Listening and Believing: HAVEN’s Recommendations for How to Help 

Listening and Believing: HAVEN’s Recommendations for How to Help

(Crystal A. Proxmire, Dec. 29, 2019)

Bloomfield Hills, MI- “When you believe them, and ask them how you can help, you may be the first person they have told, or the first person that believes them. And for them that is huge,” said HAVEN Director of Social Action Melissa Sinclair of survivors of intimate partner violence or abuse.

HAVEN, according to their website, is a “comprehensive program for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, HAVEN provides shelter, counseling, advocacy and educational programming to nearly 30,000 people each year”.

There is a 24 hour helpline (248-334-1274) and a shelter.  Plus they raise awareness about abuse, how to prevent it, how to stop it, and how to help survivors get away from it.

Sinclair as well as a woman from HAVEN’s Speakers Bureau wishing to remain anonymous  spoke to a room full Women Official’s Network members at their recent quarterly breakfast.

The woman told about having been physically, sexually, and mentally abused by an adult when she was just 12.  While the story struck chords with many in the room, what really surprised the listeners was how all along the way the systems she expected to protect her, failed.

In court there was a mix up with paperwork and she had to testify without a child advocate, in front of the man who traumatized her.  When the man got off without penalty, it left her feeling scared and traumatized all over again.

When she returned to school, other students knew about the accusations and the trial, leading to bullying, harassment, and even more physical harm.

When she became depressed, doctors kept her sedated and harmed her with electroconvulsive therapy.

The woman persevered.  She recently earned her college degree and she volunteers with HAVEN so other women can have the help that she didn’t.

The 24 hour helpline at HAVEN is there for anyone who has questions or wants to talk about instances of sexual assault or intimate partner violence. Sinclair said that police officers, teachers, healthcare professionals, people from other service organizations, and of course survivors themselves call. If someone has a friend in crisis, they too are welcome to call in and get advice.

The recommended response to reports of violence is not necessarily what people might expect, and in fact surprised many of the women in the room.

“Listen and believe them,” Sinclair said.  “Don’t judge. Don’t give advice.  Don’t tell them to call the police or call the police for them.  Just listen, tell them you believe them, and ask ‘how can I support you?”

At the end of the presentation, one of the local elected officials in the room said something that several others agreed with.  “I’m a helper. I want to find solutions.  So if someone came to me with this, my first response would have been to call the police. But now I see why it’s important to handle it that way, to listen and see what they need.”

At HAVEN there is “an empowerment philosophy,” Sinclair explained.  “We are not prescribing what they should do. We are giving them options.”

She said that the police are not an option for everyone, for various possible reasons. Packing up and leaving is not as simple as it seems, and even in emergency situations there may not be shelter space available. In some cases a survivor’s relatives may not be supportive of their decisions and may not believe them.  And if the abuser has a place of esteem among neighbors or in the community, the survivor may find they are the one who is shunned, not the abuser.

Folks don’t want to believe this happens in their community,” Sinclair said.  “Especially if the abuser is in a position of power, it becomes increasingly difficult to be believed and to get out.”

When people come to HAVEN, they are given a needs assessment and help identifying options.  “Making choices really does help you feel like you can make more difficult decisions down the line,” she said.  For some it could mean leaving. But for many it means having their first conversation about what leaving might look like.  Or learning about the legal process of reporting their abuser. Or creating for the next time the abuse happens.

Outing an abuser is not an easy thing. Sinclair said that a common response to hearing of sexual assault or abuse is to say that the survivor is making it up or twisting a situation out of malice or regret.  But statistically speaking false reports only make up 2-4% of the total.

“What would they gain by lying?  Attention? People who speak out about abuse are getting death threats.  Is that the kind of attention they want and deserve?”

Sinclair said there are ways everyone can help.

One is to stop sexist jokes.  And another is to stop saying that women are crazy.

And of course supporting organizations like HAVEN is a way to help. There are volunteer opportunities as well as ways to give financially.

“Working with survivors is a privilege,” Sinclair said.  “It’s a privilege to hear somebody’s truth.”

Learn more about HAVEN at https://www.haven-oakland.org/.

Recommended stories:

Farmington Hills Domestic Violence Prevention Serves as Model for Other Cities (Oct. 10, 2019)

Resources for those in Need (2019)

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