Sheila on Domestic Violence

Thank you for having me here and thanks for being here.

I was asked to speak with you about the medical community's ethical response to domestic violence. I think that in order to do that, we really have to look at the values that guide us and that we have to work towards an ethic that respects every individual, to be physically and emotionally safe. That is ultimately what our goal is: to understand that no one, regardless of age, color, gender, background, any other factor, deserves to be physically or emotionally unsafe. We need to do everything we can to respect that safety, and everything that we can to protect it.

In a just society, we pledge to act together to ensure that each individual is safe from harm. In a just society, we support individuals in systems that are working to protect victims and to prevent the violence. In a just society, we support the professionals who are trying to stop the violence. In a just society, we come together with a common goal of making sure that everyone is safe. In a just society - I think we have to say this over and over and over - we are not going to tolerate the violence and we are going to be a part of the fundamental change of attitude that is going to stop the cycle of violence.

In Minnesota, we are very much in the front of the country in the work that is being done to stop the violence, but we still, in this state, have a very long way to go. Just coming into your jobs in the morning and reading the papers you know how bad it is. That 4,000 women a year are killed. That every 12 seconds a woman is beaten by her partner or husband. That severe, repeated beatings happen in one out of 14 marriages and that usually there are 35 incidences before it is reported. That up to 40 percent of women who are pregnant are battered during their pregnancies, and that the high percentage of the batterers are also abusing their children. And these statistics are based only on what we know.

Domestic violence is a crime. It is the crime that is most often occurring in this country, but it is the crime that is the least reported. Unfortunately there are probably women in this audience who are victims; there are women who you know where you work, where you go to church or synagogue, in your neighborhoods, in classrooms, and women in your family. It knows no boundaries, it matters not the color of your skin, where you live, how educated you are, what your income is, your sexual orientation, where you come from. Domestic violence, violence against women, is happening all over this country.

I got involved in this work for a very simple reason. I find it intolerable that a woman's home can be the most violent or the most anxious place for her, often the most deadly, and that if she is a mother that it means that that's the same kind of home that her children will be raised in. I've traveled all over Minnesota, talking with people from all parts of the community, and I've talked about myself and them, saying its time that we break these patterns. It's time that we tell the secret, it's time that we all come together to work towards ending the violence. It's no longer an issue just for women; it's an issue for women, an issue for men, an issue for children, an entire community's issue. And we maybe can sit here in this room and say this is not affecting me, that I am one of the lucky ones, but I would like to talk about just a few ways that in fact we all are affected.

If you have children in school, it can affect you and your child. Imagine that a teacher of your child is having to spend more time with a particular young boy or a particular girl because that child is asleep when they come to school, not because they do not want to learn but because they are witnessing and hearing the violence being perpetrated against their mothers all night long. Finally, when they come into their classroom, they can let down their guard, they are safe for the first time. Or imagine your child has a classmate acts out in class. Unless we understand the dynamics of what could be happening at home that child is automatically a trouble maker, when in fact we need to need to find out and take the time to find out why this child is such a troubled child.

But the law enforcement officers tell me this is the number one call they get in their community from the workplace. They are not told about the absentees who are too embarrassed to come to work because of broken bones and bruises and because they are afraid that when they leave home and they have no child care for their children, they're leaving their children at home with the abusers. The workplace is paying $3-5 billion a year because of domestic violence: because of low productivity, absenteeism and health care costs. And the health care system is costing $4-5 million. Thirty-three percent of women who suffer from anxiety or depression do so because of battering. Twenty-six percent of women who commit suicide do so because of battering.

The health care profession is so impacted by this issue and as I talk about the necessary training and education that for all professions that are impacted by the women who are being battered, I think is extraordinarily important that the health care professionals be trained. As Paul and I have tried to work in Washington to make this a policy issue, this was the first piece of legislation he was able to get passed. It would provide through the Center For Disease Control money to really study what the programs are that are going to train health care providers about the dynamic of domestic violence, and to train them about what the services are in the community, so when a woman comes in to see you, you recognize that she's been a victim and you help her find safety with the medical part of the abuse. We have also passed a law that would say there should be supervised visitation centers throughout this country so that when the court orders supervised visits, there is a safe place to go for the women and children. That all too often the woman risks the most harm after she has left, and this would be a safe place for her to make to make an exchange for the visit, for custody for a weekend or just a day visit for the child. We've also passed legislation that would say that anyone was under order of protection could no longer have a firearm of any kind.

Just this spring, Paul introduced legislation that said that health care and health insurance companies can no longer discriminate against a woman who is a victim because she has battering on her medical records. That too many insurance companies are saying it is a pre-existing condition, health insurance and life insurance companies are telling women that they have chosen a risky lifestyle, and therefore they are being denied coverage-- this is just one more step to prevent her from leaving and just one more victimization of her as she is trying to get her life back together.

Welfare reform: I have to mention it for just a moment because as I saw the House pass the Personal Responsibilities Act and saw the kinds of things that they were talking about it seemed to me, almost, that we were passing another form of the Violence Against Women Act, which I was so proud to see being passed in the crime bill this last year. We worked very hard on it, it was funded, and all of a sudden now with the new Congress there is all this discussion to take all the money out of it. And this was money that was going to go to the Violence Against Women Act, that was going to cost no one a penny. It was money that was in the trust fund. We made a promise to the women in this country that we were going to protect them, and all of a sudden now were trying to take those protections away. We are working very hard to make sure that that money does get re-instated, but in the welfare reform up to 60 percent of women who are getting any sort of welfare payments are put there coming out of violent homes, and their children are there because they are coming out of violent homes. And what if we tell a woman, "Five years after you have had assistance of any kind, you're finished, we've cut you off and it does not matter, if you have to go back into a violent situation to survive, so be it, we have done our part and that's it"? What if we tell a young mother, "Two years and you are off now and that we expect you to have your life together in two years"?

Paul uses the example of a young woman who was a tennis player, who was battered; it took her two years to physically and emotionally rebuild herself to come back on the court. Can you imagine a woman who has been battered for years to try and put her life back together when she could be out there with her children, being safe? We are so short sighted that we are going to say as a nation that we are not going to help her a little bit now, we are not going to pay a little bit? Because if we do not pay now, I am going to tell you, I truly believe, we are going to pay later. We are going to pay by what it costs this mother and her children for that child to witness the abuse over and over again, we are going to pay the schools, we are going to pay the labor costs, we are going to pay in our judicial system, in our medical system, and in our law enforcement system. It is going to take us a lot more to pay for the ramifications of not helping this woman and her children to get on their feet. It is very short sighted.

I appreciate your giving me a moment. I passionately believe that we have to look at everything we are doing in this state, in this community and this country and look and say how are we going to be impacting women and children who are not safe in their homes? I hoped to be short and I got carried away with that and so now I hope to get back to my promise now to be short. I'm just going to tell some stories because I feel that as women share stories with me, until they have the voice and feel the strength to speak out for themselves, that I have to speak for them. I will just tell you two because the point of my stories is to show how our systems are not working and our communities are not working.

I want to tell you about the doctor's wife that I met, a woman in Minnesota, who told me that her husband started beating her during the pregnancy of her first child. She's been to the emergency room now seven times. And never once when she has gone into the hospital for severe beating, has anyone asked her, "Is anyone hurting you? Are you safe?" I think it is unconscionable that a woman can go into a hospital, a clinic or a doctor's office and not be asked the questions: Is anyone hurting you? Are you safe?

I want to tell you of the young woman who came to me and told me that after she had been married for several weeks her husband started beating her. So she went to her minister after a year and she said I cannot take this, and he looked at her across the table and he said," I baptized you, I confirmed you, and I married you so you go home and you make it work." This is not the message that we should be sending to our young women. But the very next week, thankfully, I heard a woman who is a minister right here in the Twin Cities, Georgia Stodder, who said, "I tell people that the first time you get hurt the contract is broken. No woman deserves to be beaten; no woman needs to be unsafe in her home."

There are many programs in the Twin Cities alone, much less in the state, that are working, like the Woman Time program that trains health care providers. Hennepin Ramsey Counties both have a mission for violence free families. Down in Austin, Minnesota the Victim's Crisis Center is working with a local church to have a supervised visitation center. If we become creative and sit down with the people in the communities that we live with, we can ensure that women and children are going to be safe.

I think it's all coming together, and I think it starts by looking inwardly at what we can do. We need to be there for a friend, a sister, anyone else that needs the help. If you think that someone is being harmed, let her know that you care, let her know that you believe her, let her know that she can trust you, let her know that you are someone that she can come to when she needs to find a way to safely get out of a situation that she is in. Be there for her and as professionals, please make a commitment to understand the dynamic of what is going on with people you are working with. Please be there to help them find safety, please be there to help guide them and please be there to care for them. I think it is very important that as individuals and as a society that we say that we are no longer going to tolerate this violence, that we will no longer ignore it, but that most importantly we are not able to say any longer that it is someone else's responsibility. We all have a responsibility and I think we all have the power, to make someone safe who is not safe today. Thank you very much.