“Why doesn’t she just leave?”
Have you ever asked yourself what this question really means for a survivor of domestic violence and their children?
It is all too easy for us to ask, assume, judge. The more difficult, complicated thing to do is to examine the reality of leaving for many survivors. The reality is, it is just not that simple.
Of course the children in a family that is being impacted by abuse cannot simply pack their bags and move out, leaving mom and dad and all the crazy, chaotic stuff behind. And the impact on those children is profound. Research into early brain development shows that being witness to violence, even if there is no direct abuse to the child, can have long term consequences and impact, leading to PTSD-like symptoms.
Research also shows that the number one thing that helps mitigate the impact of violence on these kids is strengthening their bond with their non-abusing parent, usually their mother.
So, ideally, that vulnerable six-year old and her mom flee the abuse; spend maybe a month or so at SPAN’s Emergency Shelter, then move on into a safe stable life. In reality, it is just not that simple.
Let’s look at the logistical side of things first.
Sustainable, living wages
A 2013 study by the Colorado Women’s Foundation found that a single parent with one young child living in Boulder County needs to earn $60,567 per year to pay for basic necessities like housing, child care, health insurance, food and transportation. The median income for single mothers in Boulder County is $28,000 a year and for Latinas and other women of color the median income is $22,000 a year. More than half of the families and a third of the single adults staying at the Emergency Shelter in 2014 reported having no income at all.
“Why doesn’t she just leave?”
Where is she going to go? The fastest growing segment of the homeless population in the Denver Metro area is women and children, and domestic violence is the number one cause for their homelessness. Leaving can put survivors and their children at high risk for chronic instability as they cycle from shelter to shelter, couch surf and even sleep in their cars. Shelter alone is not the answer, eventually these families need a safe, stable place to call home.
For survivors of violence affordable housing can be the key to leaving a violent partner, and this can literally mean the difference between life and death.
Boulder County has always had a highly competitive and expensive housing market, with 2013 rental vacancy rates at 3.5% and median rents for a two-bedroom unit of $1,200 a month. The epic floods of September 2013, which damaged or destroyed more than 1,200 homes, combined with the robust Colorado economy, have recalibrated the Boulder County housing market, resulting in rental vacancy rates at .001% and rents at nearly double, with a median rent of $2,000 per month for a two-bedroom unit.
SPAN’s advocates do an amazing job, supporting survivors as they apply for every possible resource, pursue every available opportunity. But the reality is, it’s just not that simple.
Increased need and limited availability of affordable housing in Boulder County has resulted in waitlists of three to six years. And receiving a housing voucher is no guarantee of success. In the post-flood housing market, even when a survivor is successful in securing a housing voucher they are vying against other renters who do not have the complicated histories and steep logistical challenges survivors of violence bring with them. In 2014 two-thirds of the individuals or families exiting SPAN’s shelter had applied to housing programs like Boulder County’s Family Self Sufficiency Program, the Moving to Work initiative, or the Housing Stability Program, yet few found housing. 32% of the families that were approved for housing support were unable to actually secure housing before their voucher expired.
Now, let’s consider the safety side of the question.
Leaving is the most dangerous thing a survivor can do. It’s the time she is most likely to be killed. Women are killed by their intimate partners more often than by any other category of killer. And in 70% to 80% of intimate partner homicides the victim had fled or police had been called just prior to the murder.
Abusers will also use threats to the children, a survivor’s extended family, even pets, to coerce, intimidate, control.
So, say you are that little six year old’s mother. And you do leave, determined to make a safer, better life for yourself and your child. But you share custody of that child with your abuser. It is extremely rare that a parent, even one who has a police record for domestic assault, is denied all access to their child by the courts. So now, every other week, or every weekend, or over summer vacation, whatever it is, your child is going to be spending time with the person who abused you. Alone. Without you there to protect them. The person who terrified you, who swore that if you dared to leave they would make you pay one way or another, that person shares custody with you.
Not to mention the reality that if by fleeing the abuse you do fall in to chronic homelessness and instability, you might lose custody of your children all together.
“Why doesn’t she just leave?”
When you reflect upon the realities of leaving it is truly remarkable to witness survivors who do overcome these obstacles! SPAN’s services, from shelter to transitional services, are an important support system, but the hard work, the courage and commitment to change, these things lie in the hearts of the survivors themselves.
The reality is: you want to help that little six-year old girl? Help her mother. Support affordable housing and living wage initiatives in our community.
As a community we need to stop doing the easy things: ask, assume, judge. We need to do the hard things like create a culture where we hold abusers accountable, not their victims. Where we support survivors and offer them resources that help to foster stability and healing. Where every one of us has the ability to live free from violence, dread and fear.
The reality is, it’s just that simple.