How to Help a Friend Experiencing Domestic Violence & Abuse: Wilton Clergy, Police, and DVCC Host Forum

Incidents of domestic violence rose in many communities during the pandemic. Wilton is not immune: each year, Wilton police respond to between 80 and 100 domestic-related events, and between 30 and 40 of those calls are considered family violence.

On Wednesday night, the Wilton Interfaith Clergy Association sponsored a virtual event to help Wilton tackle this issue.

“How to Help a Friend Experiencing Abuse: Domestic Violence and Local Wilton Resources” was presented by Capt. Rob Cipolla of the Wilton Police DepartmentRev. Fr. Reginald Norman, the pastor at Our Lady of Fatima Church; and Ann Rodwell-Lawton, the associate director of the Domestic Violence Crisis Center (DVCC). The speakers explained the complexities of domestic violence from each of their perspectives and offered resources.

The discussion was moderated by Nikkia Ellis who serves as the PeaceWorks Educator at the DVCC. She began with some jarring statistics about how prevalent domestic violence is in any community: 1-in-4 women and 1-in-7 men have experienced physical violence by an intimate partner.

“I think it’s important that we start by making sure we’re all on the same level and we have the same understanding of what domestic violence is and its dynamics,” she said.

Ellis noted that it often takes a victim around seven attempts at ending the relationship before it is permanently ended.

She added that it was important to remember that, “The most dangerous time for victims of domestic violence is when they are trying to leave the relationship.”

Ann Rodwell-Lawton, Associate Director of the DVCC

Being able to help someone experiencing abuse involves needing to be able to identify and define the situation. Rodwell-Lawton started the discussion by clarifying often-confused terms related to domestic violence. She explained that the different language used depends on the type of relationship between the individuals involved.

Domestic violence describes, “acts of violence between family, household members, or intimate partners,” she said. “It serves as an umbrella term.” More specific is intimate partner violence “between two people in an intimate relationship.”

Regardless of the relationship between the individuals, Rodwell-Lawton said domestic violence is, “a pattern of abusive behaviors in a relationship where one person maintains power and control over the other individual.” She stressed the word “pattern” in the definition as domestic violence is not a single event but rather “is fluid, often exists on a continuum, and is a journey for folks.”

Rodwell-Lawton debunked some of the myths associated with domestic violence, including that abuse is motivated by anger and that abusers have anger management issues. In fact, she said, most abusers do not have anger management issues. Instead, the common denominator is that the abuser is motivated by “wanting to have power and control over another individual,” she explained.

Unhealthy relationships often escalate gradually over time, she said–so slowly that it’s hard for some victims to recognize the relationship has changed or that abuse is happening.

Rodwell-Lawton reminded listeners that domestic violence is not only limited to physical abuse. Verbal and emotional abuse, financial abuse, and sexual abuse are also methods of control used by domestic abusers. She pointed out that 99% of domestic violence victims experience financial abuse and it’s often the top barrier to leaving the relationship.

Capt. Rob Cippola, Wilton Police 

Cippola discussed the role of law enforcement in domestic violence, noting that the legal term used by law enforcement is family violence.

“We have a statutory definition of what family violence is… ultimately it’s an incident that results in physical harm, bodily injury, assault. It can also include the threat of physical harm and also threatening behaviors and patterns of stalking… when those types of actions occur between family or household members. We’re talking about our spousal relationships, our dating relationships, in some instances roommates, siblings, parent-child, those all fall under the umbrella of family or household violence.”

Cippola added that the definition of family violence does not include verbal abuse unless there’s an imminent threat of violence.

“Obviously what we just heard from Ann about the methods of how an offender will assert power and control over their victim, emotional abuse is a big part of that. As police, when we get called for an instance of verbal abuse, we may not have the requisite probable cause to statutorily charge someone of a crime; however, we still have the opportunity in those instances, hopefully, before it resulted in family violence by definition, to have that person engage in services with an advocacy group like the DVCC,” said Cippola.

He explained police have three goals when it comes to family violence.

Education:  First, they aim to educate people about domestic violence at community events like the discussion on Wednesday.

Victim Care and Referral: Secondly, when responding to a domestic violence call, they provide the victim with immediate assistance which can include medical care but always includes resources for trauma-informed care. Victims are given a card with the phone numbers of resource centers like the DVCC.

Officers then refer victims to the Office of Victim’s Services, which works to overcome barriers to reporting abuse. The OVS can provide financial support to victims that need it, and vows to protect anyone with a “questionable immigration status.”

One of the ways in which it has become easier for officers to connect victims to the services they need is through the Lethality Assessment Program, implemented in the Wilton Police Department in 2013. This program is “an evidence-based tool to identify victims of intimate partner violence” that ensures victims are directly connected with resources. Before it was introduced, studies found that when victims were provided with contact information to places like the DVCC, they did not always reach out for help on their own. Now, with the LAP, victims are asked a series of 11 questions on-scene that help officers identify if they are in a high-danger situation. If high danger is determined, a police officer will call the DVCC at that moment and the victim can talk to an advocate immediately.

Cippola explained the importance of including the DVCC in police response to domestic violence calls. “Our officers respond to these scenes, they’re empathetic, they’re caring, they do their investigation to establish probable cause, but they don’t have the level of expertise that the staff at the Domestic Violence Crisis Center does to provide that trauma-informed care. The LAP really bridges that gap.”

Offender Accountability:  On every call officers must determine if there is probable cause that an offense occurred.

“As police, as we do our day-to-day functions, we have a great deal of discretion in how we do our job. If I stop you for driving through a red light, I can give you a warning, I can give you an infraction.”

However, response to family violence calls differs. If they are able to establish probable cause that an interaction between family or household members resulted in physical or bodily harm, police are mandated to make an arrest immediately.

“Sometimes a victim just wants us to intervene at that moment and doesn’t want the offender arrested, but that’s a situation where we cannot rely on victim consent, we cannot rely on assertions that the violence is going to stop.”

When officers are unable to establish probable cause, they are required to remain on scene until the likelihood of violence has ceased.

Over the last year, family violence calls decreased in Wilton, but Cipolla stressed this doesn’t mean incidents themselves decreased. Cippola said the isolation and sequestering during COVID-19 often made it harder for victims to reach out for help.

“In 2021, as things have begun to open up, we have seen more frequency of calls for family violence instances.”

Domestic violence calls are different than most other types of crimes to which officers respond because the victim knows their offender.

“Despite the victimization they’re enduring, they still care for the offender. And that’s where things like mandatory arrests make it very complex,” Cipolla explained.

Also challenging for officers is the intersection of family violence with so many other issues.

“There are a whole host of other calls for service that we respond to where family or domestic violence is an underlying theme, but the call just perhaps wasn’t classified that way because there was something else involved. Mental health, substance abuse, children, finances, those are all layers that make it very complex.”

For other types of calls, officers are trained to respond to the “who, what, where, when why, how” of the current situation without considering events that occurred on days prior. However, when responding to domestic violence cases, establishing the historical context of the relationship is vital in determining how a victim can be helped.

Rev. Fr. Reginald Norman, Pastor Our Lady of Fatima Church

Fr. Norman spoke on behalf of the Wilton Interfaith Clergy Association about the clergy’s role in supporting victims of domestic violence.

“A lot of people come to us because as faith leaders, they have a relationship with us. There’s some trust going there and they know that they can come without judgment, and with love, and our concern is always for the family and all parts of the family,” he said.

Because domestic violence victims are predominantly women, the women leaders in Wilton’s faith community play a key role.

“If you’re a female, you don’t necessarily feel comfortable going to another male. One of the nice things about being here in Wilton is we do work together so it wouldn’t be out of line for someone who is in my community that doesn’t want to talk to me, they can go talk to just about anyone in Wilton faith clergy,” Norman said.

He added that victims may not come forward until a clergy member asks someone if they are okay.

He acknowledged that sometimes faith can complicate the issue.

“A lot of people in their marriages, they believe it’s a bond, it’s a covenant, and they can’t break the bond, so they’ve afraid to approach anything. I’ve had that happen before and I always tell them, ‘Yes it’s a covenant, yes it’s a bond, but sometimes one party in that covenant breaks that relationship or does something unlawful. You wouldn’t be bound to something where someone else is breaking that covenant.’”

Fr. Norman continued, “When you get married in most traditions, there are a lot of promises made. I don’t ever remember there being a promise that you should be abused by your partner.”

Like the police, Norman said his role is both in finding help and resources for victims and offering emotional support.

“We do everything in our power to say, ‘it’s okay, there’s no shame in this, and we can get this fixed.’”

Fr. Norman explained that his role in supporting victims can get difficult when it comes to what is said in confidence.

“Technically in the confessional, I can’t report that to anyone because the confessional is sacred and it’s not to go outside of that confessional so sometimes our hands are bound. But at the same time, we’re mandated reporters, so if we think a child is in harm’s way we have to report that. We have to get very creative in how we do things and sometimes it’s a matter of talking to that person and giving them the courage to do this.”

Fr. Norman said he tends to err on the side of caution when it comes to reporting incidents of domestic violence. He worries about losing the trust of the victims that come to him, but explained, “You can be mad at me, and alive, but if something happens to you, I would be devastated. Any time I have to report anything it’s done out of love and also to make sure that people are safe.”

One challenge for faith leaders is that  the abuser is often a part of the faith community as well. “The person who is abusing them is still our parishioner. We still have to help that person. We can’t just say, ‘You’re a bad person, I’m not going to help you,’” Norman said, adding in that situation, he believes abusers need help as if they have a medical illness.

“If this person was standing in front of me with cancer I’d want to find them all the medical help I could get. We have to help everyone because our goal is to ultimately make our families as strong as possible. The bottom line is, it’s hard to love everyone but we have to love everyone.”

DVCC Services

The DVCC provides “free and confidential services to those who are experiencing abuse in their personal relationships.”

Resources include emergency safe houses for individuals and children who are fleeing violence in their home, individual and support group counseling, and legal and financial advocates. There’s also a 24-hour anonymous hotline to call or text.

Victim advocates at the DVCC approach their work from a trauma-informed and victim-centered approach. “This means that we know that victims are experts in their own lives. They know their abuser and their relationship better than anyone else,” Rodwell-Lawton said.

DVCC staff provide victims with the options and safety considerations. They promise to follow the victim’s lead and always honor their decisions. That includes considering the possible lethality of leaving.

“Our goal is not just to have people end abusive relationships. Safety looks different to everyone and our goal is to make people safer. Sometimes that means staying in the relationship.”

Offering Help

Rodwell-Lawton said friends offering help should adopt a similar approach to domestic violence that advocates at the DVCC do. They should inform victims of their options, connect them to those options, and honor their decision.

She offered several tips when helping a victim of domestic violence:

  • Counter the impact of emotional abuse: “A few things that are pretty simple but actually make quite a big difference is starting by believing this person. Victims are often told by their abuser that they are crazy, they’re making stuff up, that no one will believe them. Just saying ‘I believe you. Thank you for sharing this.'”
  • Point to the strengths of the victim: “They often have low self-esteem due to emotional abuse so just saying, ‘Wow, it took so much courage to tell me that. You must be so strong for all that you’re going through, thank you for telling me.’”
  • Tell the victim the abuse is not their fault: “They’re often told that they’re to blame. An abuser might say, ‘well I wouldn’t have hit you if you had dinner on the table on time. Just saying ‘This is not your fault and you did nothing to deserve this,’ could be really powerful for them.”
  • Spend time with a victim to reduce their isolation and keep them safe from harm
  • Offer situation-specific help. For example: “Can I watch your kids while you go to a support group?”
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