Martha's Health and Healing

An illustration of a woman (Martha) with her children outside of a safe home

At Blue Shield of California Foundation, we believe that multiple systems are a part of the story of domestic violence, and therefore a part of its prevention. The Downtown Women’s Center in LA, a grantee, shared a story with us about a woman they worked with that affirmed this core belief. The story highlights how, with changes to the housing, child welfare, and other systems around us, we can actually prevent stories like this from being a reality that survivors live through.

This Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we’d like to share it with you.

Note: Martha is a pseudonym to protect this survivor’s identity.

Part 3: Martha's health and healing

Once her children were taken away from her, Martha fell into a deep depression. She was distraught, still had nowhere to live, and was losing hope that she would get her children back. She began using drugs for the first time in her life as a coping mechanism. Mental health issues and substance use are not uncommon for survivors of domestic violence, and too often, our societal response is punitive.

At the Foundation, we believe that healing and resilience are essential to break the cycle of violence that can occur across generations. Alternative solutions — like those designed at our Reimagine Lab — can prevent the causes of violence before they take hold and help to heal those already exposed to violence. All of the ideas in Reimagine Lab provide a pathway through which individuals, families, and communities can have conversations about healing and manage the kind of deep-rooted pain that Martha was experiencing.

Restorative justice is one such intervention that focuses on healing and prioritizes long-term prevention. As Lucia Corral Peña, senior program officer at the Foundation, explains, “As an alternative to the systems currently in place, restorative justice can offer survivors, children, and those who cause harm a different option that allows for healing and support before violence becomes an entrenched behavior that has far-reaching consequences.”

Mimi Kim, a restorative justice pioneer, describes the limitations of an exclusively criminal-legal response, which has increasingly become the go-to response to domestic violence across the country. “While telling survivors to flee violence and call 911 may make sense to our system of crisis shelters and police, we weren’t necessarily reducing risk for the survivor. Instead, we told them what we thought was right for them. If those options weren’t what they wanted or needed, we often left them completely on their own.”

Restorative justice as a concept is not new — it has been used in schools, to deal with student behavior, and in property crimes in the past. However, its application toward the prevention of domestic violence, while relatively new, holds real promise. “Real accountability... has to focus on healing. It has to center healing. It can't center punishment, and it has to center care and support and understanding that people who have caused trauma have also experienced trauma,” says Marc Philpart, managing director at PolicyLink. “I think there's a lot that we need to do to unpack how punishment is permeating our responses to violence, whether it's the person who's causing harm, or the person who's suffering it, or someone who's witnessing it within a family.”

So what does restorative justice and healing look like in practice when it comes to domestic violence? There’s no one template, but broadly, it is based on dialogue and accountability. It includes survivors, the person who caused harm, families, and/or community members. It creates tailored and specific objectives for a particular individual or community. And it attempts to tackle the root causes of violence to prevent it from occurring in future, rather than criminalize its incidence. Restorative justice models center safety for survivors, and focus on their long-term well-being.

Martha eventually met with outreach workers from the Downtown Women’s Center in LA who centered her safety and focused on her long-term well being. They helped her find temporary housing and were able to connect her to the supportive services and the care she needed. This enabled her to cope more effectively with her trauma and to stop using drugs. She was able to get a new job and find permanent housing, and eventually get her three young sons back.

Like Martha, those who experience violence need a broad range of support to enable their healing. And in California, offering this support is popular with the public: nine in 10 Californians support child care, food, housing, and transportation assistance to help those who have experienced domestic violence. Eight in 10 Californians support paid leave from work and cash assistance for survivors, as well as alternatives to jail for people who cause domestic violence, such as counseling — including substance use counseling, supervision by a social worker, or restitution to the person who experienced the violence (for example, paying for their therapy, medical expenses, or loss of employment). These ideas have strong support across the political spectrum in California. 

Martha’s story teaches us two main lessons. The first is that it didn’t need to be this way. Several elements of Martha’s story could have turned out differently. Knowing prevention is possible is what underpins our work. The second is that Martha’s story isn’t a private one. It is a story of systemic failures that belong to all of us collectively as a society. Multiple systems currently play a role in exacerbating the effects of violence that domestic violence survivors face: housing, child welfare, health care, criminal justice. We look at this with optimism, though — these systems have a promising opportunity to be a part of critical and consequential domestic violence prevention work. 

The once-in-a-century pandemic we are living through has put survivors and domestic violence organizations through unprecedented strain. Healing and prevention becomes even more challenging in this era of lockdowns, illness, and lost jobs and wages. We recently supported the Women’s Foundation of California to bolster 126 domestic violence organizations in the state as they recover from the pandemic. Follow our ongoing work in domestic violence prevention and the promotion of health equity here.

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