Few people think of nurses like me as being on the frontlines of domestic violence prevention, but we are.
Among the thousands of patients I’ve treated, I’ve seen countless women who were abused. When my decades of experience and instincts as an ER nurse prompt me to ask, “Are you afraid someone might hurt you?” nearly every time that patient breaks down crying.
When a patient returns frequently to the ER reporting vague symptoms like headaches and stomach aches with no clear cause, this too often points to intimate partner violence — IPV, for short.
In California, nurses since 1995 have been required to report suspected IPV to authorities.
In 1989, when Nicole Brown Simpson told police, “He’s going to kill me,” they did nothing. Since then, legal changes have been made to ensure domestic violence complaints are treated more seriously at all levels of law enforcement and health care.
Still, victims — mostly women, but men as well — often feel shame and helplessness. Their stories are too frequently seen as irrelevant or unimportant. Look at the case of former White House aide Rob Porter, who wasn’t fired even after his bosses learned he’d violently abused his ex-wives.
All too often, leaders dismiss the victims of intimate partner violence committed by powerful men, lifting up the denials of the perpetrators while not acknowledging the scars of the women abused.
As a nurse, I learned that to identify abuse victims, I had to be willing to ask uncomfortable questions. We all need to ask some uncomfortable questions about how we treat the abusers and abused.
Women who reveal abuse still find their reliability questioned. They’re shamed for impossible choices they’re forced to make.
Too often, helpers abandon them if they return to their abuser after attempting to leave. When they choose not to accept help the very first time, health care and law enforcement may give up on them. We as a society begin doubting the validity of their story.
It takes many IPV victims upward of six to 10 attempts to finally flee their volatile situation. Where can these women, and their often-abused children, find reliable care, shelter, and resources when they’re needed?
I can relate to suffering trauma from violence. During one of my ER shifts, a mentally ill patient punched me and knocked my head into the wall so hard I lost my sight for approximately 10 minutes. The shock and violation have never left me.
When it comes to intimate partner violence, attitudes must change. Decades after the murder of Nicole Simpson, NFL player Ray Rice knocked out his fiancée on video in an elevator — but received only a two-game suspension.
Like sexual assault, IPV also involves secrecy and control, with victims shamed more than believed, disregarded by those who should help and protect them — even asked what they did to bring it on. We need to call #TimesUp on IPV, too.
Changes in law aren’t enough. Our work isn’t done just because nurses and others are required to report the abuse. We must address systemic issues that allow abusers to continue terrorizing victims while neighbors and communities look the other way.
Most of the recent mass shooters in the U.S. had prior histories of stalking or domestic violence. These links aren’t just a footnote in the story. They are predictive, and we must take them seriously as red flags.
The costs IPV imposes on us as a society in dreams shattered, lives ruined, and families traumatized are far too high. #TimesUp.
Elizabeth “Liz” Hawkins, RN, has been a registered nurse for over 30 years. She’s Secretary of the United Nurses Associations of California / Union of Health Care Professionals.