Editor’s Note: This post contains sensitive issues relating to domestic violence that may be triggering to some readers.
It was 7AM when I turned on the TV. Immediately, my stomach hit the floor. I wasn’t expecting the morning news to inform me that my friend’s husband had stabbed her to death the night before.
As I scrolled through local online articles about the incident in an attempt to make sense of this tragedy, it was the reader comments that got to me the most.
“This is why women need to pack up and leave sooner!”
“Gosh, I am so sick of this. Get hit, leave. Stay, get killed. It’s not that difficult!”
“She should have just left.”
Tears rolled down my face, because what people didn’t know is that she was leaving. She had gone back to the house to pack up some of her things before she went to stay elsewhere.
I wanted to scream. Scream for my friend, scream for my clients, and scream for myself. As a domestic violence survivor and founder of a domestic violence nonprofit, I know that telling someone who is being abused to “just leave” is the least helpful advice that can be handed out.
So please, I beg of you: Stop saying it. Stop telling victims to just leave; stop acting as if it’s a feasible option for everyone. At the very least, it’s not helpful. And at the very worst, it’s deadly.
The irony is that people who go around acting as if they know what abuse victims should do, are often the least informed. Anyone who works with domestic violence victims knows that when it comes to domestic violence homicides, approximately 75 percent of victims were killed by abusive partners when they attempted to leave or after they left the relationship.
We also know that many women who get out of abusive relationships alive find themselves homeless, living where they think they can’t be found. We also know that women who take their kids and “just leave” can be charged with kidnapping. When that happens, it can become extremely difficult to win a custody case.
There seems to be an overwhelming myth that if a woman screams “abuse,” she will be awarded everything her abusive partner has, thus able to go about her merry way while her abuser is punished for his crime. And while that does occasionally happen, the reality is much murkier.
I know this because I lived it.
I tried to leave my abusive husband many times, but soon realized how difficult it would be. The shelter had no space for me, and I didn’t have any childcare to watch my kids so that I could get a job. Without money, I couldn’t hire an attorney to help me get divorced. Yet, the state would have provided a lawyer free of charge to my husband to fight his charges in court.
I learned that while I was still married, I didn’t qualify for public benefits to get back on my feet. When I decided that I didn’t care and tried to take my kids and leave, I was told that unless I had a court order providing me with sole custody, I would be charged with kidnapping. Compounded by the fact that police never could figure out which one of us was telling the truth (since we both had injuries from his attack and my struggle to survive), I was trapped.
I tried to “just leave,” but I couldn’t find a way out … so I stayed. I stayed right up until the moment that my husband hit my son.
When I look back at my life, I wish someone had intervened — just as I wish I could have done for my friend. There are things that could have changed the outcomes of our lives had anyone known what would have actually helped us.
I needed someone to tell me that getting an order of protection first would have meant that I could take my kids and leave.
I needed someone to tell me that even if the shelter was full, many churches could have housed me.
I needed people to fund programs that would give me access to a lawyer that could sever the legal ties that trapped me.
I needed police that were better trained in spotting the signs of domestic abuse.
I needed help beyond being told to “just leave,” because I didn’t know there was help beyond calling a hotline where I was placed on hold for three hours.
I needed someone to let my friend know that if she had personal belongings that she couldn’t leave behind, police could have escorted her to retrieve them.
People need to realize that our shelter systems are overwhelmed and underfunded. Although they strive to help everyone, there are many more victims than they can reach. The startling domestic homicide statistic alone tells us something is wrong with the advice we are giving.
There is a way out for victims of abuse. No one should ever have to stay with someone who hurts them. Leaving abuse is not a death sentence; there is help out there. Women can survive domestic abuse, but they need us to stand up behind them.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. If we want to be as aware as we claim to be, we need to stop pretending that telling victims to “just leave” is the only thing they need to hear.
To find out how you can get involved in the fight against domestic violence, visit the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. If you are suffering from domestic violence and need help, The National Domestic Violence Hotline or your local shelter are great places to start.