When domestic violence erupts, what should a neighbor do?
By KATE BRUMBACK
Associated Press Writer
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — After enduring seven months of escalating violence — including strangling, smothering and beatings with pieces of smashed furniture — an Alabama woman escaped her abusive boyfriend when a concerned neighbor offered shelter and brought her to the police.
The woman, who asked that her full name and location not be revealed because her abuser is still at large, credits her neighbor with giving her the courage to flee her boyfriend and start her life over again.
“I’m so happy now, and I never dreamed I would be again,” the middle-aged woman, Kris, said recently, two and a half years after leaving her abuser with her neighbor’s help.
But a new study shows domestic violence is a leading factor in female homicides, which may mean neighbors don’t always act when screams and cries erupt next door.
Law enforcement officers and domestic violence experts agree that neighbors can be among the most helpful allies for victims of domestic violence, in part because of their proximity. But they sometimes ignore the signs because they feel it’s none of their business or they’re afraid of retaliation from the abuser.
Experts say neighbors shouldn’t hesitate to act because a loud fight could quickly escalate into something much worse. A report released last month by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta shows that domestic violence was a factor in 52 percent of female homicides and 9 percent of male homicides in 2005.
The report, which included data from 16 states, marks the first time that a full year’s worth of data from the CDC’s National Violent Death Reporting System has been examined across all types of violent deaths and for such a large data set.
“If you smell smoke at your neighbor’s house and you suspect there’s a fire, you wouldn’t hesitate to call the fire department,” said Lt. Steve Searcy, domestic violence bureau commander for the Montgomery Police Department. “So if you suspect domestic violence is going on in your neighborhood, why wouldn’t you call the police?”
“That neighbor may be the only window of hope for that woman or child to break the cycle of violence,” he said.
Nationally, intimate partner violence results each year in an estimated 1,200 deaths and 2 million injuries among women, according to the CDC. The agency reported nearly 600,000 injuries among men each year but had no national statistics on deaths.
Experts say most batterers are not dangerous to anyone but their specific victim since the abuse is generally a private means of control. Cases where violence has been turned on a neighbor include those where neighbors try to intervene directly in a violent situation or when abusers see the neighbor as a threat to their control over a victim.
Cheryl O’Donnell of the Washington, D.C.-based National Network to End Domestic Violence said a neighbor can carefully approach the victim to provide information about available resources, such as numbers for hotlines or addresses of local shelters. She stressed that it is important to make sure the abuser isn’t around before approaching the victim.
She said this simple step can be taken even if the neighbor doesn’t really know the victim. The important thing is to show her — victims are most often female — that she has support and somewhere to turn when she decides to seek help.
“One of the challenges in domestic violence is that often the victim doesn’t know they can rely on a friend or neighbor without being judged,” O’Donnell said.
Another helpful thing a neighbor can do is keep a packed bag for a victim with extra clothing, copies of important documents, an extra bank card or checkbook and copies of car and house keys in case the victim needs to make a quick escape. A neighbor can also arrange a signal with the victim — turning on a porch light, opening blinds — that means the neighbor should call police.
Lisa James, director of health for the San Francisco-based Family Violence Prevention Fund, said neighbors who don’t feel comfortable approaching a victim can take actions as simple as putting an anti-domestic violence bumper sticker or window sign on their car or house to let victims know they have support and encourage them to seek help.
Abusers focus on controlling their victims and keeping them from forming relationships with people who may help them get out of the situation, O’Donnell said. Victims are often made to feel like they are to blame for the abuse, so they feel ashamed seeking help.
Kris said that was the case for her. She said her controlling, drug-using boyfriend, who was 19 years her junior, did everything he could to isolate her from other people and make her feel worthless.
But when she lost her job when the company that employed her shut down, she started baby-sitting her upstairs neighbor’s two toddlers. The neighbor noticed signs of abuse and could often hear her screaming.
One day, in an especially violent episode, Kris said the boyfriend strangled and smothered her to the point that she passed out. He then left for a while, and the concerned neighbor brought her upstairs.
The boyfriend was furious when he returned. She said he banged on the neighbor’s door and threatened to kill them both as well as the neighbor’s young children. The neighbor shared the terror.
“When he came up and directly threatened her, she just went to pieces,” Kris said.
Kris gave in and went back to him — but not for long.
Two days later, despite fear for her own safety, the neighbor drove Kris to the police station while the boyfriend was at work. The police took Kris to a shelter, where she stayed for four and a half months while getting her life back on track.
The neighbor, who has since moved to another state, was afraid the boyfriend might harm her when he found Kris gone again. She had a friend who was a sheriff’s deputy come by to check on her and help her buy a gun.
“She was in horrible fear that he would do something to her because he would think she helped me,” Kris said. “She never was out of fear until he left.”
About a week after Kris left, the police went to the apartment and left a card on the door for the boyfriend to contact them. He fled and hasn’t been heard from since. There are warrants out for his arrest, but Kris said she won’t feel completely safe until he’s in jail.
With encouragement from counselors at the shelter where she sought help, Kris has turned her negative experience into a source of strength for others. The counselors say she spends her free time volunteering at the shelter and speaks to groups of battered women to help move on after being abused.
On the Net:
National Network to End Domestic Violence, http://www.nnedv.org/
Family Violence Prevention Fund, http://www.endabuse.org/
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, http://www.ncadv.org
CDC National Violent Death Reporting System report, http://www.cdc.gov/MMWR/preview/mmwrhtml/ss5703a1.htm
Published in The Messenger 5.23.08