In response to our post from my friend who was abused, Sara Marie Forrest de Jaimes, a Christian midwife who has extensive experience in helping domestic violence victims, has written this two part series about how churches can respond to abuse.
In Part I of this series, Sara offers ideas for how to approach a suspected victim of abuse. In this Part II, she will tell us how we can help a woman safely escape (keeping in mind that men can be victims as well).
The Safety Plan
If your friend discloses abuse, make a safely plan. This includes planning the separation and the immediate needs of food, shelter, and money.
Include family pets and sentimental possessions. When an abuse victim moves on, she is giving up more than most people can imagine. She has often been stripped of her dignity, any self-respect, and most possessions. Keep this in mind when wondering why a victim says, “If I can’t bring my pet pig, I am not leaving.” Shelters may not be an option for many women. Some shelters have financial limits or, if this is not her first time leaving, some shelters will not take “return customers.” As a church, we have a responsibility to help each other, including providing shelter for those in need.
Ensure that these plans are only known to those who need to be involved. When looking for a place for the victim (and children/pets) to stay, remember to never disclose their names. There is nothing wrong with approaching a few potential shelter homes and saying, “I have a women and a two children under 6 with a small dog who need shelter from a domestic violence situation.” However, telling someone about, “Mrs. Blank who is needing a place to stay,” is a breach of the trust that the victim has bestowed on you and should be seen as such.
The plan also needs to include financial considerations. Some victims are able to save small amounts of money here or there. If the family tithes, consider using the amount that they give and setting it aside for the victim’s future living expenses. Offer a safe place for the victim to start stashing money, birth certificates, school records, and other important documents.
Transportation is another important consideration. Think about what it takes to bring children to and from school, take the woman to her counseling sessions, etc. This is a shared commitment by several families in the church and should not be shouldered by any one member. Make sure that everyone involved understands that this plan is not to be discussed with anyone. This is a literal life or death situation.
Leaving and Separation
Leaving is the most dangerous time for a domestic violence victim. The abuser is at the point of losing all the power he has fought so hard for. Make sure that everyone involved knows and understands the risks. I know many churches that provide prayer for the victim and the family, but few offer more physical solutions while praying.
A period of separation is needed, no matter what kind of abuse. If the abusive partner is agreeable to the separation you must still follow certain safety precautions. Not all abusers are bad people. Many are normal people, just like everyone else. While they are not angry or threatened, they feel love and pain just the same. If they are Christians, their hearts want to do the right thing. When they are in their logical minds, they may not want to hurt anyone. Once they are alone and angry, they might no longer be okay with the situation, so make sure that there is a safety plan in place.
There are very few situations of abuse in which a victim can continue living at home while the abusive partner takes the steps to change, and this should never happen in the case of any history of physical violence. Safety precautions during a separation include:
- No one should know who or where the victim is staying beyond those directly involved.
- There should be no joint counseling sessions for a prolonged period of time.
- No matter what or who the abuser appeals to, discourage any contact outside of a controlled, safe environment. If there are children involved, use a mediator and consider offering the church grounds as a safe place for parenting times if appropriate. Supervised visitation should be sought. Many abusers will use children against the victim as they know this is an area they can control.
- Get the law involved. Encourage the victim to press charges. Regardless of religion, the abuser has broken laws and needs to have legal consequences. Do not protect the abuser in the name of God. This will help no one except the abuser. Abuse comes from the Flesh, not from the new creation.
- If there is physical abuse (as apposed to mental and financial, for example) a protection order is needed. No matter what, safety comes first. Unless there is proof of physical abuse to any children, they will not be included in the restraining order.
- Do not force the victim to go to church with the abuser. It is appropriate to have small groups, or pastoral visits where the victim is safe, but if the abuser knows where the victim will be and what time, he will most likely show up there. Intimidation is just as scary to a victim around a group of people as in private.
- Counseling should be provided to the victim. Not just marriage counseling, but trauma counseling. Private, professional, trauma counseling.
- Do not reveal the safety plan to anyone. No one. The person who agreed to host the family should know that the family is coming. A few elders who are available to help the victim move should know someone may need help moving at some point. No specifics, no details. Need to know basis only.
- Do not encourage the abuser to reach out to the victim (in person, letter, or over the phone). You do not know the hidden meanings assigned to things in a relationship. “Remember the day we went to the park by the museum. It will always hold a special place in my heart” can be seen as a romantic, non-threatening message; however, that may be the day that the victim’s worst nightmares came true.
- When the victim and the abuser are together for the first time (first several times), there should be no physical contact. No hugging, kissing, not even a hand shake. Make sure there is no violation of an order of protection, so this meeting should not take place for many months after the separation.
- Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to force, coerce, or guilt a victim into staying married. Support her in her journey to forgiveness, absolutely; but she has no responsibility to stay married. Her only responsibility is to her God, and you have no business dictating what she has to suffer. The sanctity of marriage was broken as soon as he put his hand on her. We are all equal in God’s eyes. No one gets to deny or violate the rights of anyone else and still have their union called “sacred.”
Waiting for the victim to be ready to leave can be hard, but is absolutely necessary. A good question to ask is, “At what point would you advise your daughter or sister to leave an abusive partner?” Getting them to think about things in different terms is important, because they may not value their own safety as much as the safety of their children or family.
Possibility of Returning
On average, a domestic violence victim leaves seven times before leaving for good. Imagine the person you love the most hurts you. Then apologizes. Then treats you amazingly. Until they hurt you again. The cycle of violence is real and tangible. If you approach a woman in the midst of the “honeymoon phase” they may not have the desire to leave because they believe that their partner has changed.
Less than 10% of abusers change their behaviors long term. Every victim wants her partner to be in that 10%. One of the most common questions I hear is, “Do you think they will change?” I have experienced an untold number of women who return to their abuser. If your friend returns to her abuser, do not attack, judge, or cut her off. Make sure she knows that the door, her escape hatch, remains open. If someone was hurt or compromised in the process of helping her get out the first (or second or third) time, make sure the victim is aware of this; but never make her feel like she is solely responsible for her dangerous partner’s actions.
“All things are possible through Christ who strengthens me.” This verse applies to the abuser and the victim. Without Christ, there is no hope for permanent change. Without the Heavenly Father, the road to recovery from abuse will be longer and harder. The church is a flock. The victim is injured and should be cared for. The abuser needs counseling, accountability, and legal consequences, but also encouragement and support to change. Do not be a church that condemns abuse but does nothing about it.
Keep your flock safe.
You can find more resources about Domestic Violence and other women’s health issues on Sara Marie Forrest de Jaimes’s website, SaraTheMidwife.com.