What Is An Advocate?
This is the question we often get asked by friends, family, and even survivors who are wondering what kind of services we provide. If you looked “advocate” up in the dictionary you would see that it is defined as “a person who publicly supports or recommends a particular cause or policy.” This definition simply does not give our day to day work enough credit.
Some days, being an advocate means helping someone find safety when their intimate partner has repeatedly abused them for years. Helping someone get to the closest gas station, so an advocate can pick them up and get them to a safe place. Talking with them when they are hyperventilating and having a panic attack. Reassuring them that they are brave and that they are not alone. Although we know victims are often in the most danger when they are fleeing an abuser or when they seek help, our safety planning and advocating helps reduce that risk.
Other days, being an advocate means safety planning with someone who is in that abusive situation. It is understanding that they may not want to leave or just might not be ready to leave. It is understanding that despite the ongoing abuse, there may still be love for their partner. Whether they want to leave the relationship or not is not up to us. If they are choosing to stay, we can safety plan with them. They can share their abuse history and we can brainstorm together on how to de-escalate future outbursts. We can plan an escape route or find a room inside the house that they can lock for safe refuge. We also talk about ensuring the room has no weapons or objects that can be used as weapons. Because we know that the presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation increases the risk of homicide by 500%. Other days, we come up with a cover story so their abuser will let them leave the house without knowing they are going to meet with their advocate.
Advocating is encouraging someone to get a bag together in case they are ready to leave one day. One bag. Imagine telling someone to put everything they need into one bag. Realistically, women and men who leave abusive relationships leave with nothing. No old family photos, no family heirlooms, no clothing, no money, no prized possessions… nothing. Now, maybe you have a small understanding of just how hard it is to leave an abusive relationship. Now, maybe you have a small understanding of why people choose to stay in an abusive relationship.
Some days, advocating is talking to a parent whose child has been sexually abused. The parent who is filled with anger, rage, sadness, and all other emotions you can think of. Coaching them on how and what to say to their child. Letting them know that they cannot fix what happened. Letting them know it was not their fault. Walking them through how to get their child medical services and letting them know what that looks like.
Some days, advocating is talking to someone who has just been sexually assaulted. Re-living the most traumatic day of their lives with them. Reassuring them that even though they have been violated in one of the most awful ways possible, we are here for them and they can get through this. We are here to build them back up after they have been knocked down to the lowest they have ever been in their lives.
Advocating is asking if someone wants to get medical attention. We’re often asked what would happen if they were to go to the hospital. We walk them through the process of getting a rape kit done, the various swabs that are done, and the pictures that get taken. The interview they will do with law enforcement if they are wanting to report. Reassuring them that all of these services are funded by the state of Iowa. Letting them know that they are in control and they can choose what services they do and do not want. Reassuring them that nothing they did or said made this happen. Letting them know this was not their fault. Getting them connected to medical services and an advocate immediately, if that is what they are requesting. Sometimes, they want neither. Sometimes, they just want to tell someone what happened. Sometimes, we are the first and last person they will ever tell. They share intimate details of what happened that day, knowing that any information they disclose with us will remain confidential. Sometimes, just listening to what happened and letting them know it was not their fault is the only service they need. And sometimes, that is all they need to hear.
Some days, we respond to crisis calls about an individual who has been trafficked. An individual who is miles away from home, and feels isolated and alone. We assure them they are not alone and we are here to help. We let them know that no matter how many years they have been abused and mistreated, there is hope. There are people that are willing to help them if they want it. That despite all the pain they have endured, we can offer safety. We are a light at the end of a long, dark, seemingly never ending tunnel. Its days like these, when they reach out and want safety, that we can be their safety. We can provide the resources they are looking for; whether it’s transportation, shelter, contacting a family member, or just listening to their story. We are here for them 24/7.
So depending on the day, an advocate is so many things, but one thing is constant. We help people when they need it most.