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Learning How Domestic Violence Victims Feel Students take part in 'In Her Shoes' Domestic Violence Experiential Training

My name is Roz, and I’m married to Marty. We have two kids. He gets mad, picks fights over my cooking, criticizes me and starts hitting me. He has broken my nose, and one time he broke my rib, too. But this last fight we had was the last straw, and I’ve had it. I want to leave him.

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An NLU student playing the role of a domestic violence victim tries to decide what her next step should be. Her teammates can talk to her, but she has to carry her own suitcase and “children,” in the form of stuffed animals.

On a quiet Thursday morning at NLU’s Chicago campus, Criminal Justice student Gelissa Nealon is playing Roz’s role during an experiential training exercise called “In Her Shoes.” Advocates for domestic violence victims in Washington state developed the training, and based it on the experiences of real people.

NLU criminal justice professors and Chicago Police Department volunteers were conducting the training, and they had set up stations for the domestic violence “victims” to visit in the simulated experience. Each of the “victims” had to carry their own suitcases and their “children,” in the form of plush animals.

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Active and retired Chicago Police Department personnel and NLU professors conducted the “In Her Shoes” training.

In real life, “Chicago police get about 511 calls a day for domestic violence,” said Aileen Robinson, a program development coordinator with the police department. But because victims often have children, those calls represent 900-plus people a day affected by domestic violence.

During the experiential training, Nealon and three other students on her team made their way to the “Visit Clergy” station, where Roz’s rabbi counseled her that God intends marriage to be based on respect, and that she had a right to leave a man who struck her. After each visit to a station, cards containing printed directions gave Nealon (playing Roz) a choice of what to do next, such as file an order of protection at “Court” or visit the “Police” station. Nealon (playing Roz) also went to the “Family and friends” station, where Roz spent time with her adult son, who was somewhat dismissive of Roz’s statement that her husband had been violent.

Nealon/Roz also tried the “Jobs” station, but gave up because the 64-year-old Roz persona  thought her job skills were out-of-date. Yes, Roz is 64, and she has been married to Marty for 33 years. The advocates who designed the experiential training wanted people to know that domestic violence strikes people of all ages, races, religions, educational levels and income brackets.

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Students reflect on what they went through as they played the roles of domestic violence victims in the “In Her Shoes” training.

As Nealon and her team made their way from one station to the next, several other teams–playing other personas based on real people–were doing the same. Later, another member of Nealon’s team, NLU student Tori Craven, played another persona, Sandra, a 21-year-old Mexican immigrant studying to get her college degree in biology. Sandra had been abused by a lesbian partner who pounded on her door at 3 a.m. and then beat her.

When the exercise ended, Robinson and NLU Adjunct Professor Cynthia Schumann, a retired Chicago Police Department sergeant, talked to participants in order to regroup and reflect.

“One in four women and one in seven men will be abused by an intimate partner in their lifetimes,” said Schumann. “It’s an epidemic. You can’t say you don’t know anyone who hasn’t been affected. It affects our schools, workplaces and families.

“Nationally, one in three female homicide victims are murdered by their intimate partners.”

Robinson warned students to watch out for abusive behaviors someone could use against them in an academic setting, such as taking their computer or flash drive, taking their financial aid or keeping them up all night so they’re too tired for school in the morning.

The students reflected on the personas they had played.

“I was very depressed,” said Gelissa Nealon, who had played Roz. “I was in despair because I was 64, I had been with him 33 years, and we’re supposed to be enjoying our last years on earth. We’re supposed to be traveling, enjoying grandchildren, and instead we’re on the brink of divorce.”

And student Tori Craven, who had played the Sandra persona, said she could not relate to Sandra’s lesbian status, but could relate to other facets of her situation. “She’s 21, I’m 22,” Craven said. “She’s going to college like me. I felt depressed, because it could be me in this situation.”

Robinson said she hoped the training helped students understand the hoops victims have to jump through. In real life, victims have to wait 30 days for an appointment to see a free legal aid counselor, and another 30 days to go before a judge. They might not have the money to feed themselves and their children for those 60 days, she pointed out.

“The most dangerous thing you can do is tell someone you will provide them shelter if they leave their partner, and then not follow through,” Robinson said. “When the victim goes back to the abuser, the abuser has the ammunition to say, ‘See, nobody cares about you.'”

If you know someone suffering at the hands of an abuser, she advised being non-judgmental and asking how you can help.

“We have to talk about this topic outside of this training,” Schumann said. “It’s hard, but keep it going. If you want to help, you can fundraise money, books or toys for domestic violence shelters. Wear a purple ribbon to show support for domestic violence victims. Or volunteer at a shelter. “