October is National Domestic Violence Month, but who is talking about it? Local domestic violence shelters act as the voice for thousands of Mainers who use their services on an annual basis. And when they’re not donning that hat, advocates and even volunteers representing these shelters work tirelessly to help present-day victims and survivors regain control over their own lives.
It is a quiet process for the majority of victims-survivors — who are, let’s face it, predominantly female — as they struggle with the reality of the abuse, the tears, the injuries, the painful struggles to fight to retain their basic human rights and often to regain a stable home for their children.
The silence surrounding domestic abuse creates a sea of faceless and nameless victims-survivors, leaving the community at large with the perception that domestic violence is something that happens to “other people,” not their family members or neighbors, friends or co-workers.
And this sea is significant in size — consisting of some 30,000 people in the state of Maine in 2006, according to the 2006 Maine Crime Victimization Survey as quoted by the Maine Attorney General Steven Rowe on his Web site (http://www.state.me.us/ag).
Think of it this way: 30,000 is roughly the population of the city of Bangor. If every Bangor resident came forth with allegations of being victimized by an assailant, that would be a crisis of epidemic proportions.
Some might argue that the anonymity of victims is necessary for their own protection, and in many cases this is true. But how sad is that? That, to me, signals that society is not doing enough to stop the violence and protect these victims from further abuse and possible murder.
And the continued silence of victims allows the abusers to perpetuate a cycle of shame and abuse.
The only way to stop the cycle is to become knowledgeable about abuse, as a society, and to say to the abusers that the continued degradation of any woman or child is not going to be accepted. It takes a lot of courage on behalf of the survivors to speak out and tell their stories to friends, to strangers, to anybody who will listen.
We must stop thinking that to be a victim of domestic abuse is a shameful thing. The blame must never lie with the victim, but rather with the abuser.
Just imagine what would happen if every single victim-survivor became a real-life person and not just a statistic. She is your friend, or sister, neighbor, or co-worker. She has a face and a name. She is real and the crime committed against her, in turn, is validated, real and not her fault.
It would make it much more difficult to shrug domestic abuse off as something that happens “to other people.”
Newspapers can be a significant ally in the awareness of domestic abuse in our communities. As a former news reporter who covered police beats in various towns across the state, I remember ignoring the “domestic violence” reports that peppered the police logs. By reporting on domestic violence, the theory was, then the victim was automatically known to the community, especially true in small town Maine. By saying Joe Schmoe of Dover-Foxcroft was arrested for abusing his wife, the victim is forced into the spotlight as well and that wasn’t fair for her. At the time, I didn’t question that practice of reporting. But truthfully, I hope that Maine newspapers reconsider this practice. Each domestic violence report is just as important as the next.
Realize that newspapers attempting to protect victims are, in fact, shielding the abusers from public scrutiny and shame. Many abusers try to maintain a good public image, because that aspect of their life is important to them. They want to feel like “good people” and be validated as such by the communities they reside in.
What would happen if the media made public every single police report of domestic abuse, regardless of whether or not an arrest took place? The crime — which currently shrouds the victim in silence and shame — then becomes the responsibility of the abuser.
Too often in Maine, the only time we read or hear news about domestic violence and abuse is after an abuser takes the life of his victim. And that is way too late.
Domestic abuse is commonplace in our state. To eradicate it, we need to stand up for the victim and stand against the abuser.
Someday, I hope the state of Maine establishes a registry — similar to that established to notify communities of sex offenders — that identifies convicted domestic abusers. This, I believe, would be a significant step forward in the violent war that has seeped into our homes. Let’s start this conversation now. It’s too important to ignore.
Jessica Lee-Small lives in Brewer.