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Criminalized Survivors: How a local advocacy group is working to support domestic abuse survivors while breaking down stigmas

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Movies often depict domestic violence victims a woman who started out in a loving relationship that devolved into physical or mental abuse from their husbands.

The only thing they did wrong was fall in love with wrong man.

Real life is not so black and white.

“Survivors are never going to be the perfect victim you see in Hollywood, right? They’re not going do everything that a ‘victim’ is supposed to do in order to seek help and they shouldn’t have to,” said Missy Jerome. Jerome is the Domestic Violence Program Coordinator for Embrace in Rusk County. “If it isn’t the perfect victim situation, then they’re going to be seen as a criminal as well.”

Embrace is an advocacy group that supports victims of domestic and sexual violence in Price, Rusk, Washburn, and Barron Counties.

Advocates have been putting a lot of their focus and energy in to supporting criminalized survivors and trying to address the root cause.

What is a criminalized survivor

There are a couple different scenarios that fall under this description of criminalized survivors.

It could be someone with a history of incarceration. In many cases, this the prevents them being seen as a victim.

In other instances, police will respond to a domestic violence call and see the scratches on the aggressor that the victim inflicted when defended themselves rather than the bruises the aggressor made because bruises are slower to form.

It can also be when police respond to a call and find drugs on the victim.

Alyssa Melin is Embrace’s Domestic Violence Program Coordinator in Washburn County. She doesn’t put the blame on officers who she says are often put in unfair positions where they have to make a difficult decision on the spot.

“What we find, when police are called to a domestic violence incident, the police have to put in a position where they have to decide who’s the victim and who’s the perpetrator here,” said Melin. “They don’t get a whole lot of background to see those powers and dynamics of power and control of what domestic violence really is.”

Criminalized survivors aren’t rare.

The ACLU reports nearly 60% of the one million female prisoners in the U.S. prison system reported having a history of sexual or domestic violence.

It also something seen in local county jails.

“I think that’s something we’re seeing with just the programing we provide in the local county jails. That a lot of the people that are in jail on drug charges or something like that, but they also have an extensive history of domestic and sexual violence. I think we definitely see it illustrated pretty clearly in those instances,” said Angela Frieze, Embrace’s Sexual Violence Program Coordinator in Price County.

Addressing the root cause

For Frieze and the other advocates, there are multiple solutions to fixing the problem and helping the survivors, but they all start with addressing the root cause.

For the survivors that are arrested after being found with drugs, Jerome found many of them started using because of the domestic violence.

“Countless and countless times, survivors will say, ‘I started using because I was just trying escape the harm that was happening to me. I know drugs or alcohol was an easy, quick [fix]. It’s like, I can’t feel anything so for once, I’m okay’. Kind of thing,” said Jerome.

One of the simplest, yet often most uncomfortable, ways Embrace is trying to inspire change is to start these conversations in the community.

“As humans, we have strong emotions about what’s fair and what’s not fair, but regardless of a person’s situation. They don’t deserve to be harmed. That’s something the community needs to recognize as well,” said Jerome.

While it may not seem like it at first, the community can play an essential role when it comes to supporting survivors. Frieze said stigma’s associated with criminalized survivors can prevent the victims from getting access to resources.

“[Think of] all the additional barriers it creates when someone has a criminal record. Even when it gets into housing, finding employment, all those things are also really important in leaving an abusive situation. How much more difficult that is made by having a criminal background,” said Frieze. “It’s just trying to do this education, like yes, this person has been criminalized, but also, you should rent to them, and this is why. That doesn’t mean they’re an awful person.”

Part of helping criminalized victims means try to prevent that scenario from happening. That comes down to reform within the justice system to prevent victims seeking help from their abuser ending up in system, but also working towards against an end to domestic and sexual violence.

Melin admits it can seem like daunting task, but says Embrace will continue to work at it.

“This is something that we’re really passionate about, it’s something that we’re actively working on is trying to figure out, what are those answers for the community? How can we work with community partners to find a way to find justice and accountability, but without harming more?” said Melin.

As part of the community education aspect, Embrace is holding a letter writing event.

Speakers will share their experiences on the topic while people write letters to incarcerated survivors.

“Let them know that we still support them. They don’t deserve the harm that came to them and that they deserve to be recognized and supported,” said Jerome.

The virtual event is Thursday from 6:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. Click here for the zoom link.

Embrace runs a 24/7 crisis line, you can call 1 (800) 924-0556 or text at 1 (715) 532-6976.

You can learn more about Embrace and the services it offers on its website.

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