16 Days of Activism: I Work At A Naval Station As A Domestic Violence Victim Advocate

By Taylor Kuether

This post is part of a series in support of the United Nation’s “16 Days of Activism” campaign to end violence against women. Now through December 10, we’ll be sharing stories from women around the world as they work to eliminate violence against women internationally. 

I first started working with victims of domestic violence as a volunteer at the local women’s shelter in my college town.  By the end of my first week of basic crisis intervention training, I knew that this was something I wanted to dedicate more than just a few hours a month to.  I quickly immersed myself in every volunteer program offered by the shelter; in addition to being a crisis intervention counselor, I became a children’s counselor and an emergency advocate, the latter involving being on-call for several days at a time and responding to emergency calls at local hospitals and police stations.  I enjoyed working at the shelter so much that I even became a part-time overnight counselor during my second year of service there.

By my senior year of college, I had no doubt in my mind that I wanted to pursue a career working with victims of domestic violence.  About a month after graduation I was lucky enough to land a job working at Naval Station Norfolk as a Domestic Abuse Victim Advocate, or DAVA.

What I Do

My primary responsibility as a DAVA is to provide victims of domestic violence – both active duty service members as well as military spouses/intimate partners – with education and support to ensure their safety and their families’ safety.  I conduct safety planning with all of my clients and help to formulate escape plans with those who have made the brave decision to leave their abuser.

I also accompany my clients to court to assist them in filing for protective orders as well as to provide support during other civil and criminal hearings (the most common being stalking and assault and battery cases).  Additionally, I am sometimes called out to the Navy hospital here to work with victims who are being treated in the emergency room for injuries caused by abuse, or to the psychiatric unit if a victim of domestic violence has been committed for suicidal ideation.  Finally, I connect my clients to a variety of community and military resources such as local women’s shelters, support groups, and legal aid services to name a few. I always want to make sure that no matter whether a victim chooses to stay in their abusive relationship or leave it, they are provided with all the tools necessary to help them in their journey and, most importantly, to keep them safe.

Challenges I Work With

My current position is part of a CNIC (Commander, Navy Installations Command) program known as the Family Advocacy Program (or FAP).  Doing this job on a military base poses some unique challenges. In addition to working with the typical allied professionals seen by victim advocates in the civilian world, such as doctors, police officers, and attorneys, I also frequently collaborate with FAP case managers, JAGs (military lawyers), NCIS special agents, and members of the service member (whether victim or offender)’s chain of command.  Heavy command involvement in my cases is very common, which can be a blessing when the victim in a case is the active duty service member, as this typically means that the victim is receiving additional support and encouragement from his or her superior officers.

On the other hand, when it is the offender in a case who is in the military, heavy command involvement often translates to protection for an abuser.  This is not always the case, however, as punitive actions are sometimes taken by commands, which in rare cases may even lead to a service member being discharged from the Navy.  In my experience, however, unless there was a particularly egregious act of violence, or the service member has had multiple offenses, a command’s first response is to stand by and defend their sailor. Another challenging aspect of being a DAVA working with the military is trying to navigate the many additional obstacles faced specifically by military spouses who are trying to leave an abusive relationship.

Because military families move around so frequently, it is rare for the civilian spouse to have a strong support network at or around whatever military base their family happens to be stationed at any given time.  Therefore, if they choose to leave, they may have to travel halfway across the country before they find family or friends to provide them shelter.  Additionally, frequent moves make it difficult to maintain a career, and thus many military wives are stay-at-home mothers, meaning they have no source of income with which to provide for their children should they leave. Finally, military spouses are often reminded by their abusive partner that asking for help in any way would jeopardize that service member’s career.  While this is not an entirely accurate threat, it scares many victims into silence.

I Work To Empower Victims

Many people believe that a DAVA’s job is to get victims of domestic violence to leave their abusive relationship; this, however, is simply not true.  Victims of domestic violence have oftentimes spent years being told what to do, how to do it, what to wear, who they can speak to, where they can go, how long they can be gone for, and so on – the last thing any advocate wants to do is become yet another controlling figure in this individual’s life.

As an advocate I want to empower my clients, not continue to take power from them, therefore I am constantly encouraging my clients to make whatever decisions they believe to be in their own best interest.  After all, it is the victim, not the advocate, doctor, police officer, family member or friend who is the expert on THAT victim’s situation, and on what will make THAT victim the safest.  Of course I would love it if all of my clients made the brave decision to leave their abuser and were able to do so safely and successfully, but that (unfortunately) is not always the case.  The most dangerous time for a victim of domestic violence is the period immediately following escape – most homicides occur after a victim has left their abuser.  Sadly, it is sometimes safer for a victim to stay.

There’s A Lot Of Work Left To Be Done

One in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.  If we want to see that number lowered, it is my opinion that we must first work to change the attitude many people still hold with regards to traditional gender roles and how they ought to play out in relationships.  Having the belief that women belong in the home and should obey their husbands is actually considered to be a common warning sign of an abusive personality; very often male abusers will use this ideology to assert power and control over female victims.  While there are male victims and it does occur in same-sex relationships, domestic violence is overwhelmingly a crime committed by men against women – a crime that is often deeply rooted in sexism.

While it is not realistic to say that we can put an end to domestic violence worldwide anytime soon, there are things that can be done today to help with the cause.  Volunteer with your local women’s shelter or crisis hotline, and if you know someone who is in an abusive relationship, listen to and believe them.Too often victims don’t seek out help because they don’t think anyone will believe their story.  Silence hides violence – help give victims back their voice.

By Taylor Kuether

Taylor is a journalist, feminist, cat enthusiast, and proud Wisconsin native. She works for Feminist Majority Foundation as the Campus Communications Associate. Her two favorite things besides her cat, Emma, are coffee and art museums.

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