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Three years ago, a Chesterfield County woman left home on a Sunday night after being assaulted by her husband in what she describes as an unexpected attack.
“We’d returned from an outing, and I noticed that he seemed agitated and he kept saying, ‘You’re going to leave here tonight,’” the woman recalls. “He physically picked up the sofa I was sitting on, and I was suddenly on the ground. I didn’t know he was going to drag me out of the house.”
Family members, including their youngest son, then 14, intervened. She says she picked up the phone to call police, but did not complete the call because she was a candidate for a job that required a federal background check. She says that reporting the incident would have jeopardized her chance of getting the job.
“There is no police report, and if there is no police report, there is no proof,” she says. “But he knows what happened, and everyone who was in the house knows what happened.”
It’s well known that domestic violence — the willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault and other abuses perpetrated by one intimate partner over another — can affect one’s emotional, mental and physical state.
Often overlooked, however, is the impact of domestic violence or intimate partner violence at work or, in the Chesterfield woman’s case, the ability to obtain productive work. Before being attacked by her husband, she worked in a temporary position that ended the day after she was assaulted. Prior to the temporary position, she worked part time for her husband’s small business, which gave him complete control of their finances. Many times she felt verbally and emotionally abused by her husband who chided her for not having a full-time job.
“He thought I should be doing more up to his standard, but I could never meet those standards,” says the woman, a communications specialist.
Studies show that survivors of intimate partner violence lose nearly eight million days of paid work per year, or the equivalent of 32,000 full-time jobs due to illness or injuries. In addition, 96 percent of domestic violence survivors who are employed experience distraction, fear of harassment and job loss.
Such statistics don’t sit well with Dorinda Smith, president and CEO of SunTrust Mortgage, who recited those numbers and others during a YWCA of Richmond breakfast earlier this month at Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens. SunTrust sponsored the “Empower and Transform” annual giving breakfast to help raise awareness about domestic violence and to end it.
Smith told her largely female audience that she never experienced domestic violence while growing up in Franklin, Tenn., or even knew much about it. Her wake-up call came during her college years when a friend ended up “in a vegetative state” after an assault by an abusive lover.
“Back then, domestic violence was not something women talked about,” Smith says.
Times have changed, but not much. Publicity surrounding acts of domestic violence involving high-profile celebrities have helped shed light on the crime in recent years. Yet, domestic violence, which occurs every 9 seconds in the U.S., remains one of the most under-reported crimes, according to statistics from the YWCA and National Institutes of Health. Nearly 33 percent of women killed in U.S. workplaces between 2003 and 2008 were killed by a current or former intimate partner. Also, nearly one in four large private industry employers reported at least one incidence of domestic violence, including threats and assaults within the same period.
While many of the nation's largest companies recognize the harmful and extensive impact of domestic violence in the workplace, many are hesitant to do much about it. Others, such as Verizon, established HopeLine, a program where mobile telephones and cash are donated to organizations that are fighting domestic violence.
Smith believes that women in leadership positions can help other women feel empowered and confront the physical, mental and emotional pain wrought by domestic violence. SunTrust is doing its part, she says, with a program called “On Up” which offers financial counseling services to its customers and employees to help them cope with financial stress. Although financial stress should not be blamed for domestic violence, it can be a trigger, experts say.
Smith also urged her audience to donate money to the YWCA’s outreach program that provides counseling, safety planning, case management, employment navigation, financial literary classes, court accompaniment and other resources for survivors of domestic violence.
“I want to do whatever I can to help women because it’s the one thing we can stop,” said Smith. “It’s a matter of getting to people when they are young. Think about how much attention has focused on bullying and campaigns to stop it.”
Rebecca “Becky” Lee, chief program officer for the YWCA, didn’t mince words when explaining the Y’s approach to combating domestic violence. She defines the crime, which crosses economic, education, gender, racial and religious lines, as a pattern of coercive behavior intended to exert power and control over someone else.
“It is a thoughtful and intentional act by perpetrators,” Lee says. Lee makes clear the language she uses when discussing domestic violence. “Only people who are killed in the process (of domestic violence) are referred to as ‘victims,’” she says. “Everyone else is a ‘survivor.’ Survivors are among the strongest people I’ve ever known.”
As a primary service provider for Richmond and Chesterfield County, the YWCA provides a free 24-hour confidential resource hotline for survivors of sexual, domestic and intimate partner violence throughout the region. The number is 804-612-6126.
Among the more effective ways of preventing domestic violence begins with those who have survived it.
After her husband assaulted her, the Chesterfield woman drove around for hours, still in shock and not knowing what to do or where to go. A work-related event scheduled for the next morning prompted her to return home.
A few days later, she left home and her 17-year-old marriage, staying with friends until she moved into a women’s shelter in Petersburg.
Homelessness is the route that many survivors of domestic violence may face unless they have the financial means to escape. The Chesterfield County woman had few resources because her spouse limited how much she could spend, even for personal items. “It makes you feel really low when someone has total control over your housing, gas for the car and day-to-day necessities,” she says.
Admitting that she did some things wrong after her abuse occurred — not calling the police, attending her spouse’s family reunion — she does not regret leaving. Her decision was amplified while watching a 2014 video of NFL player Ray Rice beat his then-girlfriend Janay Palmer in a hotel elevator (the couple was married by the time the video surfaced). The video prompted the woman, who was still living in the Petersburg women’s shelter, to post her experience on social media. She says doing so was not just a relief and therapeutic. It also was empowering.
Today, the 47-year-old lives in her own apartment, works two part-time jobs and has regular visits with her now 17-year-old son. YWCA counseling sessions have helped her cope and transition, as well as friends who rallied around her decision to leave.
“I’m definitely stronger physically, I feel more in control and being at work has helped me with having consistency in my life,” she says. “Everything at work is pretty much the same routine.”
The Society for Human Resource Management suggests that employees, supervisors or managers should look for a pattern of the following behaviors if an employee is suspected of experiencing domestic violence:
- Absenteeism or lateness, poor concentration and work-related errors or inconsistent work product that is not characteristic of the employee.
- Injuries, especially repeated injuries, such as bruises, black eyes and broken bones, especially if the employee attempts to conceal the injuries or offers unconvincing explanation for how they occurred.
- Requests for time off to attend court appearances.
- Signs of emotional distress, such as unusual quietness and increased isolation from co-workers and unusual or repeated emotional upset during or following contact with the employee’s partner.
- Suggestions or statements by the employee that a former or current partner is engaging in unwanted contact.
- An unusual number of e-mails, texts, phone calls, etc. from a current or former partner and reluctance by the employee to converse with the partner or respond to messages.
- Abrupt change of address by the employee or a reluctance to divulge where the employee resides.
- Unwelcome visits by the employee’s partner to the workplace, particularly if the visits elicit a strong negative reaction by the employee.
Employers can help victims of domestic violence by taking the following steps:
- Encourage the use of company employee assistance program or community resources focused on domestic violence. HR professionals should avoid trying to counsel the person.
- In states that permit employers to obtain restraining orders covering the workplace, evaluate the feasibility of obtaining such an order when threats from an employee’s abusive partner affect the workplace.
- Limit or bar the abuser’s access to the workplace, such as distributing the abuser’s photograph to security personnel, members of management or the employee’s workgroup.
- Take additional security steps such as providing an escort to the parking lot, providing a parking space close to the building, offering flexible or varied work hours, removing the employee’s name from the office directory, screening calls and changing the employee’s work e-mail address.
A hello from Bonnie: I was thrilled to say “Yes!” when Susan Winiecki, Richmond Magazine’s associate publisher, asked me to be a monthly contributor because I have long been a fan of Richmond Magazine, which sets the tone for this vibrant city. Having lived and worked in Richmond for more than 30 years as a journalist and journalism educator, I like to say that I have interviewed or taught practically everyone here. But I know that I have missed a few of you. So, as I navigate Richmond’s expanding narrative, especially as it relates to business and education, don’t be surprised if your name ends up in one of my columns. Enjoy the ride with me!