Breaking the silence: Domestic violence is an issue that impacts everyone
Here’s how you can do your part this October
Awareness months like October, which is earmarked for domestic violence, often come and go without significantly changing our way of thinking. What might it mean if this were different?
In the case of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, a broader understanding of what domestic violence really looks like has the power to increase the number of people who feel comfortable and empowered to reach out for help.
“If more people understood the real dynamics of domestic violence, the complexity and all that goes with that, I think they would be more compassionate to their friends and family, and their neighbors, and their coworkers,” said Deena Ezzell, a victim services coordinator for the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office.
Despite being one of Eagle County’s most common crimes, there are still stereotypes of what domestic violence victims look like — who they are and who they are not.
“Domestic violence spans all socioeconomic categories,” said Sheri Mintz, the executive director of Bright Future Foundation. “It exists in all neighborhoods. It exists with all genders and it really is a problem that is pervasive in not only ours but in all communities.”
About 200 cases of domestic violence are reported to the 5th Judicial District Attorney’s Office in Eagle County each year — 199 in 2019 and 202 in 2020. This year, reports of domestic violence are up with 207 incidents reported to date withthree months still left.
“While we never want to see rising numbers in domestic violence cases, it is important to remember that domestic violence impacts everyone,” District Attorney Heidi McCollum said. “From victims to their friends and family members to the perpetrators themselves, domestic violence is an ugly scar that takes a long time to heal and recover from.”
An issue that impacts everyone
Judgment around what victims should or should not do, how they should or should not respond to situations of abuse, can be damaging, Ezzell said. This judgment is often expressed — internally or externally — as people asserting what they would surely do if they were in a similar situation.
“When you think about someone that’s in a domestic violence relationship, it’s a big secret that they’re not usually sharing and they’re hearing their friends and coworkers and family members reacting to what’s on the news … and that sometimes contributes to negative feelings about themselves — fear, hopelessness, or shame — and the need to keep the secret,” Ezzell said.
Ezzell supports domestic violence victims in navigating the immediate aftermath of interactions with law enforcement that can be confusing and extremely emotional.
“Each case is different and that’s true of any crime, but especially with domestic violence because it is an intimate partner,” Ezzell said. “It’s someone that they know because they care about them or they cared about them at one point in the past and there’s a lot of emotions involved with that, sometimes conflicting feelings.”
“It’s not as simple as one time and then I’m done, I don’t see that very often,” she said.
Domestic violence can impact anyone and can take many different forms, some of which may not be as immediately recognizable as physical violence, Mintz said.
“It can also be emotional abuse that can be incredibly insidious and debilitating to victims,” she said. “There can be a sexual component. There can even be sexual violence within marriages or within intimate partner relationships where that, again, is used as a mechanism for power and control.”
If everyone in our community knew how to access support services and could share that information with friends and neighbors, we could build a community that is more resilient to this kind of crime, Ezzell said.
Where to get help
Victims can always contact the national domestic violence hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE, which Ezzell said she always remembers because 799 is 800 minus one. The national hotline then matches victims with services in their area.
Of course, victims can always call 911 and should, especially in situations where they fear for their safety or for the safety of others. They will be connected with a victim advocate like Ezzell that will help them through the initial call up until an arrest is made and formal charges are brought. At this point, victims are assigned to a victim witness coordinator but can remain in contact with their advocate if desired, she said.
Once police are involved, however, victims lose some control over what happens next as mandatory arrest laws require law enforcement to file charges in any situation where there is probable cause to believe a domestic violence crime was committed, Ezzell said.
“I am very careful about how I say that because there are a lot of myths in the community,” she said. “Some people think, well, if the police are called somebody’s going to jail. No, if there’s no evidence of a crime committed, that’s not the truth. But if there is evidence of a crime committed, the police have to do something with that whether the victim wants them to or not.”
The national hotline, as well as the local hotline operated by Bright Future Foundation, are both confidential. This means the agencies do not and cannot report anything to law enforcement without an individual’s consent with a few exceptions, Ezzell said.
Bright Future Foundation offers comprehensive support services for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. The organization recently received an award for its new shelter, which provides temporary housing to victims in need of somewhere to go.
Bright Future’s hotline can be reached at any time day or night at (970) 949-7086.
Building a community of support
There is much work to be done to better support local victims. Certain segments of Eagle County’s population still have more difficulty speaking out and accessing services, Mintz said.
Bright Future is working to strengthen bilingual, bicultural support for Spanish speakers in the valley, Mintz said. It currently has four bilingual, bicultural advocates or “caseworkers” and two such mental health clinicians on the team, Mintz said.
The Sheriff’s Office also has a bilingual, bicultural victim services coordinator, who serves as Ezzell’s counterpart.
Seeking help in a situation of domestic violence or abuse can also be particularly difficult for the valley’s transient populations. Many people come to Eagle County to work seasonally from other states or other countries and most of them lack the kind of support structures that can mean the difference between getting help and staying in a potentially dangerous situation.
“They likely don’t have those deep social connections. They don’t necessarily have family here for when a situation comes up that normally someone might go and speak to a sibling or to a parent,” Mintz said. “Also, someone here for a short time might have very fragile friendships or social connections, and not be able to share.”
The nonprofit partners with large employers like Vail Resorts to offer trainings on how to spot red flags and what to do next, she said. It also works with medical offices and hospitals as physicians are often the first to notice signs of abuse.
Living in a small community like Eagle County also means less privacy when dealing with these matters and can make it difficult for victims to avoid their abusers, she said.
Another unique challenge that Eagle County victims face in seeking safety for themselves and their families is housing. The lack of affordable housing complicates the decision to leave, especially if a victim’s abuser supports the family financially or if the victim has been out of the workforce for a while, Mintz said.
“How difficult it would be to make such a life change and then to try to be on your way to self-sufficiency in a matter of a couple of weeks?” she said.
Bright Future has a new emergency housing facility called BrightHouse, but hopes to offer more long-term transitional housing and housing subsidies to help families get back on their feet, Mintz said.
If you know someone who you fear may be suffering from domestic violence, you can call the Bright Future Foundation hotline for advice on how to support them, Mintz said.
It can be difficult for victims to reach out, so friends and family must respond with love and understanding, she said. These conversations must be free of judgment, but not free of honesty.
“People are well-intentioned and people often will say what they think their friend or family member wants to hear, but sometimes they need to hear a hard reality because domestic violence in the most severe cases can lead to fatalities,” Mintz said.
If someone suffering from abuse can take the step to reach out, Bright Future Foundation and its partner agencies will make sure they don’t fall. It offers wrap-around services from legal advice to housing to financial and emotional support.
“We have advocates, we have counselors, we have an attorney … just the fact that we have this number of staff really illustrates how complex this problem is,” Mintz said. “The complexities around abuse are enormous.”
The Eagle County Sheriff’s Office is looking for more volunteers to support its 24/7 victim advocacy services. Anyone interested in taking action to help neighbors in crisis can apply to become a trained, on-call volunteer by emailing Ezzell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bright Future Foundation is also looking for volunteers for its Buddy Mentors program, which pairs volunteers with local at-risk youth. Find out more on the “Get Involved” page of the foundation’s website.
Bright Future Foundation also accepts donations at the “Donate” page on its website.
Email Kelli Duncan at email@example.com