Real violence in paradise


By: Elan S. Mallette

Zoë, whose name has been changed to ensure her privacy and protection, knows the reality of this violence all too well. In April of 2011 Zoë, a junior at Hawaii Pacific University was raped by a family member of one of her close friends in her apartment. After her attack, Zoë decided to seek justice, and drastically change the course of her life.


Today, Zoë is a senior at HPU studying Justice Administration and Psychology. She is currently working for Victim-Witness Kokua Services, as a Victims Advocate for victims of domestic violence, and says this is the work she was always meant to do.

“I think because of this job it’s become much easier for me to talk about what happened to me,” Zoë said. “By helping the victims I work with, I have found a sense of justice and inner-peace for myself.”


At work, Zoë performs a number of tasks that involve working directly with victims of domestic violence, and says that those who believe Hawaii is void of these crimes are naive.

“Hawaii has one of the highest percentages of domestic violence in the nation,” Zoe said. “I mean we have a whole day at work dedicated to court congestion because there are so many cases.

According to Zoë, lack of resources is a contributing factor to high caseloads, and that it’s Hawai’i’s legislature that needs revision, in order for there to be progressive change.

“I think it has a lot to do with legislative negligence, and their inability to revise the laws in order to better protect these victims,” Zoë said. “There are just too many cases, and not enough advocates.”


Domestic violence is a national epidemic, affecting nearly 6 million women each year.  Worldwide, at least 1 out of every 3 women will be physically, sexually or otherwise abused in her lifetime. Unfortunately Hawaii is not immune to this reality, and domestic violence on the islands continues to be a significant social problem.


Zoë said that despite their caseload, there are a number of resources that her office can provide for victims seeking help.

“There is a building right next to ours that allows people to fill out a Temporary Restraining Order or TRO, these are small things that are easily attainable within a 24 hour period,” Zoë said.

Zoë stressed that the hardest part of her job is when victims are unwilling to come forward and seek help, and that for people who are dealing with any form domestic violence, assistance is the one thing they really need.

“I understand that it’s a hard thing to do, I was there once,” Zoë  said. “It pains me to see these women, and it’s just sad when they can’t confront their abuse and seek the justice they deserve.”


In 2011, all of the identified local domestic violence programs in Hawaii participated in the 2011 National Census of Domestic Violence Services. From the data collected, it was determined that 87 percent of all unmet requests were for non-residential services, and among the unmet requests counseling, legal advocacy and children support were of the most requested services.

Among the programs that participated in the census, 50 percent reported insufficient funding, 44 percent reported not enough staff, 25 percent reported not enough specialized services and 6 percent reported limited funding for translators, staff and accessible equipment.

So what do these statistics mean? Is there a reason Hawai’i is lacking in terms of resources, and what needs to happen in Hawai’i to ensure adequate resources and services are available for victims suffering from domestic abuse?

Susan Hippensteele, a licensed attorney and professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, has dedicated herself to educating as well as working with a wide range of abuse victims, including students and low-income families.

According to Hippensteele, there is a wide range of factors to consider when looking at domestic abuse in Hawaii, and that finding a long-term solution–while complex, is possible.


“The challenges involved with providing the safety needs for someone who is being abused here are overwhelming,” Hippensteele said. “There are states that are worse than us, and there are states that are better, but I consider that an unfair comparison because of our geographic isolation.”

According to Hippensteele, because Hawaii is such a small state, it makes it incredibly hard to provide proper safety and shelter for victims of domestic abuse. Hippensteele also points out the extreme financial cost that comes with moving victims into a neighboring county or island.

“It’s just really hard to hide from anybody here,” Hippensteele said. “For example, if you are living in California, you can move a county away without as much difficulty. Here, even moving to another island doesn’t guarantee safety.”


Hippensteele said that because of the recent cuts in social services and shifts in priorities of state governments, access to wide-range resources are sporadic, at best. Some of these resources include prevention education services, long-term counseling for adults and children and services for abusers.

“When you look at what we are able to provide victims of domestic violence, we’re in the lower quadrant nationally in terms of our overall resources,” Hippensteele said. “We really should be at the top in terms of resources we are allocating to this problem, because the needs of victims of domestic violence are so much greater here.”

Like Zoë, Hippensteele agreed that making more resources available starts with the community demanding more from their state legislature, and making it known that this issue needs to become a priority.

“If you think about the moral fiber of a country being evaluated based on the quality of life of its most disadvantaged citizens, and then you consider all of the poverty and oppression of the people left adrift here in the United States, it really is sad,” said Hippensteele.


According to Hippensteele, the recent focus of those working in this field has been on emergency response, like crisis-care and legal intervention. While Hippensteele agrees these are necessary tools, she maintains that all focus should not be on emergency response, but instead on long-term prevention.

“People who work in this field know that if we don’t focus on prevention, we are just looking at future generations of family abuse,” Hippensteele said. “Because violence creates dynamics that become very difficult to escape, often times children involved learn unhealthy communication patterns and so much frustration in their own lives that they don’t have healthy ways of dealing with the stress in their own lives.”

“People who have worked in this field for a long time know, that by not committing service resources to children and to families this is the reality we are looking at.”


According to Hippensteele the ways in which future generations are raised will play a pivotal roll in future attitudes toward domestic violence, as well as our ability to deal with violence we may encounter in our own lives.

“Your generation seems to have different expectations for your own levels of independence,” Hippensteele said. “If women are growing up with the expectation they will be supporting themselves financially, this can change the family dynamic and reduce certain stressors.”

According to Hippensteele, many of the women victims who feel stuck, are not working or don’t have the financial means to remove themselves from the violent situation. If a greater proportion of the female population is of an independent mindset, this could have a potential impact on the overall way we see domestic violence play out in future generations.

“If women are socialized from an early age to be independent and in control of their own career trajectory, this might create long-term change,” Hippensteele said.


When we consider the importance of prevention, the question of where it should start is often raised. According to Hippensteele, it is important for methods of prevention to be instilled in family and school dynamics, but because of public policy only so much can be enforced.

“We debate constantly about family versus school, but we know that both are important,” Hippensteele said. “Schools are responsible for teaching a number of things, and there is no reason they shouldn’t teach some basic life-skills, which include basic communicating.”

Hippensteele explained there are basic fundamental skills that are instilled in children when they are forced to communicate effectively in school, and that if this behavior can be reinforced throughout schooling; problems later in life could become less likely.


Often times people associate domestic abuse in Hawai’i with some kind of cultural influence, or assume that this abuse occurs here specifically, because it has been deemed acceptable within the community. While varying opinions on this notion exist, Hippensteele remains adamant that this is not the case.

“I think the idea that there are particular cultures that are predisposed to be misogynist and violent towards women is ridiculous,” Hippensteele said. “There has been so much violence done to Hawaiian culture, I mean how do we even start unpacking that?”

Hippensteele said oppression, poverty and stress are all factors that contribute to violence of all kinds, including family violence, and that if we look at communities in any part of the U.S where this occurs, violence is bound to be prevalent.

“The kinds of things that have been done to Hawaiians and other groups here like cultural genocide and racism, all come with effects that can emerge as violence, Hippensteele said. “ This does not mean that it is part of their culture, and this kind of violence can be seen in communities of all types where factors like that are present.


One of the major problems associated with domestic abuse is finding a safe way out for the victims of these crimes. When a victim wants to leave their abuser, is it as simple as walking out the door, and do those who choose to stay really need help?

“Nobody wants to be abused,” Hippensteele said. “People typically stay “by choice” because they want the abuser to change, because there are times when their abuser is apologetic or because of concerns about how they will survive without their abuser financially.

According to Hippensteele, many victims deal with innumerable threats, and feel that if they leave, their abuser will find them and the violence may escalate.”

“There are all types of reasons why people quote unquote choose to stay,” Hippensteele said. “It can be frustrating when we reach out and offer support, and a person rejects it or says they want to leave but then don’t.”


It is clear that both Zoë and Hippensteele bid a key resource for victims; a helping hand, and despite the state’s lack of resources and prioritization of this issue, there are safe havens in Hawai’i for victims in need.

According to Hippensteele there are distinctive services and agencies that people can go to for specific types of support, but that first and foremost people need a support network and safety plan.

“There are people who can help victims develop a safety plan,” Hippensteele said. “You can also go online and find resources that explain what a safety plan is, and how to prepare one that is tailored to a specific situation.”

It is always important to share the safety plan with someone, so that when the victim is ready to leave, all parties involved are prepared to aid in a safe exit. It is also important for victims to build a good support network, and communicate with people who they feel can be trusted.

For victims, letting go of what they had hoped for in their relationship can be tragic, and having a support network in place is fundamental to successfully being able to making an exit,” Hippensteele said.


With her past behind her, Zoë hopes to work toward a law degree while continuing her work with victims. While she admits she still suffers from anxieties associated with her sexual assault, Zoe maintains that the work she does now acts as a coping method.

“I feel a great deal of empowerment in what I do now,” Zoë said. “So much good has come from something so horrible. This is my life now.”