Pa. organization hopes to engage communities with domestic violence awareness, prevention messaging


The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence (PCADV) recently completed a CDC-funded messaging study to determine how best to engage Pennsylvanians with the issue of domestic violence. The results of the study support steps laid out in PCADV’s five-year action plan released this year and provide guidance for awareness and prevention messaging going forward.

Many experts worry that COVID-19 has increased incidences of domestic violence or prevented victims of abuse from seeking help. Kristen Herman, director of prevention at PCADV, says that it’s hard to measure domestic violence. “What we knew before COVID was that half of domestic violence goes underreported or unreported,” Herman says.

Some studies have looked at the number of hotline calls to try to measure rates of domestic violence. One such study in Pennsylvania didn’t find an increase in hotline calls, Herman says, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that domestic violence isn’t occurring as frequently.

“If you are not able to see your friends and family, and you’re not going to work or you lost your job, your touchpoints then for help are calling a hotline on the phone or going online, which require internet access, if that’s the way you choose to do it, and privacy,” says Herman. With people spending more time at home with family members, partners or roommates during the pandemic, privacy is in short supply.

COVID-19 has also exacerbated problems that are risk factors for domestic violence. The PCADV five-year State Action Plan‘s list of risk factors includes economic insecurity, housing insecurity and high unemployment.

And even before the coronavirus pandemic, societal and community-wide issues like racism and sexism increased the risk of domestic violence.

Domestic violence is “a pattern of behaviors where one person is using those behaviors or tactics or resources to have power and control over another person,” Herman states. Herman explains that individuals’ behavior is influenced by their environments and asks, “Where else do we see resources and power being used to have power and control? We see that in oppressions. We see it in racism and sexism and nativism…”

“Our goal with prevention is to get to a world where we’re not learning how to be violent with one another.”

PCADV’s State Action Plan focuses on domestic violence prevention at the societal and community levels, seeking to prevent violence and to raise awareness of the problem and its risk factors beyond the individual perpetrators of violence.

As Herman explains it, “When we go to the schools and we just teach the students [about domestic violence prevention], if their school environment doesn’t support that [nonviolent behavior], if their home life doesn’t support that, if the communities and the policies in the communities and the way that the police interact with the communities, for example, don’t support that, then that’s not really going to solve our problem.”

While developing the action plan, Herman and others realized that entire communities need to be educated about domestic violence issues and prevention, and people need to be talking about the issue more. That’s where the messaging study comes in.

The study surveyed about 1500 Pennsylvanians reflective of the state’s census distribution of age, gender and ethnicity. Participants were asked to respond to different types of messages conveying various ideas about domestic violence impacts and prevention. What the research found, says Herman, is that conversations about domestic violence need to be more frequent and more specific.

Educational messaging sharing specific information, like “Just because behavior isn’t physically violent or sexually abusive doesn’t mean it’s not a form of domestic violence,” or “Domestic violence impacts 1 in 3 women, 1 in 5 men* and over half of LGBTQIA individuals,” was particularly effective according to study findings.

The study also found that people were more receptive to prevention messaging than expected, although the messaging working to raise awareness is still very important as everyone learns about the urgency of the issue, Hermans explains. Participants rated the following point-of-view statement as having the greatest impact on prevention:

Factors like poverty, lack of opportunity and social acceptance of violence put people in our community at risk for experiencing or perpetrating domestic violence. In order to prevent domestic violence, we need to create communities where healthy relationships thrive and abusive relationships don’t. Strategies to prevent domestic violence can effectively strengthen the health of our communities, saving both lives and dollars.

PCADV hopes to emphasize that domestic violence is not just the result of violent individuals, but also of broader societal and communal factors. Herman says the messaging study revealed that people view domestic violence as something that is “just there,” when in actuality “it doesn’t have to be this way.”

“What prevention is saying is that domestic violence is a learned behavior; and therefore, it can be unlearned; and therefore, it can not be learned in the first place,” says Herman. “Our goal with prevention is to get to a world where we’re not learning how to be violent with one another.”

Individuals can take steps to help prevent domestic violence. Herman encourages folks to learn about the issue (PCADV has many educational resources on its website) or support local organizations by donating or volunteering. Having conversations about domestic violence with one’s social circles or networks can also be helpful, Herman says.

On a larger scale, policy supporting pay equity and housing security and stability could also help to mitigate domestic violence, says Herman.

If you are experiencing domestic violence, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE).

For information about local domestic violence programs, visit PCADV’s website here.

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*Herman explains that it’s hard to specifically quantify domestic violence rates because so much of it goes unreported. Another PCADV statistic states that one in four women and one in seven men experience “severe physical violence.” Herman notes that this number only encompasses physical abuse and does not take into account other types, such as emotional or financial abuse.

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