“Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it” George Santayana
In October 2017 New York City produced a report “New Strategies Towards Services for People who Abuse.” which supported a bar association event in which they sought to “Reimagine” their response to domestic violence (DV). The primary focus was that many abusers committed their crimes because they were traumatized as children. Accordingly, the city was looking for ways to be fairer to abusers and far less punitive. Supporters of this approach appear unaware of the history of society’s response to domestic violence or current scientific research.
City officials seem to be creating services for offenders based on political ideology and sexism. They are more concerned with the well-being of abusers than their victims and virtually ignore the enormous harm exposure to domestic violence causes children. Over the years we have learned that domestic violence survivors are the experts but city officials were more interested in hearing from abusers and professionals who profit by supporting them.
History of the response to domestic violence
The New York Model Batterer Program, where I instruct often, provides a class about the history of domestic violence focused on who society said was responsible for men’s abuse of women. The class considers four separate time periods. The first period covers thousands of years up until the start of the modern domestic violence movement in the 1970s. The men are warned that this period provides a trick question because the answer is no one. For most of history husbands’ abuse of wives was permitted or even encouraged. During this time the first legislation in the United States said husbands cannot assault their wives on Sunday. The Rule of Thumb was another reform designed to protect wives but permitting their husbands to assault them as long as the weapon was no thicker than their thumb. This history helps to explain why attempts to create a false equivalency between men and women are mistaken.
The division of time periods involves generalizations as communities moved forward at varying speeds but we provide a useful overview and context. The next time period covered the 70s and 80s. During this period the responses mostly focused on changing women’s behavior as if they caused his abuse. We know this approach failed because there was no reduction in DV homicides, emergency room visits and serious injuries. Later research confirmed why this blame-the-victim approach was a failure. Research found no difference between women who were later abused and women who were fortunate enough to avoid this trauma.
The next period was roughly the 80s and 90s. The suggestion was that maybe it wasn’t just the women but rather both parties or the relationship. Typically, a man would assault his partner; the woman would report his crime, but she would be sent to family court where they focused on reconciliation. Responses would include couples counseling, communication skills, and compromise. Again, we know this approach of blaming both parties failed because there was no reduction in DV homicide, emergency room visits, and serious injuries.
Gradually, more and more communities recognized that men were responsible for their abuse and adopted practices that sought to hold men accountable for their physical abuse. The use of accountability led to significant reductions in serious injuries, emergency room visits and especially DV homicide. Some communities like Quincy, Nashville, San Diego and more recently High Point, North Carolina used strict accountability methods and enjoyed dramatic reductions of DV crimes especially murders. In Quincy, a community that averaged 5 to 6 DV homicides annually suffered no murders for several years in a row.
We find this class particularly helpful because many men in the class, and many court professionals and others who should know better, continue to use the failed approaches that blamed women or both parties. The class explains why we seek to avoid outdated practices that place women and children in jeopardy. This permits us to focus on responses to domestic violence that actually work.
We think it is interesting that during each period society chose the response most favorable to men.
Scientific research informs about best DV responses
Virtually no research was available at the start of the modern DV movement. Courts and other institutions developed responses based on popular assumptions. These assumptions included the belief that domestic violence was caused by mental illness, substance abuse, anger management and the actions of the victim. The overreliance on mental health professionals instead of DV experts is based on these initial assumptions.
Part of the confusion is that there is an overlap between domestic violence and some of the assumed causes like mental illness and substance abuse. The additional problem can cause a domestic violence assault to be more severe because of reduced inhibitions. The research is very clear that domestic violence is not caused by the factors listed above, but many professionals who should know better continue to focus on non-causal factors. Too often there is a financial incentive that encourages this mistake.
The research is also clear that only accountability and monitoring are likely to change the behavior of DV abusers. Ironically, New York City is seeking to move away from effective responses even though this research comes from the Center for Court Innovation which is the agency the city uses for research. It is hard to understand why they would ignore their own research.
Misunderstanding Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) research
The ACE Studies are important medical research from the CDC that can be used to transform society in exciting ways. The research demonstrates that exposure to domestic violence, child abuse, and other trauma is far more harmful to children than previously understood. Most of the harm is caused by living with the fear and stress domestic violence causes rather than the immediate physical injuries that courts tend to focus on.
Domestic violence is central to the harm caused by adverse childhood experiences. Domestic violence is one of the ten ACEs and causes emotional abuse to children which is a second ACE. Fathers who abuse mothers are 40-60% more likely to also physically and sexually abuse the children. Domestic violence in the home makes all the other ACEs more likely. The essence of domestic violence is that abusers use a variety of tactics to scare and coerce the victim to do what he wants and this causes children the fear and stress that shortens lives, leads to lifetime health problems, and encourages victims to make poor decisions.
Dr. Vincent Felitti, the lead author of the original ACE Study now says that prevention is the best use of his research. Bill Delahunt, the district attorney who helped create the original Quincy Model anticipated this research. He noticed that virtually all prisoners in a nearby high security prison had a childhood history that included domestic violence and often sexual abuse. He believed that if he could prevent domestic violence it would reduce all crimes and this is exactly what he achieved.
Quincy used an approach based on accountability to accomplish its goals. On the surface it would seem like strict enforcement of criminal and other laws would increase the prison population. Abusers however, are able to control their behavior. The local media covered the Quincy Model extensively so potential abusers learned they could not get away with DV crimes as they had in the past. Accordingly, many stopped committing the crime because they did not want to face the consequences. At the same time this meant children would avoid witnessing DV and thus be less likely to commit crimes and go to jail when they were older.
Professionals who make large incomes defending abusers, and others who fail to understand domestic violence, try to deny or minimize the gendered nature of domestic violence. The essence of DV is fear and stress, and in heterosexual relationships the person afraid of their partner is nearly always the woman. Boys in our society are taught to be more violent and aggressive. In cases in which someone kills their intimate partner, regardless of the gender of the victim, almost all of the cases have a history of the man abusing the woman.
Those who want to take New York City back to failed practices are mostly concerned with the abusers. They say that many of the abusers were traumatized as children by exposure to ACEs. Their solution is to provide treatment for the trauma. Of course, many men who were traumatized as children never commit domestic violence. Just as with mental illness, substance abuse, and anger management, trauma is not the cause or the solution to domestic violence. Men who commit domestic violence do so expecting to get away with their crime because such a small percentage of criminal abusers ever suffer consequences. This encourages men to commit these gendered crimes.
Supporters of going backwards are far more concerned with the abusers than with the victims. Even worse, they completely ignore the enormous harm to children in the home. Promoting leniency for abusers based on exposure to ACEs and trauma makes sure that more children will be exposed to domestic violence and trauma and will continue the cycle of violence. Children can be saved from the consequences of ACEs but that requires therapy, medical treatment and protection from exposure to further abuse. The supporters of the New York City proposal, by using failed responses like leniency and therapy will remove the children’s last chance to be saved.
For many years, domestic violence advocates who understood the gendered nature of domestic violence were ignored and attacked because there was no research supporting their view, and because they are women. We ignored the fact that DV advocates are the communities domestic violence experts. Subsequent research proved that the advocates were right.
Recent research like the ACE study demonstrates the harm from domestic violence is far greater than previously understood. Protecting children from ACEs can significantly reduce their consequences. Consequences like cancer, heart disease, mental illness, crime, substance abuse and suicide. Incorporating best practices to prevent domestic violence, will save society billions of dollars and the life expectancy and quality will increase.
This is why it is so disappointing that at a time of such exciting possibilities, New York City, which has a long history of progressive and innovative approaches has instead sought to go backward. They want to use failed approaches from a time when blame the victim or blame both parties for men’s abuse predominated. They want to ignore the research and history that only accountability and monitoring can reduce domestic violence. At a time when the “Me Too” movement seeks to empower women, they seek to embrace the backlash of the abusers.
Gender bias is widespread and is difficult to overcome because it is usually unintentional and subconscious. Clearly gender bias has played a significant role in promoting a proposal that would take the abuse of women far less seriously and instead seek to promote a false equivalency between men and women; abusers and victims. And this proposal comes before New York City ever tried to implement the best practices supported by good research that could bring so many benefits to the people in New York City.
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Domestic Violence Writer, Speaker, and Advocate
Barry Goldstein is one of the leading domestic violence authors, speakers, advocates, and a frequent expert witness.