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September 18, 2014 at 6:00 AM

Can the Ray Rice domestic violence incident lead to more survivors?

Football player Ray Rice holds hands with his wife, Janay, as they arrive at Atlantic County Criminal Courthouse in Mays Landing, N.J. The pair have become icons for domestic violence awareness.

Football player Ray Rice holds hands with his wife, Janay, as they arrive at Atlantic County Criminal Courthouse in Mays Landing, N.J. The pair have become icons for domestic violence awareness. (Mel Evans / Associated Press)

If there’s a bright side to the domestic violence saga of NFL player Ray Rice, it might be that thousands of people took to social media to tell the world about #WhyIstayed and #WhenIleft. The dialogue fueled more awareness and much-needed discussion surrounding domestic violence, but how about more use of hashtags like #WhyIstopped or #Enddomesticviolence? Sure, those tags aren’t as catchy or sympathetic, but the controversy over Rice’s brutal attack on his now-wife Janay can do so much more than rouse clicks and bursts on social media – it can lead to better understanding, policies and prevention of a centuries-old problem.

Many avid sports fans can rattle off a list of professional sports players known to have battered their wives or girlfriends over the years, making it seem as if that behavior is normal or expected. Rice, who was a star for the Baltimore Ravens and was suspended indefinitely from the league, will likely never play professional football again, but many others in the sports world have carried on with their careers, as the New York Times reported.

The Rice incident might have blown over if it weren’t for the video. The situation is even more outrageous that it took a disturbing video going viral to wake up America. Most people wouldn’t have seen the video if it weren’t for TMZ, a tabloid news site that routinely pays for photos and videos of celebrities acting badly that is probably motivated more by making money than doing a public service. Showing the video, nonetheless, shined a light on an issue that our society can no longer shrug off as someone else’s problem – or fault.

Since the Rice video release, the Domestic Abuse Women’s Network, a south King County group working to end domestic violence, experienced an uptick in calls to its hotline from not only victims, but men wanting to discuss the issue. Executive Director Peg Coleman told me she sees the Rice incident as an opportunity to educate people and start a larger conversation about what behavior is acceptable.

“Domestic violence does not start with someone getting beat up in an elevator,” she said. “We spend a lot of time, money and attention on criminal behaviors, but there are a huge amount of behaviors that are not chargeable crimes and are totally outside of the norm of respectful behavior.”

From the sampling of #WhyIstayed and #WhenIleft posts I read, I was alarmed that it often requires a major act of either bravery or strategy for a victim to leave. Some women face choosing to endure beatings or provide for their children. In fact, leaving a violent relationship can be more dangerous than staying as it can escalate to even more violence or death.

Last year in Washington, 29 people died as a result of domestic violence – the lowest level since the high of 49 in 2004, according to the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The coalition reports that in more than one-third of those homicide cases, law enforcement had no contact with the victim or abuser before the death and fewer than half of all domestic violence incidents reported to police resulted in the abuser being arrested.

If legal, professional or social consequences are not enough to eradicate domestic violence, what will be? More awareness and time. Domestic violence in the United States is vastly less acceptable than a generation or two ago. The rate of domestic violence in America dropped by 63 percent from 1994 to 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. More resources are available for victims to escape those situations such as emergency shelters and victim support organizations.

Washington state laws allow domestic violence victims to exit an apartment lease or get time off of work if they need to flee from an abuser. Under Seattle’s Sick/Safe Ordinance, employees can secure paid time off for those situations and the Washington Legislature will take up a bill in the next session to make paid time off available statewide. Legal experts also find that establishing a protection order against an abuser or stalker is often enough to deter violence in most, but not all cases, said Sara Ainsworth, an expert in domestic violence civil cases and a distinguished practitioner in residence at Seattle University’s law school. The state coalition on domestic violence reports that victims most often turn to friends or relatives first for help, making loved ones a crucial bridge to escaping violence.

Instead of tweeting and reposting links to express shock and outrage, our society should focus less on judging abusers and placing blame and more on making domestic violence a true taboo and helping victims become survivors.

Comments | Topics: domestic violence, NFL, Ray Rice

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