Thursday, October 27, 2016

We Don't Care About Domestic Violence - Part Two

It feels “good” to care for domestic violence survivors; to offer cell phones or other goods to shelters and programs; to donate money to deserving organizations that do shelter, counseling, advocacy, and support for victims of extreme harms. But there’s a reason why these victims take so long to leave hurtful relationships, it has nothing to do with strength or weakness and everything to do with our values.
We don’t value domestic violence programs or services. If we consider our monetary focus as value, in the United States it’s simple to see we value sports and entertainment to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars. When we ask domestic violence programs to constantly find government grants or fundraise to survive tells us a lot about the lack of value we have for these services, and in the issue as a whole. Workers in domestic violence agencies get paid poorly, get little recognition or support, and many key services are staffed by volunteers (and sometimes interns) with little training.
History plays a big part in our apathy toward domestic violence. It’s been a strong value for things in the home to stay in the home. Sayings such as “a man’s house is his castle,” enforce ideas of patriarchy and control on their own. The book, “Domestic Tyranny” by Elizabeth Pleck details historical responses to domestic violence in the United States noting, “the Puritans regarded outside intervention as disruptive, justifiable only to the extent that is restored family order.”
Yet this small community in colonial Massachusetts set out to “reform the moral code” and address family violence in the mid-1600’s. They did so through church-based courts. The practice ended in the early 1680’s when Great Britain instituted colonial law.
Therefore, in some ways we cared about domestic violence in the 1600’s - for about 40 years. Similarly, in the late 1800’s, the United States had several “Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children” which worked to address family violence. This movement also lost momentum after 30-40 years. However, the care we showed in those years is similar to the care we have today. We like to cover our asses within professional communities by making sure we follow guidelines but don’t press much farther than that for fear of stepping on too many toes.
It’s no small coincidence that law enforcement communities only started to step up their response to domestic violence after Tracey Thurman sued the Torrington, CT police department for failing to protect her from her violent husband (and won a $2.3 million judgment). We care about losing money, and it’s a great motivator for change.
But it is a strange place we find ourselves today regarding how we address domestic violence. Funding, though minimal, exists for agencies serving victims and survivors of domestic violence. Very little financial support is provided for any work to guide change in domestic violence offenders.
For much of society, abusers are seen as incapable of change. It is easy to demonize their behavior by focusing on things like I mentioned in Part One of this article: to maximize the external harms and minimize our culpability in societal support for violence against women and children. Since we do not believe domestic violence offenders are human beings, we don’t think they can change - we certainly do not want to provide money to agencies and programs to try and stop violence and abuse.
We’re a “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” sort of country. Out of sight, out of mind – right?
Domestic violence intervention programs (aka batterer intervention or other similar designations) are disorganized, poorly connected to each other, often have superficial linkages to domestic violence counseling and support agencies. We often use piecemeal models of intervention based more on individual facilitator whim than concrete and effective tools and educational lessons. We have very shoddy research on such programs, for the most part, that investigate agencies and programs that use national models – yet the national models themselves are not researched for effectiveness.
Then we have to consider what it even means to be effective in domestic violence work: does it mean a victim/survivor gets out of an abusive relationship and lives happily ever after? Does it mean an abuser doesn’t get arrested again?
A radical notion about domestic violence is that it is not a mental health issue, it is not a substance abuse issue – it is a BELIEF issue; an ENTITLEMENT issue. One could even argue it is a SPIRITUAL issue involving an individual’s values and meaning in life that sit in places of personal advantage and superiority. How do you measure those things? By surveying people using 1-5 Likert scales? That seems a poor method of capturing how someone sees value and meaning in their relationship with their partner and children.
I suppose we could conduct more longitudinal studies that survey victims/survivors (and perpetrators) over several years – but surprise! There’s no money in that, very little funding, or very specifically directed funding sources that target traditional research methods.
Maybe it is the fact that domestic violence is an entitlement and belief system issue that keeps us from caring about ending it, or preventing it, or talking about it in a useful manner. Many societal values are superficial – they involve rituals and practices that put a high priority on being happy at the expense of being human. The so-called “American Dream” was about acquisition, after all, not about relationships of care, health, and support.
Previously discussed, Pleck details in her book that historical systems of policy intervention in family violence have lasted 30-40 years. Perhaps we are at the end of that timeline in current history. It seems unlikely services for domestic violence victims and survivors will just end. It seems increasingly likely they will stagnate and miss working within communities to change societal beliefs.
It sadly appears there is little desire to coordinate domestic violence intervention services for abusers as being a critical part of ending domestic violence as a whole. We seem to be increasing our ability to at least have the awkward and uncomfortable discussions about oppression. Maybe we might start to see that intersectionality is a key to understanding how to intervene in violence.
It is my hope we truly start to care about domestic violence. Frequently, I say I like to think about how people in a hundred years will look back at the work we do today. How will they will see the failures and successes in our responses? It keeps me moving forward in this work despite the disheartening avoidance of facing the issue in real and authentic ways.

Note: “Domestic Tyranny” by Elizabeth Pleck can be found at

More information on “Thurman v. City of Torrington” can be found at

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

We Don't Care About Domestic Violence - Part One

What are the first images that come to mind when you hear the term, “domestic violence”? Is it a woman with varying evidence of physical assault upon her person? Bruises, cuts, broken bones? 

What popular movies do you think about when hearing the category of “domestic violence”? “Sleeping With the Enemy”? “Enough”? How about music? 

These questions can go on for some time about all sorts of popular media and societal norms. The answers will invariably be the most extreme behavior, the worst of the worst, violent and potentially lethal. But why is this? Don’t we, on some level at least, realize domestic violence is much broader, much bigger than just physical assault? 

Often we don’t. And therein lies the biggest place where we really do not care about domestic violence.

When we make things extreme, we do so to feel better about ourselves, to feel “normal,” to avoid difficult questions, to create simple solutions.

Our society, our culture doesn’t care about a lot of social issues. We certainly don’t care much about racism, because racism is other people – extremes and horrible examples of behavior that everyone can readily see and hear. Instead of white people identifying ways that personal stereotypes about People of Color are hurtful and potentially oppressive, it’s easy to claim “reverse racism” focus on other’s behavior and hold to one’s own sense of innocence (and superiority).

We only think about people who are disabled when we see handicapped spots in parking lots, or maybe accessibility ramps. But do we think when we see such things, or do we just get used to them and therefore feel uncomfortable when we see people struggling with their physical surroundings? Maybe we think we should help, but do we really want to make the effort? Do we think about mental health disabilities and the challenges people face beyond externally visible physical ailments?

It is October 2016 – which means it is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and therefore a time we are socially obliged to have some sort of passing concern about domestic violence (and breast cancer awareness since October shares both issues as an awareness month). Have you seen purple ribbons around, or heard of various domestic violence agencies doing fundraisers? Maybe you have seen a special news bulletin or article talking about statistics. Perhaps you have heard a survivor’s story of successfully getting out of a horribly abusive relationship. 

The problem is, as a society we like drama. We are caught up in fantasy thinking based on images we have seen, movies we enjoy, things we have heard from talking heads or from brief speeches on important issues. It is a fantasy that domestic violence is about extremes.

I’m here to tell you as human beings, we all do things that are hurtful and controlling to those we love. Domestic violence offenders, often referred to as batterers or abusers, make choices that lead to consequences for this behavior. It’s more about the level of harm, the pattern of harm, the responses to harm that differentiate these (often) men from the rest of our society.

Over nearly twenty years of facilitating and co-facilitating group sessions for domestic and sexual offenders, I can count on one hand the number of men I would consider to be sociopathic. The number increases if I consider men who may not be physically assaultive, and instead are emotional and psychological terrorists – but the number would not be much larger.

Most men I see make a series of choices that have negative consequences on their families (and on themselves). Their choices may include emotional harms like yelling and swearing, name calling, or just simple alienation of affection. Over time, a buildup of self-centered behavior, and/or controlling patterns lead to coercing a partner or child do things they do not want to do. These men who choose abusive behavior may be keeping those same family members from doing things they want to do. 

In such cases, non-physical harms far exceed the physical harms that victimize partners and children. Often the men I see have been physically assaultive on one incident. It makes it much easier to excuse their behavior, minimize impact, or blame others for their own choices.

And our society allows that. 
We want to leave the door open for blaming women for men’s violence – otherwise we would have to acknowledge that ALL men need to consider their relationships with women in their lives. We want to focus on extremes and on physical assault because it’s easier to dismiss the ways we might make our loved ones sad, upset, uncomfortable, angry, or fearful of our choices.