The ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Studies and related trauma research provide a once in a generation opportunity to dramatically improve society. It teaches us that domestic violence, child abuse and other traumas are far more harmful than previously understood, and fear and stress cause most of the damage rather than just the physical injuries society traditionally focused on. This knowledge can be used treat victims and encourage prevention. Both uses are important, but Dr. Vincent Felitti, lead author of the original ACE Study says prevention is the most important use for his research.
Fundamental to a trauma-informed approach is asking what did your abuser do to you, rather than what bad behavior did you engage in.This approach is used to support a treatment, rather than punitive, response to drug problems such as the opioid crisis. It also supports a better approach towards school children acting out in response to trauma. In each case, the unacceptable behavior is directly caused by exposure to ACEs. We agree these knowledgeable responses to what is otherwise treated as bad behavior is beneficial for the individuals and society.
One of the many good parts about integrating trauma-informed research into the societal response to a wide variety of problems is that it encourages a multi-disciplinary approach. This provides the benefit of including expertise from physicians, mental health professionals, sociologists, drug treatment professionals and others that previously only considered the opinions of law enforcement and the legal profession.
The existing punitive approach results in a huge prison population that destroys lives and wastes human and financial resources. And an incarcerated parent is itself one of the adverse childhood experiences that lead to a lifetime of problems. It makes sense to reconsider older practices that have led to an excessive prison population.
Taking a Good Idea Too Far
Jane Stevens is a leader in the movement promoting the use of the ACE Research and is founder of ACEs Connection. We have great respect for her work and consider her a friend and colleague. She recently wrote an article promoting the use of a trauma-informed approach to the recent spate of sexual assault and harassment cases in the workplace. She argued that firing and incarcerating offenders is counterproductive. In other words she wants to treat gendered crimes and offenses with the same trauma-informed approach advocated for drug abusers and traumatized children.
In the article she praises Morgan Spurlock for best understanding why he mistreated women. Spurlock blamed his sexist and abusive behavior on childhood trauma that led to alcoholism and bad behavior. Society assumed for many years that substance abuse caused domestic violence and other gendered crimes, but research is now clear that being high or drunk does not cause this abuse. Those under the influence have fewer inhibitions, so their assaults may be more severe, but those who believe it is wrong to abuse women don’t, even under the influence. Research supports the idea that children exposed to ACEs are more likely to commit sexual assault, but the large majority exposed to ACEs never do.
Jane is a leading expert regarding ACEs and trauma. Unfortunately that does not provide the needed expertise concerning current research about domestic violence and other gendered crimes and offenses. The article assumes gendered crimes can be treated like other offenses, but it appears she did not consult with experts in gendered crimes and offenses. This led to an unfortunate conclusion that would extend a good idea beyond the areas in which it would be successful.
Gendered Crimes Are Fundamentally Different
Domestic violence, rape, sexual assault and harassment should be considered gendered crimes because among heterosexual people, these are crimes that are overwhelmingly committed by men against women. When looking at a community response it is important to recognize the gendered nature of these crimes. There is a long history of these abuses not being treated as crimes, either because of the law or common practices. Men had good reason to expect to get away with their crimes. As a result, it is common for men who would not consider committing other types of crimes to be repeat abusers and rapists.
The “Me Too” moment feels like a major societal change. Women are now more willing to report this abuse; society seems more willing to believe the women, and men are learning for the first time that there can be significant consequences for actions that were routinely minimized or denied. The last thing society should consider is avoiding meaningful accountability that is producing these positive effects.
The original Quincy Model was a group of best practices to take domestic violence seriously and hold men accountable for their crimes. These responses were implemented in Norfolk County, Massachusetts from the late-1970s until the mid-1990s. District Attorney Bill Delahunt noticed that most of the inmates at a nearby high security prison had a childhood history that included domestic violence and often child sexual abuse. Bill Delahunt believed if he could prevent domestic violence, all crimes would be reduced, and this is exactly what he accomplished. A county that averaged 5-6 domestic violence homicides enjoyed several years with no murders.
The successful practices in Quincy included strict enforcement of criminal laws, orders of protection and probation rules in addition to practices that made it easier for victims to leave their abusers and a coordinated community response. Similar practices in other communities like Nashville and San Diego also resulted in a substantial crime reduction. One would expect strict enforcement practices to increase the prison population, but the word quickly got out that domestic violence was being taken seriously. Abusers can control their behavior, contrary to popular stereotypes, so when they realized they would face consequences, most abusers decided not to commit their crimes. And by reducing domestic violence, Quincy saved children from exposure to another of the ACEs and this further reduced the prison population.
A remarkable aspect of the success in Quincy is that they had no research but were prescient about what later research would reveal. We now know that only accountability and monitoring have been shown to change abusers’ behavior. Based on batterer narratives, most abusers would say it is wrong for a man to assault a woman. But then they say except and the exceptions tend to be if she is a …. (insert the slur) or she did something he defines as misbehavior. Until recently men felt justified in committing their gendered crimes and were right in expecting they would suffer no consequences. The “Me Too” movement will fundamentally change this expectation unless we accept the misguided notion to apply trauma-informed practices to gendered crimes that require accountability.
Accountability in a Trauma Informed World
Trauma informed care is a culture shift in institutions and in society at large that is best phrased as “instead of asking ‘what’s wrong with you’ asking ‘what happened to you?’” It acknowledges that trauma, and ACEs in particular, are responsible for much of the worst of the human experience..
Trauma informed care involves changing the cultural and physical environments to prevent retraumatization. For example, children’s violent misbehavior in school is often due to their trauma being “triggered” and the child responding with some version of a “fight or flight” reaction. Acknowledging the cause of this behavior and teaching the child better ways to manage their behavior helps the child significantly.
And this brings us to one of the hardest pieces of practicing trauma-informed care; most of the people who traumatize others were trauma victims themselves. They deserve to be treated with respect and compassion. They deserve access to the therapies that will ameliorate their trauma symptoms. But their victims and potential future victims deserve to be protected from them. Gendered violence, unlike some other routes of trauma and ACE transmission, is fairly easy to prevent. It requires a culture of accountability and consequences.
What kind of consequences are required? Ones that are meaningful to the individual perpetrator. In the high-profile scandals involving celebrities and politicians, the consequences they are experiencing do not involve the criminal justice system, only loss of employment in their chosen fields. This is surely significant for them. But most likely they will still be able to find living-wage work and escape the sanctions that come from criminal convictions, despite the fact many of them have committed acts that likely caused significant, long-term trauma symptoms for their victims.
The heart of trauma informed care is establishing environments where trauma victims aren’t retraumatized. But if that means in a workplace where one person was victimized as a child and another was victimized by a coworker who is still present, the person who stands the most to gain from the model is the person who was victimized by her coworker. The coworker experiences a negative consequence, and precisely what that is depends on their job, their precise action, contract, and many other factors. That consequence discourages them from behaving badly again. Any direct victims of the coworker will feel protected and validated. It’s a win-win situation.
The cause of these gendered crimes will be found in sexism, male supremacy and an enormous sense of entitlement. The long history of tolerating and minimizing abusive behavior plays an important role in encouraging boys and men to abuse girls and women. “Boys will be boys,” is a common phrase used to allow boys and men to get away with mistreatment of girls and women. There is no equivalent phrase for females. These are the attitudes and beliefs that encourage gendered crimes.
Children exposed to ACEs are more likely to commit crimes including gendered crimes. At the same time most boys exposed to ACEs will not engage in gendered crimes. Domestic violence, sexual assault and harassment are more correctly seen as causes of trauma than the result of ACEs. Approaches based on removing the inadequate accountability we have will inevitably result in far more trauma.
The research and successful practices establish that only accountability and monitoring prevents these gendered crimes. A common mistakes in our response to domestic violence is to provide therapy instead of consequences. In many cases the abuser has both a mental health problem and an abuse issue. Certainly offenders benefit from mental health therapy, substance abuse treatment and any other additional assistance they need. But domestic violence is not caused by mental illness or substance abuse. This is why accountability must be part of the response to gendered crimes. The offenders need to learn that their crimes are no longer tolerated in our society. It is also helpful for their children to learn these crimes will be punished and they are not responsible for their father’s abuse. Certainly an offender who is also a trauma survivor can be provided with trauma-informed assistance, but not as a substitute for accountability.
There is a long history of abusive men avoiding consequences for their unspeakable cruelty towards women by blaming the victim; substance abuse; mental illness or other excuses. They need to understand they are solely and personally responsible for their behavior. The research that has taught us about the impact of trauma, particularly to children, is extremely valuable and can be used to change society in the most wonderful ways. It is important, however, if we are to prevent these gendered crimes that this knowledge not be used by manipulative abusers as the latest abuse excuse.
Domestic Violence Writer, Speaker, and Advocate
Barry Goldstein is one of the leading domestic violence authors, speakers, advocates, and a frequent expert witness.