Leaving a domestic violence situation is incredibly difficult

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In 1985, when Elaine Yates and her two daughters disappeared from their Warwick home, no laws against domestic violence existed in Rhode Island. It was not until 1988 that legislation went into effect making domestic violence a crime. Prior to 1988, the landscape was much different for someone who was being battered in Rhode Island. Back then, it was not illegal for husbands to abuse their wives, and victims of abuse had no legal recourse. If a woman was being abused, she could not turn to law enforcement or the criminal justice system for help. There were very few options for safety, while crisis services and legal protections were practically non-existent. It was not uncommon for victims of domestic violence to leave their homes with their children in order to stay safe, often going out of state and even changing their identities to protect themselves and their loved ones. At that time, advocates would often help battered women and their children flee to underground shelters, made up of a grassroots network of people’s homes and confidential community spaces. The stark reality was that the potential legal ramifications for victims who fled with their children were far outweighed by the risks and danger they might face if they stayed. It is important to recognize that domestic violence does not only affect the primary victim. Abusers often use bystanders, especially loved ones, in order to exert power and control over victims, and the perpetrator may abuse or threaten the victims children as a way to control the victim. In addition, children who live in a home where abuse is taking place are often traumatized. Such adverse experiences can cause health and social problems throughout their lifetime, including chronic diseases, substance abuse, dropping out of school, and even early death. Leaving a domestic violence situation is incredibly difficult, as there are many barriers and obstacles. It is also one of the most dangerous times for a victim while or after they end the abusive relationship. The abuser is losing power and control and will often react in destructive ways, so if a person takes action to leave the home or situation, it is likely that the dangers they face by staying are significant, and the lengths they must go to achieve safety and rebuild their lives would be great. Today, the safety net for survivors of domestic violence and their children here in Rhode Island is stronger. Domestic violence is now defined as a crime by law. The criminal justice response is much improved, law enforcement professionals receive training, and the RICADV’s member agencies provide comprehensive services and support for victims and their children.

Even still, many victims choose not to contact the police for help and while more safety options exist for those being abused, there are still gaps in the system, particularly around child custody and visitation. In 1985 victims faced a significantly bleaker reality. While we cannot comment on the specifics of this case, when there is a history of domestic violence, the choices victims make to keep themselves and their children safe, and the context in which they make these choices, must be not only considered but deeply understood, if we are to build a world where we believe and empower victims, and no longer tolerate domestic violence.

If you are experiencing domestic violence or know someone who is, call the Rhode Island statewide Helpline for 24-hour support at 800-494-8100.

As relatives, friends, coworkers, and neighbors, we can help keep victims safe and prevent a tragedy. Calling 911 if you suspect or witness abuse is an important step to take, but there are many other ways to help. If you know or suspect that someone in your life is a victim of domestic violence, you can help that person stay safe. Listen, and express your concerns without judgment. Ask the person what you can do for them, and check in consistently. Help the person create a plan that will keep them safe when abuse occurs, and connect them with local resources, such as the Helpline (800-494-8100) and the RICADV’s member agencies. Additional resources and information can be found at www.ricadv.org.

Deborah DeBare is executive director of Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

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