Don’t be a Bystander: Nine Ways to Intervene if You Witness Abuse

By: Amy Thomson

Domestic violence often occurs behind closed doors, away from the view of family, friends and strangers alike. Victims of abuse typically do the best they can to hide and deny the abuse from those around them. It’s not uncommon for people to think the relationship is healthy and that the abuser is a good person who loves their partner. However, at home a very different reality emerges.

Dynamics of abuse require constant leveraging of coercion, manipulation and intimidation to control and restrict the movements of the victim. As the severity of abuse escalates, it may appear that the abuser is losing control or has an anger management issue, particularly when the abusive behavior manifests outside the home in public view. The reality is that escalation is an assertion of the right to dominate and control, and the abuser will often engage in public acts of abuse to shame, punish and show the victim that no one cares enough to intervene. It is an act of power.

Witnessing acts of abuse can be uncomfortable and leave us unable to decide what we should do – if anything. Often, people may pass by thinking it’s not their business or that it isn’t their place to intervene. We may even walk by hoping or wrongly believing someone else will help. Worse still, we may choose not to act because we assume that nothing “all that serious” would really happen in public.

You should never assume that someone else will help. Doing so only increases risk of severe injury, escalation of abuse and death. Abusers often attack their victims at their place of work or other public spaces with severe injury or death to the victim occurring.

With that in mind, what can you do when you witness domestic violence?

  1. Call the police. This does not require risking personal safety but will trigger response of officers who are better prepared to handle danger should violence escalate.
  2. If for some reason you do not feel comfortable calling the police and you are in a place of business, approach the manager and notify them of the situation and ask them to call the police.
  3. Many of us have cell phones on us most of the time. You can use your phone to video record the abuse so there is documentation available from a third party witness to provide to authorities as evidence.
  4. If the abuser leaves, you could approach the victim and offer assistance. Use this as an opportunity to ensure the victim they are not at fault and the abuse is not OK. Offer to call police and stay with them until authorities arrive. If they do not want the authorities involved, you could also offer to call a friend or family member or allow the victim to use your phone. Should the victim respond that there is no one to call, you could give them your cell number and tell them to call/text if they change their mind. You can also tell the victim where they can get help if they refuse your offer.
  5. If you are a student, you could approach the victim by asking them for help with work in one of your classes or to borrow notes. Provided you approach them when their abuser is not present, the victim may open up to you if you ask them how they are or say you’ve noticed them being withdrawn lately.
  6. If the abuser is within eyesight, and you still feel compelled to approach the victim, you could do so under the guise of running into an old friend from school. Smile at them, tell them how happy you are to see them, and once the abuser’s guard is down, you can offer to help them. This approach is potentially risky due to the proximity of the abuser, and it is not recommended for a man to attempt if the abuser is male with a female victim.
  7. Do your best to slowly redirect yourself and the victim into a more public area with increased foot traffic. Not only will this provide additional bystanders to assist, there will be more witnesses should the abuser return and attempt to assault the victim.
  8. Ensure that you speak only to the victim, as engaging with the abuser creates potential for the situation to spiral out of control.
  9. If you suspect someone is being abused, you can create opportunities to approach them. You can begin conversation by asking your neighbor if you can borrow common cooking ingredients, if they are having issues with their phone or internet, for help finding a lost pet or by bringing them a piece of mail and telling them it was mixed in with yours.

Even with the best intentions, your actions might cause retaliation by the abuser against their victim. Be as delicate as possible in your approach.

If you attempt to intervene between an abuser physically assaulting their victim, recognize that not only could this increase the severity of abuse against the victim, it is possible the abuser may attack you as well. Physically intervening during a violent attack will put your safety at risk. Also, you can never be sure whether the abuser is carrying a weapon. Generally, this approach is not recommended for these reasons. However, this is your choice to make and you need to consider if you are equipped to physically intervene i.e. have self defense training, carry pepper spray or a taser.

It’s not uncommon for a victim to refuse help or outright deny abuse is taking place. You cannot force them to leave until they are ready, and it often takes an average of seven times for a victim to leave. What is important is to leave them with a lifeline to the outside world so they have someone to contact when they are ready to make that step.

You will need to be careful about the language you use when talking to the victim. It is important to never blame them, imply they instigated an attack or minimize their abuse. Be supportive, be compassionate and let them know you believe them and want to help them. Even if they do not accept your help, they may reach out to you or someone else in the future. It’s important they know there are people ready to help and they will be believed.

Also, do as much as possible to educate yourself on the signs of domestic violence and resources available. Share this information with your family and friends, and discuss with your children safe things they can do if they witness or suspect a friend is being abused. Engage your family in role playing to help prepare them for how they would respond if they were to witness abuse.

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