The Complex World Of Domestic Violence
Q&A, Dr. Joseph Marshall
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following took place on the April 10 broadcast of Street Soldiers, a live call-in radio show airing Sunday nights on KMEL 106.1 FM. Co-hosts Dr. Joseph Marshall and Deborah “Lady” Estell discussed domestic violence with Cherri Allison, executive director of the Alameda County Family Justice Center. Allison had also previously served as executive director of the Family Violence Law Center in Oakland.
A licensed attorney, Allison says, “I was in the practice of family law, and most of my clients were women. What I found is that most of them were victims of domestic violence, which includes financial abuse and emotional abuse as well as physical abuse.”
The conversation begins with a discussion of football player Ray Rice, former running back for the Baltimore Ravens, who was suspended by the NFL and dismissed from the team after video surfaced in 2014 of him punching his fiancée (now wife) into unconsciousness.
Joseph Marshall: The whole Ray Rice mess was really front and center, so much that it got the NFL involved, at least to respond to it. Ray Rice is still out of the league. Hopefully that was a wake-up call. When you see something that public, you would hope that it focuses attention on the issue of domestic violence and that folks would get that it’s not cool. From your perspective, did people start to get it after this?
Cherri Allison: No, people did not start to get it. Whenever people see some celebrity get beat up, then everybody goes, “Ooh, we’ve got to do something about this serious problem.” But when someone sees a woman get beat down in the street, they for the most part just keep on going. So, it happened before Ray Rice, and it’s still happening now.
JM: You said your agency sees between 11,000 to 13,000 clients a year. Is that correct?
CA: Yes. And a lot of people don’t even know about my agency. In the communities, women still don’t come forward, so what we see is just the tip of the iceberg. Women from Asian communities, Muslim communities, a lot of African American communities… because they don’t want the police involved for various reasons, valid reasons. A lot of women from the immigrant community, who are afraid of what will happen if they come forward. We just see the tip of the iceberg.
I take this work to heart, so I don’t separate myself from the clients or my staff. I talk to women all the time. When they’re in crisis, I try to stick with them as they move through the system, so that I can help them, expose them to better choices and support them as they reclaim their power.
JM: That was one of the things that struck me about what you said, and how widespread across ethnicity, across race, that this problem of domestic violence is. Some of things you told me earlier astounded me. Did I hear you say that pregnant women are more likely to be abused?
CA: Yes. When a woman becomes pregnant, she’s more likely to be abused, because if she’s in an abusive and controlling relationship and becomes pregnant, then the attention is diverted from her partner to the baby, as it should be in a normal relationship.
When women try to leave, that’s another instance when they’re more likely to be killed or seriously injured. A lot of times people ask, “Why doesn’t she just leave?” People don’t give survivors the credit for being able to stay alive. They’re surviving, where a lot of us wouldn’t be able to make it.
JM: I believe you also said that these women who are actually being beaten while they are pregnant, that the brains of the children don’t always develop sufficiently.
CA: They develop differently, and so when those children are born, the way they react to stimulus in the world is different from a kid that had a normal [pregnancy]. If you think about it, the woman’s hormones are feeding that fetus, and so fear, anxiety, that’s all going through her body and into the fetus.
Lady Estell: I worked as a school counselor, and I worked with the school psychologist. We met with parents prior to recommending that a child be given special education services. In interviewing the parents and trying to understand the reasons for the child’s behavior, we learned how to talk to the parents and how to get them comfortable enough to share the kinds of things that the mother experienced while the child was in utero.
It’s funny how some young people don’t want to believe that what happens while that child is in utero is going to have an impact on them once they arrive. They think that a child’s personality just shows up once they get here, with experiences and things. No. That child is impacted and affected in utero.
I had a little kindergartener; his mom and dad said, “We don’t understand what the problem is, because we get along just fine now.” We continued to interview them only to discover that there were big-time fights while she was carrying that little boy, and he came out and it affected his speech, affected his ability to get along with others, the way he reacted.
Parents need to know: if you’ve got a sweet-pea in your tummy, you need to be kind and loving and in an environment that is safe and healthy and supportive and nurturing; otherwise, it’s going to have an impact on your child.
JM: When something like the Ray Rice incident happens, and it becomes public and you see the video, all this other stuff isn’t brought up. You don’t see the entire consequence of domestic violence. I know just talking to kids over the years at the [youth] club, I’m always blown away that it’s so hard for them to talk about. There’s a mixture of shame and normality to it, because they just grown up in it. I don’t think they realize the effect it’s had on them until they start talking about it.
CA: Right, and their parents probably grew up in it, so it’s inter-generational domestic violence, and then that is complicated by the violence in our communities. We get women and men, we get same-sex couples, we get some women perpetuating [violence] on men. Most of our clients are women victimized by their male partners, but you know the violence doesn’t have to be a broken arm or a concussion. You can get slapped or just someone raising their voice at you with that kind of wild look… you’re afraid, so they don’t even have to hit you, they just put you in that fear.
When I was growing up, this was something your mama told you: “Don’t talk about the family business outside of the house.” It’s a learned behavior, so you grow up in the society where men hold the dominant position in the relationship, in marriage. It is all about power and control. I am in control of you and you will do as I say. You will anticipate my wants and needs. And if that doesn’t happen? Guess what, you’re going to get punished. That’s what they learned growing up. I’m not saying that they think it’s okay, but that’s what they know.
Another issue is for the men to come in and ask for help. That’s against the whole male macho thing, to say that a woman did this and it’s not always that the woman is bigger or the man is a small man. I’ve seen big men with women who have abused them, because they’ve been brought up not to strike back. For them the dynamic is a little different.
JM: Let me throw this other piece in there, because I’ve talked to people and somehow they think that this is all a part of love. I don’t know exactly where that comes from, like that’s just part of being in love with somebody — like it’s a part of a relationship, it has ups and downs and a part of the downs is getting knocked around. To me, love ain’t supposed to hurt like that.
CA: You see a lot of it on television, and the modeling [of it] starts in junior high school and even elementary school. Every kid has a cell phone now, and so when the boyfriend is texting her and saying, “Where are you and why didn’t you call me back?”, she’s internalizing that to mean, “Oh, he loves me so much, he wants to always know where I am.” But that’s not love, that’s control.