Staying Free: Learned Helplessness or a Rational Choice?

Katherine Alix-Gaudreau, Georgia State University

Domestic violence is a complex area of study, with research that ranges from how an individual becomes a batterer to how to break the cycle of violence. One pertinent question is: once a woman becomes a victim of domestic violence, how can she escape the abuse? Simply reaching out for help is a dangerous and courageous act and millions of state, federal and private dollars are spent each year to provide services to these women. Unfortunately, these services are rarely evaluated to determine their efficacy. This can mean that valuable resources are being misdirected or not utilized to their fullest potential. In my thesis research, I have evaluated the services available to victims of domestic violence within Athens-Clarke County, Georgia. I have examined the available services to determine how these enhance a woman's ability to leave an abusive relationship. The realm of domestic violence research needs more comprehensive quantitative data that portray the victim's struggle as accurately as possible. These data would allow for an evaluation of services available to victims, including how these services are utilized and which services provide victims with the necessary tools to escape their abusive situations. Little is known about the long-term effectiveness of services, for most domestic violence intervention programs do not track their clients' situation after the client has left their abuser. In addition, the majority of state data collection systems for domestic violence use summary and incident-based data from police reports. This is problematic, given that domestic violence is known to be under-reported to the police and many women never utilize police services when seeking help. Therefore, I have created a comprehensive data collection system that captures domestic violence services offered through shelters, police and other service organizations (i.e.: public housing, TANF, TPOs and DFACS). My research focuses on the services given to domestic violence victims and how these services affect their ability to recover from their experiences and create a violence-free lifestyle. From observation and research, I believe that most women who seek help for domestic violence struggle with the following obstacles more than any other (usually in this order): employment, housing, financial resources, child care, addictions and their peers or family's acceptance of violence. These six items are usually the stumbling blocks that prevent women from being able to live independently and violence-free. Although we believe that domestic violence affects people of every race, ethnicity and class, the women who seek help from service organizations generally have similar characteristics. Many women who seek help for domestic violence have little job experience, education, or financial resources. Some do not speak English very well, or are illegal immigrants afraid of being deported. Many help seekers come from lower SES groups and suffer from addictions. All are homeless. A majority of these women have at least one child young enough to require constant supervision, and often these women cannot afford to hire childcare while they seek employment. In addition, most of these children have witnessed abuse or have been abused directly and are in need of special services. More than anything else, the vast majority of these women live in fear of their abusers, who seem to have all the power and control over the situation. It is a well-established fact that when a woman leaves her abuser, her chances of being killed by that abuser increase over 100%. Women rarely learn to be "helpless" and more often learn to survive. These types of obstacles - those that would prevent anyone from living independently - most often cause a victim to return to their batterer. Many women would rather attempt to survive in a violent and controlling situation if they believe their children will be safe and both they and their children will have food, clothing, and a place to live. There is a belief among members of the justice system that women return to their batterers because they are helpless victims who do not mind being abused, or do not know any better. However, I contest that women who return to their abusers more often do so for practical and safety reasons. If they were able to overcome the aforementioned barriers, their immediate dependence on their abuser would end. By providing help-seeking victims of domestic violence with comprehensive services, both the justice system and the service providers will see a larger return on their investment.

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Updated 05/20/2006