Kitchen Confidential: Normalizing Peer Support for Abuse Survivors

Everyone knew that Chief of Police William J. Obanhein was "an abusive drunk,". A member of the police force for almost thirty-five years, Obanhein became famous after an appearance in Arlo Guthrie's song, Alice's Restaurant. During his time in the department, two of his sons died and one disappeared. But in the 1960's "no one cared if your father beat you," as my mom told me about Chief Obanhein. Apparently no one also cared that the chief of police was also beating his wife.

Not only did no one care but even if they did, there were no resources to help:

  • Crisis lines and shelters were rare and informal;

  • "Wife beating" became grounds for divorce in New York in 1962 but only after a "sufficient" number of beatings took place.

  • Federal laws related specifically to domestic violence didn't exist until the late 1970's;

  • Not even the people in the medical field were a support for abused women. References to battered women were sexist, victim-blaming with theories like wives "have a masochistic need that their husbands’ aggression fulfills."

Photo by Ehud Neuhaus on Unsplash

Family violence was far from the public health threat that it is viewed as today. It was not until the early 70's that women began to talk about physical violence in the home. Most gathered in volunteers' homes providing what would become the first "support groups". It was a beginning that not only made sense from an evolutionary perspective but also a safety one. If you're an abused wife, it's easier to cross the street to your neighbor's than to head downtown to an office.

It's been 40+ years since support groups started in homes. Domestic violence and sexual abuse are recognized as public health threats. Some survivors feel safe speaking out. The general public is learning how to respond better. And yet, we have a long road ahead of us.

Most domestic violence (and rape crisis) agencies do good work. But agencies also operate under-staffed and on a shoestring budget, dependent on vanishing grant money. Pay is low, martyrdom is common, burn out is frequent. Agencies also often lack a trauma-informed approach to support and care for survivors. But, one of the biggest challenges are survivor's increasingly complicated needs.

Survivors may be dealing with the trauma of institutionalized racism, poverty, mental health challenges and childhood neglect on top of violence. They may have a different gender identity which can complicate services and access to support. Survivors may also be visiting social services agencies for support and care. If they are a victim of a crime, they are also dealing with law enforcement and the court system...neither of which are set up to support the survivor. Survivors may need housing, help paying for medications and food, in addition to a safety plan. In short, a survivor's  needs today are more complicated than the average woman coming through a shelter door in 1980.

Who better to relate to the multi-dimensional needs of an abuse survivor than another survivor who has dealt with similar layers of oppression? A peer, someone with whom you have a shared common experience, is exactly the person to provide ongoing support to an abuse survivor.  I have been facilitating peer led, abuse survivor support groups for almost 18 months. Before that I offered psycho-educational support groups at a local domestic violence agency. {I did not identify as a survivor when facilitating the latter group.}. In a peer support group, I'm just another person with a similar experience. That's very powerful for everyone. More on peer support here.

My mom was wrong. We do care when someone is hurt. But we don't often know how to help.

Once upon a time, though, we learned to help as peers, as fellow survivors, as neighbors in a community where we live. That's the way forward again. Gathering around kitchen tables in neighbor's homes to offer support, understanding and consistency. At this critical time in our history where informed support is rarer than ever and public resources are threatened, there is no better time to pivot back to our origins. To bring survivor support back into the homes and communities in which it started in.

Join me.