NEW YORK – Domestic violence is a complex and painful enough reality in any context. Unfortunately, the attitudes and conditions that make it possible, like secretiveness, are among the darker Greek-American traditions passed down through generations.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month and The National Herald spoke to Paulette Geanacopoulos, LMSW about what community organizations and individuals can do about it.
She knows the community and the problem of domestic violence well after growing up at St. Spyridon in Manhattan and two tenures between 1994 and the present in the Department of Social Work of the National Philoptochos.
A month does not go by when she does not get a domestic violence case, and the vast majority of victims are women.
In 2012 she produced an awareness manual that was distributed at the National Philoptochos convention in Phoenix, AZ where a panel was presented consisting of a clinician, the chief of police of a nearby city and Fr. Nick Anctil of Holy Trinity of New Rochelle.
That is a model for events that every parish can present in October, but even one expert speaker is sufficient to generate vital awareness.
The Domestic Violence Manual is filled with valuable information, but the Appendix is especially valuable.
Attachment A, “Does Your Partner…?” is checklist of behaviors of abuses that will help victims understand what is happening to them.
Ironically, many women don’t know they are being abused. They think they are in a normal relationship based on what they are used to.
Attachments B and C are “Safety Plan Guidelines” and “Developing a Safety Plan.” They are crucial because the most dangerous time for the woman is when she takes steps to end the marriage. “That’s when she is most likely to be killed – she will be stalked” Geanacopoulos said.
If someone fears another is being abused, lending an ear is important, as are encouraging words like “You have the right to be safe.”
It does not help, however, to tell the victim to leave – the person must make that decision on her own – but when she is ready a friend can help them develop a safety plan.
“Have a set of keys in a safe place, have some money set aside, figure out through which door you will exit… If there are children tell them what they need to do,” Geanacopoulos said.
Geanacopoulos emphasized the important facts and conditions.
The most important issue is properly approaching the victim as opposed to the abuser.
“Women need to be vigilant of the relationship they are in because domestic violence does not get better and the women cannot stop the abuse….it will stop only when the abuser takes responsibility for his actions.”
One of the challenges is that the women tend not to be believed. Often “the abusers are pillars of the community,” she told TNH.
It is vital for information to be made available to victims, so they know they are not alone or at fault – and to inform them of options and actions they can take to protect themselves.
The abusers often tell them they are being punished for wrongdoing – not cooking meals the way his mother did, not raising the children as he sees fit, etc. and some victims believe God is punishing them for their sins.
The abusers are also clever. If they bruise the women, they make them wear clothing that covers them up.
It is important to look for clues – a woman wearing a sweater in summer for instance, or suddenly stopping work, or learning the husband controls the finances – which make it difficult for her to leave.
IT’S NOT A BAD TEMPER, IT’S ABOUT CONTROL
Geanacopoulos and the literature emphasize that the deeper issue is control, that the men’s behavior is rooted in deep his personality, not in losing his temper.
“They do it because they think they have the right to control their partner. It’s all about power and control,” she said.
She noted that parish priests are becoming more helpful. “They may not be speaking out from the pulpit, but they are more aware about how they should speak to abused women…Some will still tell them to just go home and pray, but praying will not stop the abuse.”
She has strongly urged Philoptochos chapters across the country post the number for the national domestic violence hotline 1-800-799-7233 which is staffed with experts 24/7, and make literature available in areas for women in the parish.
The material, some of which is in Greek, appears at Philoptochos.org and has been distributed to priests and chapter presidents.
Geanacopoulos’ main point is that domestic violence is learned behavior. “We need to start young,” she said, and to at least talk about dating violence among teens.