Last year, the 24-hour domestic violence hotline staffed by St. Louis nonprofit Safe Connections
received a staggering 8,000 calls -- originating from every single ZIP code in the greater St. Louis area.
Also last year, 759 women (and 990 children) were housed in local domestic violence shelters -- and, horrifyingly, another 3,748 women were turned away for lack of space.
More than three decades after the idea of domestic violence entered into the public consciousness, it's clear that such abuse is a huge problem in St. Louis. In honor of October being Domestic Violence Awareness Month
, Daily RFT
spoke with Safe Connections' director of clinical services, Ilene Bloom-Ellis, about the scope of the problem and what gives her hope that things are finally changing.
8,000 calls last year alone? Just how big a problem is domestic violence?Ilene Bloom-Ellis:
It's actually a huge problem. We figure that one in four women/girls have been victims of domestic violence. ... We get calls from every ZIP code in the St. Louis area. This is not just a problem for one area, one ZIP code, one socioeconomic demographic. We do get calls from teenagers all the way to the elderly, from people needing help themselves to their friends and family asking us what to do to help their loved ones. Daily RFT:
The cliche image is the woman with suitcase in hand, heading for a shelter. How big a piece of what you see is that?Bloom-Ellis:
The shelter isn't the first place a woman wants to go. When they call, we talk about the options they have: their friends or their family. But sometimes shelters are the safest places because the locations of the shelters aren't known. Sometimes going to your friends or family can put that person at risk. ...
We also have a lot of women who've made the decision to stay. We're not the ones to question that. The perpetrator's feeling that he's losing control, if she leaves, can
make him even more dangerous. There's a very heightened level of danger
at the point she leaves. And so we will never say to her "You need to leave" -- she knows her relationship with the perpetrator and how dangerous it may be for her to leave. We make sure that [if she stays], that's the best option for her and that she has a plan to stay safe if she chooses that option.Daily RFT:
Your agency has been fighting against domestic violence for 34 years. Have you seen any progress in that time? What about in the attitudes of men?Bloom-Ellis:
Absolutely! We made a conscious effort years ago to bring men into our programming, with the Men as Allies component of Project H.A.R.T. [Healthy Alternatives for Relationships Among Teens]. We talk to teens at all boys' schools about how they can be our ally in reducing and eliminating this problem. We're not talking to them as potential perpetrators but as allies.
How can men help?Bloom-Ellis:
Simple things, such as not laughing at your friends when they make jokes that put women down. If they see a friend being mean to his girlfriend, telling them that's not a cool. If they see a friend who's under the influence being led away at a party, stepping in -- she may not be in her right judgment.
For the first time in 2009, we piloted our "Guys Group" -- that's a step beyond Men as Allies. It's a teen leadership program where we're going into schools and bringing together ten to twelve young men who are identified as leaders in their schools. We meet with them for eight to ten weeks. There's a curriculum: How do they view their own masculinity? What about masculinity in the media? How is violence against women portrayed? What can they do as leaders to change that? We're talking about healthy relationships and treating women with respect -- and, as a bystander, intervening.
What can someone do if they suspect a friend is suffering from domestic violence? What advice do you give?
The number one thing is to be supportive -- and to believe them. One of the things that some perps do is they have this -- people used to think it was an anger issue. "He loses control and has an anger problem." For the majority of men, though, to everybody else, they can appear to be a nice, easygoing guy. They don't have problems with their boss, or with their friends. They don't beat up their friends. It's not really an anger problem; it's that they can control their partner through violence or emotional abuse.
So sometimes people can look at a couple and think it's this great relationship and not really realize what's going on behind closed doors. And it can be happening for awhile before they let on. It's embarrassing to them, or they think no one will believe them. So listening, believing her, and not focing her to do something is important. Give her options.
It takes awhile. The average woman leaves seven times before she leaves for good. And as a friend, you need to be aware that there are many, many reasons why she's not getting out of the situation. It's not as easy as "I'm getting beaten up; I have to leave."Daily RFT:
This is really all very depressing. Is there anything that gives you hope?Bloom-Ellis:
I think we are educating people. It takes awhile to change people's opinions on what is acceptable. And I think that working with young men is the key to reducing this problem.
Last year, our Guy's Group pilot had four to five groups each semester. This year, we have ten groups going. We have doubled it, and we're continuing to get more interest.If you know someone who needs help -- or you want advice for how to be a good friend to someone in an abusive situation -- the Safe Connections' hotline is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 314-531-2003.