Deborah Debare is the executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence (RICADV). I talked with her about the work of the coalition as part of our continuing series on domestic violence.
What led you to this work and becoming executive director of the coalition?
It was a very unintentional path that I stumbled into as a college undergraduate. I was at school at Brown University back in the early 1980s and I had taken a year off. I was working for – what at the time was the campaign to ratify the equal rights amendment through the National Organization for Women – but I was working in unratified states doing grass roots organizing. That was the first I heard of the battered women’s shelter. I ran into some women who were volunteers in Florida and heard about their experiences. When I came back to school the following year here in Rhode Island I started to volunteer at one of the domestic violence agencies in Providence. So I started out as a volunteer and I had no intention of it turning into a career or profession and here I am several decades later, still putting my energies into trying to end domestic violence.
What does the coalition do?
RICADV is a non-profit organization made up of member agencies. I describe ourselves as a network of agencies, like a trade association, but the difference is that we are a group of advocacy organizations that come together not only to provide services for victims but to really try to change the social norm, (to) change the structures and policies to make Rhode Island safer for victims.
Our network is made up of 5 full member agencies – Blackstone Valley Advocacy Center, the Domestic Violence Resource Center of South County, the Elizabeth Buffum Chace Center, Sojourner House and the Women’s Resource Center. They are spread out geographically so no matter where you are in Rhode Island there is going to be a shelter or support group within a reasonable distance.
We also have four affiliate members that provide more specialized types of programming or services. The Center for Southeast Asians provide domestic violence and sexual assault programs. Crossroads provides a shelter program. We also have Family Service of Rhode Island and Progreso Latino. We are trying to expand our network of members to work with organizations that might have a small program or pocket that is dedicated to domestic violence.
What is the scale of the problem firstly across the United States?
Domestic violence is one of the most under researched elements in our society. So even though it has existed forever, it really has only been since the 1980s that government or research institutions have started to study the problem. What we do know from studies that have come out from places such as center for disease control and research that has been published through the national research center on domestic violence is that intimate partner violence happens to approximately 35% of all women in the United States. There are different studies that range from 25% to 42% so it depends on which research study that is being cited but we are comfortable saying that nearly one out of three women experience intimate partner violence in their lifetime. Most people think about domestic violence and might imagine someone who has broken bones or a black eye or signs of physical assault… when we talk about intimate partner violence we are talking about a whole continuum including emotional, sexual and physical abuse – a range of behaviors that constitute domestic violence.
And what about Rhode Island?
Rhode Island is very similar to other states. We know their were 8,700 victims of domestic violence last year, 2016, that received help from our member agencies so that gives a snippet of how large and significant the problem is because we know this is the tip of the iceberg because there are many more victims that did not reach out for help last year.
Can you tell me about why housing and financial independence are important when it comes to domestic violence?
Independence, housing and financial security are intertwined with issues of domestic violence; they are at the very core of the problem. Aside from physical and emotional abuse the victim has experienced, they are also dealing with the fact that they may feel reliant on the abuser for their basic needs. So it often takes two incomes to make a household work these days, so if someone is being abused by their partner they have to grapple with the fact that they may be reliant on his or her income to put food on the table, to keep children clothed and fed, to cover basic human needs – to keep things going.
Housing is also an incredible challenge here. There is a strong and desperate lack of affordable housing in Rhode Island, we have one of the worst housing stocks in the country in terms of having adequate affordable housing options throughout the state. So victims are faced with the really unpleasant choice of ‘do I stay where I am because at least I am housed’ or ‘do I become homeless and try to find safety’ out of the relationship. So it is not a pleasant choice.
So what about the legislative and political situation in the state?
We have strong criminal justice provisions in the general laws. In 1988 they published the domestic violence prevention act which criminalized domestic violence and made it really clear that police officers are required to arrest when there is probable cause to believe that a crime has occurred. Up to 1988 when the police were called the most likely outcome of the scenario is that they would take the perpetrator outside, tell them not to make so much noise, walk around the block and calm down. After this law was passed it became really clear that the police were required to arrest in a case where the primary aggressor in a case when there was a domestic violence situation. We have an average of about 5,000 criminal cases every year, primarily misdemeanor cases.
In other areas RI is not in the forefront of of what I would say is progressive public policy. We have been working with the legislature for a number of years now – for at least the last four in a row to strengthen provisions in the law to make it clear to make it clear that people who are convicted of domestic violence cannot have access to firearms. (read Representative Teresa Tanzi’s interview about this) Even though this is a federal law we have found the legislature has been very reluctant to codify it here and make it clear it is Rhode Island’s responsibility as well.
What can people do if they know about an abusive relationship?
People sometimes hear about domestic violence and think it is a horrible problem but don’t know what to do about it. We can provide advice and counseling to people so if you want help or tips on how to talk to a family member or colleague you can always call our 24 hour helpline. It is not just for victims but for anyone that wants to find out more about domestic violence. We also have a chat feature that is now available on our website so if someone wants to chat confidentially to an advocate about a situation they can get advice.
Funding & resources are a big issue. What could you do with a large grant?
The main barrier to getting the work done is that we don’t have enough resources. Our main resources are spent on staff and the more resources we have, the more advocates for victims.
But if we were to get a large unanticipated grant or someone was to bequeath us $1m tomorrow, I would put 75% of those funds into prevention, because no matter how many shelters we build we know they will be filled. No matter how many counselors we provide, no matter how many support groups we offer we know their will be victims coming for services. That cycle will continue unless we invest in prevention. What we are seeing from some of the research coming out from the center for disease control is that there are effective prevention programs and strategies so that if we have enough resources to put them into place we would eventually the stemming of the tide and hopefully see the number of victims start to decrease.
Next week Steve Rackett will be talk to RICADV’s Lucy Rios about the prevention work mentioned by Deborah.
The 24-hour statewide Helpline offering support, information and advocacy for those impacted by crimes of violence is 1-800-494-8100