United Services Domestic Violence Program puts us 'In Her Shoes'

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Killingly - posted Mon., Oct. 14, 2013
Lori Hall, as Sarah Wilson, goes from one station to another with her suitcase. Photo by D. Coffey.
Lori Hall, as Sarah Wilson, goes from one station to another with her suitcase. Photo by D. Coffey.

The United Services Domestic Violence Program hosted a workshop called “In Her Shoes” on Oct. 8. The role-playing simulation put participants in the shoes of victims of domestic violence. Developed by the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the program was meant to illustrate just how difficult it can be for women to remove themselves from abusive relationships.

USDVP child advocate Patti-Sue Brown said the program was designed to give participants a sense of the isolation many victims experience. It was also intended to show the real difficulties victims face when dealing with social service agencies, the legal system, and even friends and families.

The training kit was created by the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Each participant was given a victim’s identity. Those identities were composites, much like fictional characters. There was a Hispanic woman who married a policeman, a woman who fell in love with a farmer, a young lesbian who moved in with her partner.

The seven composite characters had families and friends, certain educational and economic backgrounds. They lived in different parts of the country. Some of them had children. Some of them developed health problems. The details of their lives were unremarkable in many ways. That is, until they met up with the partners who eventually abused them.

The character Sarah married a man whose dream it was to farm. Reyna was on public assistance. J’Mai’s life spiraled out of control and she became addicted to drugs. What was revealing about the program were the possible scenarios each fictional life could take when the women tried to set up their own bank accounts or if they shared their stories with family members or tried to leave their abusive situation.

Once a participant was given an identity, they were asked to visit a series of 12 stations. At each of the stations, they were given a situation where they had to decide what to do. That decision moved them to another station, where they were given another scenario and asked to make another decision. In the process, participants discovered examples of the roadblocks domestic violence victims face.

“Each story can end quickly, or take a long time, depending on the choices participants make,” Brown said. “The point of the exercise is to immerse people in all the dirty details of what can happen to people.”

A woman with a 16-year-old son might decide to leave an abusive relationship only to find the area shelter does not allow male children over a certain age. A woman without work history might want to strike out on her own, but not have the skills for a job that would provide for her. A family member might advise a woman to stay in a relationship because of religious beliefs.

The cards were not always stacked against the characters. Some found support from their families and social service agencies. Some received support all along the way. Still, their life situations were difficult. “The journey is not necessarily made easier because of support,” Brown said. 

Lori Hall was given the identity of Sarah Wilson. Wilson’s story begins when she marries a man who is trying to run a family farm. Financial difficulties make his abuse worse. The couple has three children. One has special needs. Wilson starts drinking as her isolation grows. One of Hall’s decisions led to a DUI for Wilson. “I felt really bad for her,” Hall said. “Her drinking kept getting worse.”

“Seventy-five percent of domestic violence reports to the police occur after a separation,” Brown said. “Telling a woman to leave an abusive relationship isn’t always the safest thing for her to do.” One of the challenges is to shift the public perception that leaving is the first step. “We have to get people to stop asking, ‘Why didn’t she leave?’ to ‘What gives him the right to treat her that way?’” she said.  

State Rep. Mae Flexer (D-44) said that raising awareness is important for dealing with domestic violence issues. “At the end of the day, we can pass all the laws and create all the programs we want to, but we must answer this broader question and shift the way people think about domestic violence. We have to stop victim blaming,” she said.

Flexer is hopeful. “This is something nobody talked about years ago," she said. "So if you think about how far we’ve come, I think the shift can happen. I think we’re almost there.”

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