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“Why Doesn’t She Just Leave?”

As the Founder & CEO of an organization that provides services to at-risk victims of domestic violence, one of my biggest challenges winning supporters to our cause is the reaction from many among us who simply wonder “why doesn’t she just leave?”

It has often been said the key to knowledge is “knowing the right questions.” And, I admit, at first blush, wondering why she doesn’t “just  leave” seems like a reasonable question. However, based upon my work with countless victims of domestic violence, I can assure you that not only is the question misguided, it’s the wrong question.

Let’s start with the word “leave.” If you’re at a restaurant and you don’t like the food or service, you are free to “leave.” If you are on a first date, and you’re not enjoying the company, you are free to “leave.” In fact, absent a prison sentence or commitment to the military, our society pretty much guarantees you the freedom to simply “leave” any unpleasant or unwanted situation you might find yourself in.

Although countless domestic violence victims do simply “leave” their abusers, that seemingly simple act is filled with peril for victims who are connected to dangerous abusers. It’s no coincidence that victims, survivors, and advocates often refer to the act of leaving a dangerous abuser as “escaping.” Remember my prison reference above? It was very purposeful because domestic violence has often been described by victims and survivors alike as a “life sentence,” or a “prison sentence.”

Imagine sharing a prison cell with someone who is bigger, stronger, and more violent than you. Your cell mate was once kind and charming, and your best friend. However, he has slowly over time become controlling, emotionally and financially abusive, and violent. The prison guards are limited in what they can do, and your cell mate threatens to kill you or have your family harmed if you relocate to another cell – and you believe him. Even if you were to relocate to another cell, you’re still stuck in the same prison with him. When you reported the threats and violence in the past, the guards either did nothing, or your cell mate’s punishment was a slap on the wrist. Once, you were charged as the abuser and punished just for defending yourself. To survive, you now “manage” your cell mate by keeping him happy, and the cycle of abuse has slowly become your “new normal.” That, my dear readers, is the reality of domestic violence for far too many women.

So, let’s do a thought experiment and phrase the question more accurately: “Why doesn’t she just ESCAPE?” It certainly has a different ring to it now doesn’t it? It’s definitely not quite the same question we started with, but it is the right question if you sincerely want to know the “why?”

Asking “why doesn’t she just leave” blames the victim, and implies she’s at fault for not casually leaving a dangerous situation as you might simply depart a restaurant you don’t like. But, when we ask the same question in the more proper context of “escape,” the implications are clear: The victim is blameless, and leaving is often dangerous. So, let us instead examine “why doesn’t she just escape?”

“Why Doesn’t She Just Escape?”

According to statistics, 75% of domestic violence related homicides occur upon, or shortly after separating from an abuser, and this risk can persist for up to two years. Simply put, leaving a dangerous abuser can put a victim’s life in grave danger. Victims fear leaving, and the statistics support that their fears are not unfounded.
Many victims have witnessed the judicial system fail others in her position, and the system may have even failed to adequately protect her on prior occasions. With no perceived safe options, victims often choose to “manage” their abusers, and remain in the abusive relationship.

Although Restraining Orders are a critical legal protection, they are rendered nothing more than a “piece of paper” by abusers who are truly committed to violence. Imagine if someone showed up at your home, your place of employment, or even the children’s school (it has happened) intent upon murdering you, and you held up your restraining order to protect yourself. I don’t recommend it.
There are limited and/or unavailable resources to help victims escape. For instance, when PROTECTION FROM ABUSE conducted a direct action rescue mission in Georgia recently, the victim called all surrounding shelters for 4 weeks straight, and they were all full.  There are other barriers as well, such as restrictions some shelters impose upon children older than a certain age, and most shelters understandably do not accept family pets who may likewise be at risk of severe abuse.
Domestic violence is as much about control as it is about violence. Most abusers are very skilled at isolating their victims from family and friends over time. Alienated from all those who might help, many victims simply have nowhere to go, and no one to depend upon.
Many abusers do not permit their victims to work, and if they do, they control the money. “Financial abuse” is common in domestic violence relationships. Accordingly, the lack of funds limits a victim’s options to escape.
Having children with an abuser complicates a victim’s escape exponentially. Many victims fear losing and/or sharing custody with a violent and/or vengeful parent. They fear their abuser will harm the children if they escape. Some worry about how divorce or separation will effect the children.
Child custody laws complicate a victim’s escape from a dangerous abuser. Violent abusers rarely lose parental rights, and many victims face limitations imposed by the court regarding relocation which could  otherwise improve their safety. Victims are often forced to live in, or near, the very same communities as their abuser. This can literally feel like a “life sentence” for many women as they live in perpetual fear.

The above is not an exhaustive list of the barriers victims face when attempting to escape. Domestic violence is a complex landscape that can also involve physical, emotional, and spiritual barriers to escape. No matter where you stand on the topic of domestic violence, it’s important to understand the short and long-term challenges a victim will face while trying to escape the bondage of abuse.

I hope the next time you are confronted with the topic of domestic violence, that you are now inclined to instead think “how can she escape,” and how might we help her to safety.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Steven J. Dana is the Founder & Chief Executive Officer of PROTECTION FROM ABUSE. Mr. Dana is a Victim-Witness Protection Specialist, licensed Armed Personal Protection Specialist, Security Consultant, and NACP credentialed Victim Advocate. You can reach Mr. Dana at [email protected].

© 2017 Steven J. Dana, All Rights Reserved