Staff at AWARE prepare to help their community of survivors over a difficult holiday season. Photo courtesy AWARE
Staff at AWARE prepare to help their community of survivors over a difficult holiday season.

A strong support system is critical to survivors of domestic and sexual violence. This Michigan shelter explains how to be an ally in those situations.

JACKSON, Mich.—One of the most personal, emotional, and impactful ways to help someone else is by being part of their support network. This is never more true than now with survivors of domestic or sexual violence.

The past year has made it even more difficult for survivors to get out of bad situations, and even more clear how important those support systems are. 

For the last year, AWARE, a shelter in southern Michigan, has been doing its best to manage the needs of survivors with the added layer of concern the coronavirus creates. 

Nationwide, 24 people a minute are subjected to domestic or sexual assaults, for a total of 12 million annually, according to National Domestic Violence Hotline statistics. AWARE’s executive director, Angelita Velasco Gunn, shared the best ways to help when one of those 24 Americans a minute is someone you know.

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“First and most importantly, believe the person who discloses to you. Our response to a disclosure will have a significant impact on whether the survivor seeks help immediately or in the future,” Gunn told The ‘Gander. “Believe without judgment or without trying to uncover an explanation for the abusive partner’s behavior. We know from experience that most people who use violence with their intimate partners have a public face and a private face.”

Not being believed is a major contributing factor to why survivors often don’t report the incidents they endured or seek help. Following allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018, the hashtag #WhyIDidn’tReport trended on social media. Some were scared, they said. Others were unsure they would be believed. Others blamed themselves. 

Writing for Everygirl in response to that trend, Beth Gillette explained the feeling of not being believed. 

“Imagine you’re trying to tell someone something important, and the words just won’t come out,” she wrote. “You’re moving your mouth, and you feel like you’re screaming at the top of your lungs. You’re yelling, shaking them to get them just to listen to you, but they can’t hear. They just sit and watch as you break your vocal cords just trying to get them to hear you.”

READ MORE: The Do’s and Don’ts of Helping a Friend Deal With Domestic Violence

But that initial belief and support is just the first step, according to Gunn.

Supporting a survivor means approaching them with regard, Gunn stressed, and to express genuine concern. This is especially important when their decisions about how to proceed might not make sense to those trying to help.

“It’s easy looking in from the outside to believe that we know what’s best for someone,” Gunn explained. “As a friend or family member, it’s also challenging to witness domestic violence and not wish that our loved one would just leave. Leaving may seem like the most obvious first step, but there are a host of reasons why survivors don’t leave such as fear of losing their children, loss of income, fear of becoming homeless, or fear of escalating violence.”

Ultimately, while the role of the support network is to provide care and resources, the decision about what next steps to take can only be made by the survivor themself, she explained. Because only the survivor has the clearest picture of the situation. Then, help the survivor’s decision become a reality.

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“They know what their partner is capable of and which decisions or next steps are less risky as the time,” she said. ‘Survivors need support as they make critical life changing decisions for themselves and their families. Be there through the entire process.”

And, Gunn added, Michiganders experiencing violence or abuse at home or those seeking resources to support survivors can contact AWARE’s 24-hour crisis hotline at 517-783-2861.

Shelters like AWARE and other programs working with survivors exist across Michigan, and all could use support. Donations in the form of money, time, and physical goods are all appreciated. Contact a local shelter and find out how to help.