Thursday, April 4, 2013

Domestic Abuse Awareness - Kudos to Domestic Violence Services of Southwestern PA

Stand Up and Speak Out

Milestones Communications is a small PR firm that works with groups large and small, corporate and non-profit. We also are active in community service, volunteerism and working pro bono for causes near and dear. This year, we wanted to commit to helping raise awareness about domestic abuse. Why this cause and why now? Because we believe our homes should be a place of safety, love, respect and admiration – for all.  

Putting an End to Domestic Abuse
We were moved to action after seeing an Associated Press report that indicated 1 in 4 women had suffered at the hands of someone they loved and trusted, someone they’d lived with or had been in a relationship with. The number was startling to most – to all except those who work with the victims. And they, across the board, knew the numbers were higher than most of us imagined. The acts of violence included murders, beatings, rapes and stalking along with strikes and blows, pushes, shoves and threats thereof. We realized then that the number of women, children and men who also experienced domestic abuse of all sorts had to, likewise, be beyond our comprehension. Consider this:

  • On average more than three women a day are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends in the United States
  • Nearly one in four women in the U.S. reports experiencing violence by a current or former spouse or boyfriend at some point in her life
  • 20% to 25% of women in college reported experiencing an attempted or completed rape in college
  • Women who have experienced DV are 80% more likely to have a stroke, 70% more likely to have heart disease, 60% more likely to have asthma and 70% more likely to drink heavily than women who have not
As we gave thought to the unsettling statistics, we realized that we personally knew of those affected. Perhaps not our BFF revealing blow-by-blow accounts of the latest cut, bruise or blow, but a relative who has changed over time, a friend who doesn’t have the same zest for life, a colleague who’s more withdrawn, a church member who’s nice but distant. Chances are you know someone who’s having a tough time at home. Their lives may be in jeopardy, they may live in fear, walk on eggshells. Maybe not violent pushing and shoving - perhaps their reality is more subtle and socially acceptable  - but a string of stress-producing incidents, nonetheless, that keep one on edge and in constant fear that wears one out over time.

Do you know someone who’s the victim of domestic abuse?

If not, we’d wager it’s only because they aren’t talking. And that’s precisely why domestic abuse has the power to make so many feel so powerless. Because those abused live in fear – of saying something that will set the abuser off, doing something that will set off a series of attacks, looking or responding in a way that “invites” whatever it is that follows. Too often, the abuser puts on a happy face for the rest of the world but those closest to them encounter a snarling face who somehow believes that they can make themselves feel better by making others feel worse.
As we took to heart the sobering statistics, we came to the conclusion that none of us should accept or minimize abuse in any form. Those who are abused don’t speak up and don’t seek help because they feel they can’t. The first step in understanding their pain - be it physical, mental or emotional - is learning more about it. From there, we can lend our compassion, our care and concern, critical resources and most of all, intolerance for the inexcusable, the unacceptable and the unfathomable. Knowing what to look for will make it more difficult for those committing abuse to continue on unnoticed, unaccountable, or unconcerned.
And let’s not make the mistake of thinking that it’s just women. These stats include teens, youths and men.
Our goal is to share more in the months ahead, spotlighting the organizations that work to raise awareness about domestic abuse as well as speak with those most affected.

Today, we talk with Michelle Robinson-Ritter, executive director of Domestic Violence Services of Southwestern PA. 

Tell us more about your organization.
Domestic Violence Services of Southwestern PA began providing domestic violence-related services under the auspices of the YWCA of Washington County in 1976, followed by the opening of the area’s first domestic violence shelter in 1980. (Due to the lack of sustainable funding, the Washington County shelter was forced to close for a brief period. It re-opened in 1984 and has been open continuously ever since.) In 1986, the shelter/domestic violence program incorporated into an autonomous organization – Washington Women’s Shelter (WWS, Inc.). In 1993, WWS, Inc. began providing domestic violence services, specifically legal advocacy and counseling, in adjoining Greene County. In 2010, WWS, Inc., at the request of two major funders, began providing domestic violence services in adjoining Fayette County. In 2011, to more accurately describe our services and our three-county service area, the organization legally changed our name to Domestic Violence Services of Southwestern PA (DVSSP). 

Services include: 
  • shelters in Washington and Fayette Counties
  • a 24-hour hotline (800-791-4000)
  • 24-hour transportation and intake
  • information and referrals
  • accompaniment
  • general advocacy
  • in-house group and individual counseling
  • individual empowerment counseling for non-residents
  • an extensive legal advocacy program
  • a structured program for child residents of both shelters
  • community support groups for women who have been in abusive relationships
  • food, clothing and personal care items and
  • an intensive community education and training component that works to both increase public awareness of domestic violence and offer wide-scale prevention programs. 
DVSSP also offers transitional housing (Fresh Start program) for victims of domestic violence and their children, as well as a Satellite Counseling/Legal Advocacy Office in Greene County.

What drew you to the field? How did you become involved?
I started volunteering for the YWCA in Washington in 1980. Then, I was given the wonderful opportunity to work on re-opening the shelter in 1984. Because I was acutely aware of domestic violence as a child, helping to make sure that there would be a safe place to go in my community for those in need was a natural fit.  Knowing that victims of domestic violence are frequently blamed for their abuse – WHY DOESN’T SHE JUST LEAVE? -  working to increase community awareness about the lethality of domestic violence is crucial. People need to understand that – as statistics verify - leaving is DANGEROUS. The question needs to be WHY DOES THE ABUSER BATTER? 

Why do abusers abuse?
Growing up in a home where family violence is part of life is one of the reasons. It’s all about POWER and CONTROL, not about the loss of control. DOMESTIC VIOLENCE is not about ANGER.  DOMESTIC VIOLENCE is an intentional choice designed to maintain POWER and CONTROL in the relationship.  DOMESTIC VIOLENCE/INTIMATE PARTNER VIOLENCE is best understood as a pattern of abusive behaviors—including physical, sexual and psychological attacks, as well as economic coercion—used by one intimate partner against another (adult or adolescent) to gain, maintain or regain power and control in the relationship. It is not about someone having a bad day and losing it on a single occasion. It’s about the strategic use of an ever-changing variety of “rules” and behaviors. Batterers use a range of tactics to frighten, terrorize, manipulate, hurt, humiliate, blame, often injure, and sometimes kill a current or former intimate partner. Abusers abuse because they can. 

Is it the victim’s fault?
NOBODY deserves to be abused. The abuse is NEVER the victim’s fault. Domestic Violence/Intimate Partner Violence is NEVER acceptable.

Are there victims who’ve broken the cycle and what made the difference?
Countless victims have broken the cycle. Having options and support is KEY to victims living safe, violence-free lives.  Sometimes leaving is a process. Victims need to be able to reach supportive and knowledgeable advocates who can offer options in a caring, non-judgmental way. The community needs to become aware of the dynamics of DV and support, not blame, victims.

How can they find help safely?
Domestic Violence Services of Southwestern PA maintains a confidential 24-hour hotline – 800.791.4000 – for victims in Pennsylvania’s Washington, Greene, and Fayette Counties.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline is:  800.799.SAFE.

What are common myths and misconceptions about victims?
Myth:  Someone has to have the upper-hand in a relationship.  Truth:  Relationships based on mutual respect, sharing, and caring are healthier and more satisfying.  Myth:  Jealousy is a sign of love.  Truth:  Jealousy is a sign of insecurity and lack of trust.  Myth:  Victims often provoke violence.  Truth:  Abusers are responsible for their violence.

What are the signs of physical abuse?
The signs of physical abuse are many, including bruises, burns, broken bones, cuts, abrasions, unexplained marks on the skin, black eyes and others. Less obvious signs of possible physical abuse include dizziness, memory loss, too much clothing in warm weather, casts, bandages, wraps and other methods to “cover up” injuries.

What are the signs of non-violent abuse?
Withdrawal and isolation are common signs that non-violent/non-physical abuse – and even violent, physical abuse, too – may be occurring.  Silence and a sense of “loss of self” may be observed as well.

What can friends and family do to help?
Family and friends can help by paying attention and asking – privately, away from the abuser - if there is something wrong. Make it evident to the victim that you care, and you don’t blame them for the abuse. Offer to keep copies of important documents for them in the event they decide to flee the abuse.Offer to babysit for appointments. Foster their pets. Be non-judgmental. Be supportive of their decisions.    

What can the public do to help?
Donate to your local domestic violence program. Become educated about the issue of domestic/partner violence. Work within your local schools to make sure children of all ages are informed about dating/domestic/intimate partner violence.  Speak out against the violence. Only through education can we STOP domestic violence. Encourage everyone – women AND men - to stop accepting/ignoring domestic violence!   

Tell us more about the greatest success story you’ve seen.
Confidentiality affords safety, so specific stories must not be shared. Each and every time a victim really feels that she/he doesn’t deserve to be abused is a great success story.

How can we help your organization?
Keep working to increase awareness of domestic violence. Spread the word about the availability of confidential and supportive services.  Encourage others to support their local domestic violence services program.

What books, movies, or songs realistically illustrate domestic abuse?
Any book, movie or song that depicts domestic violence as more widespread that most people think is realistic.

For more information about Domestic Violence Services of Southwestern Pa, you can visit their website or Facebook page. Or touch base at

Is there a local organization you know that’s doing great things in the community to help victims of domestic abuse? Drop us a line at We’d love to support their cause.

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