Transcript for EP40: Working Against Domestic Violence

NASW Social Work Talks Podcast

Greg Wright: Our guest is Ruth Glenn Glenn. She is the president and CEO of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which is actually based in Denver. She was also a guest, a speaker at the NASW 2019 Virtual Forum addressing domestic violence through the social work lens. Welcome to Social Work Talks podcast, Miss Glenn.

Ruth Glenn: Thank you very much.

Greg Wright: Tell us a bit more about your organization and its work.

Ruth Glenn: Absolutely. Our organization, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, does three areas of work, and we feel they're really important to addressing the issues of domestic violence, which are, we do projects, we do programs and we do policy. Our projects are for instance, we have a teen youth curriculum that we've developed and we're really trying to get out to the education field to ensure that we do prevention from a perspective of being survivor-centered and survivor-focused.

From a program perspective, we do financial literacy and financial education, ensuring that victims, survivors and advocates, because quite frankly sometimes survivors become advocates and they haven't had education about budget and finance, so we make sure that that's available to them. And then certainly from a policy perspective, we have a satellite office here in DC. They work exclusively on policy, any policy, so not just VAWA, and not just Violence Against Women Act and not just Family Violence Prevention Services Act, but all of those policies through HUD or other entities to ensure that any rules, laws or policy bills or legislation that comes about is done from an eye of the impact that it will have on victims, survivors and their children.

Really, that's our three arms. We're also a membership organization. I'm always very proud to say that we do our work and it's people-driven because we do not get any government funding. Everyone that's a part of our work, whether they're donors, whether they're experts, they do it because they know this issue is very, very important.

Greg Wright: Are incidents of domestic violence going up or is it only because now more people are open about talking about domestic violence?

Ruth Glenn: I think that's a great question. The way in which we measure it in this country, domestic violence is actually going down, which is really ... First of all, a study through the CDC that has not been done in awhile, so of course when we're looking at what data we do have available now, it looks like it's going down. But I also believe in the theory that you just outlined, which is we are more able to talk about it, not enough, because I need to say that, many, many times, but we are finding that people more comfortable talking about it. Even though from a statistic perspective, it may look like it's going down, from an anecdotal and what we're hearing from the field, it is not, and in fact lethal instances of domestic violence seem to be on the rise.

Greg Wright: What is the reason for that?

Ruth Glenn: I think there's two theories, and remember, because we have so limited data on domestic violence, a lot of what we have to do is take field comments and information. There are two. One is we do make it so easy in this country to have access to firearms, so by the time somebody might become lethal with it, it's too late. When we decide to remove a gun, it's probably already too late. They've become familiar with it. They've already used it to threaten, harass, coerce, and so removal, though very, very important, if not the only answer, we need to be doing much more in background checks and removing guns from people that we know are stalkers and we know that they're due to cause harm because of some pattern or history of domestic violence.

The second one is, though there's still a lot lacking in accountability [inaudible 00:04:17] others, I do feel like we're as a society, because of our ability to talk about these things more than ever and still not enough, I do think that there is real fear of the accountability. And so usually, an abuser will harm their victim and then harm themselves, and they know that if they get arrested at one or twice or so many times for violence, that it means a lot more than it did 10 years ago.

Greg Wright: Good. That's actually a positive thing.

Ruth Glenn: Yes.

Greg Wright: What are the red flags that a person that you know might actually be a victim of domestic violence?

Ruth Glenn: Sure. Sure.

Greg Wright: It can be anyone, any class, race, et cetera.

Ruth Glenn: It crosses any societal norms, quote unquote, "that we know." It doesn't matter about your class. You can be in poverty, you can be in the upper 1%. The Me Too Movement has revealed that. But what some of the red flags are, are some of the things that I talked about early, but I think if we really want to pinpoint a couple of things and we're a friend or a family member, that we acknowledge the isolation and we say, "I wonder why so-and-so doesn't come around anymore. Why isn't she or he answering the phone? Why is it that I can only call during the work day and not in the evenings?" All those little tell tail signs.

It may be incessant phone calls from somebody. If I'm a coworker, I'm going to notice that my other coworker seems to be on the phone all the time. And instead of saying, "Why aren't you working?" We need to be saying, "Why are you on that phone all the time?" Other red flags are such things as not having the ability to have independence. Do they have their own car keys? Do they have their own checkbook or credit cards? All of those kinds of things are red flags.

Greg Wright: Why does a victim put up with this? I'm sure that there is a lot of different causes for that.

Ruth Glenn: I would really love to reframe that question for us.

Greg Wright: Please.

Ruth Glenn: I would challenge us to think it's not, "Why does a victim put up with this?" It is, "What is preventing a victim from doing something different?" That is a myriad of issues. It could be fear of losing her children. It could be fear of losing her job. It could be fear of the person that's harming. I guarantee you that for victims and survivors, they have to think about safety first. And even though it's unsafe in their home or with that person, it might be more unsafe for them to leave. And believe me, they've had to think about that. They may not have access to all of the documents that they might need to flee. They may be in love, and just holding onto that hope. I challenge all of us to think about that as individuals and people that might be safe, say, "How long have I been in a relationship where I probably shouldn't have been in it? And there was no domestic violence in that relationship, but I loved and I cared and I wanted to see how things went."

Greg Wright: So what is the role that a social worker plays in actually addressing this issue and preventing this from happening?

Ruth Glenn: I would like us to think about a couple of things. One is prevention. By the time social workers come into it, I don't know that we can go in with the human service or social worker lens and say prevention is our key. By the time we, and I call myself we because I was in human services so long, by the time we see families or those that are hurting and we have to become a part of their work or their piece, we're already at intervention. So I would really like us to think about how do we intervene to ensure safety for all of those involved.

And I would say first is what I talked about earlier, which is, what are we even using in terms of language? How do we change our language so that it's empowering and supportive versus blaming? I will say to you that we as a society as a whole, and not just social workers and not just judges, we do a lot of victim blaming. I still say to you, let's not talk about, "Why doesn't she leave?" I say to you, "Why is he hurting?" or, "Why is she hurting?" Let's remove it from the victim and let's talk to somebody we think is being hurt about, "What are you doing to protect yourself?" Let's reframe it. "How can I help you make sure that you're safe?" And then, "How can I make sure your children are safe?" So it's really coming from a non-victim blaming perspective, language and space. And the more that we do that, the more I guarantee you it enables them to make a good decision about their own safety.

Greg Wright: Something that you said was actually quite profound. You said that a social worker should not automatically say, "You should leave." That's not always an automatic option.

Ruth Glenn: Absolutely. Even as a domestic violence field, we're doing things differently. In other words, why are we asking the victim to leave and run to shelter? Why aren't we figuring out who's causing the harm and asking them to leave? So we're doing mobile advocacy. We show up and we say, "So do you feel like you want to stay here? And if you do, we're going to figure out resources and the ways in which we can help you make sure you're safe here."

I think that we have to think differently and understand all the reasons why they might not leave, but then also how do we remove the harm? Let's remove the harm. The person that's causing harm feels much safer in that home than the person who's being hurt. How about we make them unsafe or feel a little off kilter for awhile? "You have to go. She's got children. We consider her the protective parent. You got to go." Now, I know that that seems unreasonable within the context of things that we have to do by rule and regulation, but at least put that lens on it so that you can be more empowering for somebody who's being hurt.

Greg Wright: Let's talk about perpetrators for a moment. What is a profile of an abuser? I mean, is it a single thing? Is there a single cause? Tell us more about that person.

Ruth Glenn: There's two answers I have to that. One is, I wish we did know the cause. It's not about substance use. It's not about anger control. It's not about any of those things, but power and control. It's not about history. There used to be a misnomer that abusers have experienced abuse themselves growing up. No. No. We're finding that that is not accurate, that it really is something inherent in that individual that makes them desire power and control. There are exceptions to every rule by the way, so we may see the one who she's really had a problem with anger. We may see the one where the abuser has had a very severe history of substance use and so it's become a part of their pattern is to abuse, but for the most part it was about power and control. What I would say is that the profile is just that. You will note that when you run across this person, they need to be in control of everything, even at work and even in their social life. You may go, "Why is that person like that?"

There's a great little short video that was done probably in 15 years ago or so, and I wish I could remember the name of it, and I cannot, but it was shown in human services fields for a while, but it demonstrated how this gentleman and his wife went to a party, a house party, a dinner party, and he had to control every aspect of things that happened and that's when you know that something's wrong. If you're friends and family with a couple and you notice that she has become or he has become very, very quiet but the other person seems to be very boisterous and controlling and his tag on everything, then we need to watch for that. They will reveal themselves if we're knowledgeable about what it looks like.

Greg Wright: You've also said that our systems, court systems, our family courts, law enforcement, et cetera, oftentimes help the perpetrator more than a victim of abuse.

Ruth Glenn: Usually because of the isolation and other barriers and manipulation and other things that have happened because the abuser has situated that, lack of finances for the victim, lack of access to work, all of those things, they usually are far more informed about systems and how they work, not all the time but quite regularly. When they are, they already have the upper hand. If I've been exposed to the real world more so than someone else, I automatically have the power and I can use that power in any way I'd like to maintain that control, and usually it's with a system.

My other favorite is first responders often say to us, "Well, when we show up, the victim is hysterical and she's crying and the perpetrator's over on the side smoking a cigarette and he's going, 'See? Look,'" because he's manipulated that situation and he knows how to make someone understand or charm them ... let's put it as it should be ... charm them to believe something else.

Greg Wright: You are a survivor of abuse yourself and I was wondering if you could tell our listeners about your journey.

Ruth Glenn: Yeah, happy to share that. I got married very young to a man who became abusive quite early on. I was with him for 13 years. During that time, I did not recognize necessarily what was happening to me. I also challenge us, as a side note, to all of that as social workers, that sometimes we're confronting victims and we're saying, "This is domestic violence," and they're going, "What are you talking about? I have no idea what you're talking about. All I know is I don't feel safe in my home," so helping them identify that. I had a wonderful supervisor, a boss at the time and said, "I think something bad is happening to you." She planted the seed.

It took me two and a half years to plan my own safety out of that relationship. I left quote unquote, "in the middle of the night" with my child, and for the next eight months, this person made my life a living hell with stalking, harassing, because they could not let go of the control of me. You no longer become a person to that person. You become an object. And I don't mean an object of desire. I mean an object to control, and when they lose that, it's really, really dangerous. That's why we talk so much about good intervention because we can prevent that lethal point from happening.

About six months after I left, he kidnapped me, held me at gunpoint for many, many hours, and then about two months after that, once he had been arrested and charged with felony kidnapping, he actually found me, shot me three times, left me for dead and then eventually a few months later killed himself. And as a survivor, and I think it's really important that we talk about the love that we feel for people, because I also, even though I was relieved that I was no longer in danger because this man was going to kill me, there was also a great sense of loss of another human being, somebody that I cared about, and the disheartening that I felt about him taking his own life because he didn't see any other way out. It was so disheartening.

I was able to keep my job. A lot of survivors are not. They're either forced out or they have to relocate. I feel very, very fortunate that I was able to stay with my state job, and I began to volunteer for different domestic violence organizations and boards and those kinds of things over the course of time, and then I eventually took the job at the state of Colorado, and then I retired about five years ago after 28 years of being with the state of Colorado. My frustration with a government job was I wasn't allowed to advocate like I'd like to, like I'm doing today for instance. And then I'll be darned if I wasn't laying on the couch playing Words with Friends in my retirement, this job opening came up and I thought, "Oh, I'll do that for a few months and see what that's like," and here I am five years later.

Greg Wright: Wow.

Ruth Glenn: Yeah. Yeah. I love my job and I love that I'm able to not only speak from a survivor perspective, but also do it from a first hand perspective. That doesn't mean I'm always right and it doesn't mean my organization is always right, but I hope that people will trust that when we're talking to them about these issues, we're talking to them from a place of knowledge that you probably can't find in a lot of places.

Greg Wright: Wow. Thank you so much for being our guest and we wish you nothing but the best in your work.

Ruth Glenn: Thank you so much.

Greg Wright: Thank you so much.

Ruth Glenn: Thank you.

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