Clergy to be trained in responding to family violence

A workshop will give religious leaders instruction in helping and counseling in cases of domestic violence.

Published September 25, 2006

Though victims of domestic violence are most likely to approach a member of the clergy for help, many religious leaders are not trained to provide the right type of assistance, victims advocates say.

The Pinellas County Health Department and other organizations hope to help change that by offering a workshop, "When Family Violence Comes to Church," next week.

Now in its second year, the program will be offered in north and south county. It is open to clergy, nurses, congregational leaders and others.

"The main motivation for doing training with religious leaders is that they are the key person that a victim of domestic violence might go to first for help and guidance," said the Rev. Marie Fortune. "Unfortunately, most clergy are still not trained in their seminaries to even recognize domestic violence and how to respond to it."

Fortune, speaking by telephone from Seattle, is the founder of FaithTrust Institute, an interfaith organization that works to end sexual and domestic violence. The organization trains religious leaders, particularly clergy, on how to address those issues.

Victims advocates want religious leaders to understand that they have an important role to play, said Wendy Loomas, program manager for the Pinellas County Health Department's injury and violence prevention program. They need to know how to detect domestic violence, such as recognizing signs of jealousy, possessiveness and control, and what to do when family violence occurs.

"Having a strong faith doesn't mean that you're not a victim or perpetrator of violence. But it's certainly a source of strength, which is what we want to tap into," Loomas said.

Leaders need to know how to take safe action, she said. For instance, she said, while it is safe to recommend that a victim call a shelter, "it is not safe to give them the brochure to take home."

Couples counseling is a mistake. One reason is that the victim cannot speak freely, Loomas said. Nor is it wise to confront the batterer without the victim's permission, she said.

Domestic violence doesn't only affect the couple involved, Loomas said. Children also are victims, so Sunday school teachers should learn how to detect signs of family violence, she said.

"A lot of couples would say it only happens in the night or when the kids are out of the house. You know, the kids know. They know what is happening in that house," Loomas said. "They see the after effects, even if they don't see the direct hit."

She said studies show that children growing up in violent homes are fearful. Children in violent homes can have behavioral problems, a high absentee rate or an inability to concentrate, she said.

Elihu Brayboy, coordinator of the health department's Delta project, works with young boys to teach them how to respect girls.

The Delta project targets middle school boys and coaches because most violence is committed by males.

"If you're going to reduce the amount of domestic violence incidents, someone must begin to talk to men," Brayboy said.

Programs are offered through Mount Zion Human Services in St. Petersburg and the YMCA of the Suncoast at High Point in Clearwater and Palm Harbor.

"Domestic violence has no economic barrier, and it has no color barrier," Brayboy said.