Katie was a physically fit 30yr old mother of two toddlers
when she decided to leave her abusive partner of many years. Never having
seeked help due to the isolation she faced in their rural lakeside cabin,
she did not know that the most violent attacks from intimate partners
are brought on by the victim's decision to separate (or, curiously,
by the announcement of a pregnancy). As she loaded her children into
their car, (she had made a secret set of keys the last time she had
gone for groceries), her man went for the semi-automatic weapon he had
kept and intimidated her with when she spoke of leaving. Katie was stepping
into the driver's seat when he unloaded the gun into her. He then sped
away in his truck, leaving her for dead. Katie and her children arrived
at the women's shelter after several months in various medical facilities.
Help had come for Katie, but not in time to save her left leg, which
was completely destroyed by the shots sustained.
Katie was lucky to have her life. The statistics read
like a war zone. 30% to 80% of women in emergency rooms are there due
to domestic violence, or "intimate partner violence" as it's
sometimes called. 50% of women homicide victims in NYC are killed by
intimate partners. Teenagers comprise almost 10% of those victims. Feminists
believe these statistics quite low, stating that many boyfriends and
husbands don't get caught or that the crime goes unsolved, or the woman
remains "missing" (disappeared). Deaths due to DV (domestic
violence) are comparable to those by drunk drivers in some areas. The
NYC domestic violence hotline receives about 8,000 calls a month. The
NYC Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence project serves over 500 victims of
DV a year. Each year about 700,000 people are stalked by intimate partners
or ex-partners in the United States. This includes 10% of female college
students. These statistics are from the NYC mayor's office and Sanctuary
for Families, all available on the Internet.
I've worked as a domestic violence counselor for about
six years now. I do this work from an anarcha-feminist perspective.
That means that I have a political analysis of DV. This sets me apart
from other "social workers", suprisingly because the vast
majority of whom don't even identify as liberal feminists. In order
to maintain a society as rigidly hierarchical as ours, the threat to
women's physical and mental safety must be maintained. Especially if
we dare to challenge the authority of patriarchy. Disabling women is
a very efficient way to maintain the hierarchy complex since women comprise
over half of all people, a "minority" that is actually a majority,
the trump card.
The most obvious level of sexism is that which disallows
freedom minded women space in the public media or in any political position
that promises power, as well as the overtly sexist policies of our government.
On a more localized level, there is a gradient of mechanisms used to
oppress including denied access to an education that is honest about
women, access to health care, to the resources that influence the democratic
process, to the validation of rape as a crime, and to abortion as a
On a familial level, we see physical, sexual, emotional,
financial, and spiritual abuse. All of these mechanisms of oppression
are upheld by deep seeded, often undetectable ideas about women as inferior,
animalistic, weak, and disposable beings. The most devastating level
of sexism is that which culminates as an assault on a woman’s body
and mind by her most intimate partner. Since women are not by nature
masochistic subservients, and will reach out for help, the success of
this level of sexism is dependent on the complicity of the community.
In my experience, many social workers are at the forefront of that complicity,
engaged in a betrayal as they claim to be trying to make the world a
Most social workers, case managers, and other administers
of public benefits hold an inordinate amount of power over women seeking
help. At a worker's whim, a woman can receive or be denied public housing
or food stamps. If a worker dislikes a client, which is sure to happen
if the client even utters question as to the validity of the worker's
authority or of the bureaucracy, that client is sure to have to comply
to all kinds of mandates before she can receive even the most basic
help. She’ll be asked to provide extensive and obscure documentation
of her identity or her history. She’ll have to gather "proof"
of her poverty and need and present it as though it’s showing her
innocence in a crime. Women seeking help are looked upon as cheaters,
criminals, and liers. Their word is useless, yet the social worker’s
word is all-powerful.
In "the system", as poor people generally
refer to social service agencies and the webs they create, domestic
violence victims are often looked upon with skepticism and disgust.
Their children are removed from their custody if they do not leave the
abusive partner when an ACS (Administration of Children’s Services)
worker demands them to. Of course, no child should live in a dangerous
home. But where should a woman go who has no access to the household
money, who has been alienated from her friends and family due to the
isolation she experiences in the relationship, or who has real concerns
about her physical safety if she makes an attempt to leave? The ACS
worker never suggests that the abusive partner (usually the man in a
heterosexual relationship) should get picked up by the police and leave
the apartment. Instead, the ACS worker insists that the woman and her
children leave the home and enter a shelter while the abuser remains
master of the castle.
The ultimate form of control is to hold one's children
hostage and give one a list of things she must do in order to get them
back. There are between 30 and 40 thousand children in foster care on
any given year in NYC. In addition are those moms that are dealing with
ACS in a "prevention" stage. This is when the parents are,
for one reason or another, deemed potential abusers. A neighbor may
have called ACS and when the worker came, there were empty beer bottles
about the kitchen. Perhaps the police were called when a woman was beaten
by her partner and found the children home from school, the mother unwilling
to drop them off with her face black and blue. It is important to note
that "the system" views the mother as the one responsible
for the children. It is she that must comply to ACS mandates while the
children's father often goes about his business unmolested.
Those in prevention stages are also given a list of
things they must do or ACS is going to take their children. In the case
of something as inane as beer bottles, a parent may have to check into
a drug treatment program and complete it, visiting up to 6 hours every
day for the next year or two. The parent may or may not be an addict.
The important thing is that the ACS worker is not an addictions professional,
yet wears the hat of one if he or she pleases. It is my opinion that
if the parent wears dread locks, has radical political posters or clothing,
is a vegetarian, is a social user of alcohol or marijuana, enjoys punk
music or skateboarding, or gets arrested for civil disobedience, she
or she can be pretty much certain to have this used against her or him
as evidence that he or she may not be a fit parent. The ACS worker will
put in the report saying something like, "improper lifestyle that
could lead to danger in the home." This is especially likely to
happen if the parent is a non-white person or doesn't speak a mainstream
dialect of English. I want to make it clear that there is no excuse
for child abuse and that we as a community do have an obligation to
protect the most vulnerable of oppressed people. The problem is when
the aforementioned obligation is used as an excuse to exert all kinds
of control over parents. It is a problem when the organization that
handles children's well being, like ACS, is in no way accountable to
the community it’s snatching kids out of.
Currently I work in two locations, with two different
populations. The first of these populations is in the South Bronx, at
an alcohol and drug treatment program (80% of women in rehab programs
are also victims of DV), and the other is in Manhattan, at an immigrant's
advocacy non-profit. I previously worked at a DV shelter. Many of my
undocumented immigrant clients are participants in what is commonly
known as "mail order bride" businesses or victims of an international
dating service. All of them were fleeing abhorrent conditions in their
homelands. Many of them were in dangerous political situations due to
their gender or political points of view.
On a daily basis, I try to practice feminism and anarchism
in the social service workplace. In the United States, this where the
casualties and injuries of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy
are gathered under the umbrella "needy". There’s a lot
of ways we can assert a radical perspective on a daily basic. Firstly,
basic logic can be used to question decisions made by higher-ups that
undermine those with little power. For example, social workers have
meetings called case conferences where they discuss clients and make
decisions about clients' lives. One can be an advocate for clients who
will be held back due to difference or if they are trouble makers.
Clinically, a political understanding of the root causes
of oppression can be worked into one's counseling approach as a form
of empowerment. A client who is court mandated into a drug treatment
program for cocaine addiction will surely be bombarded by a plethora
of behavioral modification techniques and twelve step meetings. An anti-authoritarian
counselor might interview the client regarding who has excercised authority
over her throughout her life, and how they have used it. In other words,
it is important for survivors of domestic violence and child abuse to
truly understand partriarchy. It’s equally important for people
struggling with poverty to understand capitalism. Only in this way will
the client be able to get to the root of the problem and begin to heal
consciously. Women in my DV support groups are always exited to learn
about radical black women in history, and to learn their stories. There
is no reason the therapeutic environment should be void of empowering
Support groups can be handed over to their members
who are usually capable of making their own rules and lists of topics.
The conversation will be more energetic and useful. The counselor or
group leader can guarantee that the group runs smoothly by serving as
a facilitator, using the same skills she would use to facilitate a spokes
counsel or coalition meeting. This also goes for the running of a DV
shelter. Gather the shelter residents and tell them to write out the
program. Let them say what they need and want.
Liberal non-profits often have rallies like Take Back the Night or Walk-A-Thon
Against Hunger. While important, these events are often closely monitored.
The NYC Domestic Violence March, which takes place every October, unbelievably
"requires" marchers to register with the NYPD. The organizers
of these marches have lots of money and do pull in a lot of people.
I think we should flyer at those events so participants, often survivors
of domestic violence and rape who are looking for some place to be active,
know there is another level of resistance possible.
Finally, clients and benefits recipients can be given
the tools necessary to organize. I have had the pleasure of traveling
to Washington D.C. with some my clients to a day of protests, part of
which was a demonstration outside of a building where the World Economic
Forum was meeting to discuss what to do with the anti-globalization
activists post Feb. 2, 2002. Currently, nearly all of my clients are
preparing to organize a massive demonstration with Community Voices
Heard to oppose cutting welfare and increasing slave-type welfare work
I had a boss once who said that social workers didn't
really want society to get well. That would leave them all out of jobs.
There is a particular energy that drives a person to do social service
work. Much of the time the person doesn’t want to earn a living
in corporations, can see that the world is messed up, and has a desire
to somehow fix it in some small way. There is real potential in those
convictions. I can only remotely imagine the power inherent in social
workers if they were to unite against this system of brutality. It would
be truly revolutionary.