College students struggle to report domestic violence

College+students+struggle+to+report+domestic+violence

Photo illustration CW / MK Holladay

Camille Studebaker

When domestic violence encompasses both physical and verbal abuse, victims can encounter any combination of violence ranging from belittling, insulting and shaming to hitting, kicking and weapon use. The partner is left by the wayside, isolated, in fear, often times for their life and in desperate need of help.

Domestic violence, where the perpetrator feels a need for control, can encompass all of these. The National Domestic Violence Hotline celebrated being in operation for 20 years this year, and October is Dating/Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

According to the National Center for Domestic and Sexual Violence, 28 percent of college-aged students experience some form of partner violence. Despite that national average, at Alabama, only 31 counts of domestic and dating were violence reported to UAPD in 2015. Similarly, UAB’s police department reported 35 incidences of domestic violence in 2015.

However, while victims very seldom file reports to the police, counseling support is more frequently sought out. While counseling services do not report on the number of domestic violence cases they receive, the University of Michigan does report the statistics. Michigan’s counseling services show of the 37 reports of domestic and dating violence, 31 victims sought counseling through the university’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center.

Lee Keyes, executive director of the UA Counseling Center, said domestic violence is a common, all too frequent problem, and identifying it and getting help early is the main thing he wants any student to know about the topic.

“Even if you are not sure if this rises to the level of concern, the very fact that you are wondering about it, means you really ought to come and bounce it off of somebody,” he said.

Keyes said the Counseling Center defines domestic violence as anything involving dating violence, interpersonal violence, relationship-based violence and can include behaviors such as harassment and stalking.

According to National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, “43 percent of dating college women reported experiencing abusive behaviors from their partner.”

Identifying the problem and addressing it is something several students have difficulty with because initially young people question if what is happening is really abuse or not, especially if it is verbal abuse, Keyes said.

According to loveisrespect.org, an extension of The National Domestic Violence Hotline, “College students are not equipped to deal with dating abuse – 57 percent say it is difficult to identify and 58 percent say they don’t know how to help someone who’s experiencing it.”

Keyes said victims are usually unsure of what they are seeing, and in their mind a lot of people lose their temper or have a bad day, so they may try to resolve it with the perpetrator or discuss what is wrong and try to fix it because this is what people in healthy relationships do. It is not clear to victims at this time that the relationship is headed toward domestic violence, but the evidence will start piling up after watching carefully. The Counseling Center is responsible for helping students identify those early warning signs.

“In our world, it would be things like belittling, intimidating, put-downs, calling names, sometimes that comes over into threats of some kind,” he said.

After the early warning signs, the abuse typically worsens because a big part of the classic abuser’s motivation is control.

“Controlling the intended victim can look all sorts of ways, like cutting them off from their friends, gradually isolating them, being very angry or disapproving when they go out and see their friends, things like this,” Keyes said. “But it also includes class; it is kind of hard to be a good student if you can never leave your room to study, for example. They even can compel a student to miss classes for their sake.”

The Counseling Center is responsible for counseling someone in the early and possibly middle stages of domestic violence. It offers individual therapy, couples therapy, unless there is abuse involved (in that case they will be separated), and group therapy when there are enough people who are either victims or perpetrators. When outreaching, it primarily sticks to the area of healthy relationships and what is not a healthy relationship.

At a certain point, if a student is involved in a more serious case, the Counseling Center will offer to refer him/her to the Women and Gender Resource Center, which specializes in domestic violence. If the student would prefer to remain at the Counseling Center, he/she can choose to do so, Keyes said.

The Counseling Center and WGRC both describe a healthy relationship as one marked by non-violence, mutual responsibility, respect, trust and support, honesty, a sense of reciprocity, equality and fairness, direct communication, comfort with emotional intimacy and comfort with separateness. If one partner is afraid, or has been afraid of their partner, this is a sign the relationship may be abusive.

Elle Shaaban-Magana, director of the WGRC, said it provides free, confidential individual and group counseling for domestic violence victims. It also provides advocacy, including 24-hour and holiday on-call response, and assistance with varying additional services such as help navigating judicial and legal options, accessing needed academic supports, and information and referral. It has licensed staff therapists and a full-time advocate that has prepared them to address trauma responses and work specifically on victimization related to interpersonal violence, including domestic violence. Students, staff and faculty are all eligible for these unlimited services, as well as family members of victims, Shelton State Community College students and anyone else who experiences their victimization on campus properties, she said.

Shaaban-Magana addressed the common difficulty students have in coming forward with their abuse.

“No one enters a relationship with the plan that they will be victimized,” she said. “Part of the difficulty may be in acknowledging the disconnect between what they imagined the relationship would be versus the reality. There is the difficulty of dealing with loss, either loss of the relationship of someone they cared about or still may care about, the time they invested, the list could go on.”

Because students tend to struggle in coming forward with their abuse, Shaaban-Magana encourages students to find help however they can.

“Safety, including emotional well-being, is the top priority,” she said. “If you know someone who you think may be suffering from abuse, encourage them to seek help. Let them know that no one deserves to be abused and that help is available when they are ready.”

Because October is Dating/Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Shaaban-Magana advocates that students support the efforts to raise awareness of this issue by inviting a speaker from the WGRC to an organization meeting or class, or by attending one of its events scheduled throughout the month.

“As a society of people, far too much emphasis is placed on asking, ‘Why doesn’t the victim leave?’ ” she said. “Given the ubiquitous nature of domestic violence, we need to shift the conversation to ‘Why does the perpetrator abuse?’ and, ‘What factors contribute to the widespread epidemic of violence in our communities?’ ”

Associate Professor in the School of Social Work, Debra Nelson-Gardell said, “A really common question that people often utter is, ‘Why don’t they just leave?’ ”

While this question tends to be easy to ask, the answer is usually complicated and varies case by case.

“If you’re living with someone and you’re on unlimited financial needs, exiting a relationship is not so easy,” she said. “And if there are children involved, it gets even more complicated.”

While leaving the relationship is often difficult, victims still do occasionally leave. After leaving, Nelson-Gardell said reaching out for professional help and taking advantage of support systems around are helpful things to do in taking the next step to recovery.

“One of the ways that humans recover from anything is through interacting with other humans,” she said. “I think it’s hard for anyone to admit they can’t handle a problem by themselves.”