Second-grade teacher Carie Charlesworth was fired from her job at Holy Trinity School in San Diego last June after a domestic violence dispute with her ex-husband. Charlesworth reportedly told a co-worker that she had had a violent argument with her ex-husband that had escalated over the weekend, and that she had called the sheriff's department three times on him since (Ma, 2013). Her ex-husband then showed up at the school where she worked. Even though no one was hurt and he was arrested, Charlesworth was fired because the school was afraid her ex-husband would remain a threat to students and staff members there. Charlesworth's children were also told not to return to the school.
Charlesworth's story is hardly an anomaly. One in four women in the U.S. will be abused by a partner during their lifetime, and 75 percent of victims will be harassed by their abusers while at work. Many victims of domestic violence, especially stalking victims, are fired or are asked to leave their jobs for an extended period of time because their abusers pose a perceived threat to the victim's workplace. Unfortunately, firing a victim makes them more financially dependent on their abusers and more vulnerable to future abuse. In general, "women without their own financial resources or who are economically dependent on their abuser are more likely to stay with their abuser or to return to their abuser if they have already left, and they are less likely to get a restraining order against their abuser."
It is not unusual for a victim's co-workers to feel threatened. In one study, co-workers "revealed that they felt obligated to cover for a victim by performing the victim's work or offering excuses for the victim's absences. The coworkers also reported that they resented the victim because of the effect of their situation on the workplace."
Domestic violence also can compromise affected employers financially. The cost of rape, physical assault and stalking by intimate partners totals around $8.3 billion annually. This cost includes lost work productivity as well as the costs of employer-paid medical and mental health care services. "Victims of domestic abuse use the emergency room more often, visit physicians more often and use more prescription drugs than persons without violence." The perpetrators of domestic abuse also cost workplaces. In Maine, "78 percent of abusers (all males) use workplace resources at least once to express remorse, anger, check up on or threaten their victim." These numbers do not even include the cost of training new employees when employees are unjustly let go because they're victims.
As with Charlesworth, too many workplaces do not have adequate services available for addressing violence. Of employers that do have services available for the victims of violence in the workplace, less than 50 percent reportedly had specific services available for the victims of domestic violence. Even when an employer did have services available for victims of domestic violence, the problem has the potential to go unreported since many co-workers of victims of domestic violence reportedly feel uncomfortable inserting themselves into what they perceive as a victim's private affairs. The fact that Holy Trinity School fired Charlesworth because of her ex-husband's actions is one more example of a workplace environment that was ill-equipped to address the domestic violence that infiltrated the workplace.
The decision to fire Charlesworth was made hastily and out of fear. The school punished her for her abuser's actions, and set a precedent that will decrease the likelihood that other domestic-violence victims will speak up or ask for the help they need in the future.
The school should have provided Charlesworth with the support services she needed, and should have worked with her to eliminate the threat of her ex-husband. Schools and other workplace environments must educate their employees to recognize the signs of domestic violence, and should teach them how to respond. The costs of domestic violence in the workplace are too high to ignore. Women like Charlesworth should no longer be punished for crimes they do not commit.