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


  1. Chris--

    Despite the sincerity of your intervention work, and your invitation to expand our conversations about domestic violence, a mildly fatalistic tone in your blog is easily shared by many of us working with DV, including myself. I too have done this work for twenty years, and perhaps because I'm older, my fatalism is somewhat deeper. Against the fulfillment of trusting that many of the men we work with are creating domestic environments of greater peace and equality, we must watch our culture socializing boys-- and anesthetizing their parents-- with more and more toxic levels of violence. The belief in violence is as embedded in the American Dream as is the materialism which you point to. Without a social contract such as countries like Canada and Scandinavia have, which guarantee a level of equality and stability to their citizens-- thus less inequality and anger-- our coordinated efforts to expand DV awareness and broaden the boundaries of intervention seem likely to be bulldozed by the "Trump factors" of narcissism, greed, and abusive dominance. While we are committed to our "one-man-one- revolution-at-a-time" work, a revolution of another scope must occur before I can mollify my fatalism.

    --Stephan Torre

    1. Fatalism doesn't end up stopping my efforts, fortunately - and the same seems true for you, Stephan. I just need to be conscious that the reality may log our efforts as a cycle of hope in a sea of cultural and social illusions. Where change is assumed at public policy levels, but in practice isn't held to by individuals and groups within our communities.

      I also keep in mind that Duluth's idea that resistance is more a problem of the facilitator than the individual abuser in the group is true for any community work I do as well. "It is always the activist's fault" is a mantra that plays out in our work, because we are the ones who care to do something about it. If others fail to share our concerns, our hopes, and our actions - then how can we increase that connection and understanding in those who ignore us?


I welcome comments on the post on this site. Attacks toward the writer, other commenters, or oppressive language will not be tolerated. This blog acknowledges that most domestic violence is male toward female, but that LGBT+ domestic violence is very real, and that female to male violence is a different context than other forms of domestic violence (and as such needs to be discussed much differently).