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'People want to help, but they're fearful': What's the best way to offer support to an abuse victim?

Over 300,000 people in Ireland have been severely abused by a partner at some point in their lives.

Image: Shutterstock/marvlc

IN IRELAND, 2 in 5 people know someone who has been abused by a partner at some point in their lives. We look at the role friends, family and even strangers can play in offering support to victims of domestic violence – starting with the kinds of steps witnesses can take.

In recent research by Cosc, The National Office for the Prevention of Domestic, Social and Gender-based Violence at the Department of Justice and Equality, “not knowing what to do” was listed as one of the main reasons people would not offer help if they witnessed domestic violence.

“Sometimes people want to help but are fearful,” explains Margaret Martin, director of Women’s Aid. It’s not only victims of domestic violence that contact Women’s Aid through its 24-hour helpline, but those outside of the situation too. “We hear a lot from people in the victim’s close circle like friends, family, even college lecturers, who may be wondering how they can help,” says Margaret.

The way in which you can offer support depends on the kind of regular connection you have with the victim, but one thing we emphasise is that both your safety and the victim’s safety should come first.

What are some of the warning signs that a relationship might be abusive?

shutterstock_552831445 Source: Shutterstock/rekre

As with all kinds of interventions, best practice is knowing when to offer help rather than how, so it’s important to be aware of what to look out for. “A third of domestic abuse victims will never tell anyone, according to national crime statistics,” says Margaret.

A withdrawal or a shift in a victim’s demeanour might be subtle, but if you’re close to a victim, you may well recognise that something has changed.

Someone experiencing abuse may seem anxious to please or afraid of their partner; may talk about their partner’s temper, possessiveness or jealousy; may be restricted from seeing family and friends; may be limited in access to money or a car; or may be depressed or even suicidal.

I’m worried about someone I know. Should I step in?

shutterstock_373567135 Source: Shutterstock/g-stockstudio

“Safety is fundamental for both the victim and the bystander, so it’s important to tread carefully,” says Margaret. The way in which you offer support, if you choose to do so, depends on the exact scenario.

“Sometimes it’s difficult to get the read of a situation as different forms of abuse have different signs,” she explains. If you’ve noticed some warning signs and think that someone you know might be experiencing domestic violence, a good starting point is to express concern and offer support.

“Say, ‘I care about you,’ or ‘I’m worried, I feel like something has shifted, I’m here if you want to talk,’” suggests Margaret. “You’ll find your own language, but avoid the ‘I know best’ talk. Respect that person’s ability to know what’s best for them.”

Should I tell the person what I think they should do?

shutterstock_672752188 Source: Shutterstock/Magdalenagalkiewicz

There’s a distinction between offering support and giving advice, and it’s important to recognise the difference. Remember that you cannot make someone leave a relationship if they are not ready to do so, and also that the the period when a victim is separating from their partner may be the most dangerous time for them.

“Separation does not equal safety,” says Margaret. “We have faith that victims can make decisions that are safe for them.” As she notes:

Often victims of domestic abuse just need a space to talk safely. They are resilient, they are managing things, but they may also feel overwhelmed, so any support will be welcome.

Beyond offering emotional support, what can I do?

christin-hume-309876 Source: Unsplash/Christin Hume

If the victim is someone who is close to you, you may be able to offer some other, more practical help.

“You can be more frank when it’s someone you have close regular contact with,” says Margaret. “Let them know that you can help them by keeping an emergency bag for them or offering some financial help. This kind of practical assistance is often spontaneous, and it’s about having a sense of what the person might need.”

You can also point the victim in the direction of services that can offer support, as per the list at the end of this article.

If I witness domestic violence between strangers, how can I help?

shutterstock_277517432 Source: Shutterstock/Kseniia Perminova

Before getting involved in an incident between strangers, you should always ask yourself if it’s safe and legal to step in.

“One big thing is not escalating risk to someone else or to yourself,” explains Margaret. ”If someone seems in immediate danger, you can call 999. Other than that, if you’re concerned, take a moment and observe what you’re seeing or hearing. Is it couple conflict or is it abuse?”

If you come across a situation that you think requires immediate intervention, and you’re happy that it’s safe to do so, Cosc’s website whatwouldyoudo.ie suggests following one of the three Ds: distract (ask for directions, ask for the time), delegate (speak to a friend or a bouncer, for example) or be direct (approach the abuser or the victim). Margaret adds that no two cases of abuse are the same, “so tread carefully and don’t just jump in.”

If you think you may have witnessed or experienced domestic violence or abusive behaviour, you can access advice and support services for both women and men at whatwouldyoudo.ie. Share the hashtag #MyDoorsOpen to show your support.

The Women’s Aid 24-hour National Freephone Helpline is 1800 341 900. Amen provides a confidential helpline for male victims of domestic abuse. It is open Monday to Friday, 9.00am to 5.00pm and can be reached on 046 9023718.

It is important that bystanders and witnesses to domestic violence do not intervene in any potentially violent situation unless it is safe and legal for them to do so. Witnesses should be aware of the potential harmful effect that intervention may subsequently have on the victim. The victim is best placed to assess the danger to themselves.

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