By Ed Roth
While October is set aside as Domestic Violence Awareness, every month of the year you can find Janice Podzimek doing everything she can to make sure those in danger are safe. This is particularly pressing as the spread of COVID-19 has led to a surge in domestic and family violence across the country and added extra challenges for those working hard to ensure the safety of those in danger of family violence.
While staying at home has been suggested for avoiding infection, being in close quarters has been an inescapable nightmare for some. Abusive partners are unable to handle the pressures of isolation and escalating financial upheaval, adding stress and trauma to the life of the abused. As a result, some abusers are likely to develop anxiety disorders, depression, and/or suicidal ideation, leading to them acting out violently on those closest to them.
It’s important to understand that the abuser has developed a carefully planned bond with their victim: When they have built trust, they can then slowly tear away that trust, but never completely eroding it. Control and power over the victim is the ultimate goal.
Before COVID-19 entered our everyday lexicon, survivors of domestic abuse had outlets outside the home, like work, school, or regular visits with friends, where others recognized the signs of mistreatment and friends could notice changes or stress. Without those outlets, there are fewer chances for intervention.
For three decades, Podzimek has been finding resources and community support for victims, which can mean the difference between life and death.
Earlier in her career, Janice worked at the Minnesota Brain Injury Alliance (MNBIA) and volunteered at Tubman Shelters, where she collaborated with MNBIA to customize the HELPS brain injury screening tool for use in domestic violence shelters. It allowed her to build a great foundation for her current role as Interpersonal Violence Liaison at the Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona (BIAAZ) where she continues to use her deep understanding to create solutions, often providing a personal touch. “When your life is in upheaval due to removing yourself from a violent situation, there is a lot on your mind” Janice said. “However, after they are safe, we want people to know it’s okay to take care of themselves and talk to someone about the possibility of brain injury.”
Many survivors of violence are focused on their day-to-day survival and not focused on their brain health. Studies have shown that in domestic violence situations 90% of the blows land on the face and the head. The potential to affect the brain, temporarily or permanently, is great. And it doesn’t even have to be a blow to the head to cause a brain injury.
“Throughout my career, I have been able to work with survivors of violence who don’t understand that things like choking or strangulation during an attack can cut off the supply of oxygen to the brain, causing a brain injury,” Janice said. Her work with survivors has led to a lot of “aha” moments as the survivors learn about the possible brain injuries that could have occurred.
After relocating to Arizona, Janice started work at the Brain Injury Alliance as the Director of Survivor and Professional Programs, before identifying the need for specialized support for survivors of all types of violence and stepping into that role.
She stresses the importance of careful planning. “Studies show that, for many, leaving the abuser can be one of the most dangerous times,” warns the Duluth, Minnesota, native. “If they find out the victim’s plan to leave, their rage and power control turns into increased abuse, and all too often, murder.”
So, why do some stay with their abusers?
“There are many reasons,” says Podzimek. “There is the fear of children or pets being harmed or killed. Also, many don’t have the financial ability to just walk away. They are truly trapped.”
What’s more, “the constant bumps, blows, and jolts to the head and neck make it hard to think clearly and make any plans. But that’s not all. There is the feeling of shame if people knew what was happening, then the fear of starting life over on your own, without the abuser.”
She knows from her own personal experience.
In her current role, Janice guides Arizona-based survivors of violence through the maze of medical, legal, neuro, and community resources. The mission is personal. Fifteen years ago, Janice was in need of some help herself. She was, at that time, a survivor of domestic violence. The breaking point came after her then live-in boyfriend brutally attacked her while she was sleeping. “That’s when I decided enough is enough, I need to leave him and this abusive relationship” she recalled.
In hindsight, she recognized the signs. “For me, it was the isolation from my friends and family, not being allowed to see or speak to them as much as I wanted.
“Also, he would tell me that he could harm or kill me and no one would find me. When someone tells you that, and you know they are serious, it chills you to the absolute bone.”
There were other warning signs that she was in an abusive relationship. “Not only did he control the household finances, but he would humiliate me about various things in front of others.
“He would get raging mad at seemingly little things. Later, he would say he was sorry for hurting me and wouldn’t do it again, but of course he did, and the abuse got worse.”
Podzimek planned her escape for weeks, making sure he didn’t know any of the details, or that she was even thinking of leaving. “I went through days as normal. When the time came, and I knew he would be out of the house for a few hours, I grabbed my important documents, my kids, our belongings, and we fled.”
Now she is committed to helping others do the same but acknowledges there are tough obstacles to overcome. However, it is much easier because of organizations that can help with planning and getting people to safety.
“As the Interpersonal Violence Liaison with the Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona (BIAAZ), I connect domestic violence survivors to services that include housing and financial assistance, temporary pet boarding, and medical and psychological counseling for survivors and their children. Our services are always free and confidential.”
One innovation she has updated to reflect recent CDC recommendations is the HELPS Brain Injury Screening Tool. Originally developed by M. Picard, D. Scarisbrick, and R. Paluck in 1991, this questionnaire is essential for helping professionals determine if a survivor is suffering from a brain injury.
HELPS stands for:
- Have you ever hit your head or been hit on the head?
- Were you ever seen in the Emergency Room, hospital, or by a doctor because of an injury to your head?
- Did you Lose consciousness or experience a period of being dazed and confused because of an injury to your head?
- Do you experience any of the Problems in your daily life since you hit your head?
- Any significant Sicknesses?
Working closely with Carrie Collins-Fadell, Executive Director of BIAAZ, and others, Janice is developing workshops throughout the state to train professionals how to use this tool.
“What is incredible about the trainings and screenings that Janice is building is that she has an entire team of resources and supports for survivors of violence behind her,” said Carrie Collins-Fadell. “Janice and her team don’t want you to just tell someone at a domestic violence shelter that they probably have a brain injury, they want you to refer them to us so they have the help and resources to allow them to thrive while living with a brain injury.”
Podzimek agrees. “We’re living through uncertain times and we must rise to the occasion. We can do better. Abusive partners are using this coronavirus to make a bad situation even worse. Nobody should have to live like this.”
“If I have one message to those suffering at their hands, it is that people and organizations are here to help. You don’t have to go through this alone.
“There is hope.”
The organization expects the ripple of instability that 2020 has brought to families to impact domestic violence cases for years to come. We know right now in Phoenix, domestic violence cases and deaths are up 150%,” said Carrie Collins-Fadell. “We also know that the stress and financial instability will impact families for months or years to come, which causes more stress and more violence.”
Ed Roth was raised in Chicago and has had a long and diverse career in the entertainment and media industries. He currently resides with his family in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he enjoys playing tennis year-round.