October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. About 41% of women and 26% of men have experienced contact sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner and reported an intimate partner violence-related impact during their lifetime, according to the CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey.
As a family violence specialist, Marcy Witherspoon has been working for more than 20 years to slow these trends and combat Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) in the Philadelphia region. Witherspoon has worked tirelessly at several organizations, as an independent consultant, and in partnership with both the Philadelphia Department of Public Health (PDPH) and the Department of Human Services (DHS) to provide education and support for the IPV community.
“Early on, people considered IPV (Intimate Partner Violence) to be just between the two people dealing with the issue,” Witherspoon said. “It didn’t affect anyone else’s health or wellbeing, it was just a matter of safety between the two people. We knew we had to change this thinking.”
The Institute for Safe Families, in partnership with PDPH developed and implemented a policy for PDPH staff to be able to identify and respond to domestic violence within their patient population. It was the first policy of its kind to exist in any health department in the country. Witherspoon and colleagues worked through the years to develop a more holistic approach to looking at IPV using the latest science, research, and best practices, as well as how the presence of IPV impacted children and their development.
“We reviewed articles, did research, and really looked at how the policy actually supported people and would not become something people wouldn’t use because they were intimidated or because they just did not want to screen for this issue for fear they wouldn’t know what to do if someone said yes,” Witherspoon said.
One of the ways Witherspoon found she could be supportive was to be available not only to the patient population, but also to PDPH staff who were dealing with IPV themselves when they did not know what to do, where to go, or even when they felt humiliated or ashamed about the position they found themselves in.
“It was clear that what was needed was for us to connect the dots. So we spent time talking with PDPH staff about how IPV is directly – and sometimes indirectly – connected to one's health and wellbeing, which made much more sense to them.” Witherspoon said.
After transitioning out of her position with the now defunct Institute of Safe Families, Witherspoon worked as an independent consultant, and then later joined the Health Federation of Philadelphia. What remained consistent over the last twenty years was her role as Family Violence Specialist for the Ambulatory Health Services (AHS) division of PDPH. She considers it a great accomplishment to have rewritten the policy to be more reflective of best practices in the field, more gender-neutral, and more inclusive overall.
“Domestic violence is present in all kinds of intimate and dating relationships,” Witherspoon said. “It is in same-sex relationships, in relationships where women are perpetrating the violence, and other situations that you may not think of. What is critical is that the survivor is listened to, believed, and supported as they navigate the potential options in front of them.”
In addition to her work rewriting and implementing the PDPH policy, Witherspoon worked through the years with the AHS health centers around the city to continue to raise awareness about this public health issue, and doing training and skill building through annual workshops and other related activities.
Now, though, the time has come for Marcy to move on from this role at HFP and she will be handing over related IPV responsibilities to Ashleigh Ryans, a training specialist at HFP with a background in IPV. Before coming to HFP, Ryans worked with the Bilingual Domestic Violence Program at the Lutheran Settlement House and as a social worker at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
“IPV is often such a heavy and quiet burden for folks to carry, which is why I remain so passionate about it,” Ryans said. “To be able to educate folks – be it home visitors who I work with now; doctors, nurses, and medical advocates at CHOP; or parents at Lutheran Settlement House – about what IPV looks like, and how you can be responsive, is really important to me.”
Ryans is now building on the foundation laid by Witherspoon through continuing education and support about IPV and the resources available. To contact Ashleigh, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.