Domestic violence seems to be an all-too-common staple of the modern news cycle.
Actress Amber Heard made headlines in April when she accused then-husband Johnny Depp of physically abusing her, allegations she later dismissed on Aug. 16 after the couple settled their divorce.
After opening the 2016 Major League Baseball season with a 30-game suspension for allegedly choking his girlfriend in December, Chicago Cubs pitcher Aroldis Chapman is currently helping his team contend for its first World Series title since 1908.
Most recently, the National Football League came under fire in August for giving New York Giants kicker Josh Brown a one-game suspension after he was arrested in May 2015 for a domestic violence incident involving his ex-wife, who then filed a county court statement detailing multiple other allegations of physical violence.
Frustration over what many saw as an inadequate punishment resurfaced when the King County Sheriff’s Office in Washington released documents on Oct. 20 in which Brown reportedly admitted to abusing his then-wife. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell placed Brown on his exempt list the next day, barring him from team games and activities, though he is still being paid, and the Giants announced Tuesday that he had been released from the team.
Yet, despite these high-profile stories, L.Y. Marlow, founder of the national domestic violence prevention organization Saving Promise, says that many people are still not aware of the prevalence of this issue or the extent to which it impacts communities.
“We as a society don’t talk about it,” Marlow said. “We don’t break the silence…until we hear the stories of an athlete, a celebrity or a tragedy, and we should not wait until we see an unfortunate situation or a controversial situation in the media before we do something or speak up about it.”
October – designated National Domestic Violence Awareness Month by Congress since 1989 – may be reaching its final days, but that doesn’t mean conversations about intimate partner violence need to or should come to an end.
For Marlow, these conversations have become her life’s work. They used to just be her life.
Marlow is a domestic violence survivor, a struggle that echoed back through generations of her family, as her mother and grandmother were also victims.
That legacy unfortunately continued with Marlow’s daughter, who was beaten, strangled and nearly killed when she was 22 years old by the father of her child and Marlow’s granddaughter, Promise.
It was the second time Marlow’s daughter had nearly died while in this relationship, according to Marlow, and she survived only because Promise’s screams gave her the strength to fight back.
Her daughter’s experience gave Marlow “a sense of urgency” that led her to start Saving Promise, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that advocates for research, public awareness and prevention strategies to address domestic violence.
Marlow’s commitment to fighting domestic violence is undoubtedly personal, emphasized by the fact that she’s written two books, the novel Color Me Butterfly and an upcoming book titled Don’t Look at the Monster, that explore her family’s history with the subject.
However, she’s also aware that her experiences aren’t necessarily unusual. She created Saving Promise not only to help people escape similar situations, but to hopefully stop abuse from happening in the first place.
“One of the reasons why domestic violence has become a public health epidemic – and it is an epidemic – is because we need to shift the conversation from intervention to prevention,” Marlow said.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), an average of nearly 20 people in the U.S. experience physical abuse by an intimate partner every minute, equaling more than 10 million people in a year.
When the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention administered its first National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey in 2010, it found that one in four women and one out of every seven men have been the victim of severe physical violence by a partner.
The NCADV says that women between the ages of 18 to 24 are the most common victims of domestic abuse.
Fairfax County alone receives over 240 calls to domestic violence hotlines every month, according to the county’s website. Victims request 64 family abuse protective orders per month, and the local police make almost 160 domestic violence-related arrests.
The Fairfax County Police Department (FCPD), which launched a new Lethality Assessment Program (LAP) aimed at addressing domestic violence-related fatalities in July 2015, responded to more than 3,000 domestic violence calls for service and almost 8,000 domestic dispute calls in 2015.
As Marlow notes, those statistics both nationally and for Fairfax County only account for incidents that are reported.
“It’s more often probably not reported than it is reported, so the numbers can be far more than that,” Marlow said.
Though women experience domestic violence more frequently than men, Marlow emphasizes that it isn’t just a gender-based issue, but also one related to public and community health.
According to the NCADV, female domestic abuse victims are more vulnerable to contracting HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Studies suggest that intimate partner violence can also lead to an increased risk for depression and suicidal behavior, chronic pain, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular illnesses, and alcohol and drug addictions.
Saving Promise supports a three-pronged approach to addressing domestic violence that relies on awareness, prevention and community mobilization.
“We need to start focusing on prevention, specifically evidence-based prevention, to use research to better understand the root causes of domestic violence,” Marlow said. “Once we understand the root causes and explore what’s working and what’s not working, we need to put forward some better prevention strategies, programs and policies.”
The responsibility for solving the problem of domestic violence extends across the public, private and nonprofit sectors, from governmental institutions and schools to the business and faith communities, Marlow says.
Education is crucial to helping people understand how domestic violence works and what it looks like.
Defined by the NCADV as “part of a systematic pattern of power and control,” domestic violence takes a number of different forms, from physical and sexual assault to verbal, emotional and psychological abuse.
Signs of abuse include extreme jealousy or possessiveness, stalking, aggressiveness, and attempts to control the victim’s outside interactions and financial situation. Abusers also often intimidate the victim with insults, accusations and threats.
Marlow says that abusiveness is sometimes exacerbated by addiction or anger issues, and many abusers have a history of abuse, both perpetrating it and experiencing it themselves.
Though domestic violence is a widespread, societal problem, people can still address it on an individual level by getting involved in their local community and offering their support to victims.
“We can be part of the solution. We can be part of the prevention,” Marlow said. “We can speak up and talk to our daughters and sisters and brothers and let them know that they deserve better, that they can get help.”
She advises that people who are experiencing domestic violence or are in an abusive relationship contact a domestic violence hotline, which can offer confidentiality and access to support services.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-799-7233. Fairfax County has its own 24-hour hotline at 703-360-7273.
Marlow says it’s also important for victims to develop a safety plan for leaving an abusive relationship, since separation is the time when they’re in the most danger. Victims often stay with abusive partners out of fear for their own safety or the safety of loved ones, or because they lack the necessary economic resources or access to a new shelter.
According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, it takes victims an average of seven attempts before they leave an abusive relationship permanently.
“I understand your fear, your pain, and your hurt,” Marlow said, addressing other domestic violence victims. “Know that you deserve better. If you have children, your children deserve better, and there is hope, and you can find that hope and take that first step.”