Domestic abuse takes many forms, affects all populations, say local experts

Andrea Siemens
Andrea Siemens
Robin Memel Fox
Robin Memel Fox

Even discussing domestic abuse can be controversial. Jewish women face cultural and religious stigmatization when they get out of their abusive relationships, said Andrea Siemens of Jewish Family & Children’s Services of Southern Arizona at a joint presentation with Robin Memel Fox of the Emerge! Center Against Domestic Abuse, which took place at the Dusenberry-River Branch Library on March 31.

Domestic abuse occurs in all branches of Judaism and in people of all socioeconomic levels. According to the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four women and one in nine men experience domestic abuse during their lifetimes. Research shows that abuse happens in the Jewish community at the same rate as the population at large — around 15 to 25 percent — noted Siemens, the coordinator of LEAH: Let’s End Abusive Households, a program of JFCS, which is available to address the specific cultural and religious needs of Jewish families.

Siemens and Fox, program manager of family services at Emerge!, emphasized the complexities of domestic abuse vs. physical violence, stressing the importance of recognizing the signs of both in our community. “Abuse is a pattern of coercive behavior for the purpose of gaining power and control,” said Siemens. “It may be sexual, which means anything without your consent, not even realizing you’re being abused.” Someone may believe “it’s my duty” to have sex with a partner and not realize the underlying role of the other in establishing power. Abuse may be psychological, including bullying, name-calling, manipulation or “taking away someone’s psychological power, causing a reduction of self-worth to a very large degree,” explained Fox.

Instead of seeking help, survivors of domestic abuse may isolate from friends and family because of the shame they feel. “It’s hard for them to reach out,” and if someone who’s usually social seems very withdrawn, Fox said it may be a sign. Respect a possible victim,” she said, “meeting them where they are.”

Abuse may also include economic control, such as giving the partner an allowance, treating the spouse like a servant or even threatening someone’s immigrant status. “If it starts with name-calling it can escalate. Abuse can relate to male privilege in a household, maybe forcefully delineated,” said Fox. “There’s a big correlation between firearm abuse and domestic abuse.”

In 2013-14 in Pima County, 24 people died from domestic violence. More than 12,000 phone calls were made to law enforcement. Arizona ranked fifth in the nation in domestic violence, as Fox and Siemens showed in their PowerPoint presentation.

It’s a good idea to find out what’s going on at home with people who are labeled ADHD, said Fox. Their symptoms may actually be symptoms of abuse. In addition to attention issues and hyperactivity, abused children may exhibit anxiety, confusion, lack of trust, fearfulness, depression and antisocial behaviors, said Siemens. “In the office we try to have kids see their role as a child. Many take on adult roles” trying to help a family member who’s being abused.

“What happened to me as child affected every minute of my life,” said one audience member. “And I didn’t know [that] until I was in my 30s and experienced excellent help from JFCS.”

Abuse can start at any time in a person’s life. “An interesting teen dynamic is that 23 percent of females and 14 percent of males first experience abuse between the ages of 11 and 17,” said Siemens. “Children are more likely abused in family settings if the parents are involved in abuse, which may model future relationships. Boys who witness abuse are twice as likely to abuse as adults.”

Youth who witness domestic abuse are also more likely to attempt suicide, abuse drugs and alcohol, run away from home, commit other delinquent behavior, engage in teenage prostitution and commit sexual assault crimes.

Another precursor to abuse is cruelty to children or animals, said Fox. “It may be a step to abusing adults.” A common emotion connected to abusers is anger turned inward, and for survivors, feelings of guilt and powerlessness tend to arise. If there’s suspicion of abuse, an outsider may wonder “why they don’t leave or why they should have known better,” she said.

The U.S. government has gotten involved in the fight against domestic abuse. The Violence Against Women Act of 1994 is a federal law signed by President Bill Clinton. It was struck down in 2000 by a 5-4 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Morrison, which overturned a provision allowing women to sue their attackers. Ultimately, VAWA was reauthorized by Congress in 2013.

Even though domestic abuse is an obvious crime, there’s still stigma around getting support, said Siemens, and it doesn’t help that “many people think this doesn’t happen in good Jewish families. But it does.” “We want to help you get back to who you once were, and that’s where therapy comes in,” said Fox, adding that Emerge! has a 52-bed shelter in Tucson. “Most of the time it’s full.”

For more information, contact LEAH at 795-0300, ext. 2365, or jfcstucson.org/services/domestic-violence-services/. In an emergency, call law enforcement at 911, or the Emerge! Center Against Domestic Abuse at 795-4266 or 1-888-428-0101 toll free, or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-888-799-SAFE (7233).