldn't stop doing any of these essential activities, but they're not enough and I'm convinced they're not the solution.

Why? Because support services to survivors, court advocacy or prevention programs all focus on changing individual behavior. Assisting survivors doesn't stop relationship or sexual violence; it helps with healing and can reduce future victimization. Alternately many people say the answer is to focus on the person choosing to victimize, i.e., get to the root cause. That may reduce the incidence of abuse, but there will always be people who choose to do what's wrong. Does anyone actually believe stealing is right? Probably not... but people choose to steal every day.

I think the solution rests not with survivors or their abusers, but with people on the sidelines; their actions or inactions often determine whether the abuse is tacitly condoned and whether the victim feels powerless and trapped.

“The world is not dangerous because of those who do harm but because of those who look at it without doing anything”
                                            ~ Albert Einstein

Intimate partner and sexual violence have echoed throughout the news in recent months. As I look  at each of the stories, I'm repeatedly struck by how often WE allow the abuse to continue. After the news coverage, we debate what the involved individuals could have, should have, or failed to do, but what repeatedly strikes me is what other people didn't do. Think about these news stories:
  • Bill Cosby- Did he? Didn't he? We don't know. But in countless accounts, the alleged victims talk about how when they told someone they weren't believed, were dismissed or even threatened.  Barbara Bowman's  account of being sexually violated by Cosby 30 years ago, captures the frustration of a young woman challenging a man who was an icon in the entertainment business, "I first told my agent, who did nothing...A girlfriend took me to a lawyer, but he accused me of making the story up. Their dismissive responses crushed any hope I had of getting help; I was convinced no one would listen to me. That feeling of futility is what ultimately kept me from going to the police." What if she had not met this resistance. Would there have been an investigation and determination. Perhaps Cosby's name would have been cleared or future incidents prevented. What if someone had stood by Bowman when she said she'd been assaulted? That was 30 years ago, things are different now, right?

  • The NFL and  domestic violence- A shocking report by the Washington Post entitled "For battered NFL wives, a message from the cops and the league: Keep quiet" details not only how the NFL turns a blind eye to domestic violence, but actually covers up domestic incidents to protect the players' careers and the League's reputation. What if the League enforced their code of conduct and provided resources to players who  struggle with aggression?

  • A recent Rolling Stone article, "A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA", describes a culture on the University of Virginia campus that can be as misogynistic and aggressive as any inner city gang. But the prestige, honor and old money privilege of a campus founded by Thomas Jefferson, cloak the sexual assaults under the genteel southern euphemism of a  'bad experience'.  What if the university's culture valued the health and safety of students more than protecting the hallowed reputation of the  institution?

All that is needed for evil to triumph 
is for good men to do nothing.
                                      ~Edmund Burke

Silence hides violence... let's all choose to break that silence? The solution doesn't rest with individuals involved... they're too close to the issue; it rests with the rest of us.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Behind Closed Doors- Which Ones?

Several years ago I wrote a blog post Behind Closed Doors positing that the reason domestic violence endures is that it happens out of our view. This post was written after a tragic death as the community was shocked that a relationship could be so dangerous and yet no one knew.

As I read a Washington Post article about the wives of NFL players, I rethought my words. In my original blog post I explained that the desire to keep the abuse private was  an individual decision... made by the victim of the abuse. I rethought my assertion that the decision is entirely individual... each individual's decision is very influenced by our society's values and pressures. The Post article clearly illustrates that wives of NFL players are coached to keep abuse quiet to protect the player's reputation, the brand and our collective adoration of the heroes of the gridiron. The article describes the pressure to silently endure contending that the recent press has even made the NFL less safe for wives. The comment from the wife of a former player, You'll  hear of a wife murdered before you'll hear another one come forward", echoes like a haunting prophesy.

While it's really important to teach every man, woman and child that it's not OK to abuse others, that's strategy alone won't end abuse. There will always be people who choose to abuse or people who fail to judge their own actions. Our response has to be more broad, a societal shift in tolerance. We won't end abuse until we refuse to look away, excuse, or stay silent. Just choosing not to abuse isn't enough, we have to choose to end abuse...every time we see or suspect it. Abuse does hide behind closed doors... sometimes those doors are the ones we shut so that we don't see it.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

"Sometimes as a Guy You Have to Hide Your Pain"

We've all seen the articles like this in the  news, "Female teacher accused of having sex with male student."   Statutory rape? Absolutely. Sexual victimization? That's where our social attitudes weigh in casting doubts, shedding bias, and making  it difficult for boys and young men to not only disclose the abuse... but even to acknowledge that this 'special attention' isn't welcome and is in fact a violation.

Today I watched a video by a comedian,, Andrew Bailey. It starts with the words, "Why I think rape is sincerely hilarious when it happens to dudes. It's horrible when it happens to women, but men getting raped is hilarious." Frankly, if the video hadn't come with the recommendation to watch the whole video before passing judgment, I wouldn't have watched to the end. I  did and I'm glad. Bailey, -who was a victim of statutory rape, reflected back  our social prejudices  in a way that felt so uncomfortable... as it should. Rape as a comedy routine? Disconcerting, but as Bailey quips, "Sometimes as a guy you've got to hide your pain."

One in six men has survived  unwanted or abusive sex in childhood. That's right, 1 in 6-- but how often do you hear about it? Have you ever heard anyone talking about how unwanted sexual contact or sexual violation can insinuate itself into a man's life, self-esteem, values and relationships.... even years after the contact has ended? We just don't talk about it. With online resources, 24/7 support line and awareness resources, One in Six  strives to help men who have had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood live healthier, happier lives. They've got resources for survivors, family members, and professionals...and if you're wondering about  the1 in 6 statistic they've got info on that too.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

This Should Be All Year Long

WOW....it took just 15 minutes for me to be inspired, energized, and  and raring to speed back to my desk and get to work.That's what happened yesterday in Stillwater. Was there a nationally recognized motivational speaker there? NO, but there were 5 professionals I know  well talking about domestic violence. I've heard them all speaking for years, but their words and their vision, mine too, have changed. We weren't talking solely about helping survivors; we were talking about what we need to do to END it.

Since 2003 Sergeant Ray Cordani of the Stillwater Police Department has organized a cell phone drive
during Domestic Violence Awareness Month to provide 911 phones to victims of abuse. With the help of local businesses they've collected more than 4,000 phones that advocates have given to those in need.

With decades of experience in law enforcement, Sergeant Cordani knows the prevalence and effects of domestic violence, "There's rarely a shift we don't respond to a domestic incident." He set the tone for the rest of the speakers with a call to action that was echoed again and again" We need to change the culture to change the behavior." Shifting our thinking,  away from focusing on the individual (either the person who stays or the person who abuses) to looking at why abuse endures in our society-- that's the key to solving it.

With 2 full time attorneys assigned to prosecuting these cases, domestic violence is ever-present in our office" explained Acting District Attorney Karen Heggen, "Domestic violence is not a private issue; it is a community issue." Sheriff Mike Zurlo affirmed his department's commitment to battling domestic violence and protecting victims.

Senator Kathy Marchione, who has championed victim assistance and prevention programs, sounded a poignant call to action,
"We need to speak out with one voice and say No More to domestic violence...
No More...
Never again!"

Ten years ago when I began speaking about setting our sights on ending abuse, over and over again I heard this wasn't a realistic goal. Today affirmed for me that not only do so many others share that vision, but that we're committed to achieving it.

So we collected hundreds of cellphones to help in a crisis, but even more importantly we pledged a commitment to an even bigger goal...ending abuse.

Stillwater Supervisot Ed Kinowski lamented, "When I hear the stories and the statistics, I can't believe it still exists. Domestic violence awareness can't be just one month; it should be all year long." That's a great place to start.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

One is One Too Many

Mayor Yepsen presents Wellspring with resolution proclaiming October DV Awareness Month
Last night I attended the Saratoga Springs City Council meeting. I was invited to speak  for a few minutes about Domestic Violence Awareness Month.  Mayor Yepsen gave some statistics about the frequency of abuse that she deemed shocking:
  •  in the US we average 20 acts of violence per minute
  •  10 million victims each year; and
  • domestic violence accounts for 15% of violent crime.

I provided some local data from Saratoga County:
  • Domestic violence is the #2 violent crime in our county
  • Depending on the year it is either the #1 or #2 cause of homicide, and
  • It is also the primary reason for family homelessness in our county.
The statistics are sobering; the stories behind those statistics are even more concerning, but what I'd like to take away from the conversation is a  statement by Mayor Yepsen that sums up the vision and work of Wellspring, "Even one domestic violence victim is one too many."

We're working to increase awareness, help people in need get services before a crisis, and engaging our community to create social change so that no man, woman, or child lives in fear at home.  You can be part of that change by:
  • Ask Wellspring staff to come and speak at your workplace or community group about our services and how you can be involved
  • Volunteering- We have new volunteer opportunities assisting the agency with outreach and prevention activities
  • Helping us to spread the word- Share interesting articles or talk with friends about why you care about domestic violence.  Silence Hides Violence- let's break the silence.
"Even one domestic violence victim is one too many."
                                    Mayor Joanne Yepsen

Friday, October 3, 2014

Moving Beyond Ray Rice

Domestic violence isn’t going to disappear tomorrow or the next day. But the more that we choose not to talk about it, the more we shy away from the issue, the more we lose.
                                                                                                                       Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks quarterback

I've been wondering how it must feel to be an NFL player these days as public perception of the league is so focused on the actions of a few players. Players, coaches, and owners who do not commit or condone acts of  violence must feel scrutinized and sometimes judged as guilty by association. Today I happened across an article by Russell Wilson; his candor in speaking about his own history and reactions to the recent events gave me some insights into how players are affected by, "To be honest, many NFL players are reluctant to address such a sensitive issue. How do you fix a problem so big and complex? How do you speak about something so damaging and painful to families?"

Some of those sentiments and frustrations echo how advocates have felt for years. At Wellspring, our goal is to end relationship and sexual abuse, but that's a really big goal. How do we even begin? Like all journeys we begin with a plan and taking that first step.

Wilson did the same. He started the Why Not You Foundation and is asking for your support in Passing the Peace by making a $2 contribution to the National Domestic Violence hotline. As Wilson says, "All I can do is my small part. And I invite you to help me."

Thursday, October 2, 2014

I'm Not Wearing Purple Today

Yesterday I was wearing a red blouse and today I'm wearing green & brown. I'm not a celebrity and generally no one pays any attention to my fashion (I'm not even sure that looking in my closet the word 'fashion' come to mind). But my wardrobe has been a topic of conversation. "Maggie you're not wearing purple? It's October. It's Domestic Violence Awareness Month!" In the past I wore purple every day in October  and encouraged others to do so also to bring attention to DV Awareness Month... and I guess it worked as people remember. But this year I've decided wearing purple to bring about awareness isn't enough so I'm changing the game (and the wardrobe choices.)

I'd  like to ask people to take action against relationship and sexual abuse: start a conversation, educate yourself or ask Wellspring to bring a program to your workplace or community group, forward an article or a blog post that you find interesting.

Need some ideas? Here's a few:
... and if wearing purple helps start conversations, go ahead and take the purple clothes off the hangers.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Does 'Yes means Yes' Fix the Problem?

California is the first state to sign into legislation a bill that requires colleges to assess for affirmative consent when reviewing allegations of sexual assault. The bill has been hotly contested as gender biased. Opponents feel the bill targets men and that instances of regretted sex may end up as rape convictions. The bill's language is actually gender neutral. False reporting of rape is relatively rare and is consistent with  false reporting for other crimes (and may result in charges against the person who knowingly and willfully falsely reported.)

Too often we have seen campus judiciary committees insufficiently trained to handle sexual assault allegations; in these cases the complainant feels the judicial process itself re-traumatizes and victimizes them.  The highly publicized mishandling of a sexual assault case at Hobart and William Smith Colleges all too poignantly illustrates that our campus judiciary process is ill equipped to effectively decide these cases. Rape cases are notoriously difficult to adjudicate in the criminal justice system, where professionals, both prosecutors and defense attorneys are presenting the evidence; campuses simply don't have the experience to confidently and sensitively handle these unique cases... and too much is on the line for both the alleged assailant and the alleged victim to leave this to chance. 

While this bill attempts to provide a higher standard of consent by which colleges can adjudicate these cases (and hopefully also sparks even more education about consent to prevent such situations from occurring), perhaps the real question is, "Do  colleges have the knowledge and experience to review and adjudicate sexual assault cases?" And if the answer is not a resounding yes, then how should we address that?

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Paws for Peace

Assemblyman Tedisco and his pooch Gracie with Dr. Joy Lucas
When I talk about Wellspring's victim-assistance programs people are always surprised when I mention the Safe Pet Partnership... "Whoa, pets? How does that fit with domestic violence?" Sadly, there's a big correlation. Abusers will use our love for our family pets as a tool of coercion. According  to the American Humane Society, 71% of domestic violence victims entering shelters reported their abuser had maimed, killed or threatened family pets for revenge or to psychologically control them. Some victims stay trapped in abuse because they fear their pet would be harmed if they left. Conversely the Humane Society states, "Investigation of animal abuse is often the first point of social services intervention for a family in trouble."

At Wellspring we 're committed to helping all victims of domestic violence. That's why we have a Safe Pet Partnership that provides temporary foster placement in loving homes for pets while their families find safe housing...after which they're all reunited So join us on October 11th us raising awareness  keep our furry, feathered, and finned   family members safe from abuse.