In 22 years of speaking out for domestic violence victims, Linda Johanek has seen a lot change. What hasn't? Blaming the victim


CLEVELAND, Ohio – Domestic Violence & Child Advocacy Center CEO Linda Johanek is stepping down after more than two decades doing various jobs with the center.   Her last day is tomorrow. She’s moving on to work for Morino Ventures, a company that helps non-profits become high-performing agencies.

The Plain Dealer recently sat down with Johanek, 56, to talk about what she’s learned, what’s changed and what hasn’t.

We’ve edited the conversation for length and clarity.

You’ve been doing this work for a long time. What’s changed?

I’ve been doing this for 22 years total. I started at the Center in 1995, only a year after the Violence Against Women Act was passed by Congress. If you asked me then what the biggest challenge was, I’d say that we blame the victim. I’d still say that today. And that’s a bit depressing. On the other hand, I know we’ve made progress.

I always said I was going to write a book called “On the Other Side of the Door.”

Think about it. If you are on your front porch and a stranger assaults you, what is the reaction to that. People are empathic; there’s a reaction; there’s punishment.

You go on the other side of the door and you’re in your own living room and that same assault happens by your spouse or your boyfriend and it’s totally different. People don’t understand. There isn’t the empathy. Perpetrators aren’t held as accountable as they need to be.

What was the big focus in the movement when you started?

The emergency shelter and helpline were our main missions. At the time, we had three shelters. Now, we have one larger shelter, which is still important. Now, more money and effort goes into finding permanent housing for victims. We also have more programs based in 50 community locations, in schools, hospitals and clinics and courts, where we help prepare clients to go through that system, which can be intimidating. We moved from only helping people in crisis to also trying to change the systems that are supposed to help them so they work better and are less harmful and re-traumatizing.

Tell me about some moments in your work with victims that have stuck with you.

Sonya Garth came to the agency and wanted to tell her story after her daughter’s death. (Da’Via, 12, was shot and killed in 2014 by her stepfather Rufus Gray who had abused her mother.)

It is one of those moments I’ll never forget. She sat down. She was sore because she still had bullets lodged in her leg from the shooting. She said, “I never knew you were here. I didn’t know you existed.” At that moment, it was like a knife went through my heart. Because you can’t help but think, “Could that have made a difference?”

We also know how many women over the years have said to us, “You saved my life. You saved my kids’ lives.

But that was one of those moments of, “This is not OK.”

Is that one of the hard things about running a program like this? Knowing what you can’t prevent?

One of the big struggles over the years has been to protect staff members who work with the danger of losing a client or having them harmed. We have to put boundaries up. Although it feels awful, we have to recognize those limits and know that we can’t be everything to everyone. We often are doing so much and have lots of options, like safety plans and protection orders, but I’ve learned there are times that offenders are so motivated to kill, that nothing can be done. And that is tough.

Talk about some of the major accomplishments the center has seen under your leadership.

We helped create a system for hearing impaired victims to get equal access to police and services with video-remote interpreting systems at multiple locations and for officers.

We opened our Safe and Sound Visitation Center that provides place for supervised parent visits and also to safely exchange children for visits.

Read more about that center here

The agency advocated for more recognition of teen-dating violence, including laws that enabled teens to get protection orders. We worked with schools so they could teach students about the warning signs of controlling relationships.

We also started our Latina Project and Ujima Program (to better serve victims in the Hispanic and African American communities.)

We also brought together domestic violence and child abuse (merging with Bellflower Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse in 2011.)

Some questioned the merger, especially long-time domestic violence advocates who were worried about conflicts because children’s services often removed children from mothers who were victims of violence. There was a lack of trust that needed to be addressed. But domestic violence is the number one precursor for child abuse, so really, we were trying to help the same families. I took the stand that we needed to do it more holistically.

We don’t work perfectly together but we understand we have to work together. We can be out front about where we disagree but we can find common ground and bring about change in those areas where we agree.

What are some of the ongoing challenges that have been hard to address?

I used to be more cynical when people would ask, “Why does she stay?” And then, in time, I learned that not everyone understands why victims make the decisions they do. Now, I’m not as judgmental about it. I try more to explain those complexities because some people do ask in a blaming way, others really just don’t understand.

It sounds so simple, but ongoing training, making sure that people truly understand domestic violence situations. Especially people in leadership positions with police departments, courts or other agencies. That’s the piece that excites me the most, when you can change systems, you can have an impact on all people who are in that system.

Can you talk about tough calls you’ve had to make as a leader of well-known community agency?

We’ve always had good relationships with our Cleveland sports teams. I’ve had to call them, though, and say I’m doing an interview and coming out against something you did. Happened once with the Cavaliers when they had an in-house ad that mimicked “Dirty Dancing” and a man in a Cavs jersey threw the woman in a Chicago Bulls jersey to the floor. (The team later apologized.)Those are the kind of things that you go through. No matter who our partners are and how much money they give us our main role is to be a victim advocate and to raise awareness.

What has been most effective for raising awareness?

There are moments of opportunity to educate. With [NFL running back] Ray Rice situation, it was so poignant because people could see it. [Video in an Atlantic City elevator captured Rice knocking Janay, his future wife, unconscious in 2014.] She [Janay] was already on the ground and he dragged her out. It wasn’t until people saw it that they said, “Oh, my God.”

That’s the thing with domestic violence, it’s most often behind closed doors. If people don’t see it, they aren’t outraged. When they see it they are outraged.

Read Johanek’s take on Rice’s discipline

You’ve spend a lot of time dealing with emergencies and trying to fix systems but you talk often about making prevention a priority.

I feel like I’ve been on the prevention soapbox for so long and there’s still not enough support for it. United Way is one of the few [organizations] that’s really put money into prevention.

Domestic violence and child abuse are preventable crimes – just making that statement is huge. At one point in this country, 80 percent of adults used tobacco but now, because of awareness, advertising and resources it’s closer to 20 percent. We can do the same with domestic violence and child abuse.

Domestic violence was declared a public health issue by Surgeon General C. Everett Koop in the mid-1980s. That was a long time ago but we still don’t treat it that way.

What work are you leaving in the unfinished pile?

It was a huge advance for domestic violence and for Cleveland to get the support [via a federal grant] to begin using danger assessments when police respond to domestic violence cases.

Similar assessments adapted and used in Baltimore [Maryland] have so far shown the rate of domestic violence killings dropped by 40 percent. I think that we can never predict which situations will result in a homicide, but many factors do help predict the most dangerous situations. So this and the high-risk team model has potential for huge impact…not only for homicides but for re-assaults.Advocates and police alike are using the tool and seeing some initial positive results.

What improvements still need to be made?

We need to do better with things like keeping victims’ addresses confidential in police and court documents. It helps with safety and means a lot to victims. We’ve gotten better but it is still an issue.

Also, to notify victims at each step in their case [like when a protection order is issued or an assailant bonds out or is released from jail]. It’s still a major issue that we haven’t worked together on enough. It’s possible to do, especially with technology.

Anything else?

I’ve also seen a bothersome number of cases where domestic violence victims are accused of parent alienation (withholding visits or contact with children from an abusive partner).

There are many cases where both parents are doing what they need and child is happy to see the parents. But many children see and hear the abuse of a batterer and are genuinely afraid and often don’t want to see the abusive parent. It is not the domestic violence victim who is keeping their child from the abusive parent, but rather a natural consequence of the abuser’s behavior. Courts need to recognize this and understand this. It re-victimizes the child and the adult domestic violence victim.

How are you feeling about stepping away?

It’s very difficult because this has been my life’s work. It becomes a part of you. [On my own time,] People would call for advice about a friend in a domestic situation or drop off donations for the shelter at my house. That’s been my life for a very, very long time. I’m honored to have been a part of the agency, let alone lead it. I’ve met such strong survivors, committed partners and donors who support the mission. It’s time for someone with new vision and fresh eyes. It will always remain an important issue with me. When people ask what pushes your buttons, I say “injustice” and child abuse and domestic violence – being harmed in your own home – is injustice.



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