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Barriers and limitations stand between victims of domestic abuse and safety


The Compass Center for Women and Families is one resource in Chapel Hill for victims of domestic violence.

The Chapel Hill Police Department has dealt with over 500 cases of domestic abuse since 2012.  

This number underrepresents the actual amount of people suffering from interpersonal violence in intimate relationships in Chapel Hill. 

“That might be just a slice, or a subset, of people who are experiencing [domestic violence],” said Rebecca Macy, UNC professor in the School of Social Work. 

It is almost impossible to tell how many people are victims of domestic violence. 

“I think, unfortunately, the problem with tracking domestic violence is that we don’t have really good systems for tracking it,” Macy said. “So we don’t know exactly how many cases or how many incidences there are in any given community in the United States, we don’t know how serious the problem is at any given time. There is just no way to capture that information.”

The Compass Center for Women and Families, which focuses on helping people escape situations of domestic abuse, released a statement that found one in three women and one in four men in heterosexual relationships have been or will be physically abused by an intimate partner. In same-sex relationships, 20 percent of men and 35 percent of women are victims of domestic abuse. 

Macy said Orange County doesn't have a domestic abuse shelter, although it's a commonly provided service in local communities.

“Domestics, historically, have been pretty dangerous for law enforcement,” said Chris Atack, captain of operations for Carrboro Police Department. “Our overarching goal over everything is safety. Safety for the officers, safety for the victim, safety for the suspect and safety for the community.”

He also said domestic violence especially affects children because they often feel fear and apprehension about living in an abusive environment.

"Those kids go out into the greater community and they go to school and they try to learn and they are trying to focus on things like arithmetic but in the back of their mind there is that consistent uncertainty about their home life," Atack said. "Domestic stability, in my opinion, is one of the keys to allowing people to go forth and live up to their potential.”

Police are unable to fix these cycles of behavior, Atack said. They can give victims packets of information and try to connect them to resources, but ultimately they can do little else besides making an arrest. 

Despite these limitations, the police are working with other organizations who are better equipped to help victims. Executive Director of the Compass Center Cordelia Heaney said the organization meets with the Orange County Domestic task force every month to build connections with law enforcement, the University and other leaders in the community.

“We work very closely with law enforcement and the judiciary," Heaney said. “We are always talking about ways that we can bridge the gaps for clients that are involved with different service providers.

Macy said often the bigger barrier is the complicated issues that arise around going to court.

“We are finding sometimes, too, it is hard just to get to court,” Macy said. “So, for people who are struggling with domestic violence, it may be fine when they get to court. But having legal representation, a lot of times these are families with children so there are complex custody issues."

Another barrier for victims of domestic abuse looking to escape their situation is the lack of a domestic abuse shelter or safe space in the area. 

“If you can’t leave the house, regroup, have a place to stay, make a plan for safety and enact your plan — if there is no place to go — that becomes a big barrier in terms of getting your needs met, getting access to services,” Macy said.

There are various ways people in the community can get involved in helping victims of domestic abuse. Macy recommended volunteering in local organizations or donating.

Atack said it's important for local residents to support victims of domestic abuse. 

"If you are a neighbor, if you are a friend, if you are a teacher, if you are just anybody in the community, and have a friend with mysteriously appearing bruises and there is no real explanation — they may even confide in you that there is a problem," Atack said. "I think if people allow you into that window, you need to make an effort either to connect them to services or to let law enforcement know." 

The Compass Center offers a variety of local services and events and is screening “Five Awake,” a film about five women from Louisiana who advocated for legislative reform for domestic abuse, at the Varsity Theater on Oct. 23. Various domestic abuse experts from around North Carolina will be speaking after the viewing.

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The organization also has a 24-hour Crisis Hotline: 919-929-7122. 


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