By Emily Williams-Robertshaw
A cornerstone of Southern culture is domestic etiquette, practices to follow to present our best faces to the public because we all know God isn’t the only one who judges.
Violence in the household is something Emily Post would certainly deem too unpleasant to discuss at the dinner table. Yet, domestic violence when kept private costs lives.
“It’s the hidden reality,” said Allison Dearing, executive director of One Place Metro Alabama Family Justice Center. “It’s the pandemic within the pandemic.”
At One Place, Dearing is well versed in the complicated issues that have resulted from stigmatizing domestic violence. When victims speak with an advocate, it is often the first time they have spoken about their abuse with another person.
Leaving is a process, she said, not a one-time event. To be a pillar of support to someone experiencing this level of violence is to listen.
Some of the most powerful things we can say are, “You are not alone” and “There is hope.”
National Domestic Violence Awareness Month takes place during October, and its mission is to educate the community about the realities of domestic violence and break down the stigma placed on victims. To do that, Dearing said, it’s important to keep an open mind, “especially when they are seeing things in the news or hearing stories. Remember that domestic violence is very complicated and it is very dangerous.”
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in four women and one in 10 men experience domestic violence, with the highest population at risk being women ages 18-24.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health, violence against women can lead to long-term physical and mental health problems, and it affects not just the person involved, but whole families and their communities.
Dearing sees these statistics in action at One Place. The family justice center connects victims to available resources, with offices that house partners with the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office, the Birmingham Police Department, YWCA of Central Alabama and the Crisis Center Inc.
“We serve people from every single ZIP code across the county, and that’s the reality,” Dearing said.
Often, victims are blamed for their situation because they choose to stay in the abusive relationship.
“If you only see this snapshot, people rush to judgment,” Dearing said. “If you haven’t been in this situation, it is super easy to say what you would do, but none of us know what we would do unless we’ve walked in their shoes.”
Instead of questioning the victim’s reaction, Dearing said, people should be questioning the abuser’s actions.
There is not a one-size-fits-all definition that suits every victim’s experience, but at its core domestic violence is one intimate partner’s systematic pattern of power and control over another. It’s complex and methodical.
One consistency, Dearing said, is the path of abuse.
The relationship begins as an idyllic one, with the abuser creating a false sense of security. Once the victim has been groomed, the pattern of abuse begins and increases in severity over time.
Abuse can occur through emotional and psychological manipulation, physical abuse, sexual abuse, threats, stalking and even through control of finances.
“By the time it is obvious that they need to make a change, the abuser has potentially isolated them to the point where they feel so alone and aren’t really even sure who will believe them or who they can trust,” Dearing said.
The word “domestic” discounts the issue, according to Susann Montgomery-Clark, who lost her daughter, Megan Montgomery, in 2019 to domestic violence. That word minimizes violence in an intimate relationship versus violence committed by a stranger.
Montgomery-Clark has seen domestic violence not only treated differently in the eyes of the public but also in the justice system.
“Hopefully, with more public awareness, people will realize that domestic violence is violence, period,” she said. “It should be no different than violence in the streets. A violent robber is immediately arrested. A violent spouse or boyfriend is not.”
Intimate partner abusers are not often held accountable on their first offense. If anything, attempts to contact authorities or seek refuge can pose a greater risk to the victim.
“That’s not just a feeling, it is a reality,” Dearing said. Violence escalates when an abuser feels they are losing their control.
There are key red flags that advocates at One Place take note of when listening to a victim’s story, including death threats and access to weapons.
For women, an abuser’s access to a gun increases the risk of death by 400%.
Weeks before her death, Megan Montgomery posted on social media, “I want to show other women the warning signs; why it is so hard to get out. To help them with the legal system, to help them leave sooner. I’m embarking on my new calling to help other girls and other victims.”
While Montgomery wasn’t able to fulfill that mission, her family does so in her stead. The Megan Montgomery Domestic Violence Prevention Fund, cfbham.org/megans-fund/, supports prevention education for students in high school and college. Megan’s Fund is currently working on a collaboration with the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Wellness department.
“The more people understand it, the more help they can be to the victim – to let them know they are not alone in their fight to survive,” Montgomery-Clark said.
To successfully escape an abusive relationship, having a strong support system is essential. If an isolated victim doesn’t have that support from a relative or friends, the community can fill that void.
“The abuser wants to isolate the victim, but if friends and family stay informed, that reinforces for the victim that they do have support outside of the abusive relationship,” she added. “It gives them the strength to leave.”
Relatives or friends of victims can reach out to One Place for advice.
“I honestly love those phone calls,” Dearing said. “First of all, it shows that there is someone who cares enough about their friend, sister, mom, daughter that they are calling and saying, ‘I need help to support my loved one.’ That is a really important piece, as well. Anybody can call us anytime and we can talk about helpful things that you can say or do, things that you probably want to stay away from.”
She said open discussions are key to supporting victims.
“When people are open to even just learning and having this conversation, that’s where real change can happen,” Dearing said.
Last week, Once Place representatives were recognized at the Mountain Brook City Council meeting, where Mayor Stewart Welch and the council adopted a proclamation to acknowledge Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
“Victims could be in the crowd listening to something that sounds a lot like their own story,” Dearing said. “They hear it and know they are not alone and they know there is help. That can be really powerful for someone who is either coming out of that kind of relationship or recognizing that what they are experiencing is not normal and it’s not healthy.”
Montgomery-Clark and Dearing are looking forward to community education opportunities this month.
On Oct. 16, the Megan Montgomery 5K run/walk will raise funds for the Megan’s Fund. The event will take place at Homewood Central Park. To register, visit runsignup.com and search for the event name.
On Oct. 21, One Place will host a discussion with New York Times bestselling author Rachel Louise Snyder on domestic violence and her book “No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us.” The event will be at 6 p.m. at Red Mountain Theatre with limited in-person attendance as well as a virtual live cast. For more information, visit oneplacebirmingham.com.
For anyone affected by domestic violence who is seeking help, One Place’s services are free and confidential. For more information, visit the website or call 205-453-7261.