What Can I Do? – Moving from Bystander to Advocate

When House of Ruth staff are out at events, we often have people approach to say, “My friend/sister/aunt/co-worker is in an abusive relationship. What can I do?” We sat down with Shirley Cabrera, one of our therapist interns, to gather some information on how bystanders can become advocates for victims of domestic violence.

Shirley has worked for House of Ruth since 2008, and she is the only bi-lingual therapist on staff. In her role, she provides emotional support to women who experience domestic violence and children who have experienced any kind of abuse or trauma in the home, school, or the community.

bystander supporting victim

When you talk to patients, how often does someone outside the situation play a role in helping them connect to DV services?

About 75% of the time, in my experience. Either a friend or family member, or the Department of Child and Family Services, law enforcement, and hospitals.

What bystander behaviors or actions do victims mention that encouraged them to address the abuse?

Giving them a phone number to call and ask questions, so they can find out how House of Ruth can help them in their particular situation.

They also praise people who:

  • Are positive and listened to them as they thought out loud about a plan or just let them make sense of the situation
  • Open up their home or offer space if they need a place to stay
  • Encourage them, telling them they can heal, they can have a better life
  • Offer them options (like a phone number, a community resource, etc.
What are bystander behaviors or actions that victims say made them feel more isolated or unsupported?

“I told you so.” Sometimes bystanders see the signs of abuse before the victim does. Then, if the victim finally sees it too, they bring it up.

Also, for some Hispanic clients or clients from certain faith communities, bystanders might tell them that marriage is forever and they should stick with him because they chose it, saying things like, “This is your cross to bear.”

What can someone do if someone close to them (ex. A sister, a good friend) is in a relationship that seems abusive?

In conflict resolution, we would say showcase the positives of the situation, then introduce the concern gently: “This is what I appreciate about you, this is what I have observed, and I am here to be supportive.

If the victim confirms abuse, be there to listen, be respectful and nonjudgmental, help problem solve, offer options and unconditional support.

You have to identify what is out of your control (like the victim’s decision to leave, stay, or return) and what is in your control (offering options, helping safety plan, etc.). That is hard as an individual, to recognize that it is their life, not yours, and respecting their decisions.

What if someone doesn’t know the person well, but is a witness to or suspects abuse? Like a neighbor or co-worker?

If a victim approaches you, be supportive. One time a client mentioned that her abuser left her home and she thought her neighbors were unaware of the situation. So she approached her neighbors, even though she was embarrassed and ashamed, and explained the situation. She always kept her back porch light off, and she asked them to call the police if they ever saw it turned on.

Sure enough, the abuser showed up one day and after entering her home became abusive. As she was trying to get away, she managed to turn on the back light, her neighbor called the police, and the abuser was detained.

If they don’t approach you, you can find a safe time to approach and offer support. If they are in immediate danger, you should call the police.

If an individual is being abused by a partner, does that automatically mean that their children are being abused?

No. But it is a very thin line. The abuser is still putting them in danger, exposing them to violence and teaching them the same unhealthy behavior.

We have clients who say, “Oh, he is the best father,” which is why it is so confusing for the children, who can have these very conflicted feelings.

What should a bystander do if they are concerned that children are directly experiencing abuse or neglect?

If you see signs that the child is being abused (ex. the child talks about an incident, has bruises, etc.) you can anonymously call the Department of Children and Family Services to report your suspicions.

Any other things you want bystanders to know?


  1. Studies have shown that abused individuals may return to an abusive partner 7 times before finally leaving for good.
  2. The more unconditional support a woman has, the greater the success rate for her to practice healthy coping techniques, set boundaries, and/or end the abusive relationship.
  3. You can educate yourself about domestic violence (the cycle of violence, community resources, etc.) and get support for yourself, because it can be very draining and could take some time for the victim to navigate their situation.