How Domestic Violence Advocates Are Trying to Turn Awareness Into Action

The Ray Rice domestic violence case generated unprecedented attention to the issue. Advocates are now scrambling to turn that awareness into action. AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

She was no longer living with her husband when stories of domestic abuse committed by NFL players began receiving widespread attention last month.

By then, Jessica (not her real name) had healed physically from the final time she tried to flee her home with her toddler son. That time, her husband had twisted her arm and then banged her and their baby's head against the door frame. When she fell, he kicked her. Earlier, he had tried to choke her in the car.

The violence had escalated from threats that he would snap their child's neck, kill her and then hang himself. It came after he forced her to have sex with him, and he vowed to take their son out of the country and ruin her life by whatever means possible.

By the time the Ray Rice story blew up, almost a year had passed since Jessica's husband was sentenced to two years of conditional release, a 10-day sheriff's work program and domestic violence classes. But she knew what he would say.

"I can guarantee when the Ray Rice scandal happened," Jessica said, "my abuser would say, 'Look at Ray Rice. That's abuse. He knocked out his fiancée in an elevator. What happened to you? You fell down and got some bruises. That's not real domestic abuse.'"

Worse, she could imagine what her inner circle of family and friends was probably thinking, because she had heard their thought process before -- about her husband.

"They said, 'I know this guy. He's a nice guy. He's just under a lot of stress. He'd never do what Ray Rice did,'" Jessica said. "Or, 'I don't want to take sides. It's between you two.' My mother said I needed to stop doing whatever I did to provoke him."

Awareness is a good thing, said Jessica (now a domestic violence advocate) and other abuse experts. But while greater awareness for diseases like breast cancer has led women to have mammograms and do self-exams, saving lives through early diagnosis, domestic abuse is a different animal. Despite the attention that has been focused on the cases involving Rice, Jonathan Dwyer, Ray McDonald and Greg Hardy over the past month and a half, those in the trenches of fighting domestic abuse say it would be naive to think awareness is the solution.

"You'd be surprised at the number of people who say, 'You must be busier now,' as if people trapped in this cycle read the news and say, 'Now it's easy for me to leave this situation,' which is not the case," said Margaret Duval, executive director of the Domestic Violence Legal Clinic in Chicago and an attorney who specializes in domestic abuse cases.

Still, for three weeks after the Rice video was released by TMZ, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence was inundated with calls from the media, victims, survivors and entities wanting to know how they could help, according to executive director Ruth Glenn.

"We were overloaded and overwhelmed," Glenn said. "We were totally caught off-guard and really stretched to capacity, but we were more than happy to be there for crises and dialogue."

Kathy Doherty, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women's Network, similarly reported that their hotline experienced a 120 percent increase in calls during that same time.

"The irony to this is that it takes someone being seriously beaten up on video for people to say, 'Oh my god, this is what it looks like,'" Doherty said. "So that's a little sad. There are still thousands of men, women and youth out there who don't understand what a domestic violence situation is and may even be in one but don't identify it as such. Others may identify with it, but they're often so isolated they don't know who to reach out to or how to get help."

But it is still too simplistic to say awareness is the answer, Jessica said.

"I know this is a sweeping generalization," she said, "but I think American society has largely accepted that it's not OK to beat your wife. So that's great. However, now it's time to take the next step, that while it's not OK to knock your fiancée unconscious in an elevator, it's also not OK to withhold finances or threaten suicide and kidnapping. And that even if the violence is not as egregious as getting stabbed or knocked out, it's not OK."

Part of the challenge, say victims' advocates, is the stigma attached to domestic violence. It's embarrassing for victims and abusers to come forward, they say, though also pointing out that breast cancer, now the poster child for effective awareness campaigns, once had a stigma attached as well.

"People still have a real problem blaming the victim, so it's not a feel-good, warm story and that's the problem," Doherty said. "People would rather it just go away because it's so ugly. Quite frankly, I wouldn't mind if more and more stories do come out [involving athletes] because it will show how pervasive this problem is."

According to the U.S. Department of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in every four U.S. women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. Most cases are never reported to the police.

Of those that are reported, funding in debt-laden states like Illinois means reduced law enforcement and criminal prosecution for domestic violence cases. In Duval's clinic, where the mission is to provide free legal assistance to low-income individuals, payments from the Illinois Department of Human Services arrive an average of six to nine months late, she said, which has forced them to rely on private donations to survive.

"When payments are six months late, you just can't grow to serve the needs we have," she said.

In Jessica's case, a victim advocate guided her through the often confusing and intimidating process of trying to prosecute her criminal case. But not everyone is lucky enough to have an advocate, particularly in noncriminal cases. And in Chicago, there are currently few beds available in victims' shelters. The CDC reports that, on average, 20 people per minute in the U.S. are victims of physical violence by an intimate partner, and the organization advocates stopping the violence before it begins by means of such programs as teaching young people skills for dating.

"Awareness is not the ultimate goal," Duval said. "The ultimate goal is societal and cultural change to nonacceptance. Awareness is the first step, but it's not the same as rejecting and stopping it. I don't think we have had the difficult conversations about why we tolerate it and why, as a society, we need to see video evidence of someone doing it to believe the victim."

Unfortunately, the idea that Rice's suspension and the public exposure of his abuse of his wife would somehow cause other abusers to rethink their behavior is probably wishful thinking. "The consequences to someone in a position of a Ray Rice are not the same as the consequences to an average person," Duval said. "We also saw how the criminal justice system was very slow to act in a lot of these cases. I would imagine some people see it as a sign they can continue to get away with it."

The chances that there are dozens of wives of professional athletes, if not more, who are being abused every day is high, experts say. And the thought that seeing these famous sports cases play out publicly will serve as any kind of deterrent is, again, naive.

"There is probably heightened stress," Duval said of the abusive households, "but the way it usually plays out is an emphasis on, 'If you ever tell anybody or if this ever becomes public, you will suffer the repercussions,' rather than, 'If I continue to do this, I will suffer repercussions.' That's the way abusers usually approach this."

Jessica knows what her husband would say.

"He would say, 'I have all the money, so where is she going to go? I already told her if she crosses me I'd ruin her life, kill her and kill myself, so she's not going anywhere,'" she said.

The knowledge that domestic abuse is a serious and widespread problem is a start. "And we also need to listen, just listen, because I can't tell you how many times I have tried to talk to friends and there's immediately a bias toward minimizing what the abuser has done," Jessica said.

Jessica's abuser never admitted that what he did constituted abuse. "His story was that he just kicked me one time, even though medical evidence didn't bear it out," she said. "His response was that 'I never hit her with a closed fist.' So he could boil down me literally living in fear for my life to 'I just kicked her once.'"

Though Jessica has a modified order of protection, she fears for the day it expires. A complex give-and-take between the criminal and family courts allowed her abuser to maintain visitation of the same child he threatened repeatedly to kidnap.

The sad conclusion, said Duval, is that even those with the most public of cases may not be immune to further violence.

"The question is, how can we turn this into something where we help the safety of victims?" she said.

The dialogue generated by the Rice case, a name Glenn now refuses to utter, is something she is nonetheless grateful for.

"It would behoove us as a society to continue to have this conversation ... for all of us in our workplaces and social circles, where we live and where we play, to ask what we are doing to ensure we don't have to hear about this again," Glenn said. "And we need to stop asking, 'Why doesn't she leave?' and start asking, 'Why does he do it?'"