Wellness Wednesday: Becky Smith of Violence Free Minnesota


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Jill Riley interviews Becky Smith
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October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and now more than ever it's important to shine a light on domestic violence in our communities. During the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown, many survivors of domestic violence are stuck at home with their abusers. According to a study conducted by the National Domestic Violence Hotline, an average of 24 people per minute are victims of intimate partner violence.

This month, communities and advocacy organizations across the country are connecting with the public and each other to raise awareness about signs of abuse and ways to stop it, to provide additional resources to community leaders and policymakers, and to uplift survivor stories. Violence Free Minnesota is one such organization. Becky Smith works with Violence Free Minnesota and connected with The Current's Jill Riley for this week's Wellness Wednesday segment.

Listen to the interview above, and read a transcript of the complete conversation below. Every Wednesday at 8:30 CDT, Morning Show host Jill Riley connects with experts and local personalities for some real talk about keeping our minds and bodies healthy — from staying safe in the music scene, to exercising during a pandemic, to voting and civic engagement. Looking for more resources and support? Visit our friends at Call to Mind, MPR's initiative to foster new conversations about mental health.

Becky Smith of Violence Free Minnesota.
Becky Smith of Violence Free Minnesota. (courtesy Violence Free Minnesota)

Good morning Becky, how are you?

Good morning! I'm doing well.

Well, Becky, I appreciate you taking some time to talk to The Current's Morning Show during this Wellness Wednesday segment, and if we could just start off, could you give us some background on the work that Violence Free Minnesota does?

Certainly. Violence Free Minnesota is the statewide coalition of over 90 programs working to end relationship abuse in our state. So, these programs work directly with survivors and their children to obtain safety.

You know, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Becky, I remember reading some articles and hearing some conversations about domestic violence advocates being aware and sort of projecting that there could be a global increase in domestic violence, you know, due to the quarantine situation and those experiencing economic difficulties as well. Now, in your work, is that something that you have seen?

Yes. First at the beginning of the pandemic, we were certainly incredibly concerned for people who are experiencing violence in their homes. You know, for some people, home is a safe place, that is a place where we can find refuge, and for other people that is not the case. And so, when we heard calls for a stay-at-home order, we were incredibly concerned. We were also concerned that, because so many services, such as, you know, public libraries and daycare centers and those things were shutting down in response to a public health concern, that that would then further isolate people who are experiencing violence, that people experiencing violence would also then think that services such as domestic violence shelters or advocacy services would also be shut down. And then survivors would feel as though there were no resources available.

And so, we really try to encourage our member programs, those domestic violence programs across the state, to get out in the community and let survivors know that domestic violence services are open. Advocacy is available. There are resources available. You do not have to be in an unsafe situation. And during that time, you know, we also really encouraged community members to check in with their friends and loved ones. We know that we're safer together. We know that when we are not isolated, that when we know that there are people thinking about us and caring about us, that that can really increase our sense of safety. And so, we really wanted friends and family members to reach out to other people, especially those who they suspect might be in a harmful situation and just let those people know that they were there for them, that they could bring them a meal or cleaning supplies, and just really maintain that connection. Because our connections to each other are really what keep us safe.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and Becky, you mentioned the word "isolation" a few times. And I imagine for anyone experiencing domestic violence, you know, that word "isolation," when you're at home with one's abuser, I mean, it may be just difficult to grab the phone and be able to call a crisis line.

Yes. A lot of times when people are experiencing abuse in their home and they're also unable to leave their home, they might not feel safe calling or texting or reaching out for help because their technology and phone might be monitored. They might fear that the person who's harming them will overhear them and harm them. Or they might not even have access to a computer or phone because the person who is exhibiting power and control over them has taken those resources away. Abuse is still continuing, isolation still continues, and isolation is a tactic that many people who abuse use.

So, we really encourage those people who might be considered bystanders or might be considered, you know, that support in someone's life to resource themselves. So, when someone approaches you in whatever way they can to disclose what's happening to them in their relationship, we really encourage people to listen to that person, to believe them, and then become a resource for that person. So that might mean that you say, "Thank you so much for telling me. How can I support you?" And then listening to the ways that you can support them. And then when that person maybe asks for other resources like, "I'm not really sure where to go or what to do," then you can say, "We have a domestic violence program in our community, and I can give you their hotline number." Or maybe they say, "You know, I just really need help with getting groceries," and then you can say, "Great, I can do that for you."

And so just really trying to maintain that connection and that mutual support as this person who's experiencing violence and isolation, that just really goes a long way. And I just think that it's so important that we as community members, as friends, as family members, become the best kinds of support we can to people who are navigating really difficult situations.

Now Becky, October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and I think for a lot of folks, I mean, even me included, if I hear, you know, the two words "domestic violence," I think my first instinct is to think of physical violence. But there are so many different kinds of abuse, and I wonder if you could talk about some of those different kinds of abuse that, if you're looking to support a friend or a family member, to really be aware that it can be more than just physical.

Yes. Violence takes many different forms. It can be emotional abuse, verbal abuse. It can be that sense of control over a person, limiting where they're going or tracking them, limiting their contact with other people, and yes, financial abuse. Financial abuse occurs in 99% of cases of domestic violence, and so that particular form of abuse is also heightened during this time. For example, the stimulus checks that were issued, and we know of people who are abusive who took those checks and cashed them and didn't let the survivor keep that money.

We also know that the particular effects of economics right now have a devastating effect on survivors. So many people have lost their jobs, so many people are navigating really difficult financial situations. We're just beginning to experience this economic downfall. It's very difficult to gain safety, to live independently, away from someone who's abusing you, if you don't have access to the financial means that allow you to go to work, that allow you to maintain stable housing, that allow you to find childcare so that you can do those things. And so, we are just very concerned and hopeful that there are going to be supports put in place to further economic stability for survivors of violence and for everyone.

The number one cause of homelessness for women is domestic violence. So, when we see things like the housing crisis, particularly in the Twin Cities but across Minnesota, we really need to think about that as well, we really need to think about the connections between intimate partner violence and homelessness, and how can we support long-term housing solutions for intimate partner violence survivors.

It's not impossible to get out of this situation while it can be difficult, but just knowing that there is help out there and support out there.

There is a 24-hour statewide hotline if you are experiencing violence, or if you want to resource yourself. You can call the Day One hotline at 866-223-1111. Or you can text, especially if perhaps making a phone call is not safe for you. You can text 612-399-9995, and an advocate will be able to answer that call or respond to that text, and let you know different resources and options that are available. And again, I'm gonna go back to the fact that we are our own best resources too. We can be resources to people who are experiencing abuse and violence. When we extend a helping hand, when we extend a listening ear, when we say, "How can I support you?" and listen to someone, and then take up their calls for support? That makes the world of difference.

And there is a lot of hope here, you know? We can gather together as communities and support each other. We can transform our relationships. We can also call in people whose behavior we're very concerned about. If you suspect someone or you see someone is harming someone else in a relationship, if you witness that fertile abuse, someone who's always putting their partner down in front of you, if you feel safe enough, talk to that person. Ask them why they are behaving in this way, and say that you're very concerned about it. There's a lot of different tactics that we can partake in as bystanders to, you know, minimize the violence, and to help other people change their behaviors.

I really appreciate, you know, the reminder of anybody can be an advocate, and anybody can offer support. If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, there is help on a line. Becky, I wonder if you can give out those numbers one more time that you shared with me, that people can call or text.

So, there's the Day One Hotline at 1-866-223-1111. Or text at 612-399-9995. And there are domestic violence services available in every county in Minnesota. Help is close. It is available.

And there's also the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-799-7233. Well Becky, I appreciate your time this morning. Becky Smith of Violence Free Minnesota. Thank you for being a part of Wellness Wednesday.

Thank you so much.

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