Kate Abruzzino: Devoted Advocate for Survivors of Domestic Violence
Victim advocacy work is not for everyone. The job requires a great deal of empathy, compassion, and a willingness to listen and problem-solve — all skills exemplified by Kate Abruzzino.
Since 2009, Kate has worked in Victim Advocacy services for OneEighty, based in Wayne County. She is a Licensed Social Worker, has a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work from the University of Akron, and is a Registered Advocate with Senior Status through the Ohio Advocate Network. After spending 13 years as a Victim Advocate & Outreach Specialist, she is transitioning into her new role of Victim Advocate & Outreach Manager.
“Our work every single day is so different,” says Kate. “I have been in this position of advocacy for a while now and every day when I come in, I’m learning something new.”
Kate manages the work of three Victim Advocate and Outreach Specialists, the Coordinated Community Response Specialist, the Community Education and Outreach Coordinator, and supervises interns from the University of Akron who are pursuing their degrees in social work. She also continues to carry a full advocacy caseload.
Her team provides victim advocacy supportive services for intimate partner violence or domestic violence, dating violence, stalking, as well as sexual violence, including sex trafficking. Their services fall into five categories: safety, support, education, referrals, and outreach. All services are paid for by grants, meaning they are free, and are guided by the survivor’s desired next steps.
“We may be talking to somebody who wants to stay in [an abusive] relationship, and we can still provide support,” says Kate. “If they are thinking about leaving, we are thinking about their safety and helping them problem-solve. We are there so they aren’t walking alone through this.”
The outreach work of Kate and her team has an enormous reach in Wayne and Holmes counties, where they maintain close relationships with community legal aid resources and other organizations that provide support for their clients. The team often accompanies clients to appointments with service providers or to court for criminal, domestic relations, and juvenile hearings. For example, a survivor may not want to go alone to a child support hearing with their abuser—discussions about money can quickly incite an abusive individual.
Her team provides outreach to underserved populations including victims currently incarcerated in jail, immigrants and refugees; deaf, Amish, and LGBTQ+ persons; as well as visiting and speaking to community organizations, universities and colleges, and rural communities. They manage support groups and the Hospital Advocate Program, part of the local Sexual Assault Response Team, which connects them to survivors of rape and domestic violence with injury.
The Role of a Victim Advocate
“We aren’t attorneys, we aren’t counselors,” says Kate. “Our role is supporting [survivors] as they make the best choices for themselves and trying to help them have as many options as possible.”
In everything they do, Victim Advocates are there to walk alongside survivors on their path to safety. Rather than direct the survivor to take any specific action, such as initiating divorce, the advocate is there solely as a support and resource. You also do not have to make that initial in-person meeting alone: Many survivors choose to bring along a family member or a friend.
“I feel like it’s so important for people to know that just reaching out to a Victim Advocate is how you get information,” says Kate. “It doesn’t mean that anything has to happen. We can meet them at a private, local place—even at their place of employment.”
She also notes how important it is for businesses to be proactive about recognizing the signs of domestic violence. Sometimes, an individual who looks like an irresponsible employee may be a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault. Perhaps they are arriving late to work because their partner withheld access to the car. Maybe they are exhausted because they were up all night in an argument.
“Sometimes we’ve supported someone in the hospital who was just raped, and then they have to leave and go back to work,” says Kate. “How are you going to do your work and just act like nothing happened?”
This is an important reminder for all employers to consider what might be occurring in an employee’s personal life that could be hindering work performance. Employers or coworkers who have concerns for a colleague can reach out to OneEighty at any time for more information, resources, and ways you can support that employee.
Understanding Domestic Violence
A major emphasis in victim advocacy work is educating everyone in the community on the dynamics of domestic violence.
“It’s not the black eyes that people think,” says Kate. “It’s very rare that someone who meets with me or any of our advocates has visual injuries because most abusive people know better if they are hitting someone. They’re typically not going to do that or, if it has happened, the survivor is going to hide until it heals.”
Kate describes how she, the other advocates on her team, and her interns regularly hear a similar theme, or sequence of events, that runs through the stories of many clients they serve. It usually begins like this: You meet a person who seems to be everything you’ve ever wanted, usually funny or charming.
“They walk through the world with people liking them,” says Kate. “That’s very common. You might have a shared history of some sort and that’s how you bond. They’re usually easy to talk to so they want to listen.”
This individual is listening to you and supporting you, but at some point, Kate remarks, things change.
“Usually when you make a commitment, when you get pregnant, when you live together, or when you become engaged,” says Kate. “At that time, instead of building you up, they start tearing you down. That’s when the gaslighting starts: They’ll say something, take it back, and make you feel like you’re crazy. It just becomes a real mind game.”
The Power and Control Wheel
It can be difficult to explain the pattern of behaviors and manipulation used in domestic violence situations. A common framework for helping illustrate the many tactics an abusive partner will use to keep their victim in a relationship is the Power and Control Wheel, originally developed by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project in Duluth, MN.
“The outside of the wheel shows that physical and sexual violence—or the threat of it happening—surrounds the relationship between the victim and perpetrator of violence,” says Kate. “The inner spokes contain the variety of areas where the abusive person whittles away the victim’s sense of self, ability to have choices, relationships with outside people, including family, and causes many losses, such as jobs, education, and safety.”
This includes financial abuse. One common example is a couple deciding together that a mother will be a stay-at-home mom, but then being told she needs to ask permission to spend, being questioned about using her working partner’s money, or being given an allowance. Other additional categories that are not on the original wheel but important to note are spiritual abuse and academic abuse, which can look like someone trying to keep their partner from pursuing the education they want or need to complete.
Kate and her team took the Power and Control Wheel and used it as the basis for developing a resource for the local Amish community: the result was the Amish/Plain Community Power and Control Wheel. They incorporated input from local survivors from Wayne and Holmes counties, their support networks, and lots of conversations with professionals that have worked with people in the Amish community. Kate was the Domestic Shelters 2022 Purple Ribbon Award Winner for Rural Initiatives of the Year for her work on this project.
“I just didn’t have that right handout that I wanted to be able to give [a survivor] coming from the Amish community,” says Kate. “I was recently able to give that wheel to a new client that’s a survivor from a local Amish community, and I was able to tell one of the survivors that helped create our wheel that she is helping other women.”
What It Takes to Ask for Help
“Typically, by the time someone reaches out for help, it’s gotten so awful they just can’t take it anymore,” says Kate. “[Many survivors are] really broken when they come in.”
She notes that often no one else in the survivor’s life knows what is going on. Dealing with an abusive and controlling partner can be time-consuming—and often, their behavior has caused friends and family to want to keep their distance.
“I have had people come in that are so down and feel so overwhelmed that they just feel totally hopeless,” says Kate. “Even when somebody is at that level, it is hard for them to set aside their desire to help this person and get free because there is a trauma bond there.”
The Victim Advocates at OneEighty will conduct safety planning with the survivor. This process usually includes building up support by telling one or two people about the abuse, making a plan for financial security, looking into assistance for rent or moving costs, and so much more.
“Safety planning can be preparing for the ‘what ifs’ such as what if you run into the abuser while shopping, what if they file for custody, what if they get drunk and start talking about suicide,” says Kate. “It can include self-care, personal growth, and building skills so the person doesn’t rely on their abuser.”
Kate’s team can assist with arranging civil standby with local police, completing a danger or stalking assessment, and obtaining protection orders or no trespass letters, among many services. The first step is to make that decision to call and reach out for help.
The Best Way to Get Help
Every person, whether they are personally the victim of domestic violence or are the mother, father, sibling, friend, boss, or coworker of the individual, can reach out to Kate and her team at OneEighty to request resources and guidance. The best way to contact them is by phone.
“If you are just worried about somebody, call,” says Kate. “Our support is always free for family and friends, and we can do safety planning with the victim or with the family of the victim.”
- Safe at Home program
- Intimate Partner & Domestic Violence booklet (Wayne County)
- Self-Help Legal Manual