Throughout the month of October, more discussion and attention is given to a national, year-round issue — domestic violence, which affects more than 30% of Colorado residents at some point in their life.
Domestic violence can range from physical, sexual, and emotional abuse to psychological abuse, according to Arapahoe County’s website.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, an estimated 36.8% of Colorado women and 30.5% of Colorado men experience intimate partner physical violence, intimate partner sexual violence and/or intimate partner stalking in their lives.
“Domestic violence, I think, really goes back to power and control,” said Katherine Lawson, the chief development officer at Family Tree, a nonprofit human services agency serving the metro Denver area.
Lawson said she thinks domestic violence is often hidden.
“I think that we as a society have, in some ways, sort of set things up to disbelieve the victim in many cases,” said Patricia Westmoreland, a psychiatrist at the HealthONE Behavioral Health and Wellness Center and the medical director of the women’s behavioral health unit.
“Many of these women do not come forward because they’re afraid of retribution, they’re afraid they won’t be believed, and they’re afraid that even if they are believed, they will have to confront their accuser in a courtroom situation,” Westmoreland said.
She recommended looking for subtle signs such as someone becoming withdrawn, depressed or appearing afraid of or easily controlled by a partner.
Potential warning signs of an abuser include jealousy, verbal abuse, cruelty to animals, controlling all finances and harassment of the victim at work, according to Arapahoe County’s webpage.
“A good proportion of women develop post traumatic stress disorders and have nightmares and flashbacks even years after they have gotten out of the abusive relationship,” Westmoreland said, explaining domestic violence can also impact a person’s self-confidence and ability to trust others.
An interconnected issue
Women are at the highest risk of being abused by a domestic partner when they are pregnant, Westmoreland said.
Westmoreland thinks this is partly because a pregnancy changes a relationship. In cases where a pregnancy was not intended, it can put a financial strain on the relationship and may lead to the abuser feeling in control of the other person.
Domestic violence is often an immediate cause of homelessness, Lawson explained, due to people fleeing unsafe situations.
Women who are socioeconomically disadvantaged are more likely to stay in abusive relationships so they can get their children fed, Westmoreland said.
However, when children observe this kind of relationship, they may seek these types of relationships themselves in an effort to sort of see if they can create a better outcome, Westmoreland said.
Children who experience domestic violence in their homes are at a significantly greater risk of being abused themselves, Lawson explained.
Preventing such a cycle is one of the goals of Family Tree.
“We partner with all people to prevent and overcome the interconnected issues of child abuse, domestic violence and homelessness to promote safety, healing and stability across generations,” Lawson said. “It’s really about breaking cycles of violence and poverty.”
Family Tree offers a variety of services and programs. Its domestic violence programs include an emergency residential facility for survivors of domestic violence, a legal advocacy program, a domestic violence outreach program and a parenting program.
Through these programs, the nonprofit operates a 24-hour crisis line, safety planning efforts, law clinics, supervised parenting time, group support for survivors and community education efforts.
The programs Family Tree offers are interconnected, Lawson said, and clients can be connected to other programs as needed.
“It’s really important not to feel alone,” Lawson said.
If a person suspects someone may be in an abusive relationship, Westmoreland recommends deepening a relationship with that person so they feel comfortable discussing the relationship and whether they feel safe and supported at home.
“Unfortunately, in many of these instances, the abuser typically tries to isolate the person and control them,” she said.
People can contact Family Tree’s domestic violence outreach program to get advice on how to best help someone they think may be experiencing domestic violence, Lawson said.
“Some of the most important things is to not judge someone that’s in this situation, and to keep the dialogue open, and to be supportive,” Lawson said.
Something communities can do to help reduce domestic violence is teaching girls from a young age to have a voice and stand up for themselves, Westmoreland said. Women who are economically independent are less likely to stay in an abusive relationship.
“Promoting the independence and the voice of women and girls, I think, is really, really important,” Westmoreland said.
From a political perspective, Westmoreland feels the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade is “a really bad step backwards in that direction, because it certainly leaves women and girls feeling that they are not entirely in charge of their bodies and their own reproductive care,” she said.
“That, from a psychological standpoint, I think puts women at a huge disadvantage,” Westmoreland said.
In regards to homelessness and domestic violence, it’s important for people to keep in mind that it’s challenging to address and overcome trauma, Lawson said.
She recommends people be understanding and not place blame or shame on others, as well as learn about how to help and the resources available in the community.
“I think it’s really important for people to know there’s a next step. There is a future where there is safety, healing and stability,” Lawson said. “So there is hope in the midst of a really, really challenging time.”