Safety cards refine efforts to screen for violence
Editor's note: This is the first in a series of articles on domestic violence screening and prevention in Alaska.
Breaking the cycle of abuse is difficult. Especially if a woman doesn't realize she's in a violent relationship in the first place. For many women in Alaska, that's all they know.
Until recently, it was standard practice for practitioners to ask clients if they feel safe at home. Or if they have ever been hit. Yes, or no?
But those direct methods are giving way to less confrontational, more client-centered practices when it comes to domestic violence screening.
Safety cards distributed in part by Futures without Violence, formerly known as the Family Violence Prevention Fund, provide an array of questions and information that can help victims or potential victims identify what a healthy, or unhealthy, relationship looks like.
Some communities have been using the pocket-sized safety cards for a couple years, while others are just now introducing them to the public.
In Barrow, staff at the Arctic Women in Crisis center just received the cards last week and plan to pass them out to healthcare providers, police and other agencies so they can be handed out to community members who can use or share the information provided.
"It's quite common up here for women to be in an abusive relationship and not recognize it," said Elaine Rittgers, a counselor at the center in Barrow. "I think these cards will be better for education."
The cards meet women (and men) where they are at, said Linda Chamberlain, the executive director of the Alaska Family Violence Prevention Project.
"Sometimes, screening questions can feel confrontational, so we talk about what a healthy relationship looks like instead," she said, adding that there has been a "huge paradigm shift in the field" when it comes to screening for domestic violence.
"If you've never seen a healthy relationship, how would you know what one looks like?" she asked.
The safety cards, funded in part by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, ask the reader to consider a series of questions like "Is my partner willing to communicate? Is my partner kind? Does my partner shame or humiliate me?"
The cards also give information on key indicators of unhealthy relationships like depression, chronic pain, and obesity, and provide steps one can take to coping and seeking help including a safety plan to leave a situation. Recently, Alaska received its own safety card made especially for Alaska Native women. They are provided in part by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and have local numbers on the back that people call.
Chamberlain said the focus on screening has gone from getting disclosure, to educating women on relationships.
"It's not about getting the 'yes,' it's about knowing what (a healthy relationship) looks like," she said.
"There was too much pressure to disclose in the past and the state is now moving toward universal education."
In Barrow, education starts with school-aged children. Counselors from the crisis center go into classrooms to talk with students about safe dating and bullying, said Rittgers. "Education is the key to prevention," she said.
In the newest Alaska victimization survey released last week by the UAA Justice Center and the Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, the statistics remain staggering.
For example, according to the survey, half of women surveyed in the Ketchikan Gateway Borough have experienced intimate partner violence, sexual violence, or both. More than half have experienced intimate partner violence and/or sexual violence on the Kenai Peninsula and Mat-Su boroughs.
In the latest statewide survey from 2010, nearly 60 percent of adult women have experienced some form of domestic violence.
"It's so hard for a lot of people to talk about it and deal with the consequences of reporting," said Lisa Kinsel, the supervisor at the Maniilaq Family Crisis Center in Kotzebue. "Right now we're going into the villages in our region and we're letting the communities know about the shelter and our 24-hour crisis line," she said.
"The most important part of prevention is letting people know that it's OK to talk about it. And to teach at a young age to have respect for others."
Kinsel said that they have dispersed the cards around town and received numerous calls as a result. The center also turned the fold-up cards into fliers, which they hung around the community.
"We've gotten a lot of feedback and I think it's because people are not being confronted in person," she said. "They feel more comfortable doing it in private and calling on their own terms.
"For most women if you ask them in person if they feel unsafe, they just say 'no' and go home. These cards allow it all to be more private."