Never Say Never: “In Her Shoes”

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20171031_085032No matter how compassionate or understanding a person you think you are, at some point you’re going to be a little judge-y.

*shrug*

O.K.

Everybody scoffs. Everybody – everybody – shakes their head and screws up their mouth and (in a moment of weakness) decides that the way that someone else is choosing to conduct themselves is wrong. We look at someone’s life or their current situation or their reaction to a rough patch and think, “I would never do that!” This is especially true of domestic violence. Comments like, “I would never let a man put his hands on me!” or “I would never put my children through that!” are incredibly common.

And so … maybe that’s actually the case. Maybe you wouldn’t. Maybe your reaction would be different than someone else’s. But then again, how can you be sure? The reality is that until you’re in a given situation, you really don’t know how you’d react.

Because I work with DV victims and survivors as well as those who serve them, I was honestly of the opinion that I (mostly) understood the overall plight of the battered woman. Fortunately for me, I live in a county where the local FCS (ours is Family & Children’s Service of Niagara) offers the In Her Shoes DV Awareness Program.

Published in 2000 by the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, In Her Shoes is “…a revolutionary community education tool, designed for learning about domestic violence. Participants move, do, think and experience the lives of battered women.” Photo Courtesy of The Columbian, 2015.

I initially registered to attend because while I’ve worked with Family & Children’s Service of Niagara in the past, I was recently made aware that their Director of Passage House, Larissa Bachman, is using Leaving Dorian as a supplemental read with their interns. It got me to thinking that while I know quite a bit about FCS, I know little about the inner workings of Passage House. I thought what a great opportunity to speak candidly with Larissa and her team and as a bonus maybe do a blog post about the In Her Shoes Program.

I was completely unprepared for the experience that followed.

Participants were brought into a mixed-use room where I’d worked previously, only this time instead of rows of chairs there were long tables with stacks of colorful note cards. Each table had a sign attached: “Social Services”, “Hospital”, “Employment”, etc. Attendees were then paired up and we were told to pick a person’s name from the starter table. After that the journey begins; you are to make choices for your person while reading their perspective (as well as their batterer’s perspective) from each side of the card.

Because I’m a survivor of DV and because I work with amazing DV professionals and ridiculously intelligent and well-read professors and because I, too, have chosen to be well-read on the topic, I walked into the exercise feeling confident that I could help my person to avoid the inevitable pitfalls. There was no doubt in my mind that I would be able to guide her into a healthy lifestyle well within the hour or so time frame we’d been given to complete the exercise.

Within minutes I realized that I was wrong.

There’s no way that you can prepare yourself to be given the opportunity to make every choice from beginning to end and still “fail”. There’s no way to prepare yourself to walk through nearly forty-five minutes with a person (yes, a person written on paper, but one that you slowly and inadvertently invest yourself in) just to get to the last card and have it say “Funeral Home”.

I couldn’t believe it. Tears started to well in my eyes. I stood there trying to figure it out; why was the end result so hard to take? I mean, I thought I had it. I thought I knew. I am the “Her” in “In Her Shoes”, after all! I’ve been there. I’ve done that. And even beyond my own experience – as an author who’s made myself extremely accessible on social media – I routinely hear the most sad, perplexing and gut wrenching stories from victims and survivors alike. I thought nothing could surprise or shock me. And yet, tears.

I was seriously under the weather and probably should have stayed home that day, so I immediately wanted to blame it on that; I simply wasn’t feeling well. But the young woman that I was paired with didn’t like the ending either. I said, “Let’s go back…” So we did. Our character was young; not even eighteen. We had her go home. And yet, three cards in, she was right back in a tough spot. I suggested we go back even further, maybe right back to the second card that we read.

I was shaken. That couldn’t be her ending. I refused to finish the exercise. I simply would not walk over to the wall marker that said “Funeral Home”. There was nothing but an empty table in front of it. No more cards. It was left empty for reflection, but I didn’t want to reflect. I dried my eyes as the group sat down for debriefing.

I was happy to find out that not every story ended as tragically as ours. Other groups did manage to successfully maneuver their people into new lives. It’s worth noting, though, that at times these groups had to make choices for their person that weren’t always in line with their real-life belief systems. Again, an incredibly important lesson: You cannot impose your value system on someone else. Hard to hear? Sometimes, yes. But a necessary message? Absolutely.

Of course Ms. Bachman and her team were excellent facilitators and I’d like to believe that every attendee walked out that afternoon with all of their questions answered and with a deeper appreciation of the level of strength, courage, creativity and (sometimes) blind faith that victims routinely have to possess in order to safely and successfully re-start their lives. I know that I did. It was a humbling experience that I will carry with me; one that will necessarily be reflected in every presentation and classroom discussion that I participate in from now on.

I’m incredibly proud to be able to say that Family & Children’s Service of Niagara is my hometown service provider and that the staff there is offering unique, high-quality community education programs like In Her Shoes. Programs like these (offered in house or off-site) are exactly what HR professionals are looking for when putting together sensitivity training for Staff Development Days. Their utilization can only heighten awareness and bring about much needed change in our thought processes (and eventually, our behavior toward) victims of domestic violence.

If you are in Western New York, you can contact FCS of Niagara to schedule an In Her Shoes program experience at http://www.niagarafamily.org or by phone: (716) 285-6984

If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence and is need of assistance, FCS of Niagara 24/7 Emergency Hotline is: (716) 299-0909

To purchase the In Her Shoes program please contact http://www.wscadv.org

 

 

 

 

 

Surviving…Thriving: A Journey of Healing Through Art, October 5, 2017

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Surviving…Thriving: A Journey of Healing through Art featured nearly one hundred pieces of artwork in a variety of mediums, all created by survivors of domestic violence. It was once again held at The Castellani Art Museum (which sits in the center of Niagara University campus) in conjunction with the Red Flag Campaign, a national public awareness initiative designed to encourage college students to intervene when they see a warning sign (“red flag”) of partner violence. Niagara University, The Child Advocacy Center of Niagara, Family & Children’s Service of Niagara, The Niagara County Sheriff’s Office Victim Assistance Unit, and the YWCA of the Niagara Frontier were all proud sponsors of the event, with all proceeds being donated to Passage House Domestic Services, a program of Family & Children’s Service of Niagara.

I was happy to offer closing remarks at the Welcome Reception, as October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

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Well attended by NU students; they didn’t seem to mind waiting in line to sign in.

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DV Advocates with the Niagara County Victims Assistance Unit painting pinkies 🙂 The mission of  The Purple Pinkie Campaign is to eliminate dating violence. The campaign was founded in memory of 18-year-old Alex Kogut who was murdered by her boyfriend in her college dorm room at SUNY Brockport on September 29, 2012.

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Students of the Niagara County Law Enforcement Academy showing off their Purple Pinkies!

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It’s important to note that the event was well attended by both men and women.

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Campus and community advocates made themselves available throughout the entirety of the event to address any complicated or painful emotions that attendees might experience.

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Survivor stories are featured with many of the pieces of artwork.

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The Silent Witness Project was the centerpiece of the exhibit.

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Debbie Boyer stands in front of her daughter’s Silent Witness statuette. Tina Marie was murdered in her own home by her former boyfriend on August 4, 2004.

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Debbie is a pillar of strength and meeting her for the first time was truly my honor, because she’s also a fighter – In the nearly fifteen years since her daughter’s death, she’s become a well known advocate in Niagara County for her unwavering support of domestic violence prevention and response. With a deep understanding that adequate funding equals adequate services for women in need, she and her family  conduct two fundraisers yearly: a cell phone drive and the “Pennies from Heaven” drive which to date has raised more than $20,000 in support of the YWCA’s DV services and programs. The YWCA of the Niagara Frontier also recently dedicated a newly renovated room in its Domestic Violence Safe Dwelling in memory of her daughter, Tina Marie.

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“I ask each and every one of you who will walk this floor tonight to please understand
What you’re viewing isn’t merely art, it’s strength.
It is courage and dignity and tenacity.
What these walls house tonight is a testimony to the strength of the human spirit.”

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L to R: Dr. Dana Radatz, Assistant Professor of Criminology; Eileen Wrobel, Family & Children’s Services; NYS Assemblyman Angelo Morinello; Niagara University President Fr. James Maher; Larissa Bachman, Director of PASSAGE; NU Executive Vice Pres Dr. Debra Colley; *ME*; NC Victims Asst. Unit Susan LaRose; Criminology student Courtney Kenny; YWCA Sexual Violence Prevention Educator/Advocate Rachel Sandle-Sacco

Photos Courtesy of Andrew Emmons, student at Niagara University

Invisible Victims

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Closing remarks at the Welcome Reception for Surviving to Thriving: A Journey of Healing Through Art at The Castellani Art Museum, October 5, 2017

“So often in the media we see and hear sensational stories about battered women

Horrific descriptions of women being seriously injured, maimed and even killed

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And that is awful.

Each and every incident of battery, every life lost, is a tragedy.

But every single day 

There are also hundreds of thousands of women

Who aren’t killed by their partners

Who aren’t shot or stabbed or sent to the emergency room in critical condition

But are injured nonetheless.

Every single day hundreds of thousands of women

Endure cruelties and indignities that many people cannot even fathom.

Affronts to their dignity and to their humanity

Physical abuse that wounds their bodies

And verbal abuse that wounds their hearts and souls.

Yet these women quietly carry on.

They care for their children and they go to work

They go to lunch with friends and cheer their children at little league

They organize fundraisers and sew costumes for school plays

And they pray to their God at religious services, their families by their side

All the while carefully hiding the pain and shame that they live with every day.

Hiding their bruises and their embarrassment behind long sleeves and elaborate excuses.

And when they’ve had enough and they decide to move on and start their lives anew

They do so without fanfare or praise

Often times quietly enduring continued abuse long after the relationship has ended

And yet, they remain steadfast.

They stand and they fight for their right to live free from fear

Free from physical pain and sexual coercion and verbal and emotional battery

And they do all of this in the most private corners of their lives.

They do not tell their stories. They do not let outsiders in.

They carry their tragic history silently, and by themselves.

They are what I call Invisible Victims.

But they shouldn’t be.

Surviving to Thriving: A Journey of Healing Through Art

Brings the reality of these Invisible Victims to light.

They are our mothers and sisters and co-workers and friends.

They are your child’s school teacher and your real estate agent.

They are the cashier at your favorite coffee house and the lady who delivers your mail.

I commend each and every survivor who chose to take part in this exhibition.

To lay your pain and shame and embarrassment open for the world to judge is no small task

*I am well aware of that*

So I ask each and every one of you who will walk this floor tonight to please understand

What you’re viewing isn’t merely art, it’s strength.

It is courage and dignity and tenacity.

What these walls house tonight is a testimony to the strength of the human spirit.

God Bless these women

And God Bless the volunteers who took time out of their busy lives to facilitate this exhibition.

To recognize that no one should believe that it would be better to be Invisible.”

* Photo courtesy of Andrew Emmons, Niagara University

 

Summer 2017

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Family time at the Pittsburgh Zoo – 90+ degrees … we were melting!

It was a busy summer, to say the least; weddings, family road trips and lots of reading, because here in Western New York it did nothing but rain! On the up-side, I still found time to schedule three fantastic presentations with three distinctly different agencies. Each was unique and interesting in its own way and I feel lucky to have been asked by each group to spend some time with their employees, volunteers and clients.

 

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Oh, and there were cupcakes …

In late June I had the privilege of speaking with an amazing group of foster parents at KidsPeace. My presentation focused on childhood trauma and how that related to my own experience with domestic violence, but we covered so much more than that in the nearly three hours that I spent with them.

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… and a dog 🙂

 

 

KidsPeace, founded in 1882, is a private charity dedicated to serving the behavioral and mental health needs of children, families and communities. The organization was originally a home for children orphaned by a smallpox epidemic, but has grown over the years to meet the ever-changing needs of children and adolescents. KidsPeace offers services in Georgia, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Our continuum of care includes a psychiatric hospital; a comprehensive range of residential treatment programs; accredited educational services; and a variety of foster care and community-based treatment programs to help children and families in need transform their lives.”  www.kidspeace.org

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Honest conversations lead to change! So happy to be invited to speak to some of the tireless advocates who are working on behalf of women and children in Niagara County.

 

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With only about ten women in attendance, it was a completely different vibe than I’m accustomed to. Twenty minutes of intense learning – on everyone’s part 🙂

I’ve never delivered a presentation to a group comprised almost entirely of men, but that’s exactly where I unveiled my newest presentation – Domestic Violence & Being An Engaged Bystander – on August 2 at Starpoint Senior High School in Pendleton, NY. Nearly 350 youth football coaches and statisticians were in attendance at NEYSA’s All Coaches meeting. I opted to speak without a mic, because often times people talk “under” you when you use one. The vast majority of these gentlemen were just that – absolute gentlemen. Maybe a little disinterested at first? Sure. But as I talked they listened and quieted and (many) even set aside their phones. I watched their faces go from polite, required attention to, “…oh my god…that actually happened to you…? Are you serious? How could that have happened to you…?” The shock, sadness and disgust that washed over many of the attendees was palpable. Here’s hoping that if these coaches are faced with a family that’s in need of intervention, they’ll remember that feeling (and where they put the paperwork I provided!) and will feel confident in their ability to provide a shoulder and a referral to those in need.

Knight In Shining Armor

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IMG_20170810_095455_451Be very careful how much credit you take when discussing your role in helping a battered woman to turn her life around. In the end, if a woman can successfully transition from ‘victim’ to ‘survivor’, it’s because she did the work. Because she had the strength, courage and conviction to stand her ground and say, “No more.” Yes, friends and loved ones may have helped ~ emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, financially ~ but in the end, a successful re-start is achieved because a battered woman did the heavy lifting. For herself, by herself.

What Is Financial Abuse?

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  • Forbidding the victim to work
  • Sabotaging work or employment opportunities by stalking or harassing the victim at the workplace or causing the victim to lose her job by physically battering prior to important meetings or interviews
  • Controlling how all of the money is spent
  • Not allowing the victim access to bank accounts
  • Withholding money or giving “an allowance”
  • Not including the victim in investment or banking decisions
  • Forbidding the victim from attending job training or advancement opportunities
  • Forcing the victim to write bad checks or file fraudulent tax returns
  • Running up large amounts of debt on joint accounts, taking bad credit loans
  • Refusing to work or contribute to the family income
  • Withholding funds for the victim or children to obtain basic needs such as food and medicine
  • Hiding assets
  • Stealing the victim’s identity, property or inheritance
  • Forcing the victim to work in a family business without pay
  • Refusing to pay bills and ruining the victims’ credit score
  • Forcing the victim to turn over public benefits or threatening to turn the victim in for “cheating or misusing benefits”
  • Filing false insurance claims
  • Refusing to pay  or evading child support or manipulating the divorce process by drawing it out by hiding or not disclosing assets

Excerpted from nnedv.org

What Is Coercive Control?

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“Coercive control is a term developed by Evan Stark to help us understand domestic abuse as more than a ‘fight’. It is a pattern of behaviour which seeks to take away the victim’s liberty or freedom, to strip away their sense of self. It is not just women’s bodily integrity which is violated but also their human rights.”
Read the book: Evan Stark, Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life (2002)