Community forum addresses domestic violence

In the first of three “Community Connections” programs, experts answer questions about domestic violence and offer suggestions.

Why doesn’t she just leave?

It’s a question people often ask when they become aware that a woman was a victim of domestic violence.

But it’s the wrong question, said Angela Lewellyn Jones, associate professor of social justice and associate dean of Elon College, the College of Arts and Sciences. “We are shining a light on the victim, instead of asking, ‘Why does someone behave that way?’ If we want to hold offenders accountable, that’s what we have to start asking. Why do we sit back and allow this to happen? … I think that’s where the answer starts, changing the questions we ask.”

Jones was one four people who made up the panel of experts Monday evening in the first of three “Community Connections” programs that will take place in the 2014-15 academic year in a partnership between Elon University and the Times-News of Burlington, N.C. Jason Husser, assistant professor of political science and policy studies and assistant director of the Elon Poll, was the moderator of the forum, which aims to create thoughtful dialog about issues deemed important in the community.

Elon students, faculty and staff as well as area police officers, attorneys, representatives from nonprofit agencies, a few political candidates and many members of the community filled McKinnon Hall Nov. 3. Many asked the panelists questions.

While domestic violence is not new, it recently received a lot of attention following the release of a surveillance video that showed former Ravens running back Ray Rice dragging his then-finacee, Janay Rice, out of an elevator after knocking her out. The incident brought national exposure to the issue and a range of reactions from media commentators who questioned why Janay Rice married her alleged abuser. It was a typical reaction, but one that needs to change.

“They were blaming the victim,” said Lynn Rousseau, executive director of Family Abuse Services. She pointed out that a lot of domestic violence injuries and deaths are seen as family issues and nothing more. “This is what it is. It’s domestic violence. It’s a fatality. It’s a brutal murder. Call it what it is but the media doesn’t.”

Retired Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Rob Johnson, one of the panelists and a former Alamance County district attorney, said that in the past he’s heard law enforcement officers and attorneys say “it’s just another domestic” but thinks attitudes toward that kind of violence has changed.

“I think all of us have to understand that to the person who is a victim that case is the most important,” Johnson said. “For that little period of time dedicated to that person’s case in the courtroom on a busy court day, the district attorney in the courtroom has to respect that this is the most important case I’m handling today.”

A lot of resources in Alamance County are dedicated to assisting victims of domestic violence from volunteer counselors to an electronic protective order system—the first in the country—that enables victims to do everything necessary, including appearing before a judge via Skype, without having to navigate a confusing court system.

Those resources have made a difference. “We are spending so much energy and so much needed energy supporting the victim,” said Julie Budd, outreach and volunteer coordinator at Crossroads Sexual Assault Response and Resource Center. “But our next step is really holding the offender accountable.”

There is a lot of evidence that suggests focusing on the abuser also makes an impact, said Cindy Brady, director of Alamance Family Justice Center, a partnership of agencies that work together to provide client-centered services in a single location for victims of domestic and sexual assault.

“There is a program in High Point, (N.C.) that holds the offenders accountable,” Brady told the audience. “They meet the offender at first appearances in the jail and say, ‘We are watching you and this is not acceptable.’ If a first-time abuser spends the night in jail, it decreases the likelihood for a certain percentage of people that they will do it again. That’s the other piece of this that really needs to be addressed.”

Panelists suggested that community members can help by offering support and reporting violent behavior when they witness it.

“If it’s your friend, don’t give up on him or her,” Jones said. “Don’t get frustrated. Most victims try to get away from these relationships five to seven times before they are successful in breaking the tie. They need their friends to stay supportive.”

Rousseau encouraged people to reach out for help.

“Silence gives violence power,” she said. “Offending parties are depending on us to keep quiet. As long as we are quiet and continue to be silent, they are going to continue to offend.”