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It’s not their fault, yet domestic violence survivors face most of the consequences

Victim advocates say friends, loved ones must navigate relationships carefully
Staff members with Alternative Horizons, an advocacy group for survivors of domestic violence, talk on Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023, in a meeting room at the nonprofit’s offices in Durango. October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“You made me do it.” “You’re the one who’s abusive.” “You shouldn’t have provoked me.” “You pushed me too far; I had no choice.” “You made me hurt you.”

These are a few of the common refrains perpetrators of domestic violence use to shift blame onto survivors.

Comments like these, in the wake of emotional or physical abuse, are a form of gaslighting, said Holly, a legal advocate at Alternative Horizons, a nonprofit that provides support to survivors of domestic violence in La Plata and San Juan counties.

It can start small: “You tripped me,” a victim might say. “No I didn’t, you fell over,” the perpetrator might say. In the most extreme cases, a perpetrator makes a victim question his or her own reality, said Holly, who declined to give her last name as a safety precaution given her line of work.

Law enforcement in Durango and La Plata County often say domestic violence is one of the more vexing problems in the area. Yet, local law enforcement agencies offered only prepared statements via email for this story, marking Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

With the exception of a few spikes or dips, the number of domestic violence incidents have remained fairly steady over the years, they say.

It is a crime that impacts all races, genders and income brackets. Women ages 16 to 24 are most likely to experience domestic violence, experts say, but they note men reporting domestic violence is grossly underreported, partly because men experience a higher sense of shame, and partly because men are less likely to share their emotions.

“Anybody can be either a victim of domestic violence or a perpetrator,” said Lisa, the diversity advocate at Alternative Horizons, who declined to give her last name. “If you are a survivor, you deserve help, and you deserve to be listened to and heard.”

An ‘insidious crime’

District Attorney Christian Champagne said domestic violence accounted for more than 10% of the total number of cases his office handled in 2022. More specifically, his office handled about 3,000 cases last year. Of those, 341 were domestic violence-related, including 27 strangulation cases.

That is consistent with previous years, Champagne said.

He described domestic violence as having a cyclical effect. Children who grow up in homes where domestic violence is present are far more likely to become victims or perpetrators of domestic abuse when they reach adulthood, he said.

“The intergenerational trauma that comes along with domestic violence events that occur in front of children leads to a higher likelihood of those kids perpetrating domestic violence in the future – or being victims,” Champagne said.

Likewise, survivors of domestic violence often end up leaving one abusive relationship for another, Champagne said.

“If you’ve been victimized once, it dramatically increases the likelihood that you will be victimized again, like 50 to 70% more likely,” he said. “It’s a really insidious crime.”

Domestic violence confuses a survivor’s understanding of what is considered appropriate behavior in an intimate relationship, he said.

“When those lines get blurry, and those boundaries get blurry about what is acceptable in a relationship and what is not, it increases the likelihood that people will suffer and be victimized again,” Champagne said.

The problem is even more acute among women of color, especially Native Americans, he said.

Perpetrators also have patterns – or a “playbook” – when it comes to abuse, he said.

One of the key moves is to isolate victims from friends and family. After removing a victim’s support network, a perpetrator chips away at their partner’s self-esteem, establishes themselves as the “rational decision-maker,” and then begins to impose their will, Champagne said.

It begins as a mental power grab, he explained, “then you see that escalating level of control and dominance turn more violent over time.”

In the most extreme cases, domestic violence ends in death.

“Sadly, we’ve seen domestic violence lethality in our community all too often,” Champagne said. “There’s several cases just in the last few years.”

Education is key to breaking the cycle of violence, he said, and that doesn’t mean just educating perpetrators and survivors.

Even people in healthy relationships must learn to recognize the signs of domestic violence and know how to respond if they are to help friends and family members experiencing abuse, he said.

Victim blaming

Advocates for domestic violence survivors often hear from community members who don’t understand why victims don’t simply leave a hostile or violent relationship.

“What folks tend to say and think, is, ‘Well if that happened to me, I would leave immediately. That person would never have a second chance to physically assault me or harm me,’” said Val Ross, executive director of Alternative Horizons.

Domestic violence resources

Manna soup kitchen: 385-5095

  • Food market.
  • Showers.
  • ID assistance.
  • Snap application assistance.

Women’s Resource Center: 247-1242

  • Womenade.
  • Scholarships.
  • Computer access.

Southwest Safehouse: 259-5443

  • Safe housing for survivors of intimate partner violence.

Colorado Legal Services: 247-0266

  • Civil legal services.

Sexual assault services organization (SASO) hotline: 247-5400

  • Advocacy.
  • Prevention education programs.
  • 24/7 hotline.

Advocates available at these locations:

  • Manna soup kitchen: First and third Thursdays of the month from 10 a.m. to noon.
  • Pine River Library: Second and fourth Wednesdays of the month from 2 to 4 p.m.
  • Fort Lewis College Phoenix center: Every Tuesday and Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. during the school year.

What those people fail to understand is there are many reasons why survivors may not leave a relationship, she said, including financial instability, emotional trauma, fear of physical harm, fear of losing child custody, fear of losing custody of a pet, fear of becoming unhoused and simply because the survivor still loves the perpetrator.

It is also possible survivors have a physical or mental disability and they depend on a perpetrator to take care of them, possibly by taking them to doctor’s appointments.

“Many times, it’s all of those things wrapped in one,” Ross said. “There are many survivors who truly want that relationship to change, and (they) stay in that relationship because they believe it will change or the perpetrator is promising that it will change.”

Survivors may also deal with conflicting emotions.

On one hand, they are trying to visualize a life without a longtime partner, on the other they may still be in love with their perpetrator, Lisa said.

“It’s OK that you feel two things at the same time,” she said. “And that’s really important for them to hear when they’ve been told for so long how to feel.”

Warning signs that a friend or family member may be involved in a domestically violent relationship include isolation of the victim, jealousy on the part of the perpetrator, controlling behavior, along with shaming and blaming.

Becoming involved can be risky, though. As much as a friend or a loved one may want to encourage a victim to leave a relationship, doing so can ricochet and backfire, Ross said.

“The most important thing is just to let them know that you’re there: you will support them, you are a safe place, if they ever need help or want help to please get in touch with them,” she said.

If friends or loved ones become angry with the survivor for not leaving a relationship, it only serves to isolate the survivor further, Ross said.

“The perpetrator is on the other end saying, ‘See, I told you that your family was no good,’ or that ‘Your friends didn’t like me,’” she said. “They’re just kind of contributing to what the perpetrator is already saying about them.”

It is important friends and loved ones tread lightly so as not to cut off an open line of communication. It takes survivors in long-term relationships seven to nine times of trying to leave a relationship before they permanently leave the relationship, Ross said.

Holly reminds friends and loved ones to leave the “I told you so’s” to themselves if and when a survivor comes forward about what is happening.

“Instilling more shame and blame is just going to create distance between the two of you,” she said.

Forced change

In the judicial process, Holly said she often hears from victims who say they didn’t want a perpetrator to get arrested; instead, they wanted a perpetrator to get some help.

But the judicial system is rarely the best environment to get the ball rolling on that kind of change. That is largely because behavioral changes must come from within, Holly said. In other words, the perpetrator must want to change versus being required to do so by the court system.

Instead, what often ends up happening is the responsibility for change is placed on the survivor, Ross said. The survivor must leave the relationship, the survivor must figure out finances of living alone and the survivor must figure out child custody issues, Holly said.

“Survivor, why don’t you leave? Survivor, why aren’t you reporting this to the police? Survivor, why aren’t you engaging in the criminal justice system? … The onus moves to the survivor, and they are not the one who committed the crime,” she said.

Power to survivors

Ross said survivors are not in control of their own lives. One of the most important things advocates for survivors can do is return that sense of control and decision-making to survivors.

Survivors who reach out to Alternative Horizons receive free and confidential help or advice. The agency does not report domestic violence to law enforcement, saying that is a decision that is left to the survivor.

“We are allowing them to drive the bus on their situations,” Holly said. “We are merely there as a supportive resource.”

Ross said the thing that prevents survivors from seeking help is “shame.” But when they can let go of that shame, even for a second, they are likely to find that domestic violence service providers do not stand in judgment.

Lisa said survivors are often in awe when they are presented with multiple options for how they can proceed.

“That can really open the door for survivors to know that we don’t judge you,” she said. “If you go back to your husband or your wife or your partner, that’s OK. We’re not going anywhere.”

Ross said the survivor must decide if and when to leave a relationship. One of the most dangerous times in a domestically violent relationship is when the survivor decides to leave, she said.

She said survivors of domestic violence live in a state of fear. For those who have never experienced domestic violence or sexual assault, she encourages people to think about a time when they were in a traumatic experience, like a car crash.

“Think about what happens to your brain and your body when you are in trauma. You respond differently, you feel differently, you think differently,” Ross said. “Survivors in domestic violence relationships feel that way every day. They are constantly in a state of fear. They are constantly in a state of survival, and it changes the way their brain works and their body (works).”


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