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Breaking Through the Wall of Abusive Isolation

In our last article (Going the Extra Step for Domestic Abuse Victims) we discussed how victims of domestic abuse are frequently isolated by their abuser’s manipulative behavior, lies, and distortions of reality to be left feeling hopeless and isolated.  This isolation keeps them locked in the abuse, preventing access to social support, the truth about resources available to them, and opportunities to escape.  Every so often, however, the trouble in their lives boils over and involves police and this provides a window of opportunity for an officer to really make a difference. 

Accept your limitations

What most of you already know is just how limited any of us really are to effect change in others.  We can coax, encourage, or chide others toward positive change but they’re going nowhere unless and until they make the decision and take the steps to get there on their own.  As the police you can certainly provide strong motivation to others when they step outside the bounds of the law – and the threat of arrest and prosecution does deter a lot of people from doing so – but even then the choice remains theirs.  Take away the coercive power we hold over would-be lawbreakers, however, and what do we have when it comes to trying to move people away from choices and situations that may be bad but are not illegal?  Not much.  There are a lot of limitations on what we can do.

People living in abusive or violent situations often defy what appears to outsiders as simple logic and stay, even when escape seems entirely possible.  They choose emotionally manipulative and physically dangerous partners or family over peace and safety, and shrug off your offers of help and the reliable resources that could give a fresh start.  The reasons for this are many (sincere love, financial security, the comfort of “the devil they know” over uncertainty, the realistic fear that that as bad as things are now leaving will only make them worse, and others) and sometimes understandable.  

Some of the abuse victims you try to help will eventually leave, either with help or on the strength of their own convictions.  Many will choose to stay, or become serial victims to a series of eerily similar abusers, and spend much of their lives as “frequent flyers” at their local police department.  And some will probably be murdered by someone they love.  Accepting your limitations is crucial to your own mental health.

Avoid adopting an attitude of cynicism

I led off with the reality that many of the domestic cases you handle will frustrate you. You will go again and again to the same houses, for the same arguments, and with the same futile results.  Arrests will be made but prosecutions dropped.  Abusers will swear they’ll change, and victims they’ve finally had enough, but you know the truth.  And in time you see the multigenerational damage an chaotic household breeds as you watch the children of abuse grow into abusers, victims, addicts, and offenders.  Who wouldn’t grow cynical?

But try to avoid the cynicism.  Try very hard to avoid it and see the big picture.  People do leave, cycles get broken, and victims do sincerely look for help.  If you are too steeped in cynicism when someone is truly ready to accept your help you risk missing the fleeting opportunity to give it.  Cynicism steals hope, and when the hope is someone else’s – someone who is desperately grasping for a lifeline – letting your cynicism blind you to the opportunity to really do some good is a shame.

Make yourself available as a resource

Instead of a cursory “if you have any more problems feel free to call us” at the end of a call, or simply kicking your report to social services for follow-up, look for the opportunity to actually be an available resource of knowledge and options for victims.  What police social workers do is invaluable but they’re usually not sworn officers and your fields of expertise are different but complementary.  And even if more problems arise (they will) and more calls are made to 911 (highly likely) there is little guarantee you will be the one to respond next time, or even know about it. 

Remember we are talking about victims of chronic abuse and isolation in many cases, so calls to the police might actually be rare, with the abuser feeding misinformation and threats to maintain control, and the victim’s understanding of law enforcement, the judicial system, and available resources nonexistent or badly distorted.  Having a police in front of them and able to dispel misinformation is a gift and might be their chance to form a relationship with someone in authority who can serve as a check on the lies and spin of a manipulative partner.  This be greatly empowering and its effect transforming.

When you are on these calls, listen carefully.  Not to “just the facts” but the underlying themes and history.  Are you hearing about obvious control tactics, or a belief system based on the information they’ve been fed that is simply wrong?  Does it seem the victim is looking to you for clarification or truth?  Do you see chances to correct false perceptions?  Does the victim seem responsive to learning and making change, but might just need some support and an objective outsider?  Are they no longer resigned but angry?

Or possibly you get one of those “citizen assist” calls – someone walking into the desk or calling “not to make a report but just get some advice” – and they lay out a similar story.  These are inquiries ripe to accept some help; they are really asking for it.

Then the time is perfect to offer yourself as a resource.  Not merely the department, or social services (though you should offer those supports as well) but yourself.  For some victims having an individual step up and say, “I want to help you” is the impetus to move away from their abuse.

Let victims come to their own decisions

You’ve offered yourself as a resource and, whether immediately or after some time passes, the offer is accepted.  S/he’s ready to grab the lifeline you’ve thrown and start making some positive changes.  You sit down and hear, “Just tell me what to do!”


Victims of abuse are used to being told what to do, what to say, how to dress, where to go, who to talk to and who to avoid, and on and on.  They are used to being controlled.  It is essential they start taking back control and ownership of their lives.  It is essential you let them take it.  They do not need another “handler” in their life.

Your job is to educate them, explore their options and a reasonable cost/benefit assessment of each, let them know what doors are open and which are likely closed, and explain clearly how you and the agency can and will support them.  Then you sit back and let them decide how to proceed

It can be frustrating and slow for you and sometimes they balk and disappear, choosing to return.  You can spend hours with a victim only to have them freeze with fear.  Get over it, it’s not about you.  Cajoling or pressuring someone to act as you think they should “for your own good” is an understandable temptation but rarely helpful and sometimes very dangerous.  Insert opinions, if asked or appropriate, but always leave the ultimate choices up to them. 

Remain consistent

The person you are trying to help may ultimately reject your efforts and return to their dysfunctional but known world, and fall off the radar or resume “frequent flyer” status.  It happens and it’s tempting to just give up and grow cynical.  But sometimes they return when their timing (not yours, theirs) is right and pick up where you left off.  Sometimes they learn just enough to stand up and call bulls**t on the manipulations and lies, and positive change is made you will never be aware of.  And sometimes you will notice they are no longer frequent flyers; somehow you provided information, safety, and structure that helped everyone in the house make better choices or choose to get help.  Sometimes you will simply never know.

Stay consistent and patient.  The goal is not to forge a long-term relationship but that they can benefit from close, short-term mentoring and guidance, build confidence and skills, leave or change personal dysfunction, and eventually fade away and return to a more emotionally healthy life where they no longer need you.  That is your success, and something completely within your reach.