When cases of domestic violence make the news, people often ask, why didn’t the victim just leave his or her abuser?
But Mary Foley, executive director of the Merryman House Domestic Crisis Center in Paducah, says that’s not really the right question. She contends that the issue of domestic violence should be examined by looking at all of the obstacles that hamper a victim’s ability to escape.
“Because escaping is a different frame than leaving,” Foley says. “This crime is underpinned in power and control and usually happens over time, [so] when we come to the place where we are helping someone escape, we’re coming at them from a very different direction than ‘Why don’t you just leave?’”
Foley discussed her organization’s work, and the intersection of domestic violence and substance abuse, on KET’s Connections with Renee Shaw.
Merryman House helps domestic violence victims in eight counties of the Jackson Purchase region of western Kentucky. Foley says the organization serves about 750 people a year, including some 150 individuals who need shelter. She says there is no set length of time a client can stay at the house, but she says their programs are designed so that most individuals can leave the emergency shelter in three or four months.
“Domestic violence is such a comprehensive problem in the vast, devastating effects and consequences it can have on so many areas of an individual’s functioning,” Foley says.
The range of services offered by Merryman House break down into three areas: life saving assistance, including the emergency shelter as well as legal and medical support for women, men, or children in crisis; life building services to help survivors with counseling, financial assistance, transportation, and children’s services; and life changing programs to address housing, credit repair and ongoing case management.
“What we work with them on first and foremost is their safety,” says Foley. “That’s what we’re going to establish first: safety, shelter, support… and then grow from there with the client on their journey.”
Once a person is a victim of domestic violence, Foley says they qualify for Merryman House services and advocacy at any time for the rest of their lives.
When Abuse and Drugs Collide
Foley says more than 90 percent of individuals who seek treatment for substance abuse have also endured some form of interpersonal violence. She says some victims turn to drugs or escalate an existing addiction problem as a way to cope with the abuse they’re experiencing. In other cases, she says the perpetrator will encourage drug use as a way of controlling his or her victims. In one particular case, Foley says a client preferred that her abuser did drugs because that meant he would be calmer and less likely to hurt her or her children.
The staff of Merryman House is well equipped to help domestic violence victims deal with trauma, but Foley says that they don’t have expertise in addiction treatment. That’s why the organization has embarked on an effort to partner with other agencies that can help Merryman clients with drug issues.
“So if we know that trauma has such devastating effects to the mind, the body, and the spirit, then why would we not bring on partners that address all of those areas?” Foley asks.
The trick, according to Foley, is to determine which issue to address first. Some clients may need to address an addiction problem before Merryman House can treat them for trauma. She says there can be a fine line between helping trauma victims and pushing them to where they feel unable to cope and start using again.
When clients are ready for trauma treatment, Foley says counselors can use eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) as well as other cognitive behavioral therapies and evidence-based practices that have proven beneficial to domestic violence victims.
A Strong Support System to Rebuild Lives
Trauma is at the root of many maladaptive coping styles and mental health problems, says Foley, especially for younger victims. She says children who have witnessed or directly experienced domestic violence have very specific treatment needs. And if that trauma is left unresolved, it can continue to haunt victims as they get older.
“Many of the adults that we’re dealing with never got the care and the support and the education that they needed as children,” Foley says, “and never got healing for the traumatic experience that they witnessed.”
But Foley stresses there is hope for all domestic violence victims. She says that while the adaptive behaviors that helped clients survive abuse may no longer be needed, they can always learn new behaviors and skills that can enable them to rebuild their lives.
“If there’s breath in your lungs, you’re not too far gone,” says Foley. “I do think it has to start with the choice to turn and go the other direction, and hopefully we will have done a really good job of giving them really good reasons to make that turn, and we’ll be able to stand from a place of grace and understanding to help them on that journey.”