Written by Carissa Daniels, Firesteel Advocacy Intern and Seattle University Communications Student
It’s been more than 17 years since my daughter and I left our home due to domestic violence, and started over in a place we knew no one. Because my abuser periodically comes back to harass us, even though we have done everything we can to build a peaceful new life, we always have to be on guard. My ex used to brag that he held grudges for life, and that took on new meaning after we left. We discovered within a few years that his behavior is cyclical. He gets a girlfriend, and as long as she is with him, we don’t hear from him. Then he abuses her, she leaves, and he comes after us.
During one of those times when he was harassing us, I went online looking for support. I put “online domestic violence victim support” into Google, and the first entry was for a website similar to Facebook. Cafemom is the largest women’s networking site in the world. I logged on and got into a group called “The Power of Being Free.”
The first message I read was from a woman who was terrified, because she knew her husband was going to kill her. She was equally terrified of going into shelter. She asked if there was anyone who had stayed in shelter, who could demystify things. I surfed around the group for another 20 minutes or so, but the message haunted me. I’d spent four months underground, and I had also been trained a year earlier by YWCA of Kitsap County as a domestic violence victim advocate. Website newbie or not, I could share my own experiences and help.
I remember the exact moment that I made the decision that changed my life forever: My fingers hit the keyboard at the same moment as I told myself, “I’m in.” I answered her message, telling my own story, and encouraging her to do what she needed to save her life.
Hers was not the only life that changed that day. One post became 50, then hundreds, then thousands. I have either worked directly with, or overseen, about 9,000 member-survivors in all phases of the process, from those who aren’t sure they are in domestic violence, but think they might be, to those who need help making a plan to get out, or need help finding resources once they do.
What we do is a lot like a crisis clinic, in that those we help have suffered significant psychological injury from the abuse. I have handled as many as four suicidal victims at once, talking to them, sending them single line response after response, helping them to connect with professional help and support.
When I first started doing what I do, I was the sole advocate, and before long I was volunteering up to 16 hours a day to support those getting out or needing resources or help. Within a few months of starting my online volunteer work, I was dealing with thousands of women needing help.
Another group member and I became good friends, and she jumped in and started helping, too. It was more than one or two people could handle, though. I looked for other cyber-advocates, and found there weren’t any. I was disappointed at first, because I had really wanted to connect with other advocates online.
Before long, I made friends with an amazing real-world advocate who had more than 20 years of experience. She, along with the woman who had trained me as an advocate, encouraged me to grow our network of cyber-advocates.
With their support, I held the first domestic violence cyber-advocate training class. The training, which lasted more than 50 hours, included typical advocacy information plus the specialized training that is needed for advocacy without borders. After class, the cyber-advocates-in-training went into the online forum to help answer messages and support victims. They weren’t alone in their work; they knew that my assistant and I were just a phone call or an email away. It was a good thing. We soon found out how important that was.
“Her only contact with the outside world was a computer”
On Independence Day, I was online when I got four frantic messages from trainees: “HELP!” I quickly found that they were talking with a woman I will call Alice. Alice was on social media from her home, where she was locked in with her three-month-old son. Her abuser was in the front yard, drinking with his buddies. He had been beating her for three days, and had broken her phone. She knew she was going to die, unless she got immediate help. Her only contact with the outside world was a computer. I was able to come up with a safety plan to get her and her son out. The last message I read from her was, “I’m leaving now.”
For a while, I had no idea what had happened. Had she gotten out safely, or was she lying injured, or worse? I prayed a LOT.
About 24 hours later, I got an email. It was Alice; she and her son were safe. She had gotten out, and gotten in touch with the police, who came and arrested her abuser. Turned out, he was wanted in another state for felony domestic violence. Today he is in prison, and Alice and her son are free. It gave whole new meaning to the term “Independence Day!”
How to help
Today, I do many things in the field of domestic violence victim advocacy and education, but it all started in 2006, when I was looking for support myself, and reached out a virtual hand to help someone else. As we celebrate Domestic Violence Awareness Month, honoring survivors and commemorating those who have lost their lives, I would encourage you to think about how you can help.
Domestic violence is a global pandemic. One person cannot stop it alone, but each of us can do something to make a difference. Everyone can be an advocate, learning the facts, the realities that victims deal with, and talking with family or friends, breaking the silence. Contact your local domestic violence victim support organization for volunteer opportunities.
Also, in the coming months, I will be training the next group of fledgling cyber-advocates. If you think you might be interested, please send me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org.