Making the Case for Friends and Family

In 1997, advocates at the Washington State Coalition Against
Domestic Violence
created the Domestic Violence Fatality Review (DVFR) out of concern about the number of women murdered each year in Washington by current or former partners. Jake Fawcett, director of the Fatality Review writes: “Advocates believed that careful examination of these deaths could yield important insights into the response to domestic violence. They hoped that domestic violence fatality reviews would serve as a powerful tool to create knowledge and catalyze action from tragedy.”

Over thirteen years, the Fatality Review investigated 135 deaths in 15 Washington counties to identify problems in the community response to domestic violence—gaps in services, policy, practice, training, information, communication, collaboration, and resources. In 2010, the DVFR released It’s Up to Us: Lessons learned and goals for change after thirteen years of the Washington State Domestic Violence Fatality Review identifying eleven key goals for improving responses to domestic violence in Washington State.

We wanted to highlight the fifth goal on this list, which highlights the role friends, family and community members can play in supporting survivors and responding to community members who are being


Goal #5: Build the capacity of friends, family members, neighbors, employers, and coworkers to support domestic violence victims and respond to abusers.

by Jake Fawcett

Again and again, fatality reviews showed that victims reached out for help to friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers. In almost all cases, victims told at least one person they knew about the abuse; by contrast, a much smaller proportion of victims sought court orders (51%), called 911 (29%), or contacted a domestic violence advocate (12%). In a few cases, friends and family members pointed out helpful resources, helped the victim make a plan to increase her safety, or offered a place to stay so that the victim could leave the abuser. In most cases, however, community members did not have the information or skills they needed to help.For example, in one case, the eight-year-old daughter of the victim and abuser told a friend’s mother about an incident during which her father had been violent and her mother had called police. The friend’s mother described being unprepared to talk to the girl or her mother about the abuse: “I was surprised by this disclosure and wasn’t sure how to address the situation with her. I didn’t ask [the victim] about the incident at the time, and regretted that decision.” The adult in this situation had a clear opportunity to help, but did not have the skills or knowledge to do so.

In at least twenty reviewed cases, neighbors knew about or witnessed the abuse. These neighbors were in a unique position to notice the violence and to intervene. Some victims talked with their neighbors about the abuse. Some neighbors saw or heard the abusers’ violent attacks or threats. In at least six cases, victims or their children at some point fled to neighbors’ houses to escape. Neighbors tried to help or intervene in a number of ways. One neighbor never met the victim but repeatedly heard her boyfriend throw her against the wall and threaten to kill her. The neighbor told police that whenever she heard the victim threaten to call 911, she would make the call herself. Another neighbor, who had repeated conflicts with the abuser, approached the victim about the conflict. The victim told the neighbor that her husband had a pattern of being angry and “dangerous.” The neighbor asked her directly whether her husband had hurt her and whether she was afraid of him, and she advised the victim to get the guns out of their home. While these neighbors took positive steps to act, most said they did not know what to do when they heard about the abuse, and they did not offer victims any information about victim services or resources. In thirteen years of case reviews throughout the state, no review panels were aware of organized efforts in their counties to educate communities about domestic violence through neighborhood organizations, Block Watch groups, or community centers.

In reviewed cases, communities completely lacked tools outside the legal system to respond to abusers’ violence. In many reviewed cases, abusers’ friends, family, coworkers, or religious leaders were aware of the abuse. In some cases, abusers specifically told others about plans to harm victims or themselves. Reviews demonstrated that people were often reluctant to involve law enforcement when a friend or family member was abusive, and they did not have strategies for intervening safely themselves.

Abusers’ violence and control eroded victims’ relationships with their friends, family members, and communities. This happened for a range of reasons, including abusers’ direct attempts to sabotage supportive relationships. In several reviewed cases, abusers took direct and extreme action to isolate victims from friends and family, including moving away from supportive family members, keeping the family in a remote area and preventing the victim from leaving the home, and threatening and punishing the victim with violence if she had contact with friends or family. In one case, the victim was so afraid of her husband’s threats that she rarely talked to any of her family members. A relative whom she did call occasionally said the victim “always called me collect, and she was always determined that I got rid of those records in case [the abuser] was ever around. She was always petrified he’d find out that I’d talked to her.” On one occasion, her mother called her at work to let her know she had sent some cash to her at her workplace. Her mother said, “I feel so helpless about being able to do anything and show her I love her. . . . I mean, that’s not doing much for her, but what could I do?”

In some of the cases reviewed, victims’ own choices, constrained by abusers’ violence, alienated them from their support networks. In one case, the abuser pressured his wife to buy and use drugs over the course of their fourteen-year relationship. When she was using, she would lose touch with friends who did not want to be around her drug use. Her drug use served to reinforce the abuser’s control and undermine her support system. Another reviewed case illustrated an abuser’s more subtle tactic of driving a wedge between the victim and her family. The victim’s sister described his pattern of provoking his wife while skillfully hiding his own abusive behavior. She said, “My sister is a very vocal person. There was a lot of screaming and shouting. And [her husband] is a very quiet, manipulative kind of person. And he would say things that would just kind of put a little finger in there and twist. But if you were to observe them, it would seem like my sister was always screaming at him. But you didn’t really notice his little subtle things.” As a result, the victim’s family was ambivalent about supporting her and seemed to side with her husband. Even after the abuser killed the victim and himself, some members of her family continued to blame her for the abuse.

These cases demonstrated some of the heartbreaking ways in which domestic violence cost victims their relationships with family and friends, which further limited their options to escape the abuse. They illustrated the need for resources to sustain friends and family in the often difficult task of supporting a victim of domestic violence; to help friends and family understand the violence and coercive control that victims live with; to give friends and family information about the kinds of help available for victims; to help victims identify supportive friends and family members and engage these people to support their planning for safety; and to help victims rebuild and repair relationships sabotaged by the abuser or damaged by the victim’s own behavior in the context of the abuser’s violence.

In recent years, review panels throughout the state have found that the
domestic violence advocacy programs in their communities are equipped to work with friends and family members of domestic violence victims. Some programs have written materials specific to family and friends. However, most programs have not made engaging with friends and family a routine part of their work, and very few have specific funding to support this work.

Steps Forward

Domestic violence programs: Include messages in public education, outreach campaigns, and media that are directed at friends and family members (for example, how to support a victim or where to call for help making a plan to support a friend).

—Domestic violence advocates: Routinely help victims rebuild their connections with family and friends and safety plan with their support networks.

—Clergy and religious organizations: Train staff about domestic violence and make an organizational plan for responding to abuse within congregations that prioritizes victim safety and abuser accountability.

Routinely offer information to employees about domestic violence community resources (for example, attach information to paychecks, post information in restrooms, or invite a domestic violence advocate to share information at a staff meeting).

National and statewide domestic violence advocacy organizations, men’s anti-violence organizations, and batterer’s intervention experts: Develop tools and strategies for community members to talk with abusers and encourage them to stop their violence.

Since this article was originally written in 2012, we’ve launch the National Friends & Family Domestic Violence Action Campaign Donate to help us educate friends and family to better respond and reduce harm. 


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