Opinion

Community is best support for abuse survivors

By JOANNA

For The Beachcomber

When I contacted The Beachcomber about writing a piece for the paper for Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the editor asked me to discuss domestic violence in a way that is specific to Vashon. There are a number of challenges to end domestic violence that come to my mind, but also many things the community can do support survivors and hold people who abuse accountable.

At first, I was at a loss about things specific to Vashon, because when I think about domestic violence on the Island, it is hard to separate it from the conditions that are present that contribute to fostering domestic violence all over the world.

The reality of resisting domestic abuse in the lives of the survivors I work with on the Island mirrors the conditions of survivors everywhere: The women (and some men) resisting abuse from their partners make tough choices daily on how to keep themselves (and often their children) safe; those causing harm to their intimate partners are overwhelmingly men; systemic economic injustice limits survivors’ choices about ways to resist further harm; women experiencing abuse are often (rightfully) fearful that they will not be believed if they disclose the abuse; and there is no guarantee that turning to the legal system for help will ensure increased safety and support.

But after thinking some more about it, I realized that Vashon faces many additional challenges in responding to domestic violence, ones that residents in other rural communities don’t necessarily encounter.

First, many of the services available for survivors on the Island are not easily accessible or realistic options. For instance, when I offer shelter as an option for leaving an abusive relationship, what I’m really asking women to do is leave the Island — and everything familiar to them (family, friends, community, Island work and belongings).

Secondly, confidentiality is a cornerstone of the domestic violence field as a means to keep people safe, but it is a complex issue on Vashon. On one hand, survivors are hesitant to attend Island support groups — a resource that has been documented as helpful in the domestic violence field — for fear that someone they know is already attending, or worse yet, someone they meet at group will tell their secret and put them in more danger. Alternatively, it is only by telling the whole community as loudly and in as many ways as possible that some Island survivors find a sense of safety.

Common safety planning tools, such as telling a neighbor what is going on so they can call the police if necessary, simply are not options for many Island residents. Obtaining a permanent protection order is especially difficult for survivors who lack easily accessible transportation to make the trip off the island to a King County courthouse.

There are many barriers and challenges that survivors of domestic violence on Vashon face. At the same time, Vashon residents, unlike those in larger, more populated communities, have more power to make a positive impact in the lives of survivors resisting violence; as individuals and as a community, you can make a difference.

How can we make a difference? Most importantly, believe a friend, family member or colleague if they disclose abuse. The large majority of survivors of abuse turn to a personal contact for help, rather than seeking assistance from a formal agency. It is not your job to determine the extent or nature of the abuse; simply make a referral to appropriate services (DAWN’s numbers are: (866) 286-DAWN for shelter and (206) 450-0186 for the Vashon Island office). Listen to the person disclosing the abuse; this is an important and critical part of the process in breaking down the isolation survivors experience. Don’t gossip. Protect the privacy of the person trusting you for help, and allow them to determine who to tell and what to disclose. Don’t stay silent. If you suspect someone you know is experiencing abuse, offer to help. Open up the conversation.

It takes a community to hold people who abuse accountable and to keep survivors safe.

— Joanna, whose last name is not used for safety reasons, is the Vashon-based advocate for the Domestic Action Women’s Network (DAWN).

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