Responding to Domestic Violence
as Faith Community Leaders
Material gathered by Libby Tucci, YWCA Madison
Guiding Principles for Responding to Domestic Violence
Regardless of whether you are assisting a single, at-risk individual, or creating sermons, programs or other larger-scale efforts designed to reach an entire congregation or community, clergy and other spiritual leaders should bear in mind four guiding principles when addressing domestic violence with individual congregants. These guiding principles, originally developed by the Family Violence Prevention Fund to guide healthcare responses to domestic violence, are equally applicable to faith community efforts as well as to others committed to ending and preventing domestic violence.
Safety: Assessment, assistance and follow-up must be conducted with utmost concern for the immediate and long-term safety of the survivor and her dependent children. Clergy and other spiritual leaders should ask, “Is what I am asking/saying/recommending/doing/going to help my congregant become safer, or at least not place her at risk for further harm?”
Autonomy: Abused individuals have had their freedom to make informed, independent choices about their (and their children’s) lives restricted by the batterer’s controlling and intimidating behavior. Facilitating your congregant’s ability to make her own choices is key to restoring a sense of purpose and well-being for survivors of domestic violence, and can facilitate an individual’s readiness to take steps toward safety.
Offender accountability: It is important to reframe the violence as occurring because of the perpetrator’s behavior and actions, not the victim’s. It thus follows that the problem of violence in the relationship, and thus, the need to take definitive steps to end the violence, is the perpetrator’s responsibility. This guiding principle assumes the importance of victim safety, but rejects victim-blaming and other excuses offered by the offender as “explanations” for abusive behavior.
Advocacy for social change: Clergy and other spiritual leaders acting alone simply cannot meet all the needs of survivors of domestic violence. As the faith community and other sectors of society grapple with the complex issues involved in understanding and responding to domestic violence, the need to collaborate with others, including those who work in advocacy, healthcare, law enforcement, education, and society-at-large, becomes clear. Clergy and other spiritual leaders can be important catalysts for social change so that domestic violence can be more effectively identified, and ultimately prevented.
If a Congregant Discloses Abuse
Domestic violence issues may come to light in the context of “routine inquiry,” or, in the context of meeting about what seems to be an issue unrelated to possible abuse. In addition, particularly in a congregation that is viewed as “domestic violence literate,” in non-crisis situations, congregants may approach spiritual leaders specifically for spiritual or logistical help regarding their own abuse, or to help a family member. Alternatively, the congregant herself may be in an acute or crisis situation.
Should a congregant disclose that she has been battered; the following are some potential questions that can be asked in a safe and confidential setting to help determine the extent of abuse and the possible danger:
- Would you like to speak with me or with someone else about what happened?
- Is it safe for you to talk freely?
- Where is your abuser?
- Has this happened before?
- When did it first occur?
- How badly have you been hurt in the past?
- Have you ever needed to get emergency help because of an assault?
- Have you ever been threatened with a weapon, or has a weapon ever been used on you?
- Have you ever tried to get an Order of Protection against a partner?
- Have your children ever seen or heard you being threatened or hurt?
- Do you know how you can get help for yourself if you were hurt or afraid?
- Are your children safe and cared for right now?
- Do you feel you need to flee immediately for your safety?
- Do you have somewhere safe to go? Where would you go?
- Do you have injuries? Do you need medical attention?
- Would you like to call 911? Would you like me to make the call with you or for you?
- Would you like to call DAIS, UNIDOS, or Deaf Unity? Would you like me to make that call with you?
Dos and Don’ts for Spiritual Leaders
Specific interventions by clergy and other spiritual leaders should include:
- listening to the survivor, and believing and validating her account, without asking for “proof” or “verification” that she has been maltreated;
- reframing the abuse as spiritually and morally unacceptable, and even criminal;
- communicating concern for the congregant’s safety;
- acknowledging how difficult and courageous it is for a survivor to disclose abuse;
- placing responsibility for the violence unequivocally on the perpetrator;
- assuring confidentiality to the extent possible under the law;
- evaluating the need to file a mandated report to the appropriate agency for children, elderly, or disabled persons;
- making referrals to local or national hotlines and community-based domestic violence programs;
- conveying ongoing concern and assuring follow-up;
- letting the survivor set the pace for action and healing;
- providing the survivor with religious texts or passages appropriate to the denomination or congregation that promote love, healing, hope, strength, courage, trust, blessings, and access to spiritual healing; and
- striving to make the congregation a safe haven, in which domestic violence is not tolerated or supported, and in which survivors can find God’s/Allah’s peace.
As important as it is to ask the right questions, it is equally important to refrain from asking questions in a manner that might frighten or intimidate the congregant, increase the sense of humiliation and shame about the violence, or be interpreted as blaming the victim for her situation. Here are some pitfalls to avoid:
- Most survivors do not identify themselves as abuse victims per se because of the perception of shame, helplessness and worthlessness associated with such a value-laden term. Therefore, avoid using labels such as “victim, “or “battered” when speaking with congregants. Instead, use resilience-promoting terms like “survivor” whenever possible.
- Do not inquire about abuse in the presence of the partner, friends, or family members.
- Do not break confidentiality by disclosing information, discussing your concerns or providing advice to the abuser without the victim’s explicit consent.
- Never ask a congregant what she did to provoke the abuse. There is no excuse for domestic violence.
- Do not ask why she has not terminated the relationship or left her partner.
- A survivor may leave an abusive relationship only to return at a later date. If this is the case, avoid asking why she has returned to the batterer.
- Listen attentively, but do not ask a survivor of any type of sexual violence to provide you with more details than she feels comfortable offering.
Is the Situation Dangerous?
Once a congregant has disclosed being in a threatening or violent relationship, clergy and other spiritual leaders can play an invaluable role in helping assess the level of risk, initiating a discussion about the need for a safety plan, and making referrals to appropriate, usually community-based services.
The most important determinants in assessing risk are the survivor’s level of fear, and her own appraisal of her immediate and future safety needs. However, since congregants may misread, minimize or deny the danger of their situations, the following indicators of escalating risk should be explored:
- an increase in frequency or severity of the abuse;
- increasing or new threats of homicide or suicide by the partner;
- the presence or availability of a firearm or other weapons; and
- new or increasingly violent behavior by the perpetrator outside the relationship
Disclosure of domestic violence may herald a particularly dangerous period for both survivor and children. Therefore, once disclosure is made, particular attention must be paid to the safety and well-being of children and others living in a home in which domestic violence is occurring.
Some victims decide to reconcile with their abusive partners out of fear of being hurt further or killed if they remain separated, losing the children, becoming homeless, being stigmatized as a victim, or living alone. Other victimized women love their husband or their partner and only wish the abuse—not the relationship—to end. Still others wish to reconcile if there is true hope of forging a healthy, non-violent union. Should a survivor wish to reconcile with her batterer and there is reasonable certainty that her abuser has engaged fully in batterer intervention and is no longer violent or even a potential threat, clergy and other spiritual leaders can take cautious steps toward reconciliation in collaboration with domestic violence advocates, provided survivor safety can be assured.
Possible Actions to take:
- Assure the victim that she is not responsible or to blame for the abuser’s actions.
- State clearly and repeatedly that she does not deserve to be treated this way.
- Listen attentively and respectfully, and offer support.
- Provide names and phone numbers of area shelters, programs and services. Ask if she would like to contact any of these now.
- Abusers often search their victims’ belongings. Before giving any written materials to the victim, ask her if she feels it is safe for her to take materials with her.
- If she is ready to leave or feels she must leave, ask her if she would like someone to provide moral support or help care for her children on a short-term basis.
- Ask her if she needs help getting to a safe place or to a medical facility. Assist with emergency transportation arrangements if necessary.
- Discuss childcare plans and provide assistance when needed.
- Ask her to call you back after contact has been made with a community service provider to let you know how things went.
Issues to keep in mind:
- Consider the immediate safety needs of all family members involved.
- Believe what the survivor is telling you and convey your belief to the congregant.
- Understand that leaving takes tremendous effort and courage on the survivor’s part.
- Be alert and compassionate to related issues such as drug and/or alcohol abuse.
- Understand that the danger for the survivor increases when she begins disclosing the abuse to others or attempts to leave her offender.
- Understand that the victim may be isolated and have limited financial and emotional resources.
- Know that your role is to support the survivor’s decision, even if you don’t agree with it. She is the expert. On her own life, her own needs, and her own safety.
- Be aware that the survivor may choose to stay at this time because she believes it is safer to stay than to leave the offender.
- Understand that individuals from non-privileged races, cultures and lifestyles face special barriers. Ask survivors from immigrant and minority communities if they wish to have someone from their own community help them or if they prefer their situation to remain private, in which case an interpreter or representative from another community can be called upon to provide support.
- Acknowledge — again and again — that no one deserves to be abused and that she deserves better.
- For reasons of safety, time management and treatment, do not attempt to speak with or counsel the abuser in an acute or volatile situation.
- Do not recommend or attempt couples or marriage counseling.
- Do not try to fix the relationship or the family. Healing comes later, and will be facilitated by your quiet, steady support. Safety for the survivor and her dependents must always be your primary concern.
- Do not expect or encourage immediate reconciliation or instant forgiveness. Without sincere remorse on the part of the abuser, accompanied by actual changes in attitude and behavior and a commitment to engage fully in a batterer intervention program, forgiveness may not be feasible and reconciliation can even be dangerous.
- Make sure the survivor is aware that local domestic violence programs provide free and confidential services, and that experienced advocates from these programs can provide information regarding legal rights, police and court procedures for protective orders, shelter availability, support groups, and other critical support resources.
- If the survivor is an immigrant on a visa, assure her that seeking assistance for being a victim of abuse will not cause her to be deported.
- Be aware that, for many reasons, people from minority cultures may be mistrustful of mainstream resources or government assistance.
- Encourage, but do not force, a survivor to phone the police, DAIS at (608) 251-4445, UNIDOS at (608) 256-9195, or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-7233 for further information. Should she choose to make one or more of these calls, provide a private, safe space for her to do so.
- Quite often, the same information needs to be provided more than once to a survivor.
The survivor’s role is to decide if and when it is safe to leave, and when the spiritual, economic and emotional resources to support this decision are in place. The spiritual leader’s role is to provide the survivor with options, support, and information about resources in a manner that is compassionate, concerned, and nonjudgmental.
A survivor who remains in a dangerous or potentially dangerous relationship should not be labeled as a spiritual failure or disobedient. Choosing not to leave usually reflects the limited resources available to the victim, or her reasonable assessment of available options and safety needs.
Deciding to stay may also reflect fear of being ostracized by one’s own family or of having the children lose a parent, or may represent unwillingness to risk losing a significant relationship with someone who once seemed to be a loving and caring partner.