(WOMENSENEWS)–Hushed directions to battered women’s shelters in the 1970s and 1980s have been replaced by Web sites bursting with information as the first step for domestic violence victims reaching out for help.
One of these new sites is Abuseaware.com, which went online in December. Founder Donna Ferrato is still tweaking the site design and hopes to officially launch it later this month.
Ferrato saw a man beat his wife while working as a photojournalist in 1982 and has explored domestic violence with her lens ever since.
Ferrato, a New York-based photographer, shows excerpts from her work on the site as a tool for raising public awareness about domestic abuse. The photographs are chilling: wives cowering before husbands, parents striking 5-year-olds, abused children kicking dolls.
Ferrato wants the site to be haunting to visitors who have not experienced abuse and helpful to those who have.
"It’s the faces of the women and the children and the men," Ferrato said. "What people get from looking at these exhibits is a better understanding of how the justice system works, how often women get punished for trying to defend themselves, for trying to rescue their children from further harm."
Resources for domestic violence victims have evolved as the Internet entered the mainstream in the 1990s, providing one-click access to information and help. Some sites are still basic references with informative introductions and links, and others, like the Family Violence Prevention Fund, are vaults of tips, news stories and emergency numbers.
Web sites still point victims to battered women’s shelters, but focus equal attention on preparing emotionally and strategically to leave an abusive partner. Many state advocacy groups also formed coalitions or networks against domestic violence, typically grassroots nonprofits, available with a quick Web search.
Abuse Aware is one of many Web sites–many with cautionary headings warning browsers they could be tracked electronically by abusers–available as resources and support for abuse victims during their journey to becoming survivors.
Abusers often monitor computers and Internet activity, so the Washington-based National Network to End Domestic Violence recommends that victims avoid suspicion by using the home computer regularly to check e-mail or the weather, but use a library or Internet cafe’s public computer to research escape plans or find new jobs and apartments.
Many women search the Internet for help when they want to get out of an abusive situation, Ferrato said. "I think women should use the Internet for what it is: the first step. It’s the first step toward educating yourself."
The first thing abuse victims can do, experts and advocates agree, is to formulate a plan, or an exit strategy, for simply getting out.
The Family Violence Prevention Fund in Washington, D.C., suggests putting together an emergency kit with identification, medicine, keys and money in case of a sudden chance or need to leave.
"You can do that without a lot of attention, by saying, ‘I’ve got to run out and buy some milk,’" Ferrato said. "Be a good actor. Pretend that everything is OK, and be very calm."
On its Web site the Family Violence Prevention Fund provides detailed personal and workplace safety plans. The National Network to End Domestic Violence also has technology safety plans, translated into seven languages, with more tips: using donated phones from shelters, creating a new e-mail account and changing all passwords.
Preparing for Violence
The Denver-based National Coalition Against Domestic Violence suggests thinking of a safe place to go if an argument occurs and avoiding rooms with no exits, like a bathroom, or with weapons, like the kitchen. Other tips include memorizing important numbers and planning what to say if a partner becomes violent.
Abuse victims should call the police if they are in danger, and the National Domestic Violence Hotline can help steer callers and e-mailers to shelters and support programs around the country. The hotline has received more than 1.8 million calls since beginning in 1996. In 2007, the hotline received more than 19,000 calls each month.
In February 2007, the hotline also created a National Teen Dating Abuse Hotline at Loveisrespect.org, where teens can chat live with a peer counselor.
The Family Violence Prevention Fund also suggests confiding abuse in a trusted friend, relative or co-worker. Others also recommend having a code word to signal an abusive situation.
After capturing violence in others’ lives with a camera since the 1980s, Ferrato also recommends documenting any abuse–taking pictures of bruises and keeping them in the emergency kit–for evidence in later court proceedings.
Advice, however, can change with the situation.
Diane Wetendorf, a longtime domestic violence advocate, trainer and author, runs Abuse of Power, an online resource for victims of police-perpetrated violence.
These women, she said, should not follow the standard escape strategies because their abusers are trained to notice when things are askew or pursue someone running from them.
"As simple as the first thing in a safety plan is start to gather things," Wetendorf said. "Cops’ training is to know anything out of place. She starts to move kids’ favorite toys, he’s probably going to notice."
Tailored Safety Plan
Instead, Wetendorf said, victims can contact her through the Web site for a tailored safety plan. Wetendorf receives about 60 to 70 calls each month from abuse victims involved with a law enforcer.
Many victims are first told to contact the police department, she said, which is not recommended for victims of police-perpetrated violence.
"That could be the most dangerous thing you could do," she said. "When you threaten a cop’s job, it’s like threatening his identity. She has to be really careful."
The most secure option always is to become completely untraceable, without using credit cards or revealing identifying information, but this option evaporates when children enter the scenario.
"Once you have kids, forget it," Wetendorf said. "They have to go to school, they have to have medicine. For a kid to have any kind of life in society they have to be part of it, and that means giving your name and address and social security number."
Instead, she said, women need to understand how abusers might try to pursue them and learn how to leave the smallest trail. This can be difficult. One woman Wetendorf helped moved 13 times in three years.
As a start, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence suggests changing phone numbers, screening calls, changing locks, varying routines and meeting partners when necessary in public places.
Alison Bowen is a New York City-based reporter covering the presidential campaign for Women’s eNews. Her work also appears in the New York Daily News.
This series is supported by a special grant from Mary Kay Inc.