Fighting Back: Circling the Wagons around Domestic Violence Victims

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2005
This post was written by Melanie Matthews

Fighting Back: Circling the Wagons Around Domestic Violence Victims

Domestic violence—also called spouse abuse, battering or intimate partner violence (IPV)—strikes more than 32 million Americans each year, with more than 2 million injuries and claims and approximately 1,300 deaths, according to a new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Its victims may be beside you at work, in the next chair at your hair salon or flipping through a magazine in your dentist’s waiting room. The thing is, you’ll never know, because its victims are so mired in fear and shame that they would never share this in casual conversation. So we’re applauding a number of initiatives that alert those who cross victims’ paths to the signs of domestic violence and give them resources they can share with suspected victims.

The workplace is a logical place to start. The CDC says one in three women will be abused by a spouse or partner at some point. And 96 percent of these victims say the problem follows them to work, where they are immobilized with anxiety and frequent physical pain. Other CDC statistics bear this out: eight million days at work are lost every year to domestic violence—time away from the office due to injury or just plain fear. Employers are indirect victims, paying $5 billion in productivity losses and related healthcare costs.

To combat these distressing findings, Safe Horizons, the nation’s leading victims’ assistance program, has launched an initiative called SafeWork to teach corporations to own up to the problem of IPV in the workplace. Before you reject this idea, consider the statistics put forth by Safe Horizons: homicide is the leading cause of death for women on the job, and 17 percent of those were murdered by their partner at the workplace.

According to a recent New York Times article, SafeWork trains employers to recognize the problem and refer employees to appropriate resources. A sister program called Safe@Work was established in 2000 by a coalition of private employers, trade unions, domestic violence advocacy groups and government organizations, Safe@Work’s mission is to demystify domestic violence for employers and unions and provide guidance on creating an environment where this historically “private” problem can be openly and effectively addressed.

Safe@Work helps employers shape corporate domestic violence policies and consider measures such as secure parking places, flexible work hours, escorts from work to public transportation and changed work phone numbers to help protect targeted employees. Liz Claiborne Inc. was an early adopter and is today an avid supporter of the program. Employers and health plans should follow this example and invest the time to draft a policy, develop a contingency plan and elevate staff awareness and sensitivity before a crisis occurs.

Cut It Out is a nationwide program of the Salons Against Domestic Abuse Fund dedicated to mobilizing salon professionals and others to fight domestic abuse. Originating in Alabama in 2002, the Cut It Out initiative joined forces in 2003 with the National Cosmetology Association and Clairol to take the program nationwide. The program builds awareness through posters and brochures displayed in salons and trains salon professionals to recognize warning signs and safely refer clients to resources. As their clients’ confidantes, hair stylists often see and hear first-hand the ravages of this abusive behavior. Educating hairstylists on the signs of abuse is another tool in the arsenal to reduce domesstic violence.

And finally, a domestic violence toolkit developed by Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) of Michigan for its healthcare providers crossed our desks recently. The toolkit was their response to a 1999 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association that indicated that nine out of 10 physicians routinely do not screen patients for signs of domestic violence and abuse. BCBS of Michigan toolkits teach providers to recognize potential victims and provide take-home resources in English, Spanish and Arabic for victims in the form of tear-off cards doctors can display in their waiting rooms.

The BCBS of Michigan packet helps healthcare professionals screen for, identify and document confirmed or suspected cases of domestic abuse. According to Shoma Pal, project leader in the Social Mission Health Policy department of BCBS of Michigan, the toolkit has been in great demand by physicians, dentists, medical students, social workers and nurses. More importantly, three months after distributing toolkits and related training, BCBS of Michigan reports a 70 percent increase over baseline in the number of providers aware of the mandatory requirement to report cases of suspected domestic violence and abuse. (P.S. The judges of HIN’s 2005 healthcare toolkits contest awarded this effort third prize.)

Domestic abuse is a delicate subject with violent consequences; it is fraught with privacy, security and legal concerns. More states are legislating that employers provide a safe workplace and protect them from being stalked or threatened. There are lives to be saved as well as healthcare dollars, but the most valuable payoff of programs like Safe@Work, Cut It Out and the BCBS of Michigan toolkit will be the victims’ realization that in a sea of co-workers, clients and patients, they are not alone.

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