The Black Dot: Project Sanctuary cited in Internet domestic violence awareness campaign

Last week, a well-intentioned Internet campaign swept through Facebook and other social media platforms, going viral in a matter of hours and garnering millions of hits.

The “Black Dot” Campaign was founded as a way for victims of domestic abuse to silently signal another person – perhaps a family member or friend –that they are being abused.

The signal consisted of drawing a small black dot on their hand and “flashing” the dot to someone who might be able to provide help. Photos of supporters displayed their hands sporting black dots, standing up for domestic violence victims.

Though the Internet campaign was shared by millions – even supported by the likes of television personality Dr. Drew Pinsky, not everyone in the domestic violence community was convinced of the merits of this campaign.

Like many others who work with domestic violence victims, Dina Polkinghorne, executive director of Project Sanctuary, weighed in on the project. What she didn’t expect was her comments spreading throughout the Internet, posting not only on Facebook, but reaching BuzzFeed – the massive news and entertainment site.

Project Sanctuary was one of several agencies that addressed concerns about the campaign, honoring the intentions of the campaign organizers but suggesting that there are other, better, safer ways for domestic violence victims to reach out.

In addition to the Ukiah Daily Journal, Polkinghorne was contacted by a London radio station for an interview. “We had no idea that our comments had gone viral until you contacted us,” Polkinghorne noted.

Her comments, as well as the comments of other agencies and domestic violence victims sparked a second wave of interest in the campaign.

“The Black Dot campaign is a very well-meaning idea, but a bad idea nonetheless. I believe that the woman who started the campaign is a survivor herself. The campaign is spurring conversations but there are better ways to go,” she explains. On its Twitter feed, Project Sanctuary explained that victims could be putting themselves at risk by drawing something on themselves that their abuser could see. “Another issue with the campaign is that not everyone you flash the black dot to is connected to social media,” she continues.

“The campaign is getting a lot of attention, so abusers may also be aware of it. They might question why their partner would have the dot on their hand. A well-meaning family member could also see the dot, and inadvertently compound the violence,” she explains.

“The Black Dot was a way to silently tell someone that you are in a domestic violence situation, but when would it be appropriate to use it? At the grocery store? At the doctor’s office? Someone who was being completely controlled would be told by the abuser that they want to be in the exam room, so the victim would not be able to tell their doctor that they were in a domestic violence situation.

“Most medical professionals are highly trained to look for cues that might suggest someone was being abused. They would ask the alleged abuser to leave the room to have a confidential conversation, and the black dot would not be necessary.”

Polkinghorne suggests that there are many ways for concerned friends and family to help a person whom they suspect might be in an abusive relationship.

“If you’re a domestic violence victim and you are alone with a friend, you have an opportunity to say something to them,” Polkinghorne explains. “There are many options available.”

“If someone suspects that a friend or family member are being abused, they can call Project Sanctuary. Because services are confidential, people sometimes think that they can’t call us and just talk. All staff have signed confidentiality agreements. We don’t even discuss cases among staff in order to protect the confidentiality of our clients. If people are concerned about local confidentiality, they can call any domestic violence agency or hotline.”

In these conversations, says Polkinghorne, staff help the caller assess the problem and what friends and family can do to help. “We receive many calls from mothers who are concerned about their daughters or grandchildren. We discuss the red flags with them and suggest ways to help.”

There are many “silent pleas for help,” says Polkinghorne, which, if observed can help caring family members provide support.

“General warning signs include a person seeming overly afraid or anxious to please their partner, and going along with everything their partner says or does. Do they seem to check in too often with their partner? Do they constantly have to report their whereabouts and what they’re doing?”

Other warning signs include receiving frequent, harassing phone calls from a partner, insufficient excuses for bruises and injuries, or missing school, work or social occasions. “If she’s wearing turtlenecks or other inappropriate clothing in the summer or if she wears sunglasses indoors, she could be covering up bruises or other injuries.”

Another concern is if the victim seems to be restricted from socializing with family or friends, if the frequency of socialization has changed dramatically or if the victim rarely goes out without their partner. Limited access to money, cars or credit cards can indicate control issues. “More serious signs include the person appearing depressed, anxious or suicidal, or if their self-esteem has plummeted.”

Often, those in abusive relationships are the last to see the warning signs for themselves, Polkinghorne explains.

“Do you feel anxious around your partner? Do you try to please him or her to avoid being hurt or to ‘keep the peace?’ Are you criticized in front of others? Are you blamed for everything? Are you expected to report your whereabouts at all times? Are you threatened with harm or violence?”

Sexual and physical abuse is probably the most blatant form of abuse. “Physical and sexual abusers threaten to kill you or your children. They force partners to have sex, purposefully make sexual activities painful, hit, push, hold partners down or cause others physical harm,” says Polkinghorne.

But all abuse isn’t physical. Polkinghorne stresses that emotional abuse is far more insidious than physical abuse. “I can’t tell you the number of emotionally abused victims who say, ‘I wish he would have just hit me, because then it would have been over.’” The scars from emotional abuse are long-lasting and difficult to overcome.

Abusive partners frequently switch between kind and hurtful behavior. They control the finances and make the majority of relationship decisions. They make you wait all the time and make you feel like something is wrong with you for being upset. They are jealous for no reason, make you feel powerless and minimize their abusive comments or behavior.”

“If you suspect abuse, ask your friend or family member if something is wrong. Express your concern. Listen and offer your personal or professional help. Support your friend’s decisions and get information for yourself so you can be the best possible advocate.”

Polkinghorne says creating a safety plan is one way that family and friends can help the abused person to begin an exit strategy. “It’s very scary to think about leaving an abusive relationship. Statistics bear out that the most dangerous time for people in domestic violence situations is when they leave the relationship. People ask us, ‘Why don’t people just leave the relationship?’ When the abuser holds the credit, the money, the keys, when the abuser’s name is on the lease and the victim has no job and their family lives in New York, what are their options? This is why a safety plan is important. Save money and ask a family member or a friend to hold it for you. Keep copies of important documents. Seek professional help and stay in contact with a trusted friend.”

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. “Though the Black Dot Campaign may not be the perfect answer to help victims of domestic abuse, there is so much people can do to support their loved ones and help them find a way to a better life,” Polkinghorne concludes.

For more information, visit Project Sanctuary on Facebook, on Twitter @p_sanctuary and online at