Part 3: Communicating with Victims

Photo by Joshua Ness on Unsplash

By CCSF team members

When you learn about or suspect domestic violence in your church, you may question how to best approach the topic with the victim. You want to help, but don’t know if you’re going to offend them, endanger them, or overwhelm them by reaching out. If they came to you, you may have similar questions about how to interact and who to involve.

Safety must come first. You might be compelled to load up the victim with brochures or a resource packet, but they might not have anywhere to hide those materials from their abuser. Their abuser might attend church with them and catch you speaking to the victim or seeing you hand them literature. You’ll also want to start by believing as we said in the last installment in this series. Assume that you are being told the truth so that the victim’s safety and needs are not downplayed or minimized. The myth that many women lie about domestic violence to get attention and revenge is pervasive.

The victim must not feel like others are making decisions for them or trying to take control. They deal with that already. We can offer to help but the decision to leave a damaging relationship is theirs. It is important that they know that there are people and authorities who can help them. Them knowing the proper phone numbers and websites could save their life. It’s important that they are in the driver’s seat as they work towards freedom from abuse. If you say, “you need to leave right now,” they may reject that as control.

When someone has shared about their situation, a great question to ask is, “how can I help you at this moment?” Notice how phrasing this as a question instead of telling them what to do puts the ball in their court. You can also tell them, “I’m glad you shared with me. I’m concerned for you.” Statements like these are validating and make them feel heard. Your concern may open the door to further disclosure and increase their confidence that someone will help them.

“It sounds like you need some support. Do you have family or friends who know about your situation?” is another helpful response. Get a feel for whether they have a support system. Some people have no one; their families might side with the abuser or they may be extremely isolated. No one else may believe them. A need for support may result in them calling a local domestic violence agency once they know that there are experts who will listen. This may also lead to support within a trusted group at the church and other connections.

“Thanks for sharing with me. I have some information that might be helpful in your situation.” Using a statement like this may give you a foot in the door to share phone numbers, websites, and other practical information. Be sure to give the victim a list of local and national resources safely. As stated above, it may not be safe to physically give them materials. If the abuser is still in the home or frequents it, he will likely find it. Similarly, if you text, email, or leave a voice message for the victim, he could be monitoring their phone or computer. If you call or text too much, he will suspect things even if he’s not actively monitoring her technology.

Ask the victim what a safe phone number for them is. This is important in any situation including when you’re answering the church’s phone. The person or people who answer the church’s lines should be trained to ask this question, “is this a safe number for you?” You also want to ask, “what is the best time of day to communicate?” They might have a couple of hours in the day when their abuser is away. They might not. Don’t assume that any time is a safe time. You might have to let them call or text you when they can. You might also need to set up a safe place to meet that the abuser won’t follow her to. There, you might want to look at domestic violence resource websites together so that they can evaluate their options.

Another question to ask, during initial and subsequent contacts, is “what is your level of safety at the moment?” In other words, you’re asking how safe they are. Are they at home with the abuser? In the car while he’s shopping? Are they in the presence of others or alone? Is he actively harming her or is she calling after he stormed out the door to go to a bar? You need to continually assess for safety. Listen to what she is saying and also listen to what she’s not saying. Read between the lines. You will also want to know if the abuser has a weapon or has threatened bodily harm, if the children are afraid of him, if he is stalking her in person and/or online, and if there is an ongoing court case. All can indicate that the situation is more serious than it seems.

Ultimately, you want a victim to feel believed, heard, understood, and supported. You want to them to be empowered by confiding in you about the danger they’re in. Regardless of whether the abuse is physical, psychological, financial, sexual, or what form it takes, the church needs to recognize the abusive wielding of power and control over another as domestic violence. Churches should have resource lists at the ready and be able to determine how to best share available resources with victims without endangering them further. Be flexible as to the times and places a victim can communicate. Your actions can save lives.

In the next article, we’ll discuss how to establish useful contacts in the community so that you can call in the experts as needed. Churches are just one part of a victim’s support network and most staff members are not qualified to walk the victim through the process of developing a safety plan, facilitating a safe exit, and rebuilding after relocation. Both civil and criminal proceedings may be in play as well. The church does have a huge role to play, though, and needs to be in touch with its professional partners to maximize its ability to respond to domestic violence.

©2020 Christian Coalition for Safe Families

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