How to respond to domestic abuse when it occurs in public
One of our readers who goes by the screen name “ranthegauntlet” wrote this post on her blog and we are re-posting it with her permission.
The original post was titled on her blog We Learned Something Post #1
A well-dressed, middle-aged couple walked into Starbucks Tuesday afternoon, as I sat with my computer and chai near the door. The woman entered first, with the man behind her. There was something subtle about his body-language. No swagger, or strut, or leggy man’s man walk. Just a trace of ‘his underwear is too tight.’ End of thought. I went back to my computer.
Minutes later, apparently having found no suitable seating inside, they went out the door to the patio. I overheard him saying irritably that he doesn’t LIKE to sit outside. But they did. As I worked I glanced up occasionally. She was cheerful, animated….but something was off there, too. His body language (back to me) was still different. Gut feeling, but what? Next glance, she was still cheerful, like “making nice” cheerful. The words for him? Testy. Malevolent. Well contained.
He stood up and began pacing. I watched her…wondering if she was smiling or crying. Until her face broke apart and she was sobbing, shaking, hands to her face. He remained rigid, cold, commanding.
I started shaking, too.
They moved a few steps to the curb, where she sat, shaking and sobbing, as he first stood over her, then moved back a few steps. Stern. Hard faced. Then they were standing in the parking lot. Same. She was talking through sobs. He was talking, hard edged words I couldn’t hear, hard face.
My fingers didn’t work well, but I located the local domestic violence phone number, and wrote it on what I had available – a teabag. I went outside, greeted them both, and asked the woman if I could speak with her a moment. She looked at me, like she wanted to. He said, to me, “NO, we’re having a good conversation here; leave us alone.” I did. I didn’t want to place her at risk by making him angrier. Shortly after that, they were gone.
Since then I have attended two DV support groups. I related the incident, and got feedback from five professionals who work with DV. This is what I learned from their experience:
I should not have approached her.
It could make the beating she gets at home worse.
He will likely be angrier, and blame her.
It placed me at risk.
I may have validated her experience as inappropriate, and thereby given a little support. But with risk to her and to me.
Better response: Go out of sight and call 911 or Police Dispatch.
Because – the police, if properly trained, will separate them, which gives her time to think.
Because he will not like being embarrassed or focused upon or challenged.
- Which may subdue him.
- Which may make her beating at home worse.
- Which may drive his behavior farther underground, less visible to others, still as dangerous to her.
BUT, the event will be documented, which may help her later to prove need of help, restraining order, etc.
If Police are properly trained, she may receive helpful information.
Each of these DV professionals had dealt with similar situations (they also seem to have the “radar” – one said she tunes into such interactions least once a week – usually in parking lots). This is what they related:
A woman fled into the ladies room at a restaurant. The DV counselor went into the restroom, made no eye contact, but put a DV hotline card on the sink. Then left the room. She said this is because the woman may be ashamed and unwilling to interact. She may utilize the information – maybe not today or for 5 years – but she knows the option is there.
Another woman in a public location was being berated. When the abuser looked away for a moment, the DV counselor slipped a card to the woman and whispered for her to put it in her shoe. They said that abusers often search phones, purses and clothing, but rarely check shoes.
Placing DV information, card, etc., where an abuser may find it can be dangerous. It is best to do nothing rather than being too indiscrete. One way or the other, you have no way of knowing the nature of the abuser’s response, the danger to the victim, or the danger to yourself. You do the best you can, and hope for the best.
It takes a victim an average of seven tries to leave an abuser, for various reasons. A lot of fear, confusion and denial working.
I stopped shaking after leaving Starbucks. I’m shaking again as I write this post. I’m also learning that shaking is good – it is the body’s way of releasing trauma, whether primary or triggered. So, OK.
There is improvement. I responded better than to the man in my post “To Hell In A Hand-Basket.” I hope I didn’t set this woman up for worse abuse. Hard to know. But at least you and I know a little more and are better equipped to respond in a way that actually MIGHT help, WHEN we encounter this again.
Please pass on what we just learned.