ADDISON COUNTY — Advocates for victims and survivors of domestic and sexual violence in Addison County are anecdotally reporting that the number and severity of reported assaults is on the rise, and groups that support these vulnerable Vermonters say the economic recession is making life more difficult for battered women.
WomenSafe, a local agency that works toward eliminating physical, sexual and emotional violence against women and their children, reported last week that its seen a 13 percent hike in the number of women and children using the service since 2008. Nationally, three out of four domestic violence shelters report an increase in women seeking assistance from abuse since September 2008.
“I think the classic pattern for someone who uses abusive and controlling behavior is to take everything that happens in life out on their partner,” said Kerri Duquette-Hoffman, the advocacy program coordinator at WomenSafe.
“You have a lousy day at work … (and rather than discuss it with your boss) you go home and take it out on your partner,” Duquette-Hoffman said. “As the lousy days get worse, as the economy downturns, things get tighter. Paying the bills gets harder. Certainly job losses make domestic violence all the more in your face.”
Advocates at WomenSafe said any uptick in these incidents can’t necessarily be tied directly to the economic downturn: It may simply be that more women (women make up 85 to 90 percent of domestic abuse victims) are reporting incidents.
But statewide and nationally, advocates for victims of domestic and sexual abuse say the recession is definitely making it harder for victims to flee dangerous situations.
Domestic violence is more than three times as likely to occur when couples are experiencing high levels of financial strain as when they are experiencing low levels of such strain, according to the National Network to End Domestic Violence. A tighter job market might dissuade a victim from fleeing, for fear of losing one’s job, and the long waiting list for Section 8 public assistance housing and crowded emergency shelters can force victims to choose between homelessness over an abusive home.
“The safety net is tightened up quite a bit,” said Duquette-Hoffman, noting that the amount of time that victims can stay in emergency housing is decreasing. “(Victims) are being pushed on to the next thing. The next thing may look like an unsafe living situation, either back with their abusive partner, or other family that’s abusive, or worse.”
Some abusers also use economic tools to control their partners: Duquette-Hoffman said she’s worked with women whose partners have taken out maxed-out credit cards in the woman’s name, saddling her with debt that makes it even harder to strike out on her own.
In many cases, said Auburn Watersong, the economic justice specialist at the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, economic factors can make or break a woman’s decision to leave an abusive situation.
“We do see women who choose to stay,” Watersong said. “In the time we’re in right now, with fewer choices, I’m afraid that’s going to be on the increase.”
There are silver linings. Duquette-Hoffman said that advocates at WomenSafe are hearing repeated stories from women in Addison County whose employers are working hard to make sure that victims of domestic violence have a job to come back to, even if they have to miss work because of court appearances of single parenting.
“I’ve really seen a lot of employers go the extra mile and care for their employees because they know that the job market is so scary,” Duquette-Hoffman said.
Meanwhile, community groups are pitching in to help sooth the over-stressed safety net. WomenSafe recently secured a three-year transitional housing grant to help create places for women to land in times of crisis, and the John W. Graham Emergency Shelter in Vergennes has also recently expanded housing options. Some church groups have also created “overflow” shelters for the homeless or victims of abuse.
The Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence is also using the economic downturn as a reminder of just how important economic tools can be for victims of sexual and domestic abuse. Watersong testified in Congress recently on the importance of reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, which will otherwise expire in 2011.
She pushed legislators to consider building more economic supports into the bill, and pointed to an example in Vermont of how nontraditional partnerships can help abused women get on their feet.
The network this year set up a program with a community credit union to create a matched savings program for domestic violence survivors. For every $1 a woman saves, she receives a $3 match, and the program includes financial literacy training, credit counseling and money management skills. The network pays the fees on the accounts, and the accounts give women money management programs separate from those of their abusers.
“Building those skills will also increase their likelihood of being able to sustain their safety,” Watersong said.
Locally, domestic violence advocates stressed that no matter how tight the state safety net might be for women looking to flee abusive relationships, victims should reach out for help.
“Even though the financial times are difficult and there may be more barriers, we’re here and we’ll figure them out,” Duquette-Hoffman said. “No woman should feel like she has to stay because of the financial difficulty. We’ll work with her, and we’ll walk that walk with her. We’re here.”
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at firstname.lastname@example.org.