Economic Hardship May Be Factor In Domestic Violence Cases

This story was produced as a project for the 2019 California Fellowship, a program of USC Annenberg's Center for Health Journalism.

Other stories in this series include:

Most domestic violence incidents still unreported, report says

Solutions are hard to come by for domestic violence victims

Second in a three-part series

LOS ANGELES — A report published by the Los Angeles County Public Health Department shows economic hardship and an inability to support one’s family because monthly earnings do not cover monthly expenses may contribute to the disproportionate rates of domestic violence toward African-American women.

“These social and economic conditions may not be the direct causes. No single risk factor or combination of factors can predict violence,” the report said, but the conditions represent “significant barriers to black women having optimal health even though they have high rates of health insurance.”

County Supervisor Hilda L. Solis said the county is seeing more women with health insurance coverage, but “it doesn’t mean they have equal access to health care, particularly women of color, who compose almost 70 percent of women in L.A. County.”

Black and white women in the county experience intimate partner violence at about the same numbers, even though white women outnumber black women by a wide margin. Black women also are more likely to be abused than Latinas who make up nearly half of the county’s population, and Asian women who comprise 14 percent.

Black women also are hospitalized and visit emergency rooms for non-fatal assault injuries at higher rates and are more likely to be abused during pregnancy. They also are more likely to be killed by a current or former spouse or lover using a firearm.  

In 2018, days before Thanksgiving, 32-year-old Shaneca Marie Hughes and her cousin, Thomas McCoy, 54, were shot and killed in Watts by her boyfriend. The authorities ruled it a family dispute. The assailant shot five people altogether and was found with a self-inflicted gunshot wound which was ruled a suicide.

Project: Peacemakers Executive Director Bernita Walker has a personal understanding of domestic violence.

“My 14-to-15-year-old boyfriend put a knife to my throat and held a gun to my head,” she said. “On separate occasions, he made me put my head over the floor furnace and breathe in the heat. His mother was very abusive to his stepfather. I had never heard a parent talk to her children that way.

“When I got out of that relationship, I promised myself I would not get into another one like that. I did great for 14 years, then I met this guy who sweet-talked me. It was holy hell for 2½ years. I went through all thedynamics of domestic violence — financial, educational, time, associations.”

Black women in the county also are more likely to experience the trauma of discrimination. A significant percentage report being discriminated against in getting a job and housing, by the police and courts, in stores and restaurants and based on income, gender and pregnancy. 

They report racial or color discrimination more than two-and-a-half times more often than women in the county overall.

“All of this discrimination can literally be deadly,” Harvard professor David Williams said. “Basically, what we have found is discrimination is a type of stressful life experience that has negative effects on health similar to other kinds of stressful experiences.”

Calling them “entrenched factors,” county health officials say discrimination and institutional racism, violence and trauma need to be addressed to make significant gains in black women’s health. 

County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said, “I am very glad that county leadership is beginning to move forward to identify and address [the disparities.]”

Stereotypes of African Americans and exposure to messages in popular culture regarding black women, how they should be treated, and how masculinity should be construed also may contribute to the abuse of black women.  

The messages “increase some individuals’ acceptance of violence, particularly violence against women,” according to Pepperdine University, Boston University School of Medicine, and the Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder researchers writing in the Journal of Aggression and Violent Behavior.

Sa’iyda Shabazz, an L.A.-based social commentator and writer, said, “Domestic violence within the black community deserves attention. … But it shouldn’t be considered only a black problem.

“Longstanding racist stereotypes, particularly the narrative that black men are more threatening or violent than men of other races, are contributing to the silence … among members of the black community, especially black women.

“I believe a lot of black women are reluctant to talk because they know it fits into the long-held stereotype about (black men),” Angela Parker, education director for the Jenesse Center, a domestic violence intervention agency-provider in South L.A. said, “Children are considered equal victims of domestic violence under the law. If there is an altercation in the home and the police are called and they decide the environment is unsafe for children, they’ll call the Children and Family Services Department.” 

“Unfortunately, black women’s children are more often taken away from them. Many Jenesse’s clients have lost custody of their kids and are trying to get them back. After they’re in the system, that is incredibly difficult.”

Other public health crises in the county and city of Los Angeles make black women more vulnerable, influencing their health and well-being. The lack of affordable housing — being unable to afford market rate rents — has forced many black women into homelessness. Some have suffered domestic abuse or became homeless fleeing violence. Others have substance use issues and need mental health care, another critical issue in the county. 

Elizabeth Eastlund, executive director of Rainbow Services in San Pedro, said “Affordable housing is scarce in L.A., and across much of California. It can result in domestic violence victims staying in abusive relationships simply because there is nowhere else for them to live. No one should have to choose between homelessness and staying in a violent home.”

Parker said, “If you’re homeless, you’re even more vulnerable to rape.”

In the county, most homeless women are black. Some have been sexually abused and sex-trafficked.

Black women also are more likely to be food insecure. Homelessness and food insecurity are risk factors for domestic violence, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Parker described how “‘Edna’s’ soon-to-be ex-husband threw a bomb into their home on Mother’s Day 2007. The teenage daughter witnessed her father do it. The family, including three children, escaped with the mother’s purse and the clothing on their backs. … Domestic violence leaves working women and their children homeless, affecting employment, schools, churches, and the community resources,” she said.

Debra Varnado’s reporting on  Domestic Violence was undertaken as a USC Center for Health Journalism 2019 California Fellow.

[This article was originally published by Los Angeles Wave Newspapers.]