Part 1: How can I help a woman disclose abuse?

Service providers, lawyers and other professionals working with women who have experienced abuse often assist women in recording their history of abuse for court documentation and safety planning. Both of these responsibilities require women to talk to you about the abuse they have experienced but, as we all know, this is not always easy for women.

In Part 1 of this FAQ, I’ll explore some of the reasons why many women find it hard to talk about their experiences as well as why they need to share this information. In Part 2 which I’ll post next week, I’ll provide tips for supporting women so they can talk about the abuse.

Of course, you will also encounter women who are ready to open up and tell you everything. The tips that follow will be helpful when you are working with those women as well and, in fact, could become promising practices in your work with all women who have experienced abuse.

Why it is hard for women to disclose

Just as every woman’s experience of abuse is unique to her, so are women’s reasons for not wanting to talk about it.

Many women have never told anyone that their partner is abusing them. Even when they summon up their courage to call you or your agency for assistance, they may not be ready to tell you the details of what they have experienced. Telling this story for the first time is not easy: after all, it means saying out loud that the person you have loved (and probably still love) and who you thought loved you has done bad things to you.

When the abuse has been a secret (or, at least, when the woman thinks it has been a secret – often other people do know about it, but she is not aware of that) for a long time, it is not easy to start to talk about it.

Other women have had a different experience. They have told someone about the abuse, but were not believed or were told it was their fault or is just a normal part of all relationships. It is not uncommon for a woman who tells someone about emotional abuse to get the response: “Well, at least he does not hit you.” Other women tell someone and hear back: “He doesn’t hurt the children, does he?” as though that is all that matters.

There are many other responses to a woman telling someone about the abuse that can serve to silence her: being told that her abusive partner is a good dad or that he provides well for the family or that she married him and now must stick with her decision are just a few ways to send a message that the woman should not talk about this.

As a result, by the time you ask her to talk about the abuse in her relationship, she may be very fearful that you won’t believe her or that you will judge her for it.

You are a stranger to her, so she does not have any reason – yet – to trust you, which will make it more difficult for her to open up about such a private thing as her partner’s abuse of her.

Many women feel a sense of shame or embarrassment or think the abuse is their fault. This, too, interferes with their ability to tell you about it.

As you know, it is common for abusers to threaten their partners with consequences if they tell anyone about the abuse. These could be threats of physical reprisal, but they could also be threats that are more psychological in nature. For example, the abuser might say: “No one will believe you if you say I treat you badly. After all, I am the hockey coach / I am the minister / your parents really like me / everyone knows you are crazy / I will tell people about the time you hit me / I will tell the cops that you shoplift / I will call the CAS and tell them you are a bad mum.”

Many women with children are afraid that anyone they talk to about the abuse will call the CAS and they might have their children taken away.

Women do not want their children to know about the abuse. Right or wrong, and it is usually wrong, many women have convinced themselves that they are keeping the abuse hidden from the kids. They may think they can continue to keep the secret after separation if they don’t tell anyone about it.

Finally, most women with abusive partners still love them. They want the abuse to stop, but they want the relationship to continue. If this is the case, it is very hard for a woman to tell anyone about what has happened. She does not want her partner to get into trouble by being charged and she does not want to do anything that might further exacerbate the situation because she wants to believe that her partner’s behaviour will change and they will be able to stay together in a relationship free from abuse.

Often, a woman may be grappling with several of these reasons for not talking about the abuse, and it will take skill, patience and compassion for you to draw her story out so it can helpful to her in her family court case.

Why she needs to tell

There are both legal and non-legal reasons why a woman needs to tell her story of abuse. Talking to you first is going to make it easier for her to talk to other people who may have less of an understanding of violence against women and, as a result, be less supportive and sympathetic.

Legal reasons

Whatever legal process a woman is involved with – family, criminal, immigration, child protection – the court will need to have evidence of abuse in order to make appropriate decisions.

She will also have to provide this evidence if she is involved in quasi-legal proceedings or situations such as making a claim to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, trying to get on the priority housing list or applying for Ontario Works.

While the exact information/evidence that will be required in each of these situations will be different, in all cases her story will be more effective and believable if it is clear, detailed and consistent. Having the opportunity to talk to you about the abuse first will be very helpful to her when she has to put this information into formal court documents. You will be able to help her organize her thinking, prioritize the key information, put her story in chronological order and so on.

Non-legal reasons

Even if a woman is not involved with any of the legal processes listed above, if she is to heal from the abuse she has experienced and be able to move on to a violence-free life, she will need to talk about what has happened to her.

Of course, her story is not going to be examined (and cross-examined) as it would be in a legal process, so precise accuracy and clarity are not as important in the healing context. Nonetheless, it may still be difficult for her to talk about what she has been through, so you will need to create the best atmosphere possible to assist her.

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