By Reza Corinne Clifton
An abbreviated version of this article appears in the October edition of The Providence American newspaper.
PROVIDENCE, RI – “I’m an abuser and I want to change.”
If a male friend or relative declared these words to you, would you know how to help? When two men recently revealed this to Eleanor “Candy” Brown-McSwain, MSW, she had some ideas on how to proceed. That is because as founder and executive director of a Providence, RI-based “minority domestic violence agency,” Brown-McSwain leaves her door open to anyone who wants help, and she encourages family-focused solutions.
Brown-McSwain started Destiny House in 1998 as a result of life experiences, scholarly lessons, and cultural observations. As a child witness to domestic violence and an adult survivor, Brown-McSwain was prompted to “do something” when she began seeing how domestic violence – also called intimate partner violence (IPV) – effected her family and adult daughters, who themselves were becoming victimized by partners of their own – or becoming the batterer.
At the same time, Brown-McSwain looked at the “traditional” domestic violence movement and saw that certain needs were not getting met – namely those of African American women. “Not that [domestic violence organizations] weren’t trying; they just didn’t know how to help women of color.” This is an especially big problem given the story painted by national statistics, and the demographics in Providence; RI’s capital is now a “majority minority” city.
According to data compiled by the Institute on Domestic Violence in the African American Community (IDVAAC), “African-American women experience intimate partner violence at rates 35% higher than their White counterparts and 2.5 times the rate of men and other races.” Their investigations also found that in spite of comprising only 8% of the U.S. population, Black women accounted for 22% of all the victims of “intimate partner homicide.” Immigrant women are also at “high risk for domestic violence” according to the Family Violence Prevention Fund (FVPF). Researchers there found one study showing that 48% of Latinas reported an increase in partner violence upon emigration to the United States, and another showing higher levels of physical and sexual abuse in married immigrant women over unmarried women.
Brown-McSwain says that her mother and father were from Cape Verde, and their newness in the country was an issue. Like the FVPF fact sheet details, her mother’s length of time as a victim was in part due to unfamiliarity with her rights and the country’s criminal laws. Her mother eventually separated them from her father when she was 4 years old, but the damage was already done, says Brown-McSwain. Single now, and for the last 6 years, she says that prior to this phase, every man she had ever dated was physically abusive except one, she says, who had a “drug problem.”
To curb the trend, says Brown-McSwain, she had to focus on the root cause, to address “past trauma and barriers to change.” It is an approach that is essential to all the programs at Destiny House. Whether its “Growing Pains,” which looks at teen dating violence and pregnancy prevention, “Journey to Life with My Sistahs,” which is for African American women, or “Outgrowing the Pain” – a program for adolescent mothers and GED-candidates for which she is seeking renewed funding – the women “have to understand what the trauma is,” says Brown-McSwain, “what it’s done to them, and how they can change it.”
Another pattern she has seen, and it is one that she says is missed or ignored by traditional domestic violence literature and advocacy is that “women of color do not want to leave abusers.”
Family “is everything in communities of color,” says Brown-McSwain, in part because of how the unit was regularly undermined. She points specifically to slavery, early welfare policies, and today’s criminal justice system as avenues where, for instance, the African American family was and is regularly dismantled. For some in these communities, then, strategies to domestic violence that are seen as derived from the white feminist movement, especially those focused exclusively on leaving partners, are considered to be part of another system that separates families.
With women of color, she says, if the only solution you provide is leaving, and “[i]f you don’t focus on the whole family, then the victim will leave her man, she’ll find another abuser, and he’ll find another victim.” Instead, says Brown-McSwain, you have to give them “all the options.” On the other hand, according to IDVAAC, 70-80% of abused black women “left or attempted to leave the relationship.”
Still, Brown-McSwain is no apologist, and she does not mince her words when summarizing domestic violence: “I consider it another form of Black on Black crime.” And she is responding in kind.
On Wednesday, October 21 from 6-8 PM, Brown-McSwain and Destiny House will present a community forum on “Family Violence in Communities of Color” at the Davey Lopes Recreation Center, 227 Dudley Street in Providence. Attendees can expect to participate in panel and group discussions, view excerpts from a film about domestic violence in communities of color, and be asked to pledge to help end domestic violence in “our communities.”
Brown-McSwain also hopes to garner interest and recruit volunteers – to be part of a team who is working on these issues within communities of color. Having recently celebrated 11 years of Destiny House, she wants to know the work will continue should anything happen to her.
For more information on Destiny House, to seek help locally, or for more details on the October 21 forum, visit http://www.destinyhouseri.com and call 401-270-5320.
If you feel you are in an abusive relationship and want help NOW, call the National Domestic Violence hotline ANYTIME at 1-800-799-SAFE or, from a safe computer, visit http://www.ndvh.org.
Urban Health Watch (www.UrbanHealthWatch.net) is part of the RI Prevention Block Grant, a program funded by the RI Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To send your events, ideas, or personal stories about health, email firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment on UrbanHealthWatch.net. And check back all month long for other articles commemorating Domestic Violence Awareness Month.