There is an epidemic in California. It affects our children, mothers, friends, neighbors and loved ones. It inflicts lasting trauma physically, mentally and emotionally. And every day the crisis unfolds in the most personal of places: our homes.
One out of three women in California has experienced violence at the hands of her spouse or partner. If you live in Sacramento County, the average rate is even higher – making you three times more likely to suffer from domestic abuse than women in the rest of the state, according to the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. What’s more, the majority of those experiencing abuse also have children who are exposed to the trauma of violence during some of the most formative years of their life.
By any measure, these numbers should qualify domestic violence as a public health crisis of the highest order. The good news is that, unlike other types of illness, domestic violence is entirely preventable.
Because domestic violence remains a hidden epidemic in our society, many victims still suffer in silence. A recent poll commissioned by the Blue Shield of California Foundation reveals that most Californians are unsure how to find help if they or someone they know is a victim of abuse.
Currently, the system of support for survivors is dependent on overextended shelter organizations and law enforcement. While these institutions are essential, domestic violence is too widespread for them to effectively address and overcome it alone. The impact of domestic violence goes beyond the home – affecting our neighborhoods, our schools, our offices and our children’s future. That is why we treat domestic violence as a public issue – one that requires all of us to speak up, get involved and enlist the full resources of our communities to end the cycle of violence.
Fortunately, new community-wide efforts are already beginning to take root. Here in Sacramento County, WEAVE – a provider of essential domestic violence services – is beginning to work with the Sacramento Native American Health Center to engage health care providers in domestic violence identification and response. Together, WEAVE and the Sacramento Native American Health Center will develop a new, integrated approach that is about wellness and prevention, not just crisis intervention and referral. This local partnership is a great example of how we can engage everyone in our communities – including doctors and nurses – to prevent abuse and help survivors in time of need.
We’re also beginning to see more collaboration across sectors. Recently, the California Office of Emergency Services, California Department of Public Health, California Coalition Against Sexual Assault and the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence began a new project to develop a statewide domestic-violence prevention strategy aimed at reaching our most vulnerable residents. The Department of Public Health is also leading an initiative to prevent teen dating violence across the state by bringing together student leaders, teachers, parents and community groups to raise awareness about the issue and teach young people how to develop healthy relationship skills.
If domestic violence truly is a public health problem, health care providers themselves must be a much bigger part of the solution. In fact, when it comes to discussing domestic violence, Californians trust their doctors more than anyone else. Yet, most have never been asked by their physician about threats from a partner or spouse, and few doctors and nurses are currently trained to look for warning signs.
This will start to change next year when all health care providers will begin to screen for domestic violence during women’s preventive health exams, as required under a new provision of the Affordable Care Act.
Everyone has the right to be safe in their homes and relationships – no matter where they live. Domestic abuse can happen to anyone and affects everyone; that means all of us have a role to play in preventing it.
Does someone you know suffer from domestic abuse? Here is where to get help:
WEAVE 24-hour support line: (916) 920-2952
My Sister’s House: (916) 428-3271✔
Bess Bendet is the director of Blue Shield Against Violence, a program of Blue Shield of California Foundation.