Economic hardship magnifies domestic violence problem

Nine or 10 times every week, the Naperville Police Department receives a domestic violence call. Experts say for each of those requests for help, there could be as many as 10 instances of abuse in the home.

Those estimates vary, in part because emotional cruelty is far more prevalent than the heated arguments and physical harm that more often result in law enforcement's involvement. But while it is less evident to the eye, it can take much longer to heal.

"A lot of victims say, 'I wish he would have hit me,'" said Joy Singh, a Naperville therapist who specializes in domestic violence. "The thing about emotional abuse is if there's no mark, no scars or anything, it's harder for women to come out and talk about it ... They start to think it's their fault. Emotional abuse is very, very damaging."

Eventually, Singh said, a victim can lose hope.

"If you're being told over and over that you're stupid, you can't really problem solve, and you start to believe it," she said. "It's tied to your self esteem, and you can't help yourself. You think nobody will believe you."

There is no basis for the persistent belief that abuse is concentrated among those in the lower-income brackets, Singh said.

"That's an absolute myth. I've seen abusers that are CEOs and doctors and lawyers," she said. "It's harder for those women to get help, because they have all the barriers. They have the social reputation to uphold. They have the stigma ... There's a lot more risk in telling, there's more to lose."

When abuse leads to divorce in a wealthy household, things can get especially ugly, she said.

"The husband has a lot of money, and they can pay the lawyer," she said. "It's very damaging to the whole family itself."


Economic hardship

A poll taken last year by the Northbrook-based Allstate Foundation found that 44 percent of people surveyed named financial security as the most difficult barrier to leaving an abusive relationship. The lingering recession has only made matters worse. Singh said a lot of couples feel they can't seek counseling because of the cost.
"I feel that it is a barrier for a lot of people, especially victims of domestic violence, because they feel so trapped," she said.

Many social service agencies that help those affected by domestic violence have been busier since the economy turned sour.

"What we've noticed that we saw with the (economic downturn) was an increase in our calls for emergency shelter," said Jennifer Gabrenya, director of programs at Family Shelter Service.

The Wheaton agency, which has a variety of programs for victims of domestic violence, has been compelled to turn away more people than in the past. That's a reality that many people have trouble comprehending, Gabrenya said. Many DuPage County residents who have never before needed the social services network have found their household budgets much tighter, and that narrows the array of options that once might have included moving elsewhere. Some enter the system. Some stay, and the violence escalates.

Money has always been a factor in domestic violence, Gabrenya said. At her office, the heightened factors of job loss and a distressed economy are referred to as the fault line.

"It may push a relationship into something that's abusive, where there might have been a possibility that it could have gone another direction," she said.


Misfortune comes home

Amy Milligan, director of community advocacy at FSS, said layoffs and the lifestyle changes they cause can worsen abuse.
"Joblessness or bad financial situations do not cause domestic violence, but I think they are definitely factors that exacerbate an already dangerous situation," Milligan said.

When an abusive husband or boyfriend is out of work and his partner is also at home, there's more trouble.

"There is a proximity," she said. "Where they used to be separate, doing their jobs, they are now together all day."

The sharp downturn in the household's income can rule out a legal split.

"They're ready to get divorced, they've accepted that they need to get a divorce, but they can't sell the house or they can't afford an attorney," Milligan said.

The togetherness continues, and the stress keeps building.

"That is a point at which a bad situation becomes much, much more dangerous," Milligan said.


Laying blame

There is also misdirected guilt among victims that contributes to domestic violence being among the most under-reported crimes. Often women feel responsible for their circumstances.
"I think there is definitely a sense of shame that many victims feel, and a lot of that is driven by the automatic response that many people have to domestic violence, which is, 'Why doesn't that woman leave?'" Milligan said. "I think that victims definitely are impacted by that. They feel that it's their responsibility to do something about it, or fix it."

Those who have not been in an abusive situation often have trouble understanding the impossibility of doing that.

Singh said a victim's family members who live elsewhere often are alienated because they don't understand the cycle of abuse and how it sometimes takes a long time for the woman to leave.

"A lot of times, friends and families mean well, but they get tired. We only have so much emotional steam," she said. "Families will get pushed away. They'll say, 'You know what? I'm done.' And that further isolates (victims)."

The longer abuse continues, the lower the victim's self-image sinks. It's common, Milligan said, for her to believe she is stupid to have gotten into such a mess.

"I think victims tend to blame themselves for not seeing the problem before it arises," she said.

Most people, including victims, expect abusers to look or act differently from the rest of the population. But they don't.

"It is not easy to pick out at first glance somebody who is going to be hurtful in a relationship. But I think victims take blame, thinking they should have been able to see it," Milligan said.

As time goes on, a victim's ability to get help is diminished.

"They want to try to fix the problem themselves, without anybody else knowing about it. But of course, the longer they are in an abusive situation, their sense of being able to help themselves, their ability to think of themselves as strong and capable people, gets worn down," she said. "They're either afraid to or feel it's useless to reach out for help."


Funds squeezed

As the needs of their clients are rising, many social service agencies are watching their funds drain. The Elgin Community Crisis Center faced possible closure last June while awaiting scarce state funds. Then a community activist's fundraising campaign netted $160,000 to keep the Fox Valley advocacy center going. FSS also is feeling the pinch of reduced revenue flow.
Gabrenya said support from the state's Department of Human Services, the largest contributor to the agency's $2.4 million budget, was down 9 percent last year.

"This year we're looking at an additional 10 percent, so far," she said. "I think another struggle that we've had is foundations are still struggling from the effect of the economy, and we're not seeing as much from those sources as we have in the past."

Some of the philanthropies have cut their giving in half, and others have opted to skip a year, she said.

"For us, even if we lose $50,000, that's potentially a (staff) position," Gabrenya said.

The agency has taken steps to control its expenses, at the expense of its clients. An emergency shelter was transformed to intermediate housing, which requires lower staffing levels. It also means a lower number of places for people to go when they are in crisis.

"Our hope is that we're supporting program enough that we don't have to make as drastic cuts if it comes to that point," Gabrenya said. "It's a worry."

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