New Support Group for Survivors of Domestic Abuse Draws Concerns

Leaders in local survivor support community voice worries about lack of training

By Clare Menzel

Starting on Oct. 6, Restart4Us, a women’s ministry in Evergreen, will begin a weekly evening meeting “attending to abused women in ‘Christian’ relationships,” as Pastor Bob Thornton recently wrote in a document detailing the program’s purpose.

The credentials of the three women who will lead the group include “God-given gifts of close listening and instruction,” as Thornton said, but they have not had any specific, specialized domestic violence or trauma-informed training, nor has Thornton, who plans to work with groups of male abusers during the session.

“Are they trained counselors? Not so much,” he said, adding, “I don’t have domestic violence training.”

“Secular training is no more advanced than the Bible,” he continued. “The words Jesus spoke are sufficient to meet any needs. (Secular society views) this abuse as a certain thing that needs special training. It doesn’t need training … We’re not trying to do mental health care. It’s more spiritual.”

While spirituality may be involved in the complicated emotional and psychological problem of partner abuse, trauma-informed treatment, safety planning, and community collaboration are other necessary pieces to the puzzle, according to Hilary Shaw, executive director of the Abbie Shelter and violence-free crisis line, a service provider for survivors of domestic violence in the Flathead Valley for 40 years.

“The problem of providing these services without training is that it’s dangerous for survivors,” Shaw said. “The danger of providing domestic violence services without having domestic violence training is you can perpetuate myths, you can provide inappropriate guidance.”

“The word of the Bible is not sufficient,” she added. “(Providing support to survivors of trauma) is not something you just do because you have a big heart … I feel scared about survivors seeking help (at Restart4Us).”

She also expressed concern about Thornton working directly with abusers without training because, as she said, “the whole identifying factor is that they’re manipulative.”

For nearly five years, the Faith Covenant Church in Kalispell has offered services to survivors of domestic abuse through a program called the Refuge, which Shaw called “fantastic,” as well as a 40-week-long men’s group called Turning Point. They currently serve over 25 women, and the program is based on scripture, but it’s also informed by extensive, domestic violence-specific, and trauma-informed training.

“We believe that training is necessary,” Sissy Hashley, director of the Refuge, said. “Domestic violence in and of itself is such a big monster. The Bible speaks specifically to oppression — which is how we translate abuse, as oppression — but it doesn’t speak specifically on how to handle oppression and what counseling is most effective and the reasons behind supporting a woman.”

“For a doctor, (the Bible) wouldn’t tell him to do surgery,” she continued, drawing an analogy. “We think (training), it’s the only way.”

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