Meet Kirsten Rambo, Executive Director of Stand Strong

Living in Pismo Beach, where we connect you with some of our favorite people who live and work on the Central Coast. Those community and business leaders who make living on the Coast such a unique and diverse experience.

Episode #14

Kirsten Rambo, the Executive Director of Stand Strong

Kirsten Rambo, the Executive Director of Stand Strong, joins Ashlea Foster Boyer, Shannon Bowdey & Jordan Hamm on Living In Pismo Beach.

Ashlea Boyer:

(silence) I’m excited for this week’s guest. It’s a little bit more of a somber topic, but one that deserves our attention as a society to try to be better. Kirsten Rambo is the executive director of Stand Strong, formerly known as the Women’s Shelter Program of San Luis Obispo County. She came to California from Atlanta, Georgia, where for six years she led the National Domestic Violence Prevention Program at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the CDC, and worked in Africa on projects in Malawi and Sierra Leone.

Shannon Bowdey:

Kirsten has been working in the field of domestic violence since 1997. She has been featured in local and national media, such as CNN and NPR, and authored numerous publications about domestic violence. Her book Trivial Complaints: The Role of Privacy in Domestic Violence Law and Activism in the US was published in 2008 by Columbia University Press and won the American Historical Association’s Gutenberg E-Prize. She has coauthored the CDC publication on domestic violence prevention Preventing Intimate Partner Violence Across the Lifespan.

Jordan Hamm:

Previously, she was for five years the executive director of the Georgia Commission on Family Violence, a statewide agency dedicated to addressing family violence in Georgia through research, policy, education, and coordination of local, community-based efforts. As the executive director there, she successfully led two major grassroots legislative campaigns to preserve domestic violence services statewide. Let’s welcome Kirsten.

Kirsten, at the beginning of the shelter at home lockdown for California, a New York Times article was published tying a surge in calls to domestic violence hotlines to the COVID pandemic. Did you also see these locally?

Kirsten Rambo:

Yeah, we definitely did at Stand Strong, although not right away, which was interesting to us. So we knew that it was coming based on all the news reports from other countries and just what we know about the issue in general. We knew there was nothing about the lockdown that was going to make things better or safer, right, for people at home who are experiencing domestic violence.

So the thing that surprised us is that we weren’t hearing about it right away. We didn’t exactly know why, but we were hearing from law enforcement that their domestic violence calls were increasing, and so we were sort of hypothesizing, theorizing about that with our friends at Rise. They do similar work to us in the North County, and just realizing that either in some cases folks were just sort of bypassing us and going straight to law enforcement because it was just sort of that bad, that they needed that more immediate intervention. Then also a thing that really kind of became clear is that people didn’t have a way to reach us in the ways that they normally do.

So typically, our clients reach out to us. They call our crisis line when they have a moment to themselves, a safe moment to themselves. So they’re calling when the abuser finally leaves for work or when they themselves leave for work or when the children go to school, because they don’t want the children to hear that crisis call to us, right? All those moments that they could reach out to us were no longer available to them, right?Because everybody’s just at home now sort of 24/7, and in some cases not even leaving for the grocery store. You’re not leaving for the haircut. You’re not leaving for any of those moments that you would typically be leaving for.

So that let us know that it was hard for them to reach out, for one thing. They were less safe than they typically were, because that also means the abuser has sort of uninterrupted opportunity to continue their violence and abuse. It also let us know we should prepare for a surge once things opened up a little, and we have seen that. Between January and June, we saw a 95% increase, the difference in those two months, just in our counseling clients. Our calls to crisis line went up. Calls for legal services went crazy in the month of June, just really high numbers, and calls to the crisis line as well.

So we really did see that. At the same time, we were also seeing things like people needing to extend their stay at our safe house, because, typically, it’s a 30-day stay at our safe house. Then we can extend that if need be. We don’t usually extend it past 60 days. What we found when COVID struck was our clients were losing jobs left and right, losing wages. You can think of all the many, many local businesses, as you all know, that were impacted and are still impacted. So people were getting laid off and just not having income or having their hours drastically cut. Then, on top of that, really hard to find a safe place to go to, right, during a pandemic.

So on one hand, you’ve got people who are really not eager to come into a safe house, a communal living space with a bunch of people you don’t know during a pandemic when it’s all about a contagious disease, a contagious virus. But, at the same time, if they’re there, they don’t have good options about where to go. So we ended up really extending a lot of those those stays. Likewise, we have transitional housing units where people stay that are longer term. People do pay rent based on their income to stay in those units, and we’ve had to really work with people there, too, because income that they did have just vanished.

We think about that stuff from a safety perspective, right? Financial stability means security and safety for our clients, and so that’s kind of the lens that we think about those things. So yeah.

Ashlea Boyer:

Yeah. That news article, I read it. It was a couple months old, because it was talking about China, and the victims, of course, their names were changed. But one woman also said that the constant togetherness exacerbated their arguments. So they had less time to argue when they were at least going apart from each other for eight hours of the day. Then now they’re just constantly together. So there were more frequent arguments, and they would blow up to much bigger situations. Some of the things that happened to her were hard to read. So yeah.

Kirsten Rambo:

I think even people in healthy relationships experience that, right? There’s a reason absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Ashlea Boyer:

Oh. yeah.

Kirsten Rambo:

Getting a little distance from your partner, your kid, it’s all really healthy. Your coworkers, even. It’s all healthy to get that breathing room. So to take a relationship where violence is already a factor or maybe right on the edge, right, of violence and then subject it to a lockdown situation where really nobody can go anywhere, it’s just a really big stressor. So really hard for folks to deal with, and then, like I say, on top of that, not really being able to reach out safely for help, it’s just a bad combination.

So we’re grateful that when things opened up at least a little, we really got those calls and folks were able to really contact us. That, for us, feels better than quiet.

Jordan Hamm:

Than silence, yeah.

Kirsten Rambo:

Quiet is concerning in this field. We never think, “Oh, the phones aren’t ringing. I guess everything’s great. Everybody must be great.”

Jordan Hamm:

No.

Ashlea Boyer:

Unfortunately, no.

Shannon Bowdey:

Yeah. Oh my gosh. Yeah. So domestic violence is sometimes referred to as intimate terrorism. Why is that term preferred?

Kirsten Rambo:

Yeah. I love this question. I love this question. That’s great. I think it’s a great term. Domestic violence has a lot of names. People call it intimate partner violence. Back in the day, it was called wife battering or domestic abuse. As a field, we’ve been talking for a long time about which terms are better, which terms resonate. At stand strong, we usually say domestic violence, just because it’s the one that’s most well-known, that I think resonates with people the most. When you say domestic violence, people know what you’re talking about, for the most part.

I love your question about intimate terrorism, because it is much more accurately descriptive of what’s going on. Sometimes people hear domestic violence, and they think, “Oh, that doesn’t pertain to my relationship, because I haven’t been hit” or “I haven’t been choked” or whatever physical thing hasn’t happened. Intimate terrorism captures so much better the dynamics of an abusive relationship, which is one person exerting power and control over another person. It’s a very clear power dynamic. It’s not a mutual thing. It’s not, “Well, sometimes this one’s this way, and that one’s that way.” It’s like, “No.” This is a power dynamic where one person is on the top and one person is being subjected to that person’s abuse.

I think intimate terrorism captures that, because intimate suggests it could be a current partner, spouse, dating partner, et cetera. It could be someone you live with, or it doesn’t have to be. It could be someone you’re dating. It also could be an ex. It’s so often an ex, an ex who didn’t like that you ended the relationship. So I like intimate, because I feel like it sort of more broadly captures that, and domestic sort of suggests it’s at home, right? It’s like the person has to be living in the same space as you, which is often the case, but often not the case. Someone who stalks you typically doesn’t live with you. But man, are they terrorizing you, right?

So I think terrorism is really a very apt description in terms of the way survivors describe their experience. When survivors talk about what was most harmful to them, they often say that what was the hardest was this person isolating them from their friends and family, controlling what they wear and where they work and how much money they do or don’t have, using their children against them. Pitting the kids against them is so painful, and then keeping them just in fear for “If you step out of line, here are the things that are going to happen.”

So survivors talk all the time about sort of walking on eggshells and just moving through the world and through that relationship with this level of fear sort of always present, because you feel like the abuser is always there, watching. They’re always monitoring you. They’re using technology, the phone, whatever to just make sure that they’re controlling all these aspects of your life. Often, that happens with no physical violence whatsoever. But I think terrorism is a really good way of expressing that, because it aligns so well with what survivors tell us about what their experience has been like.

I also like it because we often think of terrorism as a societal problem and something that we sort of all have a stake in. I think of domestic violence that way. It’s not just a problem of this one relationship over here or this person over here. It’s really we as a society, we have to do better about creating a culture where this kind of relationship, these kinds of behaviors are not acceptable. So calling it terrorism I think elevates it sort of out of that individual level and says, “Guess what? This is a societal problem. It’s something we all need to work on.” So thank you for that question. I love it. Now the trick is just to get it to catch on, right?

Shannon Bowdey:

Right. That’s right. Yeah.

Kirsten Rambo:

[crosstalk 00:13:52] the challenge.

Ashlea Boyer:

Okay. Well, with California’s COVID-19 case numbers continuing to rise, it appears that schooling will be distance learning from home, God save us all, at least at the beginning. So I’ve heard that it affects children who also might be living in an abusive household, and I have heard some theories about that from teachers and such. But what’s your take on that?

Kirsten Rambo:

Yeah, it’s really scary. I mean, we’re in such a bad position with this pandemic, right? Because what’s good broadly for public health in terms of not transmitting the virus can, at the same time, be so dangerous for people who are living with an abuser, and little kids are so vulnerable. When the lockdown first started, you probably saw all these reports about, “Numbers of child abuse cases are going way down.” Again, I think most people reporting that understood what that was about. Again, in this field, we’re not going, “Wow, that’s great. People stopped abusing their children.”

The terrifying thing is that what did stop happening was those kiddos coming into contact with people who are mandated reporters. So the reports went down because they weren’t going to daycare. They weren’t going to school. They weren’t going to places where there are people who are mandated by law to, if they see something, say something.

Ashlea Boyer:

Pediatricians, all those people. Yeah.

Kirsten Rambo:

Right, right. So it’s really terrifying and sad to think of kids being stuck in situations where the outside person who can intervene and help is not there. You don’t have access to that person. This is a really sad and scary situation, and I don’t think that there’s a good answer right now. I mean, a big part of it for us is just doing everything we can to let people know we’re here. Call us. Often, if a child is being abused, then one of the parents is being abused as well. It’s that same person who’s abusing their partner or spouse and abusing the child or children at the same time.

So letting people know that we’re here, they can reach out is really important. But yeah, there’s not much good to say about it. I mean, it’s just a really scary situation. Again, as things open up, I think you’re going to see a pretty big explosion of folks needing resources around that.

In my experience, part of what fuels abuse is when abusers are left unchecked, when there’s no barriers or sanctions for them, there’s no one saying, “Hey, you can’t do that,” whether it’s the legal system, whether it’s a mandated reporter. When there’s no intervention, that sort of emboldens an abuser to keep going. As you said, Ashlea, all the stress of being home together doesn’t help the child abuse situation and can just exacerbate it, because, as we all know, you need a break from your kids sometimes, too, and they need a break from you. That doesn’t mean it’s anybody’s fault or that anybody’s … Certainly, we would never say anybody is provoking violence against themselves. That’s not how it works. But all of those additional stressors of lost wages and constant together time just exacerbate a situation where someone who is inclined to be abusive has all kinds of access and often nothing stopping them, which it’s a really hard situation. Yeah.

Jordan Hamm:

Well, we are all home, but is there a way that we can get some telltale signs via phone or anything if we’re talking to friends or seeing neighbors outside that there could possibly be an abusive situation in their household?

Kirsten Rambo:

Yeah. I mean, some of it is the stuff that everybody knows about, like when you hear things at your neighbor’s home, which maybe you do more now, because we’re all home more, and so you’re here. There’s more opportunity to hear what’s going on.

Ashlea Boyer:

An argument or something like that. Yeah.

Kirsten Rambo:

Yeah. Yeah, everybody’s home more, so the likelihood of you hearing it is sort of increased. But the other piece is that so much of abuse now happens over technology. Phones are a really big part of that. So something that we share with anybody who will listen is about those warning signs having to do with technology. So if you have a friend or someone, a coworker or someone in your life, who seems like they’re so attached to their phone in a different way than we’re all attached to our phones right now, right? It’s 2020, and this seems to be our shared condition, is we’re all attached to our phones.

But if it’s someone who has to sort of check in all the time and if my partner texts me and I don’t get back to them right away, I’m in trouble, that’s a huge, huge red flag, particularly if that person is contacting you all the time, like many, many times an hour, you’re hearing from that person, and it’s like, “I’ll interrupt whatever I have to, anything that’s going on, no matter how important it is, because I have to get back to this person.” That’s a really big red flag.

The other stuff is just about, again, this is harder during COVID times, but in general, if you have plans with someone and they keep canceling them at the last minute. You’re contacting that person, and they just can never talk to you on the phone. You want to have a conversation, and they just can’t, because they always have an excuse about, “Oh, I have to go” or “Now’s not a good time” or anything that would suggest to you that there’s someone in their life who is constraining their ability to interact with you or other people who are close to them. Those are all red flags, too. That may not be an abusive situation, but often those are the things that people in that person’s social circle can see. Sometimes it’s a gut check, too, like, “This doesn’t feel right.”

I will say that, for lot of us, if we know the abuser, we often know that person to be warm and charming and funny and kind. I think as a society, we have this misconception that abusers crawl out of the sewers at night, and they’re green and hairy or whatever. It’s like, “No.” Just about any time that someone murders their wife and children, in the story in the paper, they always interview the neighbor, who says, “But he was such a good guy.”

Ashlea Boyer:

“He was so kind.”

Kirsten Rambo:

“I saw him out there.” Yeah, “He was so great. I saw him out there, mowing his lawn every Saturday” or “He was a great Little League coach,” because people are complicated, and they’re not just a monster 24/7. So I wish that we as a society would allow for the possibility that that person that we know to be funny and charming and picks up the tab when we go out or whatever also can be creating that intimate terrorism in their own home, in their relationship.

The hardest thing for survivors is that you finally get the courage to speak up, and you’re met with some going like, “Oh, that can’t be. No, I know that person. They’re great. They would never do that. Are you kidding? That’s old so-and-so. We’ve been playing tennis together for ten years. I know that they would never do that.” So much of what we’re about is helping survivors to find the courage to speak up, and so our whole thing is just believe somebody when they tell you. Just believe them, and if your gut is telling you, “I think something’s going on here. This doesn’t feel right,” believe yourself, even if you have all this other information going, “No, I know this person. I don’t think they’re like that.” If your gut’s telling you, “This is weird,” then listen to it, because it can be true that the abusive person is your wonderful friend who’s been so funny at every Happy Hour and also goes home and abuses their partner and/or kids. It’s terrible, but it’s true.

Shannon Bowdey:

[inaudible 00:23:10]. So what you all do is very important to our community. What is the best way the community can help support what Stand Strong does? Would it be monetary donations or donations of any supplies or specific items?

Kirsten Rambo:

Thank you for asking that. Monetary donations are definitely the most helpful thing, because we can do the most. We can get sort of the most bang for our buck with that. Right now, we’re really, really limiting what we will take in because of COVID, trying to minimize traffic to our office, traffic of people donating and traffic of clients. We’re providing almost all our services remotely, some still on site, and certainly the safe houses, different story. But all that to say monetary donations, absolutely. We always have a critical need for those, and you can just go to our website, which is standstrongnow.org. There’s a donate button there that’s sort of the quickest and easiest way, but there’s other info on how to mail us a check and that kind of thing. So yeah.

Ashlea Boyer:

Very good.

Shannon Bowdey:

Well, thank you. That’s good.

Ashlea Boyer:

Thank you so much for coming on and talking about this. It’s a difficult topic, but, like you said, we all can, as a society, be better in dealing with this and helping others get out of situations and hopefully changing it in the future.

Kirsten Rambo:

Yeah, that’s what we’re working on.

Ashlea Boyer:

So I really appreciate you coming on. Yeah.

Kirsten Rambo:

Yeah, thank you for having me. Can I say one more thing?

Ashlea Boyer:

Oh, yeah, for sure.

Kirsten Rambo:

Speaking of what you just said about changing our society, we do have prevention programming now in some local schools. We have a program called Coaching Boys into Men and another one called Athletes as Leaders that work with high school-age athletes and their coaches, boys and girls, female-identified and male-identified students and their coaches on taking the idea that those kids are often role models for other kids in their school communities. They’re learning, hopefully, about respect and how to be a good teammate and all of that stuff, how to be a leader, through their sports programs. So these are evidence-based programs, actually, that have been tried and tested and proven to reduce violence.

Ashlea Boyer:

Oh, wow.

Kirsten Rambo:

Yeah. So we’re taking those principles and basically … You’re already a leader in your community. You’re already learning these good skills. How do we translate that from the field or the court or whatever into life and relationships, whether it’s with dating partners or parents or whatever it is, and having those kids be sort of ambassadors for healthy relationships in their social circle, in their school community?

It’s exciting, because, like I say, they’ve been tested, and there’s evidence that it actually works to reduce violence. So I just want to say, on a hopeful note, it doesn’t need to be like this forever. We absolutely can create a world and a community here in SLO County where this violence doesn’t have to happen, and we’re working toward it. We’re on our way to doing it, and it’s pretty exciting stuff. So we would love to have folks join us in that effort.

Ashlea Boyer:

That’s awesome. That’s fantastic. Breaking the cycle, because you get into that whole repetitive … They had an abusive person in their life, and then a large number of them go on to be abusers. It seems like that would be a great way for a program to drive a wedge in that cycle.

Kirsten Rambo:

Exactly, exactly, to say, “Hey, there’s a better way.” The generation that’s coming up, they’re really smart. They’re smart and they’re thoughtful, and they’re questioning a lot of things right now, right? Which is what young people do, anyway. But it seems like this generation in particular is doing a great job with that and saying, “I don’t think we have to do things the way we’ve always done them.” We’re saying, “Yeah, and also relationships are part of that, right?” So we can have relationships built on equality and mutual respect and consent and all of that, and it’s pretty exciting, because they get it very, very intuitively.

Ashlea Boyer:

That’s awesome. Well, thank you so much.

Kirsten Rambo:

Thanks, guys.

Ashlea Boyer:

Thanks for taking the time in your busy day. I know you had a busy day.

Kirsten Rambo:

Yeah, no, but it was great, great to see you guys, and good luck with everything.

Shannon Bowdey:

Really enjoyed it. Thank you.

Jordan Hamm:

Thank you, Kirsten.

Shannon Bowdey:

[crosstalk 00:27:41]. Bye.

Ashlea Boyer:

This is Ashlea Boyer …

Jordan Hamm:

… Jordan Hamm …

Shannon Bowdey:

… and Shannon Bowdey with the Pismo Beach Home Team.

 

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