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Breaking Barriers of Domestic Violence Betters Substance Abuse Treatment for Survivors

Substance abuse often creates numerous, long-term barriers and negative effects for survivors of domestic violence.

Continued education of staff and volunteers is an important value of The Willow. The Quarterly Meeting on Saturday taught volunteers how to help survivors file Protection From Abuse forms.

“It increases their vulnerability in terms of the power that the partner tries to wield over them, and in terms of their exposure to trauma,” said Becca Burns, the director of volunteer services for The Willow Domestic Violence Center. “It creates additional barriers that survivors face when trying to access services.”

Jennifer Guthrie, former First Step Program Manager and advocate for The Willow, noticed a correlation and began to research the link between addiction and domestic violence last year.

“I started finding a lot of information that said even though advocates and researchers alike know there is a strong connection between the two, many agencies do not work together,” Guthrie said. “I talked to the directors at The Willow, First Step at Lakeview and Ga Du Gi SafeCenter, They all agreed that we should collaborate and be more involved with each other.”

The Willow provides shelter, support and rehabilitation for survivors of both domestic violence and sexual assault. First Step is DCCCA’s newest women’s treatment facility for substance abuse. Ga Du Gi provides programs to help all people affected by sexual violence.

The three agencies signed a contract in January to work together and provide a web of resources for survivors of domestic violence who also struggle with substance abuse.

Collaboration with substance abuse treatment experts in the community is essential so that individuals can receive professional care for their victimization and correlating conditions simultaneously,” according to the Office for Victims of Crime.

There are a variety of ways domestic violence contributes to substance abuse. Some women at First Step feel they turned to substances in order to cope with the domestic violence, said Guthrie.

“It seemed to be a way of avoiding the trauma, pain and hurt,” Guthrie said. “Sometimes they were introduced to the substance by the abuser as well, and then the abuser can use that as a form of control.”

To gain control, abusers often:

  • threaten to withhold the substance
  • use the substance as an excuse for their own behavior and
  • minimize the situation because of the victim’s drug use.

“Research indicates that victims who abuse drugs and/or alcohol may be at a higher risk for further victimization, causing a cycle of repeat violence that, without intervention, becomes increasingly destructive,” according to the Office for Victims of Crime.

“It often times does create a dependency if the victim equates access to the drug to the abuser. That tends to perpetuate the cycle,” said Teen Dating Violence Prevention Coordinator, Dani Onions.

“Sometimes the woman has children, and even though she wants to divorce the abuser, the woman is worried that the abuser will use her drug addiction against her,” Onions said.

The organizations are working together to eliminate as many barriers as possible for domestic violence survivors.

“We are one of the more progressive shelters in terms of substance abuse,” Onions said. “We see that if a victim has a drug abuse problem, we don’t want it to be a barrier to her getting safety or shelter.”

Along with streamlining survivors through First Step and Ga Du Gi, The Willow also recently created a Health and Wellness group.

“Everyone here is really excited about that because it’s the first time that we’ve introduced healthy living, stepping away from abusing drugs and moving more towards overall physical and mental health,” Onions said.

The organizations strive to remove as many hurdles for survivors as possible through well-rounded services.

“It can be pretty intense because sometimes the honeymoon stage gets involved, and because the abusers sometimes visit during treatment,” Guthrie said. “Hopefully talking about domestic violence will help give more holistic care to the women we serve.”

Through shared knowledge, both domestic violence and substance abuse treatment providers can better understand the complexity of the issue, better coordinate community response and, most importantly, better serve clients.

“I’d like to let survivors know that we as three agencies are committed to providing more comprehensive services that address multiple needs in multiple ways,” Burns said.

Becca Burns and Jennifer Guthrie discuss how abusers can use substance abuse to control their partners in domestically violent relationships. Use the Mental Health System Power and Control Wheel and the transcript below as a reference.


MS. JENNIFER GUTHRIE: I think the whole reason there’s a separate power and control model for women’s substance abuse is that it mirrors the traditional power and control wheel, but also expands on it. So for emotional abuse this would include, and this is straight from the wheel: putting her down and making her feel guilty for her past drug use, and then physical abuse, physically abusing her for getting high, not getting high, using isolation. And this one can be preventing from going to NA meetings, AA meetings, or belittling her for saying it’s ridiculous that she is upset about using drugs. It’s not a big deal whatever: minimizing, denying and blaming, saying she caused the abuse with her drug use.

MS. BECCA BURNS: This wouldn’t haven needed to happen, but because you got high, look what you made me do. I can’t handle you when you’re drinking; so, this is what you’ve forced me to do.

MS. GUTHRIE: Right, and then so not only her behavior but also their own. Like: “I’m so sorry baby I only did that because I was high.”

MS. BURNS: And oh, using sexual abuse. So, forms of sexual abuse that are common within women’s substance abuse in terms of an abusive relationship is forcing her to prostitute for drugs or money.

MS. GUTHRIE: Or even, like, get on this website and do this and it can kind of reach into like human trafficking almost with that.

MS. BURNS: Oh yeah, absolutely. Encouraging drug use and drug dependence. So just getting her introduced to those things.

MS. GUTHRIE: Yeah, and that’s something I know with the lot of the survivors I work with that tends to happen is, ‘You know I didn’t even start using substances until I met him. And in the beginning it was fun and it was just something recreational.’ And then they end up getting hooked and then it’s used as a means for control.

MS. BURNS: ‘He taught me how to shoot up, how to snort things as opposed to smoking.’

MS GUTHRIE: Oh, and then finally economic abuse. So making her sell drugs, and then using threats, so threatening to hurt her if she does not use drugs, if she does use drugs–that sort of thing.

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