“The Open Letter” Update

Seven days before my son was born, Michael Jackson died. Like most people, nostalgia took over, and I began listening to my old Jackson CDs.  I sang along to “Thriller” and “Bad” for the first time in years. I jammed out and danced around with the watermelon belly that comes with nine months of growing a human.  I can only assume that my son picked up on the vibrations in utero.  After he was born, Michael Jackson tunes were the only thing that soothed him through colic. I have no science to back it up, and I could be wrong. To this day, he loves Michael Jackson.

One of his favorite songs is “Man in the Mirror.” My son says that it’s a great song because:

“If we all changed ourselves a little, the world would just be better.”

It’s a message he understands at the tender age of six.

On the drive to school this week, we listened to the song and I felt a deep connection to the lyrics.  This is what brings me to this post.

This post is open to the public. That said, I am specifically talking to those of you currently working at Domestic Violence centers in Florida.  Change is in your hands.

Since the publication of “The Open Letter to Mrs. Bush,” I have heard from many different individuals. Most of the comments, feedback, and discussion have been positive and helpful. However, it would not be a proper discussion if there were not some who disagreed with my stance.

Let me start by addressing the most frequent criticisms I have heard.

You did not include your last name: There are a multitude of reasons why I chose to omit my last name from “The Open Letter.”  First, protecting those affected or involved in my childhood experience is essential. The second reason is to provide some protection for the shelter I “called out” in The Open Letter. My last name would lead folks to discover which shelter I address in “The Open Letter.” That shelter is a necessity in our community and my objective is not to lose public trust in an important social service and force it to shut its doors. It is my intent, however, that valid concerns be addressed as openly as possible.  The shelter deserves the opportunity to address serious concerns (many of which I chose to omit from “The Open Letter” to protect them) before anything is public.

You are a disgruntled employee with an axe to grind:  In fact, I am disgruntled, just not in the way you might think. First, let me be clear that I was not fired nor did I leave the profession on bad terms. I left on my own accord five years ago. I have a profession, am well paid, and am a happy mother and spouse living a good life. Yet, day after day, I read a new story about a domestic violence murder, assault, or issue and it bothers me. I am disgruntled with a failing system, and not just by my account. I have heard from many, many advocates, case managers, and citizens who have acknowledged and/or recognized similar concerns. If this one shelter in question were the only shelter with these issues, there would be no blog to post. Unfortunately, that is not the case. This shelter may provide the best example of where we have gone wrong due to lack of oversight and blatant mismanagement.

There will be more details on the shelter in the coming weeks. That is all I can say on that topic today.

Why are you criticizing a woman making $450,000 a year when men have been making that much for decades in similar positions? I do not take issue with the salary of the Executive Director of the FCADV. I take issue with a salary that is so high that it results in necessary services and needs going unmet. Social service is a notoriously underpaid profession. Considering the compassion fatigue and burnout rate, this is a problem. I am certainly not critical of those providing direct services. Domestic Violence advocates in Florida often make close to or slightly above minimum wage. As a Case Manager, I made roughly $25,000 a year. I absolutely do not believe that every Executive Director of centers and shelters are overpaid. For example, I heard from an Executive that has been at her shelter for over 30 years and her salary is rather low.  But I cannot ignore the fact that several are making much higher salaries as services decrease. These discrepancies are too extreme to ignore. Some say that my chart was an unfair comparison since other states have a smaller budget and less oversight.  One only need to visit GuideStar.org, look up organizations with a budget over 20 million in Florida, and read the 990s to see that the Executive Director of the FCADV is still making a higher salary than most. Also, if the argument is that the ED of the FCADV makes that much because she is “overseeing” more than other EDs, I expect oversight, as should everyone else who cares about these issues). I, personally, have not seen sufficient oversight and the numbers make that quite clear.

And now the argument/criticism that deserves the longest response…

You are hurting the Domestic Violence movement. If people read this, they will stop supporting necessary services and put women and children at risk. If the public becomes aware of the amount of substance abuse and mental health issues in shelters, they will not continue to fund these programs. People are sympathetic to domestic violence; they are not sympathetic to drug use and mental health.

Last year the domestic violence homicide rate in Florida increased by 14%. Over 200 lives lost in Florida to domestic violence.  Despite numerous initiatives and changes, we are not winning the battle to protect families from domestic violence. Why?

Domestic violence is complex. Its complexity baffles me still, even after hundreds of hours of research and discussions. For years, we thought it was all about power and gender roles. To be clear, it often is. However, it is also so much more intricate than a Power and Control Wheel can demonstrate. The truth is, the general public often envisions a Lifetime movie when they think of domestic violence. They imagine a woman beaten by her husband for burning dinner. She flees under the cover of darkness with her children to seek safety in a shelter. Sometimes, this is an accurate portrayal. Often, it’s not.

This week, I spoke to a woman and friend we will call Sarah. Sarah is strong, beautiful, well educated, and has spent years advocating for women. She is so intelligent that it is hard to not feel intimidated in conversation with her. She is married with a beautiful child.

Sarah is also currently a victim of severe domestic violence. Sarah also battles alcoholism. Sarah also suffers from extreme anxiety.

Why is she not in a shelter or center? Because, as she explained, she has resources from family and friends to help. She has medical insurance and access to counseling from a Licensed Mental Health Counselor or Psychologist. She has insurance to receive treatment and counseling for her alcoholism. She has the resources she needs.

Unfortunately, the majority of women in domestic violence shelters do not.

If Sarah came into one of our shelters today, we would address the domestic violence. We would develop a safety plan with her and come up with a case plan to improve her life. We would ignore the alcoholism and the anxiety. Do you think she would be able to follow through with that safety plan or case plan while still battling alcoholism and severe anxiety?

Sarah knows that until she achieves sobriety, she cannot make safe choices for herself or her child. She knows that we cannot empower her until she is no longer in the clutches of her addiction and anxiety. If she entered our shelter today, there would be little we could provide for her.

We can argue, if you want, which came first and have a long chicken or egg discussion. Did she begin drinking to deal with the domestic violence? Did she cope with the anxiety by drinking? Did the drinking aggravate her anxiety?

Does it matter?

Is her domestic violence any less significant because she is battling alcoholism and anxiety issues?

Again, let me restate the data from the Department of Justice’s last national Fatality Review:

Up to 88% of battered women in shelters suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The Mexico fatality review study documented that a third of female victims had alcohol in their system at the time of autopsy, with a blood alcohol content of twice the legal limit.

Other studies have found that as many as 72% of abuse victims experience depression.

Among women treated in emergency rooms for injuries caused by their abusers, those who suffered from substance abuse had increased risk of violence from partners.

75% (of battered women in shelters) experience severe anxiety.

Another hospital study found that victims injured by partners were more likely than other injured women in emergency rooms to test positive for substance abuse.

The FCADV provides information for and helps publish the Florida fatality review, which is different from the DOJ’s national findings. The Florida Fatality Review, unlike the DOJ, did not include victim characteristics such as mental health and substance abuse. The reason, I have been told by others, is to look at those victim characteristics would be considered “blaming the victim.”

Would it? Or would it force them to address funding limitations and possibly share the “honey pot”?

Illinois published a “Safety and Sobriety Manual: Best Practices in Domestic Violence and Substance Abuse.” From this manual is the following:

A significant number of women seen in domestic violence agencies suffer from substance abuse problems. A study of Illinois shelter staff suggests that as many as 42 percent of their clients abuse alcohol or other drugs (Bennett & Lawson, 1994). There are a number of reasons for this:

  • Victims may begin or increase their use of alcohol/other drugs in response to domestic violence or other trauma. Alcohol/other drugs may be used to medicate the physical and emotional pain of domestic violence or to cope with the fears of being battered.
  • Alcohol/other drug use may be encouraged or even forced by the partner as a mechanism of control. Efforts at abstinence may be sabotaged.
  • Outcomes of victimization may include diminished self-image, guilt, shame, powerlessness, depression, sexual dysfunction, and relationship dysfunction. All of these provide a foundation for the development of substance abuse.
  • Victims may have the disease of chemical dependency, and this may have preceded their victimization.

A victim with a substance abuse problem is at increased risk because:

  • Acute and chronic effects of alcohol/other drug use may prevent the victim from assessing the level of danger posed by the batterer.
  • Under the influence, victims may feel a sense of increased power. Victims may erroneously believe in their ability to defend themselves against physical assaults or their power to change the batterer.
  • The abuse of alcohol/other drugs impairs judgment and thought processes so that victims may have difficulty with adequate safety planning. Alcohol/other drug use makes it more difficult for victims to leave violent relationships.
  • Victims may be reluctant to contact police in violent situations for fear of their own arrest or referral to the Department of Children and Family Services.
  • Use of alcohol/other drugs may increase involvement in other illegal activities.
  • Victims may be denied access to shelters or other services due to substance abuse.
  • Another perspective to keep in mind when working with substance abusing domestic violence victims is that a significant number of substance- abusing women are experiencing symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of various forms of victimization in their life experiences. Domestic violence advocates need to be aware of this and be prepared to recognize the potential for PTSD in their clients.

Why am I overloading you with this data? Why am I harping on the link between domestic violence, substance abuse, and mental health?

Because it’s the truth. Because there is a correlation. Because not talking about it is putting women and children at risk.

Here’s the truth about why we don’t want to talk about it:

No one wants to share funding.

Florida Tax Watch released their findings in March of 2015 on Florida’s Mental Health and Substance Abuse funding titled “Analysis of Florida’s Behavioral Health Managing Entity Model.” I highly recommend reading it. However, if you cannot, let me pull just a few pieces from it that are of relevancy today:

Florida is currently ranked 49th in the nation for mental health funding.

The inflexible structure of funding silos makes shifting money around particularly problematic for clients with concurrent substance abuse and mental health disorders. Such clients are common, but the funding structure for BHMEs and providers does not allow services to be reported or funded simultaneously by substance abuse and mental health dollars, making it difficult to finance treatment and complicating the ability to effectively record services provided. Most importantly, these silos might dictate treatment. BHMEs show concern that providers may deliver services according to what money is available as opposed to what services are most required. This means that treatment is occasionally insufficient at worst and not tailored to individual needs at best; a problem only exacerbated by limited funding.

One cannot talk about substance abuse without talking about mental health. We know they go hand in hand. Yet, despite that knowledge, funding models limit service providers in which treatment and tailored services they can provide.

The same is true in domestic violence. If we are honest and truthful, we see that domestic violence, substance abuse, and mental health concerns are often inextricably linked. Admitting that means that we have to share funding. I understand that this is scary.

I am only asking that you, dear reader, reflect on the truth. Those of you who provide direct services: know about these connections.  If you care about this cause, ask your local organizations if they are addressing the needs of the women in their centers. Other states may lack in domestic violence funding, but Florida does not. We must stop saying we are only a “crisis center” when we are asking for funding to do so much more.

I blame the FCADV because they control of domestic violence funding in Florida. More importantly, they control the conversation. It’s not only ineffective that they ignore the reliable data—it’s dangerous.

We should all demand more from them, if we are honest.

That is all I am asking and pleading for.  The FCADV cannot continue to be in control of the conversation if they continue to put their head in the sand in order to meet their agenda and salaries.

Can we just be honest? Can we admit that domestic violence is more complex than gender roles? Can we admit that people are profiting from the Domestic Violence industry in Florida and that they may be turning a blind eye to issues that desperately need to be addressed?

I would never intend to harm the movement or stop funding. But I am willing to adamantly express that what we are doing today is not working. We need change.

This issue matters to me very much. The idea that I’m simply mad at a former employer is both ludicrous and offensive. It minimizes my experience and ignores the lack of help so many women and children who trusted us to do better experienced. The guilt on my shoulders for those families is heavy; but all I can do is start with me and those who have reached out to join the fight for change. It is scary to speak out against an organization that is respected and seen as the authority on domestic violence in Florida. The roadblocks, politics, money, and bullying are intense.

Today another story on another murder trends on my Newsfeed. Another life lost to Domestic Violence. I come back to “Man in the Mirror” and the words that rang in my ears all day. Could it be that we, those of us who have been trusted to help, have turned a blind eye to truth and needs of survivors?

All I ask is that we look in the mirror, we start there, and we try to do better. If my six-year-old son can figure that much out, why is it so hard for all of us?

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One thought on ““The Open Letter” Update

  1. A beautifully written piece that demands our attention to yet another corrupt fear of a broken system. If nothing else, let this be a ‘wolf-in-sheep’s clothing’ warning that just because something goes under the guise of a charity organization does not mean they are not part of the actual problem itself.

    Liked by 1 person

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