We met “Bel” just a few weeks ago when we began reaching out to survivors to investigate the commonalities and the differences in their stories — with the goal of learning how we can raise the national standard of advocacy and ultimately better serve each of them on their journey towards justice, healing, and long-term success.
The one thing we can probably all agree on as advocates who serve those impacted by domestic violence is that it is an intricate process that impacts a variety of aspects of a survivor’s life. This was no different for “Bel”.
She met her husband and was smitten by the way he courted and loved her. But it didn’t take long after they were married for him to shift from prince charming to prince alarming. Unlike some people who experience domestic violence, “Bel” knew what intimate partner violence was because she had friends of hers experience it in the past. Some of the first warning signs she noticed was the level of control her husband began displaying pretty soon after they were married. One thing he did that she found odd was drive her to work. Seems like a nice gesture except that he would do so with her car. The first time he physically assaulted her, he was drunk but “Bel” didn’t take it lightly. She got up, grabbed her keys, took her purse, and ran immediately to a relative's house. She stayed there for a week and asked them NOT to contact the authorities and she kept working as if nothing ever happened.
Three weeks after the assault she ended up in the E.R. where things shifted. Despite there being no weapon involved in the assault, the doctor told her he knew what happened to her was domestic violence and called the police without ever asking her if she wanted to file a case against her husband. Many states have mandated reporting laws for domestic violence that survivors are unaware of and their existence is controversial because of the safety issues and health care privacy laws, to say the least. As “Bel’s” story and experience continues, one thing that stands out so obviously is the lack of coordination in the supportive response services she received and didn’t receive.
Fleeing domestic violence impacts many facets of a person’s life. Oftentimes someone like “Bel’s” first concern are the basic needs of survival for any human. Things like food, housing, safety, school for her children, and income. Second, are her need for justice, healing and stabilization — so that she can one day thrive again. The challenge at the surface is that all of her needs fall under different categories and therefore are serviced (if at all) through different organizations or systems. There’s also a challenge that lies beneath the surface which is that she experienced trauma and may be suffering from her ability to navigate successfully on her own because her heart and brain are quite frankly overwhelmed.
When we talked with “Bel” she shared with us that while the E.R. doctor contacted police and she received supportive services to relocate through relocation funding, her advocate and the state attorney’s office weren’t so helpful. In fact, after speaking with the police officer in the E.R. that day, she agreed to press charges against her husband but her case was dropped because her assigned advocate didn’t submit the correct paperwork on time. However, because she was now in another state very far away she was so grateful that even if justice wasn’t being served, at least she was safe. She also shared that while she didn’t receive things like crime victim’s compensation so she could participate in counseling to heal from the nightmare she went through, she found healing on her own through her church and life groups there.
We can only wonder what could have happened differently in “Bel’s” situation if she would have been assigned a lead coordinating advocate from the onset? Someone that could act as a guide to help her navigate the uncharted choppy waters and advocate for her when even the “advocates” weren’t exactly getting it right. Someone who could stand back and look at the whole story, strategize with “Bel” and do things like contact the state attorney’s office on her behalf, gather any documentation she may need to complete, help her find work again, point her to other services in her new community and also just be a friend.
In my 10 + years of advocacy, I can tell you that while I’m certified to work in shelter’s and appear in court rooms, I’ve mainly operated as a freelancer — relying on my professional and personal knowledge of the systems and what it takes to rebuild one’s life successfully after your world has been shattered into a million tiny pieces.
In my freelancing, I’ve found that what survivors echoed that they needed was one person to be the main guide, sort of like a “lead coordinating advocate” or a “navigator” that could work on behalf of the survivor in every facet of their lives while also being a friend. Someone who could show up in the hospital and be there in support while also getting the ball rolling on things like filing for disability or offering healing solutions right away. Someone who could do things like go to court with them in case their court advocate wasn’t present (cause that happens way more than people know.) Someone who could contact the state attorney’s office and ask questions when they were too overwhelmed to do so themselves or they weren’t being represented fairly. Someone who could offer additional support to their friends and family or inform them on their rights and so much more. Being a “lead coordinating advocate” is like being the conductor of an orchestra. Your goal is to make the music of supportive services all flow together cohesively so the healing and rebuilding process is more likely a success and that it lasts long-term.
If you asked “Bel” today how she was able to rebuild successfully she would quickly credit her Heavenly Father. While this of course is in part true, I also believe it was because “Bel” was born to be a navigator or conductor herself. Today, she wishes she received justice and had a “lead coordinating advocate” to walk alongside her. However, she’s also grateful that she made it through the storm and into the calm once again.
Your Fellow Navigator,
Audrey May Prosper