Encountering the Unthinkable

Know how to help your client and protect yourself if you suspect domestic abuse.
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About 15 years ago, during a preclosing walkthrough, Ida Petkus found a disturbing message one of the sellers had spray painted on a wall: “I hope you die, you f--g b--h.”

“The sellers were divorcing. That was my first exposure to domestic violence, other than doing a story on it when I worked for a TV station,” says Petkus, RSPS, an agent with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Florida Realty in Windermere, Fla. She is also a certified DV advocate and founder of the non- profit Domestic Violence Advocacy Center (dvacenter.org), which serves domestic abuse survivors. In 2021, she was named one of the volunteers of the year by DomesticShelters.org, which provides a searchable directory of DV programs and shelters in the U.S. and Canada. “Everyone deserves to live in a safe home,” Petkus says. Intimate partner violence affects more than 12 million people every year, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. And since real estate practitioners have access to people’s homes and personal lives, they may be in situations where they suspect or observe abuse. What you can you do? Petkus advises:

  • Remember it’s not your field of expertise. Just as you wouldn’t take on a home inspection, don’t assume a counselor role.
  • Be aware of potential signs of abuse, such as bruises, black eyes, sprained wrists, constant apprehension, or having an extremely apologetic or meek attitude. Having said that, don’t jump to conclusions but ask the person when you’re alone, “Are you OK?” or “Do you need help?”
  • “If a client confides, believe them,” Petkus says. “Tell them they are not alone and it isn’t their fault.”
  • Refer your client to the National Domestic Abuse Hotline (800-799-7233; thehotline.org). Petkus recommends providing a national rather than local agency number because victims may leave their area. A national group is equipped to direct them to resources anywhere in the country, Petkus says.
  • Inform your broker as a safety measure.
  • Bring on a co-agent so you have a team, which is a positive for the sellers and extra support to you. “Two people conflicted with each other will try to pull you into their side,” Petkus says. “It’s about having a safe and smooth transaction.”
  • If you want to get involved in DV counseling, get trained. “There is no cookie-cutter situation or solution” in abuse cases, Petkus says. Those in the field, whether staff or volunteers, must earn a state-approved domestic violence certificate to work with survivors. Local DV programs, shelters, and law enforcement can provide information on training offerings.

Safe Spaces

NAR recently signed on to a joint letter to the U.S. Senate supporting the bipartisan reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, noting, “Our industry is committed to providing high-quality, affordable, and safe homes, and we believe preserving housing for victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking is critically important.” Among other things, the act establishes a Violence Prevention Office at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.