Remembering you can’t ‘rescue’ them
With domestic abuse on the rise during the pandemic, there should be more options for victims
Editor’s note: This column contains sensitive content about domestic abuse which may be triggering.
The 911 operator knew who my roommate and I were when we called.
We’d give them the address and they filled in the rest of the details themselves.
And then we’d silently stand in our living room, waiting for the police to arrive, hoping, each time, that it will finally be the day that our neighbor downstairs pressed charges against her physically abusive boyfriend.
Before quarantine, I lived in a blissful ignorance. As far as I know, I’ve rarely encountered any toxic or abusive relationships and have always had a respectful relationship with any of my neighbors. But ever since quarantine was mandated, there’s been a significant rise in global domestic violence, and that rise has brought it right to my doorstep.
Our neighbor is my age and incredibly welcoming. But from the moment we moved in six months ago, we heard her boyfriend abuse her several times. Her boyfriend didn’t live with her so we would sometimes go months without hearing anything escalate.
But when the lockdown started, he began to spend more time in her apartment. Sometimes the fights would be verbal and we’d hear him degrade her through the walls. But often, the fights would escalate to physical violence.
I’d like to believe that most people, myself included, have an inherent desire to help others, and therein lies the virtue of humanity. But you can never be prepared to intervene when you hear your neighbor’s boyfriend threaten to kill her.
All we knew to do was call the police, and we did. We would call at the first sign of a violent escalation. But sometimes it would take hours for the police to arrive. One night they never came at all.
And we heard everything; every snide comment, every threat, every cry for help. But since our neighbor wouldn’t press charges, the police could never do anything.
Her boyfriend would leave for the night and then return in a day or two, and the cycle would continue. Every time it did, we had to make the choice to call the police, and potentially put our neighbor in more danger. I’m certain they heard us call –– when we ultimately always do –– since he would usually leave immediately after, evading the police most of the time.
The reality of most domestic abuse situations is that abusers don’t face consequences unless the victim wants to leave the relationship, and sometimes even that isn’t enough. My neighbor endured constant abuse for over a month before she filed a restraining order.
She was belittled and worn down for months, but still managed to free herself from the abuse, and luckily the restraining order was enough to keep him away. We still worry, though, since over 70% of domestic-violence murders happen after the victim tries to leave, according to STAND!.
Our neighbor was able to break her cycle of abuse, but what about all the victims who can’t get away? The victims who feel financially trapped or endangered or those under lockdown because of COVID-19?
Before the quarantine, resources for victims and those trying to help them were scarce. There are currently seven support centers for victims of domestic violence in Buffalo, four of which are emergency shelters.
As a bystander, you’re supposed to ultimately support them and their decisions and remember that you cannot “rescue” them, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
But I wish we could’ve done more.
We were strangers to our neighbor, friendly acquaintances at best, but we still wanted to help her, and it felt like there had to be something more we could do. But there isn’t. There isn’t a guidebook to deciding when to insert yourself into strangers’ lives, and whether or not I had the right to continuously make this choice.
But I don’t regret intervening. Everyone has the right to remain in these relationships, but that doesn’t excuse abuse. And there isn’t anything stopping this man from getting into another relationship and abusing another woman. He needs to be held accountable.
I think helping people, whether they ask for it or not, is all we have keeping us together right now.
Samantha Vargas is the opinion editor and can be reached at email@example.com.