PUBLISHED: 4:23 PM on Wednesday, October 17, 2007
AWARE offers advise to help victims of domestic abuse
What would you do for someone if they were in a violent relationship? The answer might seem obvious, but initial reactions may do more harm than good, said Mandy O'Neal Cole, direct services manager at AWARE (Aiding Women In Abuse and Rape Emergencies) in Juneau.

October is Domestic Abuse Awareness Month, and Cole said it is a time to educate people on how to best support loved ones. She said rather than telling someone the only choice is to leave an abuser, supporting the victim needs to be the primary focus.

"When you say 'Why are you staying with someone who is hurtful?' then all of the responsibility falls on being the victim of a crime is on that person. Another way to go about it is saying 'Why is this person hurting you?' It changes the way you look at the whole question," Cole said.

She said that instead of putting the majority of responsibility on the victim to not be a victim of crime, the responsibility is put on the person committing the crime.

"It is definitely a shift because we've been taught and conditioned through media, through tradition gender roles that it is your responsibility to get out of there to do whatever it takes to leave that person who is hurtful to you," Cole said. "We should be spending some of that energy we spend condemning the victim on holding that perpetrator accountable. That's kind of the first thing that should color your view of how you think about violent relationship. The responsibility is not getting away but not being hurtful or committing a crime to someone you care about."

She said another pointer is not act as though you know what someone else is experiencing.

"Most of us, even people who have been in violent relationships, have this tendency to say 'I would leave if it happened to me.' It's the idea you possess some kind of skill or strength that the other person doesn't possess," Cole said.

"I think the thing to remember there is that you can never really know another person's reality because it could be a lot scarier than you imagine. It could be so dangerous to leave that staying is the only option. This isn't crazy, Lifetime movie type thing. These are things we hear every day. Some people are too scared to go anywhere because it's safer to know where that person is and plan your life around theirs and predict their motions and patterns."

Cole said it is often difficult for people on the outside of a domestic violence situation to understand the dynamics of the relationship.

"For some people it's not bad all of the time. Sometimes its great and they're the person you fell in love with and the person you had kids with who you chose to buy a house with and go on vacation with and eat dinner with every night. So there are some really bad, scary days and sometimes those bad days outweigh the good but there are usually some good days in there that make you feel this is worth saving," Cole said. "That's a message we get all over the place, and it is a good message of basically healthy relationships that have problems and they stay and work it out."

However, she said for those who are in a fundamentally unhealthy relationship, the situation can vary.

"It's not like there's some test on whether or not your relationship is worth saving. We all work under the same assumptions and that is if you love somebody you try and help them make it better. There are real practical problems too," Cole said.

In working with men in Juneau Better Accountability Program, she helps in reeducating people who have chosen to use violence to make better choices in the future.

"One of the things I've learned when I was beginning the process is that domestic violence or battering can be looked at on a continuum. Everybody uses tactics that aren't healthy," Cole said. "People on the negative side use those tactics all the time. It's not this conscience thought of 'I'm going to scream at you and raise my fists until you do what I want.' It just happens for them. They come out because your goal is to get that person to change your behavior some way."

She said violent relationships that take those patterns to such extremes that they're unsafe.

"The batterer will lose person he cares about or is going to end up in jail. This isn't a good deal for anybody. They learn that while this behavior might work to get their way at times, but there will be consequences down the line," she said.

She said when talking to a victim, each situation is different and changes on an individual basis. Don't use statements that would confer blame for what's happening. When talking to a victim, repeat that is not that person's fault he or she is receiving the abuse. Also emphasize that violence is a choice.

"It's so misunderstood in our community and our culture. There's always a choice to not use violence. Being mad does not equal slamming and punching. There's feeling and then there's action and those things are separate," Cole said. "We've really conditioned men in particular that mad equals action, and that action is usually something violent or big. It's not frowned upon to act on your anger and it should be, especially if that action is hurting someone else."

Leaving a violent relationship is difficult and dangerous, Cole said. Women who report violence often state they are in a separation period from the abuser.

"So it's not like you can say, 'OK it's 4:50, and he's going to be home in 10 minutes. Let's back up your bags.' Because if you get caught in act of packing up your bags or you get caught down the road or something like that, the batterer doesn't have control and realizes you're leaving. It can increase the violence they use to get you to stay," Cole said. "That's when we see things like murders and homicides. So saying, "Get out at any cost or get out without a plan or leave now' is not helpful either. If that person is looking for a way out - absolutely, wonderful - but they should make a plan and safety as much as possible."

A focus of AWARE is safety planning, and Cole said it may be helpful to refer friends to the organization.

"A lot of times we get women here who have very supportive and loving families but the topic is so close to their heart and so scary that they might say something without meaning to that's hurtful. Sometimes it's things like, 'When you're father did that to me I left right away.' So just by saying that you might believe it's encouraging, but if you set up this action you want this person to take and they can't take it for whatever reason, whether it's safety, money or love, then you've set them up for disappointing you. It's then hard for them to come back and talk to you because they know they're disappointed you in some way," Cole said.

"I've said to people, 'I'm scared for you. I feel like the situation you're in is really scary. I feel that and I'm not even in it.' It's OK to be honest, but to be honest without setting them up for some course of action that you think is appropriate."

It is good to point out positive steps a victim has taken in order to keep said, Cole said. Examples such as hiding car keys on nights when an abuser is drinking so no one is harmed in a vehicle or keeping a phone in a pocket, even when at home in case a call for help is needed, are positive steps to keeping safe.

Finding help for an abuser is making a choice for the person when he or she may not understand or agree with the assessment.

"I can't as your partner say, 'If you don't get help I'm going to leave you' and think that helps if they don't see what they're doing is not OK. If that person doesn't want to be accountable for their behavior then it's not going to work," Cole said.

AWARE provides shelter for women and children in violent situations, and Cole said that this does not apply to only those who are homeless.

"We provided 200 women and 5,000 nights of safety for people in this community last year. We have a lot of people who have their own homes and they're getting a protective order, but protective orders take time to serve and sometimes they get violated by the perpetrator, so they come and stay here because they're scared for that night," Cole said. "But there's no ultimate answer for safety. We're talking about the behavior of someone else. That's a difficult thing to control. It's their choice how far they want to take it."