“Stay home. Stay safe. Save lives.” That’s the Michigan mantra right now. But for those in the midst of abusive relationships, staying home may not mean staying safe.
While many services at MSU are limited to those with a university affiliation, MSU’s Safe Place has been serving everyone in the Greater Lansing Area with “a program that addresses relationship violence and stalking.” MSU Safe Place is the only university-run shelter and support program for survivors of abusive relationships, and it has been serving this community for nearly 26 years.
This is an especially challenging time for people in abusive relationships. Stalkers may have more time to obsess and harass. Those living with abusers get no break. And stress piles on top of stress. Additionally, the looming presence of an abuser at home can make it hard to talk to one’s support networks, whether its friends, family, or mental health professionals.
Erica Schmittdiel, an advocacy coordinator at MSU Safe Place, tells ELi that initially requests for help from Safe Place dropped following the stay-at-home order. But more survivors have begun to reach out in the past two weeks. She has received questions about filing Personal Protection Orders and breaking leases.
Sexual assaults are still occurring here – in accordance with the Cleary Act, MSU notified faculty, staff, and students that a sexual assault had occurred in one dormitory on March 31 – but survivors of sexual assault may now be reluctant to go to the hospital for a rape kit, afraid that they will contract COVID-19 while waiting in the emergency room.
Schmittdiel wants sexual assault survivors to know that Sparrow Hospital has plans in place that permit these women to bypass the ER.
Safe Place has had to reduce its staff since stay-at-home orders went into effect, and the program’s student interns left MSU for their permanent homes. Currently, Safe Place is only staffed to help the MSU community – inclusive of undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and staff.
But Schmittdiel wants people to know that Safe Place is here to help as much as it can for those who need it, and people should still contact Safe Place if they need help.
Safe Place provides private units with no shared communal places for survivors who need a place to stay while leaving a partner. (Some survivors have inquired about shelter, but none have moved in during the pandemic.)
Safe Place also offers other, non-residential help. Right now, survivors can request “contactless support” through telephone calls or Zoom meeting, which are HIPPA-compliant, meaning privacy will be protected. Safe Place can also step in to help meet material needs through financial support.
Safe Place can also help survivors form a safety plan, providing them with the options available to them. Each person’s situation is unique, and developing safety plans is not a once-size-fits-all thing.
Abusive relationships can come in many forms
Schmittdiel emphasizes that abuse does not occur only between married couples or partners who lived together. Teenagers and adults who are dating but not cohabitating can experience abuse. Although male-on-female abuse is more prevalent, female-on-male abuse also occurs, and abuse can also happen in same-gender relationships.
People often think the term “abusive relationship” refers only those involving physical violence. However, abuse can take the form of control, isolation, and name-calling.
For example, a partner who constantly berates the other by using names like “ugly,” “stupid,” or “worthless” is abusive. A partner who controls access to money or transportation or otherwise prevents the someone from going to work or contacting friends is abusive.
It can take some time for the pattern of behavior to become clear to someone being abused. Survivors may also choose to focus on the brighter moments in a relationship, or assume that if there is no physical violence, there is really nothing to worry about, even when there is.
It can be hard to help someone being abused
Schmittdiel has advice for how we may help those whom we suspect are in abusive relationships. First, as difficult and counterintuitive as it may sound, it is important to realize that not all people are ready to leave an abusive relationship, and family and friends cannot force them to do so.
Often, survivors have dealt with abuse for months or years, and they have developed their own coping mechanisms. Other barriers exist, too. Some still love their partners, and choose to focus on the good memories. Others are unsure how they will provide for their children or manage a divorce proceeding.
Abusers can be very manipulative. When they sense that their partner will leave them, they may apologize, begging for another chance. Sometimes, they improve their behavior until the cycle starts again. Others threaten suicide to scare partners into staying.
When reaching out to someone you think or know is being abused, leave questions more open-ended. Even checking-in and conversing about other topics lets a person know you are there to listen.
Family and friends should provide emotional support, listening instead of telling. Schmittdiel admits that this is no short order. When you see someone you care about in a dangerous situation, you want them out immediately.
If you feel you cannot provide this support, she encourages you to refer your friend or family member to Safe Place for support.
When social distancing measures are relaxed, Safe Place will go back to providing support groups and in-kind support. But Schmittdiel makes clear: people should not wait to seek help if they need it now.