Shundra Samuel was filling out the paperwork for her patient’s annual physical exam when she noticed a fading, half-moon bruise on the woman’s cheek, just beneath her glasses.
“I asked her if she had been hit. She paused for a moment, and then she said that yes, she had gotten into a fight with her boyfriend two weeks prior. He had hit her in the face, striking her glasses,” said Samuel, a public health nurse at the Thomas County Health Department. “She said he was always hitting on her.”
During the exam, the patient also showed Samuel scratches on her chest from the fight. Samuel encouraged the woman to report the abuse to the police and gave her a phone number for Halcyon Home, a shelter for battered women in Thomasville, “just in case she felt she needed to leave,” Samuel said.
Samuel is one of dozens of public health staff members in Southwest Health District 8-2 working to empower families facing domestic violence. Project Connect, a program launched by the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence (GCADV) in 2012, educates district health care providers on the signs of abuse and the local domestic violence resources that are available in their communities. The goal is to make sure patients and families know they have options in their communities for staying safe.
Support can be very hard to come by for families dealing with domestic violence. Jan Christiansen, GCADV executive director, said instead of supporting victims facing violence, people are often quick to blame them for not taking action against their abusers.
“People assume that if someone is getting hurt in a relationship then they should just leave,” Christiansen said. “But sometimes the fear of the unknown is even greater than fear of their current situation. Victims usually know what’s best for them and leaving isn’t always their best option. And it’s never easy.”
Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury for women ages 15-44 in Georgia, according to Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) data. About one in three women in this age group will be abused at least once by her partner during her lifetime. Getting help can be a matter of life and death for these women and their families. In 2012, 128 Georgians died from domestic violence, according to GCADV data. Four of those deaths occurred in the Southwest Health District.
Since the launch of Project Connect, every client who comes to one of the Southwest district’s health departments, no matter their gender or reason for visiting, is asked three questions: Do you have a relationship that makes you feel threatened, ashamed or unsafe at home? Does anyone try to control you by threatening to hurt you or your family? Would you like to receive information about a shelter or domestic violence hotline?
Linda O’Donnell, assistant director of nursing and clinical services for the Southwest Health District, said even though many patients answer “no” to these questions, screening for everyone is still important.
“By asking these questions, we give them the ability to help someone else that might be in that situation,” she said. “That knowledge is very powerful.”
Clients who need help are referred to local domestic violence services, including shelters like the one Samuel recommended to her patient. But O’Donnell said the point of Project Connect is not necessarily to convince victims to flee their situation.
“Our goal is to educate them, to give them information so that if and when they feel they need to leave, they know there is a place to go,” she said.
O’Donnell was one of the first six nurses trained by GCADV staff early in 2012. Now, Project Connect has trained 50 staff members in counties throughout the Southwest Health District. GCADV hopes to expand the program to other health districts throughout Georgia.
O’Donnell said signals that the program is making a difference are not always obvious, but they do exist.
One nurse in the Early County Health Department tacked wallet-sized cards listing domestic violence community resources on bulletin boards in each of the health department’s bathrooms. After just a few days, nearly all of the cards had disappeared.
“People may not always be willing to share their stories with us,” O’Donnell said. “But we know they still need help.”