Good Life

Q&A: Jennifer Pencek

Jennifer Pencek is the programming coordinator for the Penn State Center for Women Students.
Jennifer Pencek is the programming coordinator for the Penn State Center for Women Students. CDT photo

Jennifer Pencek has witnessed domestic violence in her own family, which is part of the reason why she is now a programming coordinator for Penn State’s Center for Women Students.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, which means she is about to become a lot busier planning programs around Penn State and utilizing social media to spread the word about what’s happening. She recently discussed the current issues revolving around domestic abuse, including how to deal with abusers and victims, the NFL’s handling of the Ray Rice case and why victims might stay. There are no easy answers dealing with domestic violence.

What does the Center for Women Students at Penn State do on campus?

The Center for Women Students is the on-campus advocacy and support center for students typically dealing with crisis issues, so we will often help students that are dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault. It could also be a student dealing with dating or domestic violence or some other type of relationship violence. It could be a student dealing with stalking, body image, any issue that could have an impact on students that they’re struggling with or they just might need to be talked through, we’ll help them with.

What matters to you the most about working with students who have been affected by sexual assault, stalking and harassment?

For me, what really matters most is making sure that people understand that there is help available to them. No matter what issue they’re facing they’re never going to be blamed here. They’re never going to be judged here. I think that’s really important for students and anyone who is dealing with the aftermath of something like sexual assault or domestic violence. We’re going to support you. I think with a lot of these types of crimes there’s a lot of self-blame victims have, and the fear they won’t be believed. They don’t know what questions they’ll face. We want people to know it’s safe to come forward and get help they might need. We’ll then put the power in their hands as to what they want to do.

What October programs will the Center for Women Students offer?

Well, on Oct. 6 we have Denise Brown coming, and Denise is the sister of Nicole Brown Simpson, who was killed in 1994. I think, hopefully, people will remember the trial and everything, but since that time Denise has been a big advocate regarding dating and domestic violence issues. It’s going to be at 6:30 p.m. in Heritage Hall in the HUB. Really, she is going to paint a picture of what relationship violence can look like, especially for college-aged students. The event is free and open to anyone. ... That’s our big event. We’ll also be utilizing social media throughout the month to raise awareness, and we’ll probably have smaller events, too..

Ray Rice, after indisputably assaulting his girlfriend, was allowed into a first-time offenders program, something usually done for nonviolent or victimless crimes, instead of being tried in court on assault charges. What does this reveal about how we confront domestic violence?

I think it really shows there’s still this gap there. Depending on what area you might be in, there’s a huge gap between what people perceive as what justice would be and what certain laws are. Laws can also be different depending on where you are, so I think that can be really frustrating to understand. It’s frustrating to see certain people being punished one way and certain people being punished another way, and you don’t necessarily know the reasons. You just hope when there is a public case like this that it gets people talking. I’ve heard a lot of people talking about it in the media and otherwise. Even if Ray Rice doesn’t go to jail for something, I think this specific incident can be a really big lesson for other people in that situation. It can be a great force for dialogue, especially about victim blaming and looking into why someone would stay in a situation.

How do you feel the NFL should have handled the case?

I’m really not sure, because there are all these rumors about what they knew before or what they saw before. Without having all those facts in place, I don’t think I have a place in saying what they should have done. Now, knowing everyone has seen both videos, I think it’s also sad people would have to see both videos themselves to say ‘OK, that was definitely an abusive incident.’ I wonder why the first video wasn’t enough for people to be outraged seeing a young women being dragged out of an elevator. It’s not as if he ran out in the video, saying ‘Oh my gosh, I need help.’

Why do some women stay in abusive relationships? Are there recurring themes?

First, I should say in the majority of cases women are the victims, and men are the perpetrators. Certainly, men can also be victims, and women can be perpetrators. You can also have same-sex situations.

In terms of why a victim would stay, there are a lot of reasons. One could be fear. Oftentimes in abusive relationships it’s not a one-time thing. It’s something that has happened before and it’s something that tends to escalate. There could also be a lot of self-loathing. I think with physically abusive relationships, there is also mental and emotional abuse oftentimes. If people really think about how good they feel when they get positive affirmation, imagine what it’s like when you’re told a lot of negative things. You can start believe those things — that you can’t find anyone better, that you can’t survive without them, that you can’t find anybody else to love you.

Also, people’s backgrounds where if people grew up in abusive households, maybe it’s something they’re used to seeing and don’t recognize it’s wrong. They might think that’s just how relationships are when really that’s not a healthy relationship at all. ...

I think a lot of times, too, the abuser tends to cut the victim off from a support network, and then people might think they’ve burned bridges of loved ones.

Are there challenges with prosecuting abusers?

Not every victim is necessarily going to contact police. It’s similar to sexual assault where not every victim will report to authorities. Depending on evidence in different jurisdictions there could be a case prosecuted even if the victim doesn’t want charges pressed. There are also complexities where there are charges and an arrest, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to go to trial. That’s really up to the DA’s office to determine what happens with the next step. So, another reason someone might stay in an abusive relationship is that they’re not confident they’ll be safe after they report a crime. It’s not an easy situation to be in at all.

How should abusers be treated?

If people go on our website under Know The Facts and Relationship Violence, there is advice for dealing with both the victim and the perpetrator. There is a list of different steps for each, so dealing with a perpetrator: You’re always honest. You talk about the victim with their name, so it really hits home. Show that there are resources for both available. There’s counseling that can take place, but first you want to make sure the people are safe in the situation. Then, the next step is getting counseling for both sides, but not necessarily together.

There are people that can be rehabilitated. It depends on the person and the situation and how honest that person wants to be. They have to want to take those steps. I know a person, personally, who was violent in the past and took appropriate action steps to correct that behavior. He is no longer like that. It’s important for both sides to know there are resources available to them.

How should victims be treated?

I think it’s very similar to how one would interact with a sexual assault survivor, because whether it’s about sexual assault or domestic violence, people often worry about being believed. They’re worried about questions they’ll face. They can be worried about shame associated with it when they really aren’t at fault at all.

So, for victims, be a good listener and listen to what they tell you. Be as supportive as possible. Let them know that you believe them and that you support them with whatever decision they make, even if you really want someone to call the police or to do certain decision. Be as supportive of their decisions as possible. Also, know that there are resources in your area and introduce those resources and offer to go with them, offer to make a call, offer to be there for them. The biggest thing is for victims to feel supported and to feel safe.

Also, you don’t want to push them to do things. Don’t say they have to leave someone. You want decisions to be in the victim’s hands even though you really want to tell them what to do. Give them support and information and empower them to make decisions for themselves.

Have we as a nation made progress in recognizing and preventing domestic abuse? What can we do better?

If look back 20 years, there weren’t a lot of resources. There was also a lack of knowledge from some service providers, so I think there’s been a huge shift positively with regard to law changes, more resources available, and I think more people are educated about it, too.

I think for work to be done, it needs to be an ongoing, educational conversation. We can’t assume everyone has the same way about thinking about these issues. I think there is always a need for continued education throughout the year all the time. For parents, talk to your kids as they grow up about healthy relationships. I think Denise Brown will be talking about coming out of the darkness in a sense, because it doesn’t have to be a silent epidemic. If people just talk about it and start the conversation, that would be huge for people dealing with relationship violence.