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Program helps 'secondary survivors' support loved ones in abusive relationships


Lisa Haskins desperately tried to help a family member survive an abusive marriage.

"I didn't know if I could say something in certain situations, like when he put her down, or if that would make things more difficult for her,” Haskins recalled. “There were times where I would hear things from the kids and I just really wasn't sure what to do."

That's not uncommon for people close to abuse victims.

RESOLVE of Greater Rochester, which provides support and services to people who have left or are leaving abusive relationships, hears from parents, friends, co-workers and employers of people experiencing intimate partner violence, or domestic violence, who say they don't know how to help.

"They are feeling frustrated, they're feeling powerless, they're feeling helpless, based on their friend or loved one's circumstance and situation,” said RESOLVE clinical social worker Carly Ianuzzi. “They have a strong desire to help them, to fix them."

Ianuzzi is part of the team that developed RESOLVE's new Secondary Survivor program. It formalizes the kind of support services that the nonprofit was already providing informally.

The program offers counseling sessions to help people understand internal and external boundaries: the limits of what they should or can do to support the person in the abusive relationship, how to create a safety plan, when to involve the police, and how to practice self-care.

"When someone is experiencing trauma or an abusive relationship,” Ianuzzi explained, “we can't really fix it for them. We can only support them as they make those changes on their own."

Haskins wishes she had that kind of support when her loved one was looking for a way to escape years of abuse.

Haskins' relative ultimately took her own life.

"If I had known resources were available, if resources had been available,” Haskins said, “I believe it really could have helped us and made a difference and gotten her to a safe place."

Haskins, a RESOLVE board member, became involved with the organization so she could turn her family’s tragic experience into something positive, a way to help others.

“If I can help one person to not walk in our shoes, it’s worth every investment,” she said.

In addition to receiving practical advice to supporters of abuse victims, RESOLVE will also offer additional services to secondary survivors who may be experiencing vicarious abuse from witnessing their loved one’s abuse.

Ianuzzi said that may include conversations that offer clarity about what happened in an abusive relationship, a deeper understanding of the dynamics of power and control, and the character deficiencies that are sometimes present in an abuser.

"If that may provide peace and resolve in their healing process,” she said, “that is absolutely something that we can provide and really would encourage people have experienced that traumatic grief to explore."

In some cases, Inanuzzi said, if the secondary survivor is experiencing grief, anxiety, or symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, they may be referred to a primary trauma therapist.

Beth Adams is a reporter at WXXI News, a media partner of CITY.