Lifting the veil on domestic violence

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A child in Taos County recently picked up a phone and dialed 911 as they watched a fight erupt between their mother and her partner.

The dispatcher relayed the details of the situation across police channels as the young boy or girl spoke fearfully out of sight somewhere in the home, listening through a closed door as the foundation of the family seemed to waver under the strain of any number of possible factors – poverty, drug abuse, alcoholism, desperation, jealousy, frustration. The mother’s partner seemed to have been estranged for some time and had apparently returned to the family’s home in a fury. At one point during the call, the door to the room where the child was hiding opened. The dispatcher then overheard one of the adults demanding, “Who are you talking to?” Then the phone was hung up. An officer was dispatched to the residence.

This was perhaps one of many incidences of domestic violence the child had experienced in their lifetime. According to agencies that study this issue in Taos, its effects will likely extend far beyond the walls of the family’s home and long after the officer left the residence that day.

Malinda Williams, executive director of Community Against Violence, a Taos-based nonprofit that offers a range of support and safe housing services for domestic violence victims and offenders, says that domestic violence situations do not occur in isolation, but are rather part of a systemic problem here in Taos. “It’s a community issue,” she says. “And the more we don’t deal with it as a community, the more it costs us.”

Rachel Cox, clinical director with CAV, expanded on Williams’ point, explaining that domestic violence crosses boundaries both physical – from the home, into the school and the workplace – and temporal – as the impacts of a violent event can embed themselves in the psyche of a child, often leading to drug or alcohol abuse at an early age, self-harm and sometimes abusive behaviors of their own later in life.

By the numbers – an incomplete picture

An estimated 40,499 instances of domestic violence were reported to New Mexico state agencies and law enforcement in 2015, according to the New Mexico Interpersonal Violence Data Central Repository. According to the report, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 7 men older than 18 experience some form of domestic violence in their lifetime. And of the 17,575 instances of domestic violence that were reported to law enforcement, around 7,015 – or roughly 40 percent – involved children who were present at the home when police arrived.

Taos County recorded 105 domestic violence reports and 783 crisis calls in 2015, coming in as the 19th most affected county in the state that submitted data for the report.

The problem with these numbers is that they are often skewed by the fact that many domestic violence situations never come to light, as there is a prevailing fear of retaliation from a partner or shame at one’s assumed inability to control a relationship. People who are being abused may also be reluctant to call, uneasy as to what might happen at service agencies.

Cox and other CAV staff members acknowledge that it takes a great deal of moxie for an adult – or child – to take action in a domestic violence situation. “It takes a lot of courage to ask for help,” she said, adding that there are a lot of “myths” circulating as to what plays out when a hotline is called or when an individual visits a service office. “We never tell people that they need to leave their relationship,” she said. “Instead, it’s our job to ask, ‘What do you want to have happen? What would you like to see?’”

The organization’s staff extends that philosophy through free services that reach about 700 clients each year, housing about 84 adults and 40 children at an emergency shelter located on-site and in subsidized housing off-site.

But the majority of programs CAV provides – and the ones its officials say are most important in addressing the root causes of domestic violence – are based in a curriculum of prevention and counseling for victims, offenders and their families, designed to help them stay safe – and if possible – stay together.

Flagship CAV programs that provide training to community members, businesses, civic groups and schools on how to address violence, called “Poder” and “Vecinos,” have received national recognition for their effectiveness in examining the issue from a broader, cultural standpoint. “The primary prevention programming that we deliver views the root causes of sexual and domestic violence as rooted in oppression,” Cox said. “The idea is that these individual acts occur within a larger system and social structure that allows for and also can contribute to a culture of violence, where a vulnerable population – women, children, people of color, people with disabilities – experience violence at a disparate rate.”

Williams said that addressing domestic violence as a community issue is beginning to catch on. “I already see the way it’s looked at changing in our community,” she said. “That whole, ‘It’s none of my business thing,’ I think people are starting to realize that the violence in your neighbor’s house affects you. The violence that your co-worker is experiencing at home affects you.”

As the veil is lifted on the way domestic violence is playing out in homes throughout the state, the issue is becoming at once clearer and more complex. The classic scenario of a male individual perpetrating violence against a woman or child in the home remains a common one, yet the percentage of male victims experiencing domestic violence is higher than many people might think.

As such, programs that treat offenders and victims of both genders are opening their doors to new programming.

Nonviolence Works

In 2002, a proposal was brought forth by Vishu Magee, founder of Nonviolence Works in Taos, that a complementary program called “Men Engaged in Nonviolence” should be introduced to assist males – many who had come from abusive or broken homes – in learning how to shift away from violent behavior. In all, 125 men from the Taos community came forward in support of the proposal. The programming launched in 2004.

Over the years, Nonviolence Works has expanded to include a counseling program for male domestic violence offenders, helmed by licensed mental health counselor Steve Moser. “We spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a man and acknowledge that violence seems to be an inherent part of masculinity and being a male,” Moser said, adding that, culturally, these male characteristics have been promoted – sometimes as valued characteristics. “We focus mostly on fatherhood and parenting, keeping men in regular contact with their children, which is a much more complicated issue than most people think it is,” he said.

Moser said that, through training from a Native American health counselor, Albert Pooley, he developed a curriculum that has helped many men shed their violent behaviors – whether physical, verbal or both. Through the training, some have regained contact with their estranged partners and children.

Mary McPhail Gray, board chair at Nonviolence Works, echoed Williams’ philosophy, also describing domestic violence as a community issue – and addressing it as a community effort. “With the history of economic problems and drug trafficking in this community, we have a lot of families that don’t have two parents in the home, and without children being raised with models, it really contributes to these problems,” Gray said. “Many of the men in the group haven’t been raised with a man in a home, so they haven’t seen men establish a relationship that’s healthy.”

Gray said that their programming aims to raise awareness of domestic violence in the community, providing residents with the tools to recognize the symptoms of violence before a situation gets out of hand. “Education makes a difference when you’re talking about people who have engaged in abuse or racism or violence,” she said. “Usually, those people were just not educated and didn’t have other techniques. If no one has listened to you, it’s hard to listen.”

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