Editor’s Note: The following commentary on domestic violence is by Debbie I. Chang, MPH, president and CEO of Blue Shield of California Foundation.
Throughout a career advocating for the health and well-being of children and families, I thought I knew a lot about domestic violence and its impact. I knew that trauma, including exposure to domestic violence in childhood, has a deep and lasting effect on health. Like many people, I thought what happened in people’s homes was a private matter. In fact, some would narrowly say, “It’s not my business.”
Now I know domestic violence is all of our business. It is truly a public matter. And it is preventable.
Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October has been designated as a time to consider the long-lasting and significant personal and societal harms of domestic violence. Of course, the problem is not confined to one month a year; and it is both a cause and a result of issues our society grapples with, such as poverty, racial and gender inequity, and homelessness. This means solutions must include sectors not always associated with the cycle of abuse — like banking, social welfare, and housing. Fortunately, that is starting to happen.
FreeFrom is a national organization that sees domestic violence as a structural economic issue. One of its programs trains bank employees to spot abusive situations. Financial abuse and control almost always occur as part of domestic violence, with survivors losing control of their own paychecks, bank accounts, and credit. It is common for abusers to sabotage jobs and the credit history of their partners, eliminating avenues for independence. When trained bank employees intervene, survivors can gain financial independence that can help them escape from their abusers, get work, and begin to heal.
Public policies that build economic security through earned income tax credits, access to safe housing, and paid family leave can help people in many ways, including by preventing domestic violence. Even though domestic violence is found in all parts of society and cases involving well-off white women like Gabby Petito garner media attention, economic insecurity is a strong predictor of domestic violence and is closely linked to other risk factors. In fact, domestic violence is three times more likely among financially stressed couples, and three in four survivors will stay in an abusive relationship because of limited resources.
Helping survivors obtain and keep safe housing provides another opportunity to break the cycle of intimate partner violence. Domestic Violence Housing First is a program started in Washington state that was tested in California and is spreading to other parts of the country. This program provides flexible funds directly to the survivor to help with housing. This approach has demonstrated that even small assists, like money for a car repair, can allow a survivor to get or keep a job and avoid homelessness.
Though homelessness is recognized as a crisis in this country, many people don’t see the link to domestic violence. Without understanding how the two issues connect, both problems will persist. More than half of women experiencing homelessness report domestic violence as the immediate cause of their homelessness, and a lack of money and means to maintain safe housing are the most pressing concerns among women planning to escape unsafe situations.
When there is no place for survivors to go, the physical and mental health of their children, who continue to be exposed to this violent and unstable environment, are also at risk, impacting their ability to be successful in school and in life. Exposure to domestic violence in childhood leads to higher rates of poverty, poor health, and a future experiencing domestic violence. Safe housing provides survivors and children with an opportunity to heal and protects the next generation. The key to prevention and breaking the cycle of domestic violence is to recognize the pervasiveness of the issue and offer support to the whole family.
Please take October to think about this issue in a new way. Support policies that promote economic stability, prevent domestic violence, and support family healing to ultimately help end the cycle across generations.
Domestic violence isn’t a private matter. Thinking of it that way keeps it hidden and allows it to continue.
Debbie I. Chang, MPH, is president and CEO of Blue Shield of California Foundation. The Foundation supports multigenerational approaches that prevent childhood exposure to domestic violence, and healing for the whole family.