Sports and domestic violence: Furthering the dialogue, helping the victims

Jen Neale
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Cycle of Domestic Violence Courtesy of DV Solutions

From a 2010 study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC):

In the United States, 1 in 4 women have been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner, while 1 in 7 men have experienced the same (NISVS, 2010).

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Domestic violence is not just a sports issue. It's not just a male-female relationship issue. It impacts people from all walks of life.

As a hockey community, we have the unique opportunity to look at the issues facing players in the league and reflect on how we react as a society.

In many of the articles following Slava Voynov's arrest on allegations of domestic violence, for which he's yet to be charged, there was plenty of information on the situation, but not necessarily the insight from people who have the experience working with and advocating for those who have suffered domestic violence.

Human Options in a Southern California based organization that works with survivors of domestic violence. Just a few of the many of services they provide to clients are are: emergency shelters, legal advocacy, personal empowerment workshops, and therapy. Sara Behmerwohld and Stephanie Domurat are two employees of the organization who graciously volunteered to sit down for an interview on  domestic violence, not only in the sports world, but as they see it through clients eyes.

Behmerwohld is the Legal Advocacy Program Supervisor at Human Options and an attorney. Just some of her (and her legal advocates) responsibilities range from safety planning with clients to assisting with restraining orders and immigration issues. Domurat is the Community Education Manager. She gets out into the community to lead trainings and presentations about domestic violence to increase awareness and promote prevention.

My hope for this interview is that it leaves you with more questions than answers, and inspires you to get involved by bringing this issue to the forefront not just because of the sports connection.

**If you or anyone you know is struggling with domestic violence please contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Chat is also available on their website: TheHotline.org**

Q: What's something not out there about domestic violence that should be?

Stephanie Domurat: Well, I think one of the biggest things, as far as what we see, is that there is a lot of shame around this issue … it’s not a topic people really want to talk about. It’s not something easy to talk about … It’s so common and it really could be happening all around us, it’s really difficult … to face that. So I think that’s the first issue at hand is really unveiling this kind of shame and this secret around this issue, and being able to talk about it in public.

And I think the thing that’s positive about what we’re seeing with all of the [professional athletes], the silver lining, you could call it, would be we’re able to talk about things. And we’re able to talk about this issue that we really haven’t talked about this publicly in a very long time.

Sara Behmerwohld: I think the prevalence is certainly up there. I would say the other issue is that, frequently there is a misconception that, a batterer will only batter their partner, and it doesn’t bleed over into the relations with the children. At a minimum, if there is abuse happening between the parents, we know that it has a really dramatic impact on the children’s development. Not to mention, that it is actually prevalent for a batterer to be battering a spouse and also to be abusing the children. Even judges will say he/she can be a good parent even if he/she is an abusive husband or an abusive wife; no, that’s just not true.

[Author's note: A truly impactful example of how children experience domestic violence can be heard in this 911 call by a 6-year-old girl named Lisa. WARNING: IT IS VERY RAW AND EMOTIONAL, AND POSSIBLY TRAUMATIC FOR THOSE APT TO TRIGGERING.]

What is considered domestic violence?

Behmerwohld: It’s going to vary a little bit depending on who you’re talking to. At Human Options, we’re looking at intimate partner violence, family violence, violence that occurs between dating partners, married partners…

Domurat: Intimate partner, any time, even if they’re not necessarily dating.

We’re talking about physical, social, emotional, psychological violence?

Behmerwohld: Right. That’s another distinction that’s going to become important depending on who you’re talking to; whether the emotional, verbal, psychological abuse is going to fall into that category. What we know is that in most cases, the verbal, psychological, and emotional abuse will eventually become physical abuse, if it doesn’t start out that way. It’s a continuum.

We also work with elders … and with those cases we’re looking at financial abuse. Sometimes we are as well with younger individuals, but with seniors it’s a big issue. And it’s almost impossible to isolate financial abuse from emotional abuse; it’s almost always happening in tandem. It’s all connected.

Domurat: And it’s usually multiple things involved; it’s not just physical abuse. You have the psychological that comes with the physical. It’s very intertwined and messy, and it’s not that cut and dry.

Psychological abuse also partners with the physical abuse, in that you don’t want to believe someone you love would do this to you. You really try to rationalize it as an individual … There’s that big level of denial sometimes, and then that works against [victims] even more when the abuser manipulates and uses that to control a person further.

It becomes confusing for [victims]. A lot of times they say, ‘Why would this be happening to me? I don’t want to accept the fact that I’m in an abusive situation here. I’m educated. I should know better. No one would believe me. I’m ashamed of this.’ It’s really that psychological part where you become in this survival mode where you don’t even want to accept what’s going on.

Now look at it from a sports wife or girlfriend perspective, “If I go public, his reputation is going to be ruined.” What do you say to those women?

Behmerwohld: It’s interesting you bring that up because we see that dynamic in cultural populations, as well. If I have a Hispanic client that comes in and she doesn’t want to come out as it were to her family and friends that she’s a victim of domestic violence because it’s going to make her Hispanic partner look bad, and it’s going to make the Hispanic culture, population, look bad as a whole. Same thing with LGBT couples, they don’t want to come forward. There’s lots of reasons people choose not to come forward, but one of them can be, “I don’t want to make my social or cultural group look bad because there are already stereotypes that we face and prejudice that we face, and this is just one more thing.”

But I think when you’re protecting the reputation of a person that you love and care about, that’s a tough thing. You know, it’s definitely another barrier, but like Stephanie said, when a client is still coming to terms with their relationship. This is a person they fell in love with, they may care very deeply about, the relationship may have been going on for years, to just sever that with one public statement can be an incredibly difficult thing for anyone to do.

The one case active in the NHL right now is with Slava Voynov of the Los Angeles Kings. The charges have not been filed [as of when we had this interview]. His arrest came as a result of an emergency room worker calling the police. Are hospital employees even trained on seeing the signs of domestic violence, at least in California?

Domurat: Yes, we do screening trainings with healthcare providers. That is a really important role played by the healthcare provider because you’re seeing [victims] in a situation where sometimes they’re going to go to the hospital, but they’re not going to go to the police. That person, that nurse or that physician, is really an important player as far as being a person to stop a situation of domestic violence. And so we do train them. I’m not sure if it’s due to funding from the Affordable Care Act, but we are seeing more healthcare providers get training from us. I think they’re starting to understand [their importance].

Behmerwohld: Medical providers have a really unique opportunity to intervene in these situations because they have a, sort of, reasonable, logical, justifiable excuse to separate the victim from their batterer. So even if they come in together, the medical care provider can say ‘I need to run some tests’, or ‘I need to ask her some confidential questions’.

Actually one the first clients I saw at the shelter when I started working here was one of our first referrals from exactly that situation, where she came in with suspicious injuries. She was there for a gynecological visit. She was pregnant. In that situation, in the screening, she said she didn’t feel safe to go home. They kept him out in the hallway and basically snuck her out the backdoor, and brought her to the shelter.

Domurat: When a woman is pregnant, that’s one of the most vulnerable times. When you have to do those prenatal screenings and you go to the doctor a lot. That’s when we ask for our medical providers to really pay attention, and use that opportunity to talk to them in a confidential manner.

In this particular case, she speaks very little English. Is it of the hospital’s obligation to bring in an interpreter?

Behmerwohld: I don’t know that legally there is any fault or responsibility there. When you’re coming to a foreign country and you don’t speak the language, you do take some of that upon yourself. But morally? Sure. The hospital is going to do the best they can to ensure that they have someone that can ask her those questions in a way that she going to comprehend and to be able to respond coherently.

It’s a constant issue … Finding competent translators to work with these clients can be a really tough thing.

If you have clients coming in from other countries that aren’t familiar with our legal system, and don’t know they have rights and they are protected from domestic violence by a partner, even if they don’t have legal status and came here illegally. It’s not like a batterer in that situation is going to be like ‘here are your legal rights while I’m hitting you’; they’re on their own to go find that information. If they’ve been isolated, which many of our clients have been, that could be a pretty big barrier for them.

What are the laws around that? If someone isn’t a resident, is here legally, and like in this particular case, she’s a citizen of Russia, what does it look like for her?

Behmerwohld: There’s a couple different [laws]. The most common things that we’re looking at is VAWA [Violence Against Women Act] and the U-Visa application.

For clients who are married, the VAWA self-petition enables a client who would have been able to petition for citizenship through her husband, or though his wife, to petition on his or her own.

With the U-Visa, it’s assistance around the investigation or prosecution of a crime. So it doesn’t have to be domestic violence. If you were a witness to a robbery, and you were able to assist the police in identifying or serving as a witness in a trial; it’s designed to protect people who are willing to assist in the prosecution of these crimes, from the threat of deportation.

But one of the ways we’ve found we can really help clients is if they are a victim of domestic violence, they are the victim of a crime, they saw it. They can go file a police report and that’s a great way for them to take advantage of it.

It all goes back to her being willing to prosecute, though, right?

Behmerwohld: Exactly.

She would have to testify, most likely?

Behmerwohld: Not necessarily have to testify. At least file a report. It’s not impossible to do it without that, but it’s difficult.

And there are a lot of clients who, there is sort of two different sides to it. On the one side, maybe she just wants to move on with her life. Maybe she’s been gone for six months or a year or even a month and just wants shut the door on that part of her life. Asking her to go back and re-live all of that abuse in front of a stranger, that’s a pretty traumatic thing to ask of someone who has already been through quite a lot of trauma. The other thing is the fear. A lot of clients have told us that the threat is, “If you tell anyone, I’m going to hurt you. I’m going to kill you," and that telling the police would, sort of, be the epitome of going public with everything.

One of the biggest talking points of this story is that his attorney has talked to her, and has said that when her story comes out, it’s going to be vastly different. For anyone that’s gone through this situation, is that normal protocol for the abuser’s attorney to come to the victim and talk?

Behmerwohld: Absolutely.

I mean, it’s not OK, but it happens. The vast majority of the clients we work with are not represented. So when a client isn’t represented, there is noting to stop opposing counsel from talking to them. If they are represented, they aren’t allowed to. They have to go through the attorney.

Now she has counsel. I’m not sure if it’s paid by him, though.

Behmerwohld: If it is, that’s a pretty clear conflict of interest.

In court, can a judge call that out?

Behmerwohld: No. I think that it would be unusual for a judge to bring that up.

At first it wasn’t clear if they were married. It turns out they were married in Russia. Does the marriage translate over here? Is this a family court issue?

Domurat: The marriage is recognized here.

Behmerwohld: I don’t know whether it is being seen in civil or criminal court. With domestic violence, there are lots of different ways it can go in terms of the legal system. If they’re going to file charges against him, it will be a criminal matter. So it will be the district attorney and him. She won’t really have a role in that as a party, she’ll be a witness. But it’s different in civil court. In civil court, it would be her against him.

[Civil court] would be where custody disputes, the dissolution for the marriage, if they are married and they’re trying to get divorced here, and then if she were to try to get a restraining order on her own, as opposed to a criminal restraining order. That can get a little confusing because there are different types of restraining orders just for domestic violence situations.

Should domestic violence training extend out from the players to the coaches and executives, too?

Domurat: Something to think about is that this is a cultural shift ... it’s a giant task at hand to change the culture around domestic violence and the norms that surround it and the culture of sports. How do you open that dialog up and make it comfortable for people to talk about? It’s not necessarily bringing a woman in to do the training. It’s going to be coming from the coaches, it’s going to be coming from the fellow players, to say ‘this is unacceptable’. It’s really doing a grassroots effort, at the heart of the organization, that’s really how you make the change. It’s not going to be a one-time training at the beginning of each season. It’s going to be a big shift in culture.

Behmerwohld: I think it’s like, how far do you go back in time? Are you talking about high school coaches and team captains on high school teams? Are you talking about pee-wee hockey coaches? When it gets down to it, you’re talking about parents talking to their kids about ‘this is what healthy relationships are like’, ‘this is what healthy dating relationships look like’, ’this is how you’re supposed to treat women and men’, and it has to start there. By the time people get to high school, college, pro, it’s engrained.

Domurat: We’re also seeing recently in new research, middle school is really the prime time for us to implement violence prevention programs. Because once that norm is set in that young person’s mind, it’s really hard to change, just like Sara was saying. We’re seeing that bringing in those trainings and having that conversation is really good to start at the middle school level.

In most youth hockey, body checking isn’t allowed until the later years because of the concerns over head trauma. There are men, in the NFL especially, who batter their partners and go on to kill themselves, and their brains show evidence of CTE (chronic traumatic encephelopathy). Is that an appropriate ‘excuse’ for domestic violence?

Behmerwohld: I don’t think the science is there yet to really establish the extent of damage that is being done to professional football players. I mean, we know some, but I don’t think the scientists have gone far enough to establish how badly these people have been hurt, and to what extent it may be impacting their intelligence and their behavior.

What do you say to the ‘old school’ view that these are just aggressive guys exerting aggressive behaviors?

Behmerwohld: I think it’s impossible to isolate any, any of this, that way. You can’t just blame it on someone’s aggressive behavior, and how much, if they are an aggressive person, was fed by coaches and teammates throughout their life.

Domurat: This isn’t something that just happens in sports or just aggressive sports. It’s an issue that happens with pastors to police officers. It’s everyone, and that’s the issue. We don’t want to be demonizing the sports world, and we don’t want to be saying all athletes because they’re aggressive in aggressive sports, or they’re trained to be aggressive are going to be doing this. Ultimately, it’s about control in these situations, and in these family violence situations. They know what they’re doing. 

Behmerwohld:  The attention around this issue, it’s not just that this is prevalent in the sports world, it’s prevalent everywhere. And I think there’s a tendency in the public to sort of say, ‘well, it’s because they’re aggressive’ or ‘it’s because of the football, or the hockey,’ but we know that’s not the case. It’s not a causal connection between ‘oh you’re in aggressive sports, you probably beat your wife.’

Are there intervention programs out there?

Behmerwohld: Yes, there are batterer intervention programs that are out there to address battering women at the adult stage. They are, by in large, ineffective.

Is that because the want to change is not there?

Behmerwohld: Yeah, because when you’re looking at these programs, a lot of people are required to attend. If you are convicted of domestic violence, whether it’s a felony or a misdemeanor domestic violence charge, a lot of times the judge will ask, ‘you’re going to do this year long, once a week, program’, but you’re being mandated by the court to do that. You may be at a place where you’re ready to change, but you might not.

Domurat: One quote I heard that was really interesting is that what a lot of times we hear at batterers intervention programs or when we talk to them is ‘I know it’s not right. I know I shouldn’t have hit my wife. I just wanted to teach her a lesson.’ That’s an inside, huge behavioral issue.  If you can’t address what you are doing is really wrong and as a human nature, you’re going to be rationalizing it. And they rationalize it for so long that they almost can’t undo what has become so common in their thought process.

Some of the controversy around the handling of athletes accused of domestic violence is how they are suspended from what is, for all intents and purposes, their job, without due process. If this were a ‘normal’ job like that of an accountant, is that same action allowed by law?

Behmerwohld: There are legal protections for victims of domestic violence around employment. You’re in a protected class basically, where if your employer knows you’re a victim of domestic violence because you’ve identified yourself as such, or they have reason to know, they can’t fire you because of that. They can’t discipline you because of that even if you need to take time off to address it.

I’m not sure about the batterer. It’s a really interesting question.

There’s a little bit of a disperdant patch with the NFL or the NHL because of the public relations side of it. That they have an obligation, because they’re role models and whatever, to go beyond what I think would be the norm in an organization. Where there is more of an innocent until proven guilt aspect to it. Unless you’ve been charged with a crime, it might not be reasonable to suspend you.

I think constitutionally that’s kind of a sticky situation. Just because someone has been charged with something, people are charged with crimes all the time, and are later acquitted. Doesn’t necessarily mean they’re innocent. It means there wasn’t enough evidence to prove them guilty.

Domurat: I think the other part of their position, as that profession, is being a public figure ... That is a moral issue. They’re almost more, and should be held more, accountable for that reason.

Behmerwohld: I think they’ve struck sort of a compromise. They’re still paying him. It’s not like he’s out on the street. But they have said until this is resolved, this is how we’re going to handle it.

Should moral codes of conduct always be a part of the collective bargaining process?

Domurat: That’s up to the NHL and NHLPA to decide. We would hope it would continue to be something that they do. It’s kind of a personal position, but absolutely. They’re public figures; young men and young women look up to these people. They can really make a powerful change and a powerful difference if they try to incorporate for higher moral standards for people. I think it’s a great opportunity for them to get involved in that issue.

Social media is a wonderful thing. It can also be a horrible thing. In situations like Janae Rice, we see a lot of victim blaming. How do you explain to people it is the wrong thing to do in situations like these?

Behmerwohld: None of us can put ourselves in her shoes or in any victim’s shoes. Even when you’ve experienced violence or have been the victim of a crime, that’s what happened to YOU. And to extrapolate that into what another person has gone through and all the things that led up to that moment is just impossible.

There’s this very interesting dynamic around sex crimes, domestic violence, and sexual assault that we do blame the victim. We talk about what she was wearing, what she said to bring on the event, how she may have instigated it, these are the only types of crimes we do this with. If someone is in a car jacking, we don’t say, “why were you driving that car? Why were you driving with the windows down? Why is your car that flashy color? You were asking to get car jacked.”

It’s the irrationality of [victim blaming] that’s frustrating to me because it really is just with these crimes that we do this. Potentially it’s because they’re gender crimes. Usually we’re talking about a female victim.

Domurat: There can be positives to social media, too. For example the, "Why I Stayed" or the "Why She Stayed" campaigns. If you look at the OJ Simpson verdict, there was BIG public outrage, but people didn’t have a voice as much as they have now. People have voices with social media. That’s really powerful. I think there is a lot of support out there on social media for this issue, for victims, and for people to be able to explain this is why I stayed. That was a huge thing. And the No More Campaign that people are using to try to get involved with as well. I think that’s what is different now than 20 years ago. We all have a voice, and we can make it public. We’ve never had that opportunity before.

If there is one thing you want to leave the readers with or get stuck in their mind, what is it? What is the one thing we should learn from what is going on in the NFL, the NHL?

Behmerwohld: I think one of the hardest things is to reach out and ask for help. I don’t know what the readership is for Yahoo Sports, but the assumption is that a significant portion of them have experienced domestic violence. There is help available. Reaching out is hard, but once you do, there are resources available to you.

The other side of that is that if you’re not personally a victim of domestic violence, be mindful of how you’re speaking about it to those around you because chances are you and have friends and/or family members that have experienced domestic violence. So being educated and mindful about the way you’re communicating about it.

Domurat: I think also sometimes it’s hard for us to think, when we’re reacting to something, what we really should do. If anything, maybe this is an opportunity for people to think about what they would want to do in a situation, to be a voice against domestic violence. It’s hard to intervene. It’s not easy to help someone in a situation that’s uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable for all of us. It’s uncomfortable to see another person hurting. So take time. Talk to your family, friends or other people about what you would do to help somebody in that situation or if you were in that situation yourself. Now we look at prevention.

**If you or anyone you know is struggling with domestic violence please contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Chat is also available on their website: TheHotline.org**

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