This is the first piece of the three article series on Family Abuse. This is the new umbrella term for the grouping of abuses that affect our family lives, i.e. domestic abuse, elder abuse, vulnerable adult abuse, child abuse, animal abuse. General Stowe made this presentation to the Tennessee General Assembly last week on behalf of Tennessee’s District Attorneys General Conference to bring the troubling statistics to their attention. The State legislature has worked with General Stowe and the Conference to craft and update existing laws and add new legislation that better addresses the problems seen in today’s courtrooms
Domestic Abuse is a real and growing problem in Tennessee. As your District Attorney, my staff and I are witness to the rippling effects of abuse in families. Domestic abuse is not just spousal abuse but is a broad category that includes all forms of abuse to children, elderly, other vulnerable adults, and even pets. Tennessee’s District Attorneys General have been hard at work informing and collaborating with the members of the Tennessee General Assembly to craft new or updated laws that better address this scourge of abuse in families. As a result, Tennessee law makers have made extensive changes to older laws that did not fully address the multiple issues found in domestic type abuse cases.
First, we must understand the role of “family.” Winston Churchill said, “There is no doubt that it is around the family and the home that all the greatest virtues…are created, strengthened and maintained.” A family is supposed to be our source of our strength; the place where we find acceptance; where we find care and wellbeing, where we are provided food and shelter. In our families, we find purpose in life. It is the initial relationship where we are made to feel safe and loved and show our love and respect for others. In short, families give our lives meaning.
But all too frequently, the most vulnerable family members become targets of frustration, impatience, and rage. We need to better understand the causes of abuse and learn to spot the triggers that set off abusive behavior.
Traditionally, we have associated the term “domestic abuse” with abuse of a spouse or partner, but abuse can happen to anyone in a family or relationship.
Children are often viewed as the most vulnerable. Obviously, they are dependent on others for their basic survival needs. Children are physically weaker than adults and cannot defend themselves. Because children are still in their development stage, they are learning how to effectively relate to others. They are learning right from wrong and the importance of truthfulness. They may have physical or mental difficulties that impede their ability to communicate their wants and needs. Sadly, children are often caught in a situation where they are afraid to speak out, or fear that things could get worse if they do. Because they are young, they are often perceived as imaginative and thus, not believed when they do describe actions of abuse.
Likewise, adults may fear the aftereffects of reporting abuse. If the abused is physically or emotionally weaker, threats of violence or retaliation can silence calls for help. If the abused is dependent upon the abuser for financial needs, they may feel obligated to stay in an abusive situation. An abuser may also use intimidation or a threat of exposing a shared secret that would cause the abused to keep silent.
Adults that are elderly or differently-abled suffer abuse from a combination of reasons similar to children and spouses. They are often dependent on the abuse for their basic survival needs and financial obligations. They may have physical impairments or mental disabilities that make communication of needs difficult. They may be physically weaker or subjected to emotional manipulation. If abusive actions are reported, the elderly or vulnerable adult may be perceived as mentally unstable, or overly sensitive, or too demanding.
But it is not just the weakest in families or relationships that can become victims. Anyone can become prey to an abuser if the situation is presented. Anyone can need help sometime due to sickness or be manipulated for a number of reasons.
Abuse is not only limited to human family members. Pets can suffer from the same types of weaknesses and be abused as well. Abuse or neglect of animals is often the first sign of trouble in abusive relationships. So, how bad is the problem? More than half of all violent crime in Tennessee is family violence related. This is a staggering tally which makes family violence deadlier than gang and drug violence, racially motivated violence, and death or injury from impaired driving…combined. This statistic is unacceptable. We can change the dynamic. We can diminish the impact of violence in families if we work together with courts and law enforcement, victim’s initiatives, addiction and outreach organizations, and social or religious programs. Tennessee families deserve better.