Rev. Dr. Anne Marie Hunter

The NYC Elder Abuse Center welcomes Anne Marie Hunter, M.Div., Ph.D., Director of Safe Havens Interfaith Partnership Against Domestic Violence. Rev. Dr. Hunter is an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church, has worked for two battered women’s service groups and written and taught about domestic violence and faith for more than 25 years.  Her elder abuse work  began in 2008.

Here Rev. Dr. Hunter discusses the importance of faith leaders and  faith based organizations in elder abuse work. She highlights elder abuse cases, draws upon research and illustrates the importance of partnerships.

“Helen” was 76 and living in her home alone. She attended church regularly, where she was deeply involved. Helen’s husband of 52 years, “George,” was in a coma in a nursing home, and Helen visited him frequently.

After George died, Helen’s pastor visited her to talk about the funeral and support Helen in her grief. To the pastor’s surprise, Helen’s first comment was “thank God he’s dead.” Helen then disclosed, for the first time, a long history of emotional, physical, and verbal abuse.

The response of Helen’s pastor is critical. As one victim said, “One look [from a faith leader] that says, ‘I don’t want to talk about this’ or ‘I don’t have time for this’ will shut a victim down for another 20 years.”1 Fortunately, Helen’s pastor had received training about abuse through a local domestic violence (DV) service provider. Although not an expert, he listened to Helen’s story, answered her faith questions, reassured her that her faith community was with her, and referred her to a local support group for older victims that could help her grieve and heal.

Why didn’t Helen get help sooner? Like many older victims of abuse, Helen thought that domestic violence services were for women with small children. She had served in WWII, and as part of the “can-do generation,” she didn’t like to ask for help or “air dirty laundry” in public. In addition, she believed that her faith required her to stay in the marriage no matter how unsafe or unhealthy it might be.

Helen was not unusual in being deeply faithful or in reaching out first to a faith leader. A 2008 study of older victims found that, “Respondents, especially minorities, often indicated that their ‘first stop’ would be a member of the clergy if they were to discuss their DV with anyone.”2 A 2003 study found that “older women would seek help from a place of worship if they experienced abuse.”3

Faith-based organizations are a critical resource for older victims, especially victims in racial, religious, and ethnic minority, rural, low-income, immigrant, and refugee communities. For service providers that need to reach and serve older victims, faith community partnerships are critical. Canadian researcher Elizabeth Podnieks comments: “The paucity of studies that look at elder abuse in religious communities speaks to the presence of a significant gap in our understanding of elder abuse . . . . This important social support for seniors is not well tapped.”4

As part of the OVW-funded Elder Abuse and Faith project, select Elder Abuse experts and faith leaders gathered in Chicago, IL in April 2012 to think strategically about building partnerships among service providers, APS, the aging network, and faith communities. Included as a national expert was NYCEAC’s Risa Breckman, who spoke movingly of the need for faith communities and service providers to think of themselves as a collective voice that speaks up to raise awareness about and end elder abuse.

As the population of older adults in the U.S. increases dramatically over the next few years, “development of services specifically suitable to the needs and desires of older women who experience domestic violence is vital.”5 Partnerships among community-based service providers, the aging network, Adult Protective Services (APS), and faith communities are critical to meeting this need and helping older victims access and benefit from existing services.

These partnerships are carefully built over time and established on mutual respect and trust. Each of the players brings something unique and important to the table. Service providers, APS, and the aging network bring much-needed expertise, services, and resources. Faith leaders bring a knowledge of the family (often across generations), the individuals involved, and the culture and mores of the community. Faith leaders also are well-respected and trusted, are more likely to hear disclosures, are important first responders and gatekeepers, and are key to encouraging victims to focus on safety and seek and accept services. But how do we begin to build these critical interdisciplinary partnerships?

The Office on Violence Against Women of the U. S. Department of Justice has recently funded Safe Havens Interfaith Partnership Against Domestic Violence and the National Clearinghouse on Abuse in Later Life (NCALL) to work together on a groundbreaking project on Elder Abuse and Faith. Safe Havens and NCALL produced an Elder Abuse and Faith Toolkit, which you can access and download for free from www.interfaithpartners.org or www.ncall.us. Here, you will find information for service providers about how to reach out to local faith communities, as well as information for faith leaders about elder abuse and how to respond. All older victims deserve the safe, effective, and collaborative response that helped Helen find hope and healing.

Rev. Dr. Anne Marie Hunter is the Director of Safe Havens Interfaith Partnership Against Domestic Violence. She has worked for two battered women’s service groups and written and taught about domestic violence and faith for more than 25 years.  Her elder abuse work  began in 2008.

  1. Survivor of elder abuse, Lynn, Massachusetts, 2009. []
  2. Richard Beaulaurier, Laura Seff, and Frederick Newman, “Barriers to Help-Seeking for Older Women Who Experience Intimate Partner Violence: A Descriptive Model,” Journal of Women and Aging, Vol. 20(3/4) 2008, p. 240-241. []
  3. Elizabeth Podnieks, EdD, RN and Sue Wilson, PhD, “Elder Abuse Awareness in Faith Communities: Findings from a Canadian Pilot Study,” Journal of Elder Abuse and Neglect, Vol. 15, No.3/4, 2003, p. 123. []
  4. Elizabeth Podnieks, EdD, RN and Sue Wilson, PhD, “Elder Abuse Awareness in Faith Communities: Findings from a Canadian Pilot Study,” Journal of Elder Abuse and Neglect, Vol. 15, No.3/4, 2003, p. 123. []
  5. Richard Beaulaurier, Laura Seff, and Frederick Newman, “Barriers to Help-Seeking for Older Women Who Experience Intimate Partner Violence: A Descriptive Model,” Journal of Women and Aging, Vol. 20(3/4) 2008, p. 231. []

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