Women and violence

July 15th, 2014

Many homeless women spend much of their time and energy plotting their defense against violence and unwanted sexual advances. “Their lives revolve around victimization. They’re either being victimized, or they’re trying to avoid it,” a well-known researcher told JPS providers Tuesday.

Anyone who works in an emergency room should be prepared to address sexual violence, said Emily Spence-Almaguer, PhD, of the University of North Texas Health Science Center. “I would assume, if I was working in an ER, that at least 30 percent of the women I see are experiencing violence.” Spence-Almaguer was July’s lecturer at Trauma Talk, an educational series sponsored by the Level I Trauma Center at JPS.

Spence-Almaguer and students at UNTHSC conducted extensive interviews with 150 homeless women in Fort Worth — a sample believed to represent about 40 percent of all homeless women in Tarrant County.  They found that 46 percent had experienced physical or sexual violence in the 12 months prior. Half had experienced verbal abuse, 27 percent had unwanted sexual contact, 21 percent experienced partner violence (often with a partner whose company they kept only to protect them from violence from men at large) and 17 percent were raped.

More than two-thirds of the women had been to an emergency room at least once in 12 months, and 29 percent had been hospitalized. Spence-Almaguer implored doctors and nurses to talk with their female patients about domestic violence and sexual assault. Domestic violence screening is standard operating procedure in emergency rooms, but there are lots of different ways to ask the questions. “A person can tell when you don’t really want to hear the answer,” she said. “They need to know that it is safe to talk. Transmitting that message starts with you.”

Being therapeutic is not about having all the right answers in your back pocket, she said. “The fact that you listened to their story is a therapeutic.”