The Day – For victims of domestic violence, technology is a double-edged sword

Twenty years ago, when victims of domestic violence chose to leave their abusers, they would change their phone number. At least temporarily, that would protect them from a barrage of controlling calls and threatening messages.

Today, the process of cutting off contact with one’s abuser is more complicated: if a victim changes their phone number, their abuser may still have access to them via their email address, Instagram or Facebook accounts. If a victim blocks their abuser’s number, the abuser can turn to apps that allow them to disguise their calls behind another number, or even another voice.

Digital communication has opened new avenues for abusers to control and monitor their victims, according to law enforcement and the folks at Safe Futures, a New London-based organization that helps victims of domestic violence in southeastern Connecticut.

With tracking devices implemented in devices all around us — including the phones we carry with us — there’s no shortage of opportunity for an abuser to stalk their victim. And new technology has made it so that stalking no longer involves the often-conjured image of a person lurking in a dark alleyway or following closely behind their target’s car. Abusers can stalk their victims every moment of the day, right from the comfort of their own home.

“You have absolutely every tool available to you to stalk someone,” said Kathie Verano, executive director of Safe Futures. She said abusers can use devices such as home assistants, iPhones and even baby monitors to “trap victims in their home” or track their whereabouts outside the home.

“Every time, in our field, that we think we’ve conquered stalking, there are five more tools out there that we may not even be aware of. For everything we conquer, a new app or new device is already there to take its place,” she said. “It’s overwhelming for victims and for those of us trying to help them.”

In real time

Nazmie Ojeda, director of education and community engagement for Safe Futures, said cellphones have increased the amount of control abusive partners have over their victims.

“Imagine a victim — back in the day without a cellphone — whose partner knows how much time it takes to get from home to the grocery store, to the gas station, to school pickup and back home,” she said. “Now let’s add an iPhone, with GPS tracking and a family share plan, now your partner is connected to things like where you are and how you’re spending your money, in real time.”

They can react in real time, too, she said.

“They can text you when you’re on your way to the grocery store. When you’re on your way home. Now you’re driving and your cellphone is pinging,” she said. “Whatever the conversation is, it doesn’t necessarily have to be violent or even crude, it’s the fact that you’re trying to live your life and you have this person literally on your every move no matter what you do.”

“I’ve sat with victims who are in my office, asking for help and their phone is blowing up with their partner asking ‘Where are you?,’” Verano said. “We’re talking about 50 texts in 15 minutes.”

And those texts can turn from casual to threatening very quickly, she said.

That constant communication “makes it harder for victims to cut off their abusers because there are countless other platforms in which they can contact them,” Verano said. And, she noted, “you can’t possibly turn off every notification on their cellphone.”

To help, Safe Futures often asks for donations of track phones to give to victims.

‘You don’t realize it’s happening’

Chief Brian Wright of the New London Police Department said these controlling communication and tracking patterns often develop from less alarming behavior. “It starts with adding each other on social media,” he said. “Especially for young couples, the first thing they do is follow each other’s social media platforms, then they may start sharing passwords.”

From there, he said, it develops from observations about who someone is following, where they’re posting from, or who is liking their posts. For a jealous or controlling partner, these behaviors can escalate to abuse quickly.

“And then it starts spiraling out of control,” Wright said.

The chief encouraged people — especially younger folks who focus on how many friends, followers or likes they have — to pay attention to who is, quite literally, following them.

When it comes to social media, he said, it’s important for young people and parents to “understand the pluses and minuses, the do’s and don’ts of every platform.” Pay attention to which apps track and share your location; who has access to that information and why; and be as diligent in disabling location sharing and access to posts when relationships end as you are about enabling them when it starts.

Verano also said it’s vital to remember that controlling, abusive relationships don’t typically start that way; they develop over time through patterns of behavior that escalate and intensify.

“When you’re getting five texts from your new boyfriend, it’s new and it’s special,” she said. “And that’s how it develops. It’s not like someone does these things off the bat, because if they did, that relationship or that behavior wouldn’t even be entertained.”

“A lot of people think ‘I would never let that happen to me,’” Verano said. “But the thing is, you don’t realize it’s happening.”

An ongoing conversation

Wright said that from a law enforcement perspective, the best way to help combat domestic violence is to have continuous, evolving conversations about healthy relationships and share resources for those who need help.

“It’s important that we all collectively work together to ensure that we stay educated, and we stay aware, and we’re open to that dialogue and that conversation,” he said. “Because if you keep it in the shadows, that’s when situations tend to get out of control and lead to some horrific situations.”

In New London just last month, a young couple died in a homicide-suicide. In the hours and days leading up to the incident, friends said that Nikeuri Rodriguez’s threatening behaviors were escalating toward 18-year-old Arisleidy Batista.

Batista’s best friend Janiyah Williams said Rodriguez told Batista he’d been recording her conversations in their apartment that day on an old cellphone. The last time Williams saw her friend alive, Rodriguez had been texting her repeatedly threatening to steal their rent money or take his own life. That night, Rodriguez shot Batista multiple times, killing her, and then died by suicide.

Ojeda said ongoing conversations are key, and for parents or friends trying to protect a victim, it isn’t about restricting the victim’s behavior. It’s about encouraging them to consider what the behavior is costing them.

“Ask them to reframe their thought process about how often and why they’re communicating the way they are with their partner,” Ojeda said.

By doing that instead of limiting their access to their cellphone or laptop, she said, “you put the concern on your individual child, or whoever this person is that you care about,” instead of criticizing their partner.

“You’re not putting a negative spin on the behavior of another individual,” she said.

These days, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, people rely on their phones for connection and community. It’s a tool to stay informed and it’s a form of socialization that shouldn’t, in most cases, be taken away, Ojeda said.

“We don’t want to encourage folks to remove themselves from the communities they are a part of,” she said. So instead of talking to a loved one about deleting their social media, sharing less or putting down their phone, “The conversation needs to be about safety planning and setting boundaries.”

Ojeda said she often approaches this conversation with young folks by asking them to add things up like they would a bill. “Let’s think about what the cost of this is for you,” she says. “how much do you pay?”

She reminds them that constantly having to report back to their partner is interrupting their day, costing them time; feeling anxious about not having their phone to text their partner back is costing them peace; having to check in at the end of the day is costing them sleep.

“Now that we know what this is costing you on a day-to-day basis, I say ‘lets multiply that by a week, a month. Where do you see yourself in a year with that individual?’” she said. “And I remind them that healthy relationships add value to our lives, they don’t take away.”

Two sides of the coin

Making people and information on their location accessible and available all hours of the day has made many domestic violence victims’ lives worse.

But in some cases, phones and computers can be a lifeline or trove of evidence.

“There’s a fine line with respect to the help and the harm this technology enables,” Josh Adams, a spokesperson for Safe Futures, said about smartphones. “Abusers can absolutely use a victim’s phone to keep tabs on their whereabouts, and to further isolate someone by restricting that person’s ability to communicate with others.”

But phones can be a double-edged sword. Sometimes, the abuser’s digital footprint can help a victim who takes legal action: “harassing messages and the like make for powerful evidence when cases go to court,” he said. “Our phones are tools. Who’s using that tool and for what purpose makes all the difference.”

Ojeda agreed. “There are just so many ways that victims are impacted by the amount of accessibility that people have to each other. If technology creates accessibility for the bad, we have to remember it creates accessibility for the good; there are two sides of the coin,” she said.

That’s why, she said, it’s important to reframe conversations to promote healthy relationships, not restrict freedoms; to encourage access to resources, not cut out communication and community.

“We can’t be afraid of how the world is changing, we just have to adapt,” she said. “It is prudent and it our duty as domestic violence providers to be up to date on how we can use these forms of technology to benefits our survivors, not to create fear or perpetuate shame.”

Although the situation always changes case to case, Ojeda said, it’s always about reminding a victim of their autonomy and the value of their relationship with themselves.

“It’s not about telling folks to get off the grid,” she said, “it’s about empowerment.”

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